Matthew 16.13-28 | Pentecost 12

John Michael Gutierrez, PhD

The Holy Gospel of our Lord Jesus Christ according to Matthew

13 Now when Jesus came into the district of Caesarea Philippi, he asked his disciples, “Who do people say that the Son of Man is?” 14 And they said, “Some say John the Baptist, others say Elijah, and others Jeremiah or one of the prophets.” 15 He said to them, “But who do you say that I am?” 16 Simon Peter replied, “You are the Christ, the Son of the living God.” 17 And Jesus answered him, “Blessed are you, Simon Bar-Jonah! For flesh and blood has not revealed this to you, but my Father who is in heaven. 18 And I tell you, you are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church, and the gates of hell shall not prevail against it. 19 I will give you the keys of the kingdom of heaven, and whatever you bind on earth shall be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth shall be loosed[c] in heaven.” 20 Then he strictly charged the disciples to tell no one that he was the Christ. [ 21 From that time on Jesus began to explain to his disciples that he must go to Jerusalem and suffer many things at the hands of the elders, the chief priests and the teachers of the law, and that he must be killed and on the third day be raised to life. 22 Peter took him aside and began to rebuke him. “Never, Lord!” he said. “This shall never happen to you!” 23 Jesus turned and said to Peter, “Get behind me, Satan! You are a stumbling block to me; you do not have in mind the concerns of God, but merely human concerns.” 24 Then Jesus said to his disciples, “Whoever wants to be my disciple must deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me. 25 For whoever wants to save their life[a] will lose it, but whoever loses their life for me will find it. 26 What good will it be for someone to gain the whole world, yet forfeit their soul? Or what can anyone give in exchange for their soul? 27 For the Son of Man is going to come in his Father’s glory with his angels, and then he will reward each person according to what they have done. 28 “Truly I tell you, some who are standing here will not taste death before they see the Son of Man coming in his kingdom.”]

The Gospel of the Lord

Names and name changing are all the rage these days. Not to offend – too much – and in the spirit of political incorrectness here’s my examples from sports. I have micro-aggression about references to Native Americans and persons of color. Let’s ditch Washington Redskins (done), but what about Kansas City Chiefs, Atlanta Braves, Cleveland Indians, Cleveland Browns. Obviously, Carolina Panthers were named for the 60’s Oakland, CA militants. New York Yankees offend the South. Do we have a Confederate team name? No! Well. I’m offended by the preference for Roman Catholics over Protestants: New Orleans Saints, San Diego Padres. Then there are team names that glorify toxic male aggression: Oakland Raiders, Minnesota Vikings, Tampa Bay Buccaneers and Pittsburgh Pirates! Finally, what about those teams that clearly send the wrong message to our children. The San Diego Chargers promote irresponsible spending habits and long term debt. New York Giants and San Francisco Giants promote a growing childhood epidemic – obesity. Cincinnati Reds promote drug addiction. Milwaukee Brewers. Wrong message to our children.

As my clumsy raid on political incorrectness demonstrates the point isn’t to focus on the name. It’s about the underlying issues. And that’s the point in our Gospel lesson this morning. Our sustained immersion into Matthew in year A brings us this morning to one of the additional episodes giving this Gospel an intensity and power not found in the others. Vs. 17-20 is that well known addition: Peter’s naming play on words. But it’s a matter of narrative context. If we only consider the lectionary’s surgical cut, vs. 13-20 then we will miss the naming interplay in the wider narrative. And that’s why you’ll notice the reading is, 16.13-28, to widen the episode’s theological  boundary. Matthew’s 4th teaching section, ch. 13.54-18.36, narrates pivotal, climactic events in Jesus’ Galilean ministry as he turns toward Jerusalem and the cross. In previous scenes through Jesus’ teaching and healing Matthew prompts disciples, crowds and us to form opinions about this one called the Son of Man. In this 4th section as Jesus interacts with the disciples, ordinary folk and the religious leaders, Matthew condenses and compresses the issues of faith, discipleship, leadership and ministry. Why? Well, the Jewish-Chrisitan community to which and for which Matthew was writing needed to know that their ministry authority had a divine foundation. But they were still vulnerable to missteps. Discipleship and leadership are sometimes “rocky”. Disciples and leaders have their ups and downs. It’s part of discipleship, leadership. 

