By Our Love

Child Walking Through Tall Grass

(Note: This post is from the text for a sermon delivered at First Baptist Church in Goldsboro, NC.)

When he had gone out, Jesus said, “Now the Son of Man has been glorified, and God has been glorified in him.
If God has been glorified in him, God will also glorify him in himself and will glorify him at once.
Little children, I am with you only a little longer. You will look for me; and as I said to the Jews so now I say to you, ‘Where I am going, you cannot come.’
I give you a new commandment, that you love one another. Just as I have loved you, you also should love one another.
By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.

— John 13:31-35, New Revised Standard Version

The disciple John lived to be a very old man. By the end of his life, John’s followers said that he only ever had one sermon. “Little children,” he would say, “love one another.” We still don’t know whether they were admiring him or complaining.

God doesn’t love us because we achieve great things. God loves us because God is love.

We, on the other hand, seem more interested in being right.

And now I need to talk about the communion table.

It’s a Baptist distinctive. If you look up on the platform, there is no altar. Baptist churches have no altar. Jesus was the final sacrifice, and Baptists see no purpose or reason in continuing to represent or recreate it with the bread and wine on the altar. That’s something that distinguishes us from our Roman Catholic and Episcopalian sisters and brothers. Like baptism — for them, it’s a sacrament representing God’s claim upon us; for us, it is a symbol of our response to God. Two different points of view, and God is not particularly worried about it — such things are for us, not for God.

So we have a communion table. It’s down here, on the same level with everybody, as it should be. Baptists believe that nobody is closer to God, has more access to God, than anyone else. All believers are priests. I am no closer to God than any of you. None of you is closer to God than I. We can draw a lot of conclusions from that idea, but one is that you do not have to accept anything I say at face value. I might be wrong. You might know better. And it’s your task to reflect on what I say to see if there is anything good in it, anything of the Spirit of God. Or not. And to decide whether we can love one another.

Here’s why I wanted to talk about the communion table.

If I’m going to talk about loving people, and what that looks like out there in the real world, you might start to suspect that I’m trying to convert you to my way of thinking on politics and society. That’s not my plan. I’m not even running for President, even though it seems like everybody else is.

We represent a wide range of political and social views. The older I get, the more I read the gospels and the prophets, the more liberal I get. 

For you to see where I am on nearly any issue, you’d probably need to look to your left. Some of you would need to turn completely around.

And I don’t want you to sit there and wonder whether I am dancing around some position that would offend you. I’m pretty sure that I’ll offend somebody today.

For instance, I want to see better gun control. I’m sick of seeing children die, anyone die, because some hate-filled homegrown extremist had a semiautomatic weapon.

I want to see global warming stopped. I want to save the whales and the polar bears, though I don’t want to hug a polar bear. They all look too hungry these days.

I want LGBTQ people to have equal rights, and I want them to have a place at this table.

I want everyone to have health care. I want it to be viewed as a basic human right, something decent societies do for everyone — young, old, rich, poor, citizen, immigrant, deserving, undeserving, everybody. And I want to help pay for it. And I want to help find ways to make it work.

So you see, I’m way over there in left field. There are a few of you out there, too, but not very many. Really, to get past me these days, you’ve pretty much got to be a vegan wearing home made tie-dye clothes. Vegans scare me a little. And I’ve been in enough homes to know that “home-made” might be a recommendation and it might be a warning.

So you don’t have to wonder any more about my politics, if you ever did. But none of that is my agenda.

I could make good arguments. Duke University graduate. Seminary graduate, with Hebrew and Greek. I ought to be able to argue my positions well, and I can. And how many people would be convinced?


We don’t change our minds because of an argument. That’s so rare, it would be almost like giving sight to the blind. Raising Lazarus.

We change our minds because we begin to care about someone. Not an idea, but a person.

My purpose is to invite us to think about the words of Jesus of Nazareth. To think about what it means to love one another.

