Thirty-Eight Years

Pool with lilies and a dragon

Sixth Sunday of Easter | John 5:1-18

Thirty-Eight Years

“There was one man who had been ill for thirty-eight years,” John tells us. We do not hear how many of those years the man may have lain near this pool, hoping for a cure. Thirty-eight years. It is such an odd detail, but not the only one. This story, a gospel story no less, speaks of a pool stirred by an angel, and of people being healed when entering the water, a miraculous baptism.

The fourth verse, the one that tells of angels stirring the water, is almost certainly a later addition to the text, not written by the same hand that gave us the rest of the story. Still, the pool was real enough, matching a pool excavated on the site, with four surrounding colonnades and a dividing partition — the five porticoes of the Gospel description. Perhaps there were indeed stories of an angel who stirred the water, not unlike Muslim stories of a pool stirred by a jinn.¹ Whatever the reason, this crippled man waited beside the pool.

He isn’t the cleverest person there, our crippled man, that much is certain. He has figured no way to get into the water quickly, and he even seems to be whining about his chosen spot at some distance from the water and his lack of a helper. Later he does not have the good sense to avoid the questions of the religious leaders, who themselves ironically ignore his miraculous cure in their indignation that such a thing would be done on the Sabbath. Never mind the miracle: this man was carrying his mat on the Sabbath.Water dripping into a container

Imagine, God breaking the Sabbath rules these men had made, or encouraging someone else to break them.

Religion has never lacked for small minds.

Consider the person Jesus chose. The healed man demonstrates no faith in anything but in the properties of the pool, and he has never managed to act on that. He does not know who Jesus is. He offers no reason to be favored by God or by anyone else. He is dim witted, undeserving, a rat who goes out of his way to inform on the man who gave him everything he wanted.

Jesus picks him, out of however many others were lying there, and we see no good reason for his choice. It appears whimsical, but must be for a purpose — Jesus finds the man a second time and speaks to him again. Whatever the reason for his choice, this healing is an act of pure grace.

We might think on that act of grace, and on the man who received it. Looking at him, we can lay aside our notions of earning favor, or even of having sufficient faith, which comes to the same thing — we try to buy God’s favor with the fervent currency of belief, but this crippled man had nothing going for him.

He is stupid, ungrateful, a rat, and Jesus helps him anyway. Maybe by looking at him we can make a more honest assessment of ourselves, our supposed worthiness (for anything), and the depth of our belief.

After all, faith is not currency, that we should offer it in exchange for what we want from God and the universe. Neither is faith magic, that we should use it to influence God and the universe to do what we want.

Faith isn’t a price we pay, and it is not a crutch for a crippled mind. It is a response. Faith is the acceptance, and the acknowledgment, of grace, no matter how many years we spend waiting for the water to stir.


¹ Raymond E. Brown, The Gospel According to John (I-XII), AB 29 (New York:
Doubleday, 1966), 207.

Pool with Dragon


Here is an excerpt from my novel I,John — reimagining this story in the Gospel of John from the points of view of the disciple John and of an angel named Adriel. I hope you enjoy it.

 

John

The pool was crowded, but the light reflecting from the water brightened the pillars and the mosaics. So many sick people, waiting for this miraculous cure—jump in the pool when the water moves. It was ridiculous. They must have been idiots as well as invalids, because that water was never going to move on its own. Not that a bath wouldn’t do some of them good, but they’d likely drown as soon as they rolled themselves in the pool.

I’m sure that the Romans thought they were idiots. They thought we all were, anyone who wasn’t Roman. The sooner we passed through, the better.

Jesus stopped, though, and so did we. He was looking around at the invalids, and some of them were looking back at us. No doubt they were hoping for charity. I felt awkward just standing looking at them. Peter, his hair at all angles, stared at the people lying on their mats as though they were something odd washed up on the shore. I was trying to think of something to say quietly to Jesus to get us moving again. No good could come of a bunch of us standing here looking at these people.

Jesus stepped past a blind fellow, his head bobbing around like a bird as he slept sitting against a pillar, and stood at the feet of a paralyzed man. He was perfectly still, watching Jesus and only glancing at the rest of us. I could see daylight streaming through a portico. I was thinking that if we quietly walked through that opening, perhaps Jesus would follow us.

“Do you want to be made well?” Jesus asked the man. A stupid question, I thought. I was embarrassed.

The man explained that he did not have anyone to help him get to the water when it was stirred by angels. Angels, I thought. Really. I just wanted to walk quietly into the light of the portico, melt into the people going along into the city, but we couldn’t leave Jesus standing there.

“Stand up,” Jesus said to the invalid. “Take your mat and walk.”

The man’s legs were shriveled, a waste, and Jesus was telling him to stand up. Peter was over at the other side, jutting his great head forward and staring, first at Jesus then at the man’s legs. I felt like everything stopped, just for a moment, the particles of dust in the sunlight stopped without movement, and it seemed that I heard water gurgling, a fountain or splashing.

The man was looking into Jesus’ eyes, then the man put his arms out and started pushing himself upright. That’s when he moved his knee, drawing his leg up toward him, and he stopped again for a moment, alarmed. Around me, the other sick men were moving as well, dragging themselves toward the pool where the water was swirling.