In the first scene,16.13-20, Matthew has Jesus question all the disciples. The effect is to show us that they are engaged in the hustle/bustle around Caesarea Philippi. They’re tracking with the events and listening to the various conversations. Initially he asks them “what’s the buzz about me, the son of man? (vs. 13-14). 

In answering, the disciples name only positive opinions, like Israel’s prophet Elijah, who did miraculous deeds, who stood toe-to-toe with kings.  For these folk, even the Baptizer, who stood toe to toe with Herod Antipas, was a prophet (Mt. 11.14). Previewing the second scene (vs. 21ff), it is Matthew who inserts Jeremiah, the rejected, suffering prophet, the intercessor for Israel (2 Macc. 15.12-16). Jesus says, “OK, that’s the talk at the village gate and the synagogue, but what do you think? Surely you can do better than this. You’re close to me”. Jesus is asking for an account of what they’ve said, not an answer to a pop quiz. 

Matthew’s Peter has multiple roles: as an individual, as a stand-in for the 12 and as a representative of a wider Jewish-Christian community.  He is an example of Jewish “corporate solidarity” in which a leader represents a group, e.g., the king or high priest representing Israel before YHWH. So we’re not surprised when he takes the lead and speaks up.

The NT’s Peter has multiple names. In the 4th Gospel Jesus initially knew Peter as Simon Cephas. Simon, Hebrew after the patriarchal ancestor, and Cephas, Aramaic for “rock”  (Jn 1.35-42). Eventually the name Peter, Greek for “rock,” ( Mt 10.2) was used routinely by all Gospel writers. Notice Matthew uses the full name Simon Peter (vs. 16) just before Jesus uses the full name Simon Jonahsson (he fishes in Norway in the off season!) (vs. 17). The double name signals to us the seriousness, the gravity developing in the dialog. 

Peter identifies Jesus as “Messiah, son of the living God” but the more nuanced meaning has yet to be revealed in the second scene (vs.21ff). It is one thing to perceive a messianic identity. It is quite another matter to know precisely how it will be lived out. In our lesson, Jesus makes it clear that the prompt for Peter to identify him and his mission was of divine origin. This prompts Jesus to create a word play about Peter’s identity and mission. It sounds like this “You Petros – rock are petra – rock and on this petra – rock, Petros – rock,  I will assemble my assembly” (vs. 18a). The off the top reading of the word play is that “rock” refers to Peter himself. Peter is the person who steps forward, the corporate solidarity representative, confessing a profound identity of Jesus. Upon this “Peter”, Jesus will build his congregation. Continuing the rock metaphor, Peter becomes the first foundation rock upon which Messiah, the chief cornerstone, will build (see Eph. 2:19-20). So Peter has a foundational role. This is recorded quite effectively in Luke’s second vol. where Peter is the initial preacher about Jesus’ accomplishments to Jewish and almost Jewish folk (ch 2), to Samaritans (ch. 8) and Gentiles proper (ch 10). Here is what we can say with reasonable confidence from the NT writings – Peter had a prominent position among the 12 and after the ascension he was a prominent leader in the Jerusalem community during its earliest years (Gal 2) and was also a prominent leader in the Jewish-Christian mission.  Peter is given recognition for being the receiver of revelation but he is still only one “rock” among many. 

But there is a word play here. Word plays are always slippery.  Community and kingdom are bound in Matthew’s conception of Jesus’ mission. The necessity of something unified – a rock – in the newly forming community involves wider recognition. So Jesus begins outlining the authority for the last days messianic congregation. Only after the resurrection/ascension will the community be fully formed, sent on its mission and death’s grip be broken. The “gates of hades” was a common euphemism for death. It’s gripping power.  I realize we often take this to mean that death cannot assault the church.  Gates, however, in the ANE are defensive, protective when closed.  So what Jesus’ resurrection/ascension means here is: the locks on death’s gates have been picked. The gates have been flung open and the Son of the Living God has rushed in to liberate captives. Where once there was the fear of death, there is now life – triumphant resurrection life.