And yes, I know that getting people to think is not always welcome. Getting us religious folk to think is pretty much the definition of what got Jesus killed. He made religious folk think, people like us, and we killed him for it. We can’t blame the Jews or the Romans — pretty much everyone in the story was either a Roman or a Jew, including Jesus. No, the Rolling Stones had it right in ‘Sympathy for the Devil’ — it was you and me.

So I appreciate the thin ice under this pulpit.

And I’ve already given you a second problem. Since many of you don’t agree with my positions, you have to decide what is more important — being right, or loving one another? Being right is by far more fun, but there’s that Jesus thing.

“By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.”

They will know we are Christians by our love, by our love.

And here, in this farewell passage, Jesus re-words the commandment. Did you notice?

Elsewhere in the gospels, Jesus tells everyone who hears him, disciple or not — Love the Lord your God with all your heart, soul, mind, and strength, and love your neighbor as yourself.

But now we get this one — love one another, not as you love yourself, but as I have loved you. So that’s Jesus ratcheting up the pressure.

And neither version is a request, or a suggestion, or guideline. It isn’t optional.

Love the people you know. Love the people on the next pew. Love the stranger out there in the street. Love the people on the other side of the planet.

Really though, watching most Christians, it looks like our Bibles say something different, something like, “they will know you are my disciples because you are right.”

Based on the way all of us act, myself included, I think it must be in there somewhere. Of course, we believe plenty of things that aren’t in there.

There’s a wonderful film called Second Hand Lions. Robert Duvall and Michael Caine. The character played by Robert Duvall says, “Just because something isn’t true, that’s no reason you can’t believe it.”

Well, just because something isn’t in the Bible is no reason we can’t believe it. We Christians prove it every day.

We love our rules more that we love our neighbors. And we love being right more than anything in the world.

Rules can be good, but they’re not very dangerous, because none of us is very good at following them. Telling the truth. Not envying our neighbors. Not cheating on our spouses. Not to mention all the smoking, drinking, cussing.

Yeah. We’re not good at following our own rules. And we got past that whole thing about pork being an abomination, so no worries there.

But being right? Oh, we’ve got that down pat.

Loving someone requires that we stop thinking of how different we are and start thinking of how much we have in common. This kind of love isn’t a feeling. It isn’t sexy. It isn’t driven by hormones or lust or loneliness. This kind of love, any real love, is a choice. True love keeps people committed to one another long after the fire has burned down to embers.

James puts it this way. “If a brother or sister is poorly clothed and lacks daily food, and one of you says to them, “Go in peace, keep warm and eat well,” but you do not give them what the body needs, what good is it?”  (James 2:15-16)

I have told you before that I am an MAWG, Middle Aged White Guy. I ran into that phrase in William Gibson’s novel Pattern Recognition. He’s the writer who came up with the term cyberspace. Brilliant, especially if you like science fiction.

As a Middle Aged White Guy, I’ve come to realize that there are a lot of things I don’t know. And paying attention to what we don’t know can be educational. It can be humanizing and liberating. If we begin to understand other people, if we begin to empathize with people who are not like us, we can begin to love them.

Longfellow wrote, “Every heart has its secret sorrows which the world knows not, and oftentimes we call a man cold, when he is only sad.”

Other people can be puzzles.

As a Middle Aged White Guy, I don’t know what it’s like to be a woman. I don’t know what it’s like to have the man beside me paid more for doing less. I don’t know what it feels like for a bunch of middle aged white guys make badly written laws about what I can and cannot do with my own body. I don’t know what it’s like to have men question whether God would call a woman to ministry. As if Mary Magdalene asked permission before she went to the tomb.

I’m not black. I don’t know what it’s like to be a black man in America. For that matter, I don’t know what it’s like to walk down the street with skin the color of Jesus in America — to look like such an average middle eastern man than nobody even bothered to write down a description of his appearance. Four gospels, all those letters, and nobody mentions the color of his hair, his skin, his eyes. I can tell you that if Jesus was blonde and blue-eyed, someone would have mentioned it.