“The angels stirred it,” I said, then I put my hand over my mouth, not believing I had said it. We began helping the men into the pool, all of them except the one in front of Jesus. That man stood up on his own, Peter reaching toward him to steady him in case he fell. Peter was staring at the man’s legs. They were as straight and as muscular as my own.

I felt someone take my arm, a blind man sitting near me, and I began helping him toward the pool. All of them, all the sick, we put into the pool, and I couldn’t tell if the water was moving because of them or on its own. As soon as the blind fellow I was helping stepped into the water he stopped and turned to me. He was looking at me, looking at my face as though I was the most beautiful thing in the world, and I realized he could see.

I looked back at Jesus, but he just walked through the portico into the sunlight, the dust in the air making him vanish as he went.

Adriel

Jesus is talking to the crippled man near the wall, but I cannot focus on his words. The blind man near me is thinking too loudly, and he is difficult to understand. He is blind from birth, and all of his thoughts blend the abstract and the concrete, a place name with a sound, feelings of fear and the touch of leather, memories of home with the smell of bread, and I realize too late that he is dreaming the dreams of the blind. Dreams are dangerous at best, but with his odd sensory associations I am captivated, falling, not seeing the ground but knowing it is there.

I fall into a pool, and the water envelops me. It should not matter. I am not a physical being, but the blind man’s dreams make me reach out to touch this world, and suddenly the water knows I am there.

Miraculous. They lay here expecting the water to move, and it does.

I rise from the water to gauge whether anyone has seen, and the man Jesus is looking at me. He says nothing, just turns unsurprised and continues talking with the invalid.

There are more splashes, and some of the people are hurling themselves into the pool, water surging out onto the tile floor. The healthy men and women who had been following Jesus start helping the sick into the pool. It is madness, a bizarre game of Adriel Says, though I have said nothing, just fallen into the water.

I feel the power, though, power that is in the water with me, not from me. The sick ones are changing, leaving the pool with stronger bodies. The dust stirred by the crowd sparkles in the sunlight, and the water splashing from the pool and dripping from their bodies mirrors the light. Jesus is already walking away, and the blind man is staring at one of the followers, both of them wet and dripping.

Communion with the Divine

Loaf of Bread with Flowers

Third Sunday of Easter | John 21:1-19

Communion with the Divine

“The morning that we found Jesus on the beach stays in my mind. I have never understood why. It was not the most impressive day in my memory, but it has become one of the most persistent. Finding him on that beach was miraculous, or so we thought at the time. Now it haunts me…”

Habits are powerful things, and habits of thought are among the most powerful.

Take the simple notion that it is good to get up each day and get going, to do the work at hand—it is one of the simplest ideas we can have in our lives, but in the end this thought may get us through our most difficult days.

Sometimes our habits of thought get in the way. We misremember events, tilting them in one direction or another, embellishing our worth or exaggerating an injury done to us. We seldom revise our opinions of other people, even when they deserve a downgrade or have earned better.

A loaf of breadOur habits of thought are wickedly pernicious in matters of faith. We believe what we believe, and that is that. Of course, such devotion to a set of ideas is not faith at all: it is idolatry. Little by little, we trade faith for certainty until we leave off worshipping God and begin worshipping our own ideas about God. Once we get there, our ideas seldom change.

Closed mindedness is the death knell of spirituality. God may not change, but our understanding must–or did we think we understood everything, right from the beginning? Perceiving the divine depends upon our willingness to be surprised.

In John’s Gospel, a few tired, disillusioned disciples nearly give up. Thinking their journey with the miraculous over, they return to fishing, a way of life some of them knew before Jesus’ arrest and the fiasco of his death. Nevertheless, even at that point, they were still willing to be surprised, willing to experience the divine in a meal of fish and bread, served by a person they thought never to see again.

When they expected never to hear the living voice of Jesus, he called to them across the water. Having watched him die, they opened their minds to the divine reality of seeing him alive.

God may be in the explosions of stars, the expanse of space. John’s Gospel says that we may find God in the smallness of a loaf of bread, if our minds are open to the possibility.

Imagine, communion with the divine.

__________________________

Here is another version of the story from John’s Gospel, as I retold it for the opening chapter of I,John. Sometimes just hearing a story told differently can change the way we think about it. I hope you enjoy it.

John

The morning that we found Jesus on the beach stays in my mind. I have never understood why. It was not the most impressive day in my memory, but it has become one of the most persistent. Finding him on that beach was miraculous, or so we thought at the time. Now it haunts me.

I see angels, and I see other things that are not angels. At least I see and hear beings who are not like us but who think and act and move, without bodies like ours. A few of them are brilliant and astonishing. Some are dark and fearful. I think that they are different beings, but they might be differing versions of the same kind of thing. And there is Adriel, whom I have heard and seen every day since we found that empty tomb.

Seeing creatures and hearing voices doesn’t mean they are real. A great many people have seen things that did not exist outside their minds. Of course, even if I couldn’t see these beings, couldn’t hear their voices, it wouldn’t mean that they weren’t there.

In the beginning was the word. That is how it began, just words and a man who walked down the shore and found us in our father’s boat. That’s the truth of it. He walked around talking to anyone who would listen, and he found us. Why we got up and followed him, I wonder.