So confessing Jesus as Messiah, son of the living God, not only changes names. It is a world-changing reality. A synchronicity has formed between what happens on earth and what happens in the Lord’s presence. “Keys” and “Binding what has already been bound” and “untying what has already been loosed” in a Jewish context refers to Wisdom’s guidance in discerning the effectiveness in instructing, passing on, interpreting Jesus’ teachings in the congregation. Peter is a “key holder” (Mk 13:34) but he is neither “master” nor “Father” (cf. a close reading of Isa. 22; also Mt 23:9). Staying in my lane, speaking as a licensed contractor, I consider Peter’s role foundational. In a construction project, a foundation is laid down one time and once the forms are removed and the building is constructed it is no longer seen. So I suggest, as a licensed contractor, that Peter’s role is the foundation’s concrete rock pour, so to speak. And staying with the building imagery, keys are to lock and unlock a building property. Once the certificate of occupancy door is unlocked there is no need to keep keys (vs. 19). It’s up to the new tenants.  At the tip of Matthew’s stylus, Peter is disciple, spokesman for the disciples and an integral person to the development and formation of Jesus’ last days community. 

In the second scene, 16.21-28 Matthew again shows us the disciples are engaged with Jesus’ conversations. His ministry is swinging around toward Jerusalem. So He begins to speak about the road ahead “I must go to Jerusalem and suffer much from the elders, the chief priests, and the teachers of the Law. I will be put to death, but three days later I will be raised to life” (vs. 21).

A little further in the narrative vs. 24 “Whoever wants to be my disciple must deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me”. Followed by the famous paradox vs. 25  “For whoever wants to save their life will lose it, but whoever loses their life for me will find it”. The high point of acknowledging Jesus as Messiah (vs. 16) is now muddied by his talk of dying – everybody dying. Matthew has arranged this scene to follow the previous one in order to shatter any imagined messianic triumph with the difficult path that lies ahead. The disciples fail to perceive any way YHWH’s will could be accomplished by death. For Peter it doesn’t fit easily with his revelation – mysterious, clouded, even contradictory. So great is his astonishment, he recoils rebuking Jesus “May YHWH prevent this from happening” Like a lightning bolt, Jesus rejects Peter’s refusal to accept his understanding with the same forcefulness he had to use in the Wilderness test in ch. 4 (vs. 1-11) “Get back, who appointed you, my adversarial opponent Satan”? This time there was no divine, no revealing prompt from the Father or if there was – he didn’t hear it.

As I’ve noted word plays are always slippery. So Matthew tempers Peter’s dependable role in the first “rock” word play (vs. 18a) with a rock slide. Jesus’  “you’re a stumbling block” can be translated as “stones “(vs. 23). Peter has become loose, slippery gravel on the road to the cross. Whatever the merits of Peter’s revelation – and there are many- vs. 21ff makes clear it is incomplete without consideration of the Son of Man’s, the Son of the living God’s suffering, death and resurrection. Notice the naming set up in the puzzling “son of man” questions (vs. 13-14) has now arched over to scene closing naming – the “ son of man coming as judge” (vs. 28).  But note carefully it is the “suffering Jesus” (vs. 21) that is the linchpin between the Messianic son of man (vs. 13, 16) and the reigning monarch (vs. 28). Messiah was a nationalistic term implying making Israel great again – economically, politically, militarily. Messiah was David’s anointed heir. But this Jesus, this ”son of man” is not a new, improved David, a more powerful political, military king. No, this messianic son of man is the “son of the living God”  “Living” is applied only to YHWH in Israel. Only YHWH has life in and of himself (Ex. 3.14-16). This “son” stands with, shares “living” so completely that in his suffering, death and resurrection he can assure the congregation he is organizing that even death will be pushed back (vs. 18b)

“If anyone wants to follow me….” Jesus wants complete allegiance, loyalty to his kingdom (vs. 24-26).  Disciples must give themselves up, dying to a self-directing life. No more “What’s in it for me? I’ll do it if it doesn’t interfere with family or my own interests” All self-interested paths are to be closed off. The gate to a cross kind of discipleship opens to a narrow path.  