It’s hard to cross the race lines, even today, and especially on Sunday morning, still the most segregated time of the week. There are so many black people who are angry at us Middle Aged White Guys. And there is so much fear and resentment in the white communities. 

We can find hope in words from that later letter from John’s community — “Perfect love drives out fear.” (1 John 4:18)

I’m not gay, so I don’t know what that’s like. I don’t know how it feels to have grown up afraid that someone would find out, that I might lose my job, my home, my business. Think about hearing that old “hate the sin love the sinner thing” — when being gay it isn’t something they do, it’s who they are. Did you know that something like 30 – 50% of the homeless youth on the streets are out there because they are gay — and their families threw them out. Lots of them were thrown out of Christian homes.

I’ve never been homeless. I don’t know what that’s like. The homeless people I’ve met are not the people I thought they would be. And their journey into homelessness may have begun with something as simple as a repair bill they couldn’t afford for a car they needed to get to a job they lost.

One of my favorite words is liminal. It means those boundary places where we slip from one thing to another — beaches, twilight, dying. There are thin margins between those of us with ordinary means and those without. People without a place to live, without regular income. People trying to find a bathroom to bathe in before walking to a job interview for work they won’t get.

We talk about freedom in this country. But freedom is an economic principle. We aren’t truly free unless we have the means to live. We aren’t free without the means to support ourselves, our families, the ones we love.

I look at the marginalized people we are supposed to love, and I think of Jesus’ warning. Not the “Well done, good and faithful servant,” but the “Depart from me, for I never knew you.”

Jesus said to love our neighbors and love our fellow Christians. That covers everybody.

So what does that look like? To love one another, I mean. Sometimes it looks like a simple kindness. Holding a door. Helping someone down the sidewalk. Sometimes it looks like social justice. Medical care.

Well, I’ve got some good news. Jesus never said we had to like one another. Love, yes. Like, optional. That’s really good news for me. I’m still with Linus — I love humanity: it’s people I can’t stand.

Anyone with a family understands the difference between liking someone and loving them. It’s nice when you like the people you love. But that isn’t always the way it works.

And as I said, love is not, at least not always, a feeling. Love is a choice. Love is what we do. If you come to me hungry, I feed you. I don’t have to like you or enjoy your company, but I have to feed you. If you find me lying on the sidewalk needing medical care, you help me. You don’t have to like me. You do have to call an ambulance and try to stop the bleeding.

We like to keep things in their boxes. When we sit in church and talk about love it is easy. If our faith and real life never overlap, our faith isn’t worth having.

We can’t keep Jesus in a box.

We say that trying to apply that love thing in real life is complicated. Maybe so. I’ve noticed that when we really don’t want to do something, or admit something, or own up to something, we say it’s complicated.

Life is complicated. People are complicated. Love is as complicated or as simple as we make it.

And there are implications. We can’t separate our Christianity from our participation in society. In each case, with every issue, we know what love looks like and what it doesn’t.

Immigration. We can have a difference of opinion on immigration policy and still be Christians and still be friends. But we can’t let those children at the border come to harm, do nothing, say nothing, and still call ourselves Christians.

Gun rights. Americans love guns. I grew up with them. For several reasons, I have a concealed carry permit. Does that surprise you? I’ve taught my daughter how to handle a gun safely, how to shoot, how to shoot well, in fact. She loves her .22 Browning target pistol. But we can’t love our guns more than we love people, and too many people are dying. That is not what love looks like.

LGBT issues. If a church doesn’t want to support LGBT people, that’s their privilege. That is freedom of religion. When a church refuses to condone or conduct gay marriage, that is also freedom of religion. But when they try to interfere with LGBT people having lives, having jobs, homes, families, that’s discrimination. When they try to use laws to enforce their beliefs on everyone, including other churches, that’s the opposite of religious freedom; it is the entire reason we Baptists here in North Carolina and Virginia worked so hard in the late 1700s for the Bill of Rights to be added to our Constitution, to keep the government out of our churches.