Look where it got us. Look where it got him.

My father’s boat—we spent so much of our childhood in it. I can barely remember what he looked like, my father, but I do remember his beard, his hands. And I remember his eyes, looking at me when Jesus called us to follow him—my father was staring at me like he was gauging the strength of a net. He nodded, I thought, at least it seemed to me later that he had nodded, had offered us that small blessing with the quick understanding of a father. He could read water, read the sky, read the fish swimming, and he read my brother and I, though he was looking at me. My brother James was always like a fish jumping for a light, holding back just for me and for our father to decide. James was the oldest, but while he often walked ahead of me, he somehow always seemed to be following me.

So our father, Zebedee, looked at me and nodded, and James and I put down the nets and walked away with Jesus. It was never the same afterward. Maybe that is why I remembered that moment. Something in me knew that it was important, that it marked a change. There are moments in our lives that matter, not that there are moments without value. It is just that some moments are like a point when we are touched by God. We are brought into contact with something greater than ourselves, outside ourselves, that resonates with the spirit within us. We never returned, not really, not to stay. Our father’s boats were finally given to the servants, and sometimes I felt regret and doubt for leaving that life. We had not understood when we walked away with Jesus that day that we would never return. I don’t know whether my father knew it, but we did not.

Maybe that is why I agreed to look after Mary in the end. I was an irresponsible son who walked away from my father and our family business, and looking after her offered me a sense of redemption. Not that I had any choice. He had found the strength to speak while hanging on that cross. “Behold your mother!” What was I going to say? No, thank you, I have other obligations? Maybe that was the reason he said it, made that effort as he hung there to place Mary in my care and me in hers. It was a gift, something that would heal the sense of guilt inside me that he knew I carried, though I never spoke of it. Perhaps he had known how much I missed my father just from my voice, or from the way I sometimes spoke to James, or perhaps Jesus simply knew.

I loved her, of course. Who could not love Mary? If James and I were marred by what we saw that day, watching him suffer, watching him die, then she was more so.

And he was certainly dead.

I am left remembering all of it, at least I am left remembering those days. They are in my mind with the vividness of dreams, the ones that somehow seem more real than memory. Not that all of it is the same. Some moments stand out more than others, as with any memories, and not always the moments that I would have thought. You would think that the crucifixion might be my most vivid memory, but it is not. Oh, I remember that day, certainly, but it is not what haunts my dreams or creeps into my waking thoughts. I remember blind men, and Mary. I remember Peter’s great bobbing head as he made his way through the crowds. I remember the bread that Jesus gave us.

Most of all, I dream of that morning at the shore.

Smoke was rising from a small fire on the beach, and I saw him standing next to it. He was looking over the water toward us as we made our way to shore. I thought I knew him, even from that distance, but I couldn’t place him.

No one was talking. Peter’s boat was creaking, leaking slightly from having seen little use for the last three years. Maybe it was good that we had caught nothing. We probably would have torn the nets and sunk the boat with us in it. A fine bunch of fishermen we were. Perhaps we had forgotten how to fish, forgotten how to live like regular people, make a living.

Peter was mending a hole in the net. He dropped the netting shuttle, and I could hear him muttering and cursing as he felt around in the coils of rope for it. He had a curse for everything, all manner of language rearranged to suit the target. When his muttering died down, the only other sound was made by waves gurgling on the side of the hull.

“Friends, have you got any fish?”

I heard his voice over the water. Friends, he said. Something about the voice was like it was speaking inside me instead of from the beach, a crazy idea.

No, we told him. Nothing. No breakfast here. Go away.

“Throw the net on the right side of the boat, and you will catch some.”

All of us stared over the water at him, at the small fire, the smoke. That voice, I thought. We each turned and looked over the side of the boat. Nothing, no ripples, no flash from fish swimming in the morning light. We looked at our nets, piled in the bottom of the boat, wet and empty. Nobody spoke; we just started moving, pulling a net up, throwing it over the side.

The ropes pulled tight right away. We must have snagged something, I thought, and I leaned over the side to see into the water. Fish, schooling, a flashing churning shoal of fish, were filling the net, drawing it down. The others started pulling on the net ropes, straining against the weight. I was holding a mast tie, leaning out the other side of the boat for a counterweight, and I looked back to see him on the beach. He stood perfectly still, watching us, and I thought he smiled. That was when I knew him.

“It is the Lord,” I said, leaning out over the water. The boat lurched as Peter grabbed his tunic and jumped into the water, swimming for the shore. The rest of us struggled to get the net into the boat, fish piled gasping at our feet. As we made for shore I again held a mast tie and leaned out over the water, this time at the bow to listen and watch. It seemed to me that their voices murmured across the water, Peter and Jesus, but I could never tell what they said over the sounds of the oars and of the others talking in the boat before letting their words die as they also looked to the shore and to the one sitting with Peter on the beach.

There was a bump and the sound of sand dragging against the hull, and we were ashore. We left the boat and the fish, not bothering to cover them with our net or to wet them as was our wont. We stepped onto the sandy beach still unbelieving but wanting to believe, waiting for our vision to clear or the moment to resolve itself into something other than what we perceived.