The two questions that Jesus poses  – “Who do people say I am?” and “Who do you say I am?” are questions that everyone who would be a disciple has to face at some time in their lives. They are questions that we have to keep returning to as we learn more – and change throughout the course of our lives. Matthew’s point for disciples: they/ you/I should be teachable, that is, open to a divine prompt, a new direction, a new instruction, and correction – sometimes. This episode shows every disciple that Peter and the others are wrapped up in limitations and understanding, which in itself is not a negative thing, just a normal thing, a disciple thing.

Like Peter and the others, we still hear all sorts of things about Jesus. Eventually, everyone will have to decide what they believe. Biblical faith involves getting things right about him. Certainly things change and grow as we change and grow – indeed, they should. Biblical faith begins, however, by confessing Jesus as the “son of man, the messiah, the son of the living God, who was crucified for us under Pontius Pilate; who suffered death and was buried: who on the third day rose again according to the Scriptures: who ascended into heaven, and is seated at the right hand of the Father: who will come again in glory, to judge both the living and the dead; and whose kingdom will have no end. That is solid rock! Anything else is a millstone that drowns you or grinds you to powder. Who do you say Jesus is?

May the Lord richly bless your confession, my beloved.

Matthew 13.31-33, 44-50 | Eighth Sunday after Pentecost

John Michael Guiterrez, PhD

The Holy Gospel of our Lord Jesus Christ according to Matthew

31 He told them another parable: “The kingdom of heaven is like a mustard seed, which a man took and planted in his field. 32 Though it is the smallest of all seeds, yet when it grows, it is the largest of garden plants and becomes a tree, so that the birds come and perch in its branches.”

33 He told them still another parable: “The kingdom of heaven is like yeast that a woman took and mixed into about sixty pounds[a] of flour until it worked all through the dough.”

44 “The kingdom of heaven is like treasure hidden in a field. When a man found it, he hid it again, and then in his joy went and sold all he had and bought that field.

45 “Again, the kingdom of heaven is like a merchant looking for fine pearls. 46 When he found one of great value, he went away and sold everything he had and bought it.

47 “Once again, the kingdom of heaven is like a net that was let down into the lake and caught all kinds of fish. 48 When it was full, the fishermen pulled it up on the shore. Then they sat down and collected the good fish in baskets, but threw the bad away. 49 This is how it will be at the end of the age. The angels will come and separate the wicked from the righteous 50 and throw them into the blazing furnace, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.

The Gospel of the Lord

I’ve been fortunate in my academic life to have two mentors- one American, one British – willing to take me from greenhorn to experienced cluelessness –  a far better teachable state. A few words, appreciative ones, about the American who started me down a road I’m still on. In hindsight, it was calculated exposure to the literatures, languages, backgrounds and interpretations in Biblical studies. I was his research and teaching assistant for 4.5 years.  But it started off rather awkwardly – for me, at least (although in reflection I suspect he planned it all along). In the week before I began, he handed me one of his ever present 3 x 5 cards with his home address and a date/time – Saturday 6am – with the directive “Don’t be late!” I arrived on time. Gwen directed me down to the study library where Ed was waiting with another 3 x 5 card. Handing me the card, he said  “I need to know how this fits into Biblical studies”. I looked at the card – it was written in Hebrew. Rather meekly, I observed it’s Hebrew. Right, says he. I don’t know Hebrew. Right again, says he. I don’t know how it fits into biblical studies. Right one more time, says he. He then motioned at his library saying “To the degree you don’t know your Hebrew Bible, to that degree you won’t know you’re NT; to the degree you know your Hebrew Bible, to that degree you will know your NT”.  And so it began like a deer in the headlights. It seems to me the mastery of Biblical Studies is beyond what one can achieve in the normal span of a life. I have dared to hope that where expertise has eluded me, responsible incompetency has not.