Health care. Many of us believe that people who get free medical care or some other free benefit should work, have jobs, test drug free. That might be great. I do know that the good samaritan didn’t put any pre-requisites on helping the man he found in the ditch. And healthy people are more likely to make good decisions and contribute to society.

There’s an opioid epidemic out there. Crazy synthetics mixed with street weed and heroin. People are dying, children are dying, and plenty of Christians are out there saying terrible things. Those drug addicts don’t deserve our help, they say. They got what was coming to them. No reason to spend our dollars trying to save them.

Imagine standing beside Jesus, or a parent who just lost her child, and saying all of that out loud. It’s a good test for all of our social or political views.

Decent, law-abiding people, people who have worked hard and saved and made the right choices all their lives, are bankrupting themselves to pay for their medicines. That isn’t what love looks like. Drug companies draining the poor to make a handful of very wealthy people much wealthier isn’t love. 

There’s nothing wrong with having wealth. There’s plenty wrong with loving profits more than people. It was never money that was the root of evil, it’s the love of it.

Child Walking Through Tall Grass

Feed the hungry. Tend the sick. Help those who are imprisoned, marginalized, oppressed. Jesus called it tending his sheep. That’s what love looks like in Jesus’ book.

However complicated that is, or however easy, loving people is something we have to do out there. Where people are.

We don’t even have to like them, and they don’t even have to like us, although we might be surprised. Love God, Jesus said. Love the people. And being right will take care of itself.

And now I would like to leave you with better words than mine.

1 Corinthians 13

If I speak in the tongues of men or of angels, but do not have love, I am only a resounding gong or a clanging cymbal. If I have the gift of prophecy and can fathom all mysteries and all knowledge, and if I have a faith that can move mountains, but do not have love, I am nothing. If I give all I possess to the poor and give over my body to hardship that I may boast, but do not have love, I gain nothing.

Love is patient, love is kind. It does not envy, it does not boast, it is not proud. It does not dishonor others, it is not self-seeking, it is not easily angered, it keeps no record of wrongs. Love does not delight in evil but rejoices with the truth. It always protects, always trusts, always hopes, always perseveres.

Love never fails. But where there are prophecies, they will cease; where there are tongues, they will be stilled; where there is knowledge, it will pass away. 9 For we know in part and we prophesy in part, but when completeness comes, what is in part disappears. When I was a child, I talked like a child, I thought like a child, I reasoned like a child. When I became a man, I put the ways of childhood behind me. For now we see only a reflection as in a mirror; then we shall see face to face. Now I know in part; then I shall know fully, even as I am fully known.

And now these three remain: faith, hope and love. But the greatest of these is love.

— from the New International Version (NIV)


Circles in a Circle by Vassily Kandinsky, 1923

Seventh Sunday of Easter | John 17:1-11

As a child I watched magicians on television. Well, magicians, and other folks like them who performed tricks of legerdemain. There were standard tricks—the disappearing lady, things in hats, impossible numbers of plates spinning on implausibly thin poles. Then there were the rings, the metal circles, clearly solid, solidly linking, joining and rejoining into chains.

Several Circles by Vassily Kandinsky, 1926
Several Circles by Vassily Kandinsky, 1926

John talks in a circle. It’s a trait that is apparent even on a casual reading of this Gospel. The story, and the language that tells it, loops back upon itself, circling, always circling, and nowhere more than in chapters 14-17, the farewell discourse of Jesus with his followers, passages John places in the narrative just before the arrest and crucifixion. Chapter 17 itself is one long prayer.

You have given him authority over all… to give eternal life to all… and this is eternal life, that they may know you…

I have glorified you,… now Father glorify me… All mine are yours and yours are mine and I am glorified in them…

And finally: …that they may be one, as we are one.

In this Gospel, everything is connected—God as Father, God as Jesus, all of us—everything is made one, touching, containing, interconnecting, rings within rings.