Jesus was sitting by a fire, his arms around his knees as though simply sitting there was natural, was what he always did. He is dead, I thought to myself. I watched him die, slowly, crucified. Most of the others had run, not that I blamed them. I stayed, the women were there and somehow I could not leave them, could not leave him.

“Mother, behold your son,” he had said. I thought he meant himself. “Son, behold your mother,” he had added, and I knew he meant me, though at first I thought he meant to call me his son rather than Mary’s. Later I was not so sure he did not.

In years to come it was the sea that I thought of, blue green at the surface that day, black in the depths and shoaling with silver fish unseen from above.

_______________

I,John - a novel - is available from booksellers everywhere.

 

A Story About Ordinary Things

Marriage at Cana by Tintoretto, c.1560

Second Sunday after the Epiphany | John 2:1-11

A Story About Ordinary Things

It was only wine and water, nothing you wouldn’t expect to find at a wedding, nothing to grab your attention. The first great sign, the first astounding miracle Jesus performs, at least according to the gospel story as John tells it, is done with such ordinary things, changing water into wine, and for an audience who have already drunk enough to make their testimony unreliable.

Ask any good defense attorney whether party people make good witnesses, or whether a jury will believe a mother testifying for her son.

The Marriage at Cana by Gerard David c.1450/1460
The Marriage at Cana by Gerard David c.1450/1460

Still, in telling the simple story of a wedding, this Gospel opens our minds to the idea of God—the God of “Let there be light”—at work in the lives of ordinary people like ourselves. Thought about long enough, it is a little odd, a little unsettling.

And why do we get this story? Why all these stories at all, instead of just a list of assertions, ideas about God, rules about living, that sort of thing? What is it about telling stories, even all these short stories stitched together, that makes the gospels so compelling?

If you tell people what you think, they can agree or disagree or perhaps ignore you altogether, forget about it. On the other hand, if you tell them a story, the story gets into their heads, and they are stuck with it.

Stories we tell people, whether they believe us or not, have a way of getting past the firewalls in their minds. It is what we are hardwired for—ever since the first camp fires, we’ve listened to stories, and we’ve told them over and over to ourselves in our minds.

So on this passage for this week, I’m going to cheat. I’m going to tell you a story, the same story, actually, just told a little differently from the way it sounds in the Gospel of John.

Here it is, as retold in my novel I,John. I hope you enjoy it.

Water

I did not know the family, but we had been invited. We were gathered in the courtyard, a group within the group, although Peter was going around talking and laughing, his great shaggy head easy to spot. I was sitting near Jesus in the shade of a fig bush just tall enough to offer a screen from the sun, and I saw Mary making her way toward him before he saw her, although I was never sure what Jesus knew about his surroundings. He picked people from the crowd when I had not seen them, ignored others who were standing in front of him.

Mary could not be ignored. She waved at people across the courtyard and smiled at them, then came and knelt beside Jesus. She reached up and rubbed his shoulder, and I supposed she was happy to see her son. That’s when I noticed two servants had followed her from within the house.

“They are running out of wine,” she said.

Jesus sighed.

“What do you want me to do about that?” he said. “It is not my party, and it is not my time. This is their day. Their party.”

Mary ignored him and waved the servants over.

“Do what he tells you,” she said. Jesus just sighed again, looking around the courtyard. It was only a little theatrical, enough to say, ‘See how much I love her, even when she annoys me.’

He pointed at some large stone jars standing at the wall of the house.

“Go and fill them with water,” he told them. It was not a small task. Each jar would hold a number of buckets of water, and the process would be tiresome in the heat. The servants looked at him, then at Mary. She nodded and shooed them with her hand.

“Go ahead,” she said. “Do what he told you.”

They did not look happy, but they hurried over to a well and began pulling up buckets of water and carrying them to the stone jars. It was warm enough in the courtyard that the sound of the water was welcome. When they had filled all of the jars, they stood waiting to see what idiotic task they would have next. I knew that if this ended badly, we would be leaving quickly, but things never ended badly around Jesus, at least not until that very last thing. I sat still and quiet, waiting like the servants.

Jesus appeared to be lost in thought. Mary nudged him in the side, and he turned to look at the stone jars, wet with the water splashed on the sides and along the tiles near them.

“Draw some out, and take it to your steward,” he said.

They stood with backs straight, looking first at Jesus then across the courtyard at the head servant who already appeared displeased with all the water carrying. Then, dour and resigned, one of them took a dipper and filled it from a jar. Drops fell dark on the ground. With round eyes he stared at the liquid all the while that he walked across the courtyard. The head servant took it and tasted it, the disgust on his face shifting to surprise.

Quickly he sent the man back and told them both to draw more from the jars and to serve it to the guests. Some of them had been watching as well, and the rest certainly noticed when they began to drink the new wine. We would not be leaving quickly after all, it seemed. Mary was enormously pleased and went off to talk to someone, probably to say that she was the mother of the one who had brought the wine they were now tasting.

As I said, things tended not to end badly with Jesus, not until that very bad ending itself. That was a different sort of event anyway, more something that Jesus endured than something he did. This was like the people at the pool, the blind man who stared at my face in amazement. It was a sign, a sign for us, for Mary, and for as many of the people who realized what had happened. At the same time, it was ordinary, just wine being served at a wedding. What was miraculous about that? It was only a miracle if one saw it as a miracle.