Little did I realize how Ed’s axiom about the interplay between the Hebrew Bible and the NT would play out for me. Guided deep into investigating the Judaism of Jesus’ day I became aware of two of Israel’s convictions: 

First, YHWH through the Passover/Exodus and Sinai covenant has acted on Israel’s behalf like a father loves a child. The Sinai covenant is YHWH’s written communication of his love, blessing and continued faithfulness, binding individuals into a community. And the Covenant’s institutions with their reasonably detailed instructions regarding obedience/disobedience are intended to make Israel “wise” (Dt. 4.5-8)  

Second, the long, slow historical arc revealing Israel’s jarring, habitual covenantal disobedience – note the cautions leading into our lesson about Solomon this morning (1 Kgs. 3.1-14) – pushed some among them to consider what is holding Israel back from being obedient, being wise. Wisdom Literature in Israel – its proverbs, parables, riddles, poetry, narrative – is that outworking conveniently expressed in the motto “The fear of YHWH is the beginning of wisdom” (Pro. 9.10 et alii.) To be “wise” is to be an obedient steward of YHWH’s covenantal kingdom. To be “wise” one should live obediently for the long run, that is, without making foolish choices or taking foolish risks. To be “wise” is about leaving a trail of breadcrumbs in the labyrinth of life to identify the paths actually taken. But the Sages recognized wisdom’s obedience is hidden just enough to require alertness, openness to understand – note again the cautions in the wider Solomon narrative (1 Kgs. 3.1-11.43). That’s why parables, Wisdom Literature in general, are oblique. They’re written as a way of seeing into obedience so differently that it can’t be grasped without everything else being turned upside down. Admittedly, Wisdom in Israel is elusive but it’s not code to be decoded. Rather what it means is what it says – teasing the hearer, at times, refusing to answer, at times, thus requiring thinking, silence, meditation before action. Becoming wise in Israel assumes active engagement with covenant instructions. Rich in life experience, wisdom is always cautious. Life learning does not always guarantee wisdom just like graduation does not guarantee education. 

Covenant and Wisdom themes, then, are written large into Israel’s library. The dual aims of Covenant and Wisdom are to put obedience to YHWH’s oversight into working clothes, into the marketplace. 

In our Gospel lesson this morning, we come to Matthew’s  third teaching section “the kingdom’s presence in society” ( ch.11.2-13.52) for the third successive Sunday . In ch. 11 readers get instruction on the claims and character of Jesus as messiah.  In chapter 12, readers get a blunt glimpse of the varying reactions and growing opposition to Jesus as messiah. In ch. 13 readers hear Jesus’ role as “kingdom teacher” featuring Israel’s Wisdom Literature. Generally speaking, Jesus’ parables draw on daily urban and village life, stock character types, and everyday political, social and religious situations. Chapter 13 is Matthew’s arrangement of some of Jesus’ parables in order to explain YHWH’s presence, Jesus’ hiding place in the kingdom, kingdom character and activities and the nature of discipleship.  As a group, these edited sayings picture for us the invasive, exaggerated, hidden presence of YHWH. They lean in the direction of the surprise and delight we should experience when we discover, even stumble upon the hidden kingdom. Wisdom’s wild card in Matthew’s collection: he hopes we ponder our readings, our misreadings, about the kingdom.

This also highlights Matthew’s authorial skill. He has placed two kingdom comparisons next door to each other: the wheat/weeds (vs. 24-30) and the leaven (vs. 33). With similar and yet artful differences he skilfully asks us to read, to reflect, to catch a glimpse of wisdom. Last week we walked through a weed infested wheat field. This morning we find ourselves in an everyday kitchen after a harvest. 

Initially Jesus’ one line parable might read like a run-of-the-mill domestic scene. Baking leavened bread is an image that everything is ordinary, workaday. Nothing unusual here. Ah, but it’s wisdom literature. So there’s more to say. It’s important to Matthew’s authorial intention that we read Jesus’ actual verbal maneuvers carefully. It is important to restore the translated yeast to “leaven” in our language “sourdough” and the translated mixed to “hid” and calculate the triple recipe- 60 lbs. The parable’s point is to overstate the reader’s understanding of “everyday” expectations of things. So score a touchdown for wisdom. Jesus’ verbal maneuver is not about the woman but about bringing leaven and what she does – hides it – into close proximity with the Kingdom. Leaven and kingdom – there’s words with theological baggage in Israel.  Unleavened dough replacing leavened dough at the Passover/Exodus was a mark, a sign, a remembrance for Israel of its redemption, its break from workaday enslavement (Ex. 13.1-10). The Passover/Exodus set in motion the parade ground example of YHWH’s acting on Israel’s behalf. And notice, instead of the expected “kneading” the leaven is concealed, like its counterpart “weed” spread at night by the enemy (vs. 25). It will have its effect. Disappearing into the dough it puffs up everything. 