Each link of a chain is a separate thing, an entity in itself, a ring without beginning or end; a link can be positioned so as not to touch the rings passing through it. Nevertheless, each ring is itself part of the greater chain, whether a particular link is aware of it or not. In John’s Gospel, the ends of the chain loop back, a circle made of circles, and for this Gospel, unbreakable.

We might reflect on a single link in an unbreakable chain, which is our own place in John’s view—part of a chain, part of the circle, part of a living vine. We might be held in a perfect position so as to touch nothing. We may not feel the embrace of any other link—the world may pass by us, through us, touching nothing. Though we feel nothing, still the other links pass within us, encircling us, holding us. Nothing can remove them. Nothing can separate us.

Circles in a Circle by Vassily Kandinsky, 1923
Circles in a Circle by Vassily Kandinsky, 1923

There are some chains that enslave us, chains that weigh us down, rattling and dragging behind us, chains of our own making, like Marley in Charles Dickens, or chains made by human hands, by human slavers, to trade and profit from human misery. Then there is this chain, weightless, unseen, that binds nothing but itself, connecting us to God, to all that is good, to one another—this chain is not what we wear, it is who we are.

Embracing God, we realize that God already embraces us.

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.



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.


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.

A Quality of Love

Fifth Sunday of Easter | John 13:31-35

When we love, we give — though usually of our excess, and usually with some thought of what we might receive in return. That is not the love described in John’s Gospel.

We give of what we have. God gives of what God is. Love looks for nothing, needs no reward: love is its own end.

That love, divine love, perfect love, God’s love, never springs from excess — God always gives all. Perfect love is never from thought of gain — God always has all. God is complete — there is nothing extra to give away, nothing missing to fulfill. The gift of the divine, the love of God, is God giving of God’s self, always complete, with nothing lacking, and with nothing to spare.

Father and Daughter 2Bernard of Clairvaux wrote that the best reason, the truest reason, to love God is God. Love God for God’s own sake. Jesus commands that we love one another the same way, for the same reason, for love’s own sake, for God’s own sake.

It is impossible, of course. Perfect love, like anything other perfection though more so, is impossible for anyone but God.

So what are we mere mortals to do? Cease trying?

Everything we do is lacking and incomplete. Everything from home remodeling to recipes, gardening to spaceships, poetry to medicine — all of it is imperfect, lacking, missing something, not ideal.

Father and Daughter 3The ideal is unattainable. Our problem is that John’s Gospel does not present God’s love as an ideal. It is presented as a reality, a path, a command.

Love one another, as I have loved you.

We might say that Jesus was setting his followers an impossible task. Or we might say he was setting them on the path, the Way, of this gospel message.

Evangelical Christianity places so much emphasis on the cross, on earnestly explaining what God accomplished there, on offering opaque arguments about sin and redemption and God’s requirement for atoning sacrifice. Never mind that by the time of Jesus the prophets had already moved beyond sacrifice.

Does the LORD take delight in thousands of rams, In ten thousand rivers of oil? Shall I present my firstborn for my rebellious acts, The fruit of my body for the sin of my soul? He has told you, O man, what is good; And what does the LORD require of you But to do justice, to love kindness, And to walk humbly with your God? (Micah 6:7-8)

As much as anything else, the crucifixion was an act of love — on the part of Jesus — God giving God’s own self to the world, an act of love undiminished by human judgment and violence. Killing Jesus on that cross was an act of human aggression, fear, resentment, transference. In accepting that death, Jesus responded with the same love he had shown his disciples.

We need not agree on the theological explanations of the cross. Jesus himself spent little time explaining. He did not command his followers to explain. He commanded them to love one another. Explanations, and the ensuing arguments over them, do not feed the hungry, clothe the poor, or shelter the homeless.

We are not commanded to explain the gospel. We are commanded to live it.

We are not even commanded to be right. We are simply commanded to love.

Father and daughter

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