Of course, that was always the case, I thought. Maybe those crippled men who got up and walked out of that pool weren’t really crippled, maybe they had been pretending for the sake of being able to beg money from those who worked for a living. It was possible that the blind man was the same, pretending, and when Jesus caught him in his pretense, he had to abandon it. Of course, that would have been a sort of miracle, some would argue, just not one that required the power of God. I think that changing the behavior of men like that would require more power, be the greater miracle. Changing the mind is a greater sign than healing the body.

But I saw that blind man, saw his eyes when he could not see me. And I saw the amazement on his face when he could see me, when I was suddenly the most beautiful thing in his world. I knew things that the people sitting here drinking wine did not know, and even when we told them, some would never believe.

I got up and walked along the row of jars, and I saw my face reflected in the new dark wine.

This post is part of an ongoing three year project based on the Sunday gospel passage from the Revised Common Lectionary. You can find more about the novel I,John here.

Marriage at Cana by Tintoretto, c.1560
Marriage at Cana by Tintoretto, c.1560

Stories Matter

Fifth Sunday after Pentecost  |  Mark 5:21-43

Lectionary Project—Part of an ongoing three year project of weekly posts related to the Sunday reading from the Revised Common Lectionary. A study in practical theology.

Stories matter. One might argue that it is telling stories, more than opposable thumbs or raw intelligence, that makes us human.

An encyclopedia or some other repository of scientific knowledge may inform us, give us the tools to examine the biology of a flower or to create the structure of a bridge, but we would lack the notions of why we would want to do such things in the first place.

Stories tell us who we are. More importantly, stories tell us who we ought to be, who we want to be.

A galaxy on the edgeTake the book of Genesis. The whole of Judeo-Christian scripture begins, fittingly, with two stories, one right after the other. It is as though someone took Isaac Asimov and Ursula Le Guin, put them where they could witness everything from the bang that started our watches ticking to the emergence billions of years later of human beings on the plains of Africa, then asked each of them to sum up the meaning of what they had seen in a short story.

The Asimov version, Genesis 1:1 – 2:4, tells us that the universe unfolded over time, in an orderly fashion, and that life emerged and evolved into ever more complex forms over that time. It’s a pretty good summary, one that still matches up well to the timeline scientific investigation gives us—so long as one realizes that a day in a story may last a long time.

The Ursula Le Guin story, beginning in Genesis 2:4, focuses on relationship and choices. (That is no surprise for anyone who ever enjoyed her Earthsea novels.) Hearing this story, we realize that we are connected to everything that is, that all living creatures are dependent on one another, that with great ability comes great responsibility, that our choices follow us like shadows, that mortality is the price of living, and that our children and our work are what remain.

Le Guin always does manage to pack a lot into a story. That’s the wonder of symbolism and metaphor—one can say a great deal with a few words.DragonFinal

There are also two interwoven stories in Mark 5:21-43. It is what scholars describe with the sophisticated term of ‘sandwich’—one story contained within another one. Mark uses the technique a number of times, but that should not surprise us. Many other writers have interwoven stories which seem unrelated until we reflect on them.

Desperate to get help for his dying daughter, a man named Jairus is urgently guiding Jesus through the crowds to where his daughter is waiting when Jesus stops. He is distracted it seems because someone else in the crowd has managed to tap into the power that Jairus wants. A woman is healed, and Jesus stops to engage her in conversation, all while Jairus’ daughter lies dying. It is a fascinating study in love and faith and expectations.

Jairus is waiting upon the Lord, and it seems that the Lord dawdles.

In the end, Jesus accomplishes both things, of course, healing the unnamed woman and the girl. Though the girl had died in the meantime, Jesus brings her back to life. It was never an either-or proposition for Jesus, nor was the timing of his response limited by the expectations of the people in the house of Jairus.

There is no explanation, though. We only get the story, marvelous as it is. That is one of the most common complaints about scripture—so many stories, so few explanations, and even those explanations as exist are often just parables or metaphors. The Church certainly has managed to come up with plenty of explanations and rules in the centuries since Jesus walked along the street with Jairus, but those were made later by men. (A few women as well, but most of the explaining and rule making was done by men. I hope it is clear that the result is not a compliment to men.)

The best stories, the ones with the most meaning and usefulness, get told over and over. The stories change in the telling, sometimes helping us to think of an old tale in new ways. Rather than join with the crowds of folk who have and will happily tell us what we should get from the story, I’d like just to tell it again.

Here is the story of Jairus and the woman in the street, as retold in my novel I,John. The story is retold from the point of view of the disciple John, of course. I hope you enjoy something of the different perspective.