Now what has “hidden leaven” to do with wheat/weeds? Well quite a lot. First, in these Kingdom parables Jesus teaches that there is another way to tell Israel’s story. What many folk in Israel, including the disciples, were expecting was the triumph of YHWH’s kingdom. That nothing would be hidden. But what they got in these parables was the intermixing of the kingdom. YHWH’s saving acts in Jesus seem to be hidden into everyday life. But, second, notice so thoroughly was the kingdom mixed into culture the differences weren’t clear. Here’s the subtle difference in the two parables. The wheat is the kingdom’s presence in society. Weedy-ness, secreted into the culture, looks a lot like the kingdom. But it’s a demonic, counterfeit, intended to confuse and corrupt YHWH’s kingdom’s character and mission. In the one liner, the dough is the society and the hidden leaven is the kingdom’s character puffing up the culture’s character. Jesus, the hidden leaven, breaks the everyday of the culture with his theology of the cross reigning in weakness, bringing resurrection out of vulnerability and death. One stealth act deserves another! That’s WisdomLiterature for you.   

Now what has “hidden leaven” and “weed infested wheat” to do with us? Well quite a lot. These parables are incredibly insightful descriptions of how cultural corruption and the kingdom often interact and, even at times, seem to be fed in the same soil or dough. But it takes wisdom to figure out how they are different. These parables invite us to consider the complexity of a society’s weedy and doughy -ness and the Kingdom’s presence. So it seems to me it is very timely that we have read these parables, especially the one-line Leaven/Kingdom comparison. 

Politics and cultures come and go. Certainly as Christians, you and I can occupy a place anywhere in the rough terrain of cultural and political life in Tustin,  California, America. We are – every one of us- being faced increasingly with the question of being a good citizen.  To say it another way, we are living in a time of serious clash of fast forming ideologies  – political, sexual, religious. Here’s an observation I gleaned from the Christian philosopher Jacques Ellul: to truly understand a worldview, an ideology, uncover its roots, trace its conclusions. 

Insofar as the community of faith is concerned, from the Right we are confronted by a secular utopian political power that has become adept at using religious words and rhetoric. We must listen carefully because someone mentioning “God” or “prayer” or quoting from the Bible doesn’t mean it’s the same way we use them. And the Right seems to have overlooked the observation that economic actions, questionable displays of authority and power, at home and abroad, militantly rejecting political compromise are susceptible to a prophetic criticism.  

At such a time as this, Christians must understand that the progressive Left’s routes to utopian political power go through race, gender identity, social justice or antisemitism. Careful investigation reveals the progressive Left’s Pandora’s box opens from the wrong side of Biblical truth – neoMarxism. We should not at all be surprised when we hear shrill, loathing scorn for all things Christian: YHWH as a loving father, Jesus dispatched as a savior, a Holy Spirit,  a person’s real identity, support for marriage and family. The progressive tricolor flag – inclusion, diversity, tolerance- is anything but. Progressive activists don’t know how to change the human heart. They have no words for repentance, forgiveness, reconciliation or sacrificial love. The driving forces of progressive ideological politics is political power, the threat of wrongthink, the chilling tyranny of conformity. At some time, in one way or another, each Chrisitan will be handed the drink of progressive kool aid – dissent or hesitate – it puts a target on your back. 

