Chain of Voices

Fifth Sunday in Lent  |  John 12:20-33

Lectionary Project

Aretha Franklin sang of a chain of fools. John writes of a chain of voices.

This chain begins or ends—since chains run both ways—with unnamed strangers, and ends or begins with God. Strangers from some Greek speaking place approach Philip, maybe because he has a Greek name. They ask for an introduction to Jesus. Philip first goes to his brother Andrew, and together they take the request to Jesus. It seems a long path to ask a simple question.

The answer is strange. Jesus begins talking about his own impending death, a disconcerting shift in the storyline. Then another voice breaks over them. Some say it was thunder, others say that an angel spoke, but the Gospel claims God spoke directly to Jesus within the hearing of the crowd.

It’s interesting that John includes the alternative explanations. Thunder, some say. An angel, others say, and they are nearer the orthodox answer. Something happened, some sound heard by believer and skeptic alike, but the understanding is so very different.

Today, suppose there is a phone call, or perhaps a letter or email, with good news. Some would call it an answer to prayer. Others, receiving the same timely communication, would see it as luck, or chance, or the result of benevolent human planning. What’s the difference between an ordinary chain of events and a miracle except the matter of perception?

What is faith, if not a choice of how to view our world?

Faith can’t be proven. It isn’t science, but neither is it the opposite of science. Faith does not set aside reason. Science is the method by which we learn how our universe works. Faith is how we listen for the meaning.

So many voices reach us in a day. Some words are from the people who surround us, others are from the crowd inside us. Some voices can only be heard with the ears of faith.

We hear thunder, and the power and range of it restores our sense of perspective. Is that human insight? Recognition of natural cause and effect? Certainly. Is it the voice of God speaking to someone choosing to hear it? Maybe.

FlowersInIceIn the Gospel of Matthew, Jesus tells the people to consider the flowers of the fields. There is something of God to be seen in them, he says, something of God to be heard in the wind that blows across them.

Faith hears the voice of the Other resonate in everything. Physics demonstrates vibration within an atom, and people of faith hear that and something more, something that ties the universe together. Unscientific? Certainly. An act of self-delusion? Perhaps.

B.B.King sang, “Nobody loves me but my mother, and she could be jivin’ too.” We choose to love, and we choose to believe that certain people love us. Sometimes it is even true, though we cannot control the other side of the equation.

We may choose to believe the Gospel message that God is love. One day it may even prove to be true. Meanwhile, what is lost by choosing to love, choosing to hear the voice of God whisper or thunder through the people and life around us? What is lost by choosing to believe that there is such love in the universe?

Biology explains why insects find flowers irresistible. It takes something else to explain why we humans find them beautiful. As winter gives way to spring, consider the flowers of the field, the stars, the laughter of a child. Perhaps such things are only natural. Perhaps, if we choose to listen, we might hear the voice of God.


Hearing Voices

Easter  |  John 20:1-18

Mary Magdalene goes to the tomb, the last place she had encountered Jesus, and she cannot find him.
Dogwood flowers 011God is dead, in her heart, in what she has seen—Jesus beaten, wounded, dead on a cross, his body placed in a tomb hurriedly sealed with a stone. Now, as she returns to the tomb, she can not even find the body of the man in whom she has learned to see God. Her loss is so disorienting, so crushing, that she does not comprehend that she is speaking with angels and with a resurrected God among us, Jesus alive once more.

Early sources do not deny that the tomb was empty. Even those groups antagonistic to the new Christian faith did not deny that the tomb was empty. Instead, the question was how—what had these followers of Jesus done with his body?

It is odd that the gospels make no attempt to describe the process of resurrection. In each case, the story skips instead from God-incarnate-dead-in-the-tomb to God-incarnate-alive-once-more. Arguably the most powerful moment in the gospel, the moment in which Jesus returns to life, is never described. They left out the special effects.

There is much in John’s resurrection narrative (and in those of the other gospel writers, and in the references in Acts and in the letters of Paul) to cause us to wonder.

When Lazarus was called from his tomb, everyone recognized him, and not simply because the tomb was marked. When the resurrected Jesus appears, the stories include the difficulty of recognizing him. It is only when Jesus calls Mary’s name that she knows who he is.

Why upon rising from the dead does Jesus not parade through the streets of Jerusalem to demonstrate the power of God?

Why were the first witnesses of the resurrection, in all four gospels, women? In the extraordinarily male-dominated first century world, would not men have made more convincing witnesses? And out of all of the women available, why always Mary Magdalene?

I find myself seeking reason and certainty when it comes to God and the resurrection. I wonder why it is that God did not, does not, proclaim God with all of the convincing power of God. Why are we left with only these odd gospel stories and these strange brief passages describing the post resurrection appearances of Jesus?

It is strange, this way of God. The Almighty, creator of heaven and of earth, choosing the path that leads to crucifixion and death. God slipping quietly from death and the tomb to speak to Mary Magdalene. Almighty God, able to catch the attention of all creation in a flash, choosing to leave us pondering stories.

I want answers. God gives us questions.

I want certainty. God offers us faith.

Faith cannot be mapped. It cannot be measured, or even understood, and it is often characterized more by our doubts than our beliefs.

We want answers. God must want something different for us, something that we might not even recognize when we see it. We may only recognize it when we hear God call our names.