John

The streets were crowded with people and animals. A donkey’s hoof brushed my foot, and I was still holding to the animal for balance when I heard a man calling to Jesus. The man pushed his way through the crowd, and he somehow managed to kneel in front of Jesus. The people nearby pulled back a bit, seeing such a spectacle as this man kneeling in the street.
They knew him, this man. I had seen him in the synagogue myself, and here he was kneeling in the dirt in front of Jesus and begging him to come and to touch his daughter.
“She is sick, master,” he was saying. “You must come, you can save her. You have the healing touch.”
Jesus was looking at him. For a moment I wondered whether Jesus even heard what the man was saying. Then Jesus reached out and touched him on the shoulder, and Jesus leaned forward to tell the man something. I never learned what he said, but the man smiled and stood and began to beckon for Jesus to come after him.
The crowd parted somewhat, curiosity driving the ones who knew nothing about Jesus. This man they knew from the synagogue ran in front of Jesus, urging him along. The noise from the crowd was mixed with the dust from the street. It was difficult to see any distance ahead or to know where we were headed, except that we were following a man whose daughter was unwell.
Suddenly, Jesus stopped. A woman lay in the street, blood dripping down her cheek.
“Woman,” said Jesus. “How long have you lain there bleeding?”
She looked around, dust on her face along with the blood.
“I do not know, my lord,” she said. “The crowd has walked around me.”
“Who has touched this woman?” Jesus asked. I realized that there was no knowing who had touched anyone in this great crowd.
“How can she tell, there are so many?” I asked. Jesus turned and looked into my eyes for a moment, then turned away again. I felt like I had missed something obvious, that I should pay better attention.
“Then I will touch you,” he said to the woman, and he bent down and reached a hand to her face. He pulled her up from the ground, and she fell against him, holding him. I could see her face over his shoulder. The blood was gone.
“Come, my Lord,” said the man. “There is little time. My daughter may die if we do not reach her.” He was pulling at the arm of Jesus’ robe, wanting the woman out of the way. Peter was looking harshly at the man, though I knew that Peter understood about the sick child and the urgency. He just never wanted anyone shoving or pulling at Jesus, as though he could not take care of himself.
I heard raised voices and some curses from further down the street. Since we were on a small hill I could see over the heads of the people between to see that another man came pushing his way up the street, garnering the resentment of the crowds as he came. When he reached us he knelt in the street, his head down, and said, “My Lord.”
The man pulling Jesus’s arm stopped for a moment, then began to turn toward the kneeling servant. I could see that the man knew the voice, and I realized what the meaning of it must be. At least I was not so dense as to miss that.
“Your daughter, my lord.” He stopped. “She is dead.”
The man was still standing and holding to Jesus. The woman in Jesus’ arms looked at the messenger and understood as well. She pulled back, her hand on Jesus’ other arm. The servant looked up at his master and around at the rest of us, saying nothing. Then, a moment later he added, “I am sorry.”
The street seemed quieter, people realizing that something was happening, some of them recognizing Jesus, some recognizing the man himself or this woman. There were tears now on the man’s face, though he said nothing, his eyes sharing the sorrow before his mind had grasped it.
Jesus touched the woman’s head, a sort of caress or blessing, and then he in turn took the man by the arm.
“Come,” he said, as much to us as to this man. “Let us go up to your house together.”
The servant rose, and turning back led us in a procession through the crowd. Somewhere we heard the wailing of women who had already heard the whispers of grief. We walked as in a funeral line.
I have always hated funerals.
After some time we reached the house, a good one set back from the crowded marketplace. Family and neighbors were gathered around it, the women weeping. They surged forward when they saw the girl’s father, crying and saying that she was gone.
Jesus paused then, before entering the house. He took hold of the man’s arm the same way that the man had formerly held him in the market.
“Why are you crying?” he asked them. We all stopped and looked at him. I stole a glance at the crowd who were trying to work out whether this man was an idiot. Finally, the old women seemed to assume it was simply that Jesus did not know.
“The girl, his daughter, is dead,” they began to tell him. Jesus set his face, and I looked around to find Peter.
“She is only sleeping,” Jesus said. The words froze me in place, for I knew that they were not true. The crowd paused for a moment, and the father began to stare at Jesus. Then the crowd turned and began to jeer and to insult him, asking whether he were blind or simple. The father himself said nothing, only watched Jesus’ face.
Jesus pushed those in front of the doorway aside, which surprised them. It surprised me. I looked back down the street, wondering where we might run when they found some loose paving stones to throw at us. Peter stood staring, his mouth open, his expression lending no credence to Jesus.
“Out of the house, all of you, mourners and trespassers,” Jesus was saying. “Out.”
Shocked, the visitors looked to the father who, still staring at Jesus, slowly nodded to them. They began to leave, though I could not tell whether it was by Jesus’ authority or by the respect they had for this leader of the synagogue. Taking the man by the shoulder, Jesus looked around at Peter, my brother James, and myself, and indicated that we were to follow them.
We entered the house, suddenly far too quiet except for the sound of a couple of women crying, genuinely, upstairs.
“Take us to her,” Jesus told the father. He nodded once more and began walking up the stairs to the sleeping rooms. It was a spacious house, and cool, and these upper rooms could be opened to receive what breezes came blowing across the roofline of the town.
The girl lay on her bed, and it did appear as though she were sleeping. Beside the girl her mother sat crying, tears covering her face. Genuine grief does not care about appearances. Perhaps nothing genuine does. Another woman stood weeping in the room, though I never knew whether she was a servant or family. The mother looked at us, then at her husband who took her by the hand and lifted her from the chair. Jesus stood at the girl’s feet. Suddenly I realized that he, too, was crying, the quiet tears falling across his cheeks.
I thought that Jesus must have been wrong, and that he now saw as we did that the girl was dead. I was mistaken once again.
“Little girl,” he said. “Wake up.”
For a moment, all of us stopped breathing. I heard it, the quick catch of breath in our throats, all of us for a moment wondering what would happen and whether the girl was, indeed, only sleeping. Then, in the next moment, all of us realized that she was not, that she was dead, that this was perhaps the worst and most shameful moment of our lives. I started to feel the enormity of our imposition on their grief.
Peter’s eyes widened as he watched the girl. I turned back to see.
The girl caught her breath, much as we had, and we could hear the sound of air surging through her lungs and from her mouth. Jesus reached across and held her hand.
“Little girl, get up now,” he said. “Time to wake.”
She held his hand and sat up on the edge of her bed, looking around the room at her parents and the woman, whom she knew, and the four of us, whom she did not. Her mother was the first to recover, leaving her husband’s arms and nearly jumping into the bed with the girl.
“You are alive,” the mother was saying over and over, and the father began to say the same thing. Peter began muttering a curse, though only I heard him, and then he caught himself.
“Lord, you have done it,” he said.
Jesus was only watching the girl. “She is hungry,” he said. “Get her something to eat.”
“Yes. You must eat,” said the father, as though it was obvious that the child would be hungry. Then he turned and began thanking Jesus, who simply pushed the man along with his daughter and wife toward the stairs. They went on ahead of us, shouting and calling for food, soon for a feast. At the bottom of the stairs Jesus watched them a moment, then he turned away from the front of the house and went out into their garden. A gate led us out into the street, where the others were waiting for us. Without a word, Jesus turned and started walking away, as though the woman had never lain in the street and the girl had never risen from her bed. He did not speak of it.
I never saw any of them again, except at the end, when Jesus was dying. That day I saw at a distance a man standing with a woman and a girl. I wondered whether it was this family, come to show their respect, or thanks, or pity. I have never known for sure.