Cautious partisanship, then, for the political Right or Left by a Christian is not that bad of an outcome. This is not Christianity’s first rodeo. As the early church Fathers amply document being a good Christian sometimes meant being a bad Roman. There was a price to pay. Historically, Christian faith has not flourished when occupying the halls of power or when enveloped by the fleeting blessings of a culture’s commercelized materialism. The fact is Christians lose their ability to prophetically address a culture on vital issues. From the early church onward, Christianity has done some of its best work in the face of opposition.  It’s because Biblical faith doesn’t deal with forces driving cultures in the same way. Jesus’ disciples are a priestly community pursuing holiness with Kingdom loyalty and allegiance first. As Christians, we are to love the Lord our God with heart, soul and mind. In the 4th cent. Augustine made an insightful observation. Created in the Lord’s image, every person is sacred. So there is a homing beacon in the heart of every human. Because the “heart’s” true identity can only be formed by a loving Father, a savior Son and a transforming Spirit, everyone will be restless until they find their heart, their love with them. Only in their presence, is there real power.  And we are to love our neighbor as ourselves. When someone fails to love their neighbor, we don’t shame them, cancel them. As Jesus’ disciples we are to leaven America, California, Tustin with good news of sacrificial love, renewed hearts, forgiveness, Spirit transformed personhood. As Jesus’ priestly community we are to help people grow and walk in holiness through some really difficult and complex issues. We are to “leaven” Jesus into sensitive areas of life. We are to help Jesus reach people beyond reach, to rescue people who can’t be free and renew people who are weary and beaten down.

May we, at St. Stephen’s, “leaven” our neighbors long before politically induced, utopian worldviews. It’s a matter of the heart. It’s a matter of love. It’s a matter of holiness. As a community of faith, a priestly community in the 21st century we have challenges different from Matthew’s. But here’s Jesus’ wisdom’s question to us: How many triple recipe leavened loaves of bread will we bake using the Trinitarian resources of the kingdom?

May the Lord grant us ears to hear, wisdom to obey, loving hearts, renewed minds, courageous wills and gracious words so that we might “leaven” our society.

Matthew 10.34-42 | Pentecost 4

John Michael Gutierrez, PhD

The Holy Gospel of our Lord Jesus Christ according to Matthew

34 “Do not suppose that I have come to bring peace to the earth. I did not come to bring peace, but a sword. 35 For I have come to turn
“‘a man against his father,
a daughter against her mother,
a daughter-in-law against her mother-in-law—
36     a man’s enemies will be the members of his own household.’ 37 “Anyone who loves their father or mother more than me is not worthy of me; anyone who loves their son or daughter more than me is not worthy of me. 38 Whoever does not take up their cross and follow me is not worthy of me. 39 Whoever finds their life will lose it, and whoever loses their life for my sake will find it. 40 “Anyone who welcomes you, welcomes me, and anyone who welcomes me welcomes the one who sent me. 41 Whoever welcomes a prophet as a prophet will receive a prophet’s reward, and whoever welcomes a righteous person as a righteous person will receive a righteous person’s reward. 42 And if anyone gives even a cup of cold water to one of these little ones who is my disciple, truly I tell you, that person will certainly not lose their reward.”

The Gospel of the Lord

One of the proven benefits of the prayer book tradition is its generous incorporation of Bible texts into all liturgical services.  Especially beneficial is the prominent place given to readings from the Gospels. This is the third Sunday we have read from Matthew 10. I know what you’re thinking after reading this morning’s rather alarming lesson though “it’s only the fourth Sunday after Pentecost so I hope he preaches from the Psalm!” And your right. As recently as this week I’ve said that to myself too “Don’t be a fool. Preach the psalm.” There is another reason for not being a fool, a personal one. This was the Lectionary reading for our wedding.  But here’s two thoughts that I’ve come to understand over the years. First, the lectionary stops me from approaching the Bible, our wedding and you all as if we were all eating in a cafeteria buffett. We don’t get to pick and choose lessons according to taste. The lectionary’s historical rooted-ness guides us in christian formation. This is specifically the issue when we have a lesson such as this morning’s. We don’t want to pass-by, that is, blunt Jesus’ carefully expressed statements. But we do want to put them into Matthew’s teaching context about discipleship. Second, faith, biblical faith, is a transformative gift. And that faith has its path in the biblical text. When the Bible is studied and voiced, faith is repeatedly given in a person’s life. Never separated from its loving Source, faith sets about busily transforming lives.

When you step back and look at the literary- theological architecture of Matthew’s Gospel