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Resurrection

Easter Sunday – Resurrection of the Lord | John 20:1-18

Lectionary Project

They did not go to his tomb out of faith. They went for other reasons.

They went to Jesus’ tomb out of obligation. Duty. Resignation. Perhaps love. Or perhaps to confirm for themselves the reality of his death, to wrap their minds around what they had seen, what they did not want to believe.

We do that, deny reality, over and over. We deny the reality of the world around us when it does not match our inward expectations. A sacrament may be called the outward sign of inward grace. Denial is the outward sign of unmet expectations. Inner dissonance.

For these many reasons, they went to the tomb early in the morning on the day after the sabbath. They did not go to be witnesses to a resurrection. Who would? It is a ludicrous idea, a childish denial of the workings of the universe.

Things break down. Things fall apart. People die. We die. We have to accept that, or go through life with an unrealistic and unreconciled perception of our world.

Resurrection, there’s a concept. Christianity clings to it, insisting that people who were dead somehow lived again. The faith-minded call it miraculous. Others, the ones who do not reject the idea out of hand, might say that it could have been an imposition of energy, returning a person to a prior state of greater order. Such an idea remains more science fiction than science, something rejected by logical minds as a perfect example of denial dressed up as something more.

IM000102.JPGStill, resurrection is one amazing idea. Maybe we just need a different way to think about it.

Take the stories told by the ancient Greeks, like the minotaur in the labyrinth. Few people today believe that there was a labyrinth, even fewer that there was a real monster roaming in it, eating whoever stumbled into its path. Still, it is a great story, and we continue to tell it, because on some level we all get it—life is a labyrinth, and we don’t know what waits around the next corner. We need courage and cleverness to deal with our monsters.

We don’t all come to these Jesus stories out of faith. Some of us listen to them out of obligation or duty. Resignation. Perhaps love for the familiarity of religion or for the family and friends who participate. Maybe we listen to the stories about the resurrection of Jesus because we are trying to decide whether we might believe them, or not, trying to wrap our minds around something we have never seen.

Like the story of the labyrinth, we might come to understand resurrection in new ways. Who hasn’t needed a reset button from time to time, an imposition of energy returning us to a prior state of order?

There’s a word of grace, that here is a way back, or forward: a way to make sense of the crooked path we’ve taken through our labyrinth, a way to redeem our wasted moments, or worse, our ill-made choices.IM000874.JPG

We might take another look at the resurrection stories, not with the blind acceptance of mere religion (it’s not the same thing as faith, is it?), and not with the blindness of those who have rejected religion, sometimes for good reasons, and who then refuse to listen.

The stories matter. They help us make sense of who we are.

Below is a re-telling of another resurrection, the raising of Lazarus seen from the point of view of the disciple John. Maybe hearing this story can help in hearing the Easter story of the resurrection of Jesus. Maybe it will at least help us find a way through our labyrinth. If we still do not leave with faith that we ourselves will one day be resurrected, we may at least carry away faith in the idea that our present lives can be resurrected, that something more is possible, here and now. That is a start on the Gospel way.

Resurrection. Redemption. Restoration. Those are good words for an Easter Sunday.


 

“I am the resurrection,” Jesus said. “I am the life.” Later the words would be famous, and we would think we understood them. This day the words seemed odd, out of place. He asked her, “Do you believe me?”

Martha glanced at me then looked back into Jesus’ eyes. “Yes,” she said. “I believe you. You are the Messiah.”

Messiah. That is who he is, I thought. I had thought many things before that day, but for some reason I had never thought of that word. I wasn’t sure that I understood it. I wasn’t sure that she did.

She turned and walked away, going quickly back toward their house. Jesus stood still for a few minutes and watched her walking away. The mourners followed her, but they looked back over their shoulders at Jesus. I could tell they were wondering about what they had heard, wondering if they had heard correctly, wondering if we were all crazy. If they hated us before this, I thought, they are going to try to kill us now.

Jesus began walking again down the path into the village, toward the house of Lazarus. Their parents were dead, and Lazarus had been left with two unwed sisters and the property. They were comfortable enough, had some standing in the community. All in all, they were a few rungs up the ladder from fisherman like most of us. When we reached the center of the village we found everyone gathered at the house to mourn.

Then Mary, Martha’s sister, came outside, with a crowd of people who had been gathered in the house. They were all crying, some honestly. Mary came walking straight to Jesus who stood still once more waiting. She walked up to him with the same indictment as her sister and said, “If you had been here, he would not have died.”

Once more, I didn’t know whether she would slap him or not. Everyone knew how much time had passed since the return of the servant who brought that slip of papyrus. All of them knew we had made no great haste to get there. Nevertheless Mary just fell at Jesus’ feet, tears pouring down her face. Martha came back out of the house sobbing. I looked around, and even Peter had tears in his eyes.

Then Jesus started crying himself. There were tears on his cheeks, rolling silently into his beard. It was such a strange sight, Jesus crying. Most of the people were crying, making a general wail throughout the open space. I heard someone say that Jesus could have healed Lazarus if he had come in time.

Jesus took Martha by the arm and raised her up, then he started walking toward the edge of the village where there were tombs cut into the hillside. Martha walked with him, and Mary, and all of us followed along with the mourners from the house. Eventually, Martha pointed at one of the tombs, Lazarus’ tomb, and she put her face in her hands and wept.

Jesus was staring at the tomb. I was suddenly afraid, slightly nauseated, as I contemplated what he might be about to try. Surely not, I thought. Surely he will not try this thing.

“Take away the stone,” he said. I put my hand to my mouth, horrified. Martha sniffed, her tears slowing with the shock of hearing the words.

“Take away the stone,” he said again.

Martha looked around at the stone, back at Jesus. “My Lord, we cannot, not now, it has been four days. The smell…”

People near enough to hear what they were saying began to murmur. I looked around to see if anyone was picking up a rock.

“If you believe, you will see the power of God,” Jesus said. “Take away the stone.”

It was like one of those dreams where everything gets slowly worse, but you cannot wake up. I wanted to walk away, go anywhere, but my legs would not move. They would stone us, I thought. The Romans would not have to do anything. Our fellow Jews were going to kill us right here in this village. I looked around at Peter, who was holding his stomach with both hands. Peter, I knew, did not care for bodies. The dead unnerved him. It made no difference, I thought, soon we would all be dead.

Martha turned and looked at some men in the crowd and nodded to them. They did not move, but just looked at her as though they did not understand. She pointed at the stone rolled in front of the small cave that formed the tomb. I thought I could already smell the body.

The men looked at one another, but Martha pointed again and they rolled away the stone. Then they backed away, watching Jesus. Martha swayed a little and caught herself. Mary joined her and they stood with their arms around one another.

It was so quiet that all I could hear was an occasional foot shifting on the stones, a bird chirping in the distance.

Jesus began praying, out loud, thanking God for hearing him. Everyone could hear him right then, I thought. Everyone except Lazarus.

Then Jesus stopped praying, and there was silence. I could not even hear the birds anymore. Then he yelled, “Lazarus! Come out!”

I started praying, silently, hoping this was, in fact a dream. I prayed to be somewhere else, that all of this was not happening. There was no way out, the tombs being at the end of a path, and we were surrounded by a crowd who were certainly going to kill us very soon.

Then I heard something moving in the tomb. We all heard it. There was a shuffling sound, like someone’s feet sliding against the stone floor of the cave. I glanced around to make sure other people were hearing what I was hearing. Peter was staring into the tomb, his mouth hanging open like a dead man with no head cloth.

There was a sudden gasp, everyone in the crowd breathing in at once, then the murmurs, and finally a woman screaming until she fainted, falling onto the ground. No one had the presence of mind to catch her. We were all watching Lazarus walk out of the tomb.

He was wrapped in the burial shroud, shuffling his way into the light.

“Let him go,” Jesus was saying. “Take those things off of him.”

Mary ran to her brother and began loosening the same cloths that she had helped to tie around him four days earlier. Martha was crying, hysterical. Two men turned and ran down the pathway, back toward the village and Jerusalem, yelling that Lazarus was alive.

Somehow I knew that none of this was going to turn out well. Lazarus had never been one of my favorite people. Now that he was shuffling his way out of the tomb, he gave me the creeps. He still did.

Nevertheless, I had seen the power of God. Jesus had raised a man from the dead. He couldn’t be the Messiah, could he?


This was an excerpt from the novel I,John. You can find out more about it here: crtaylorbooks.com/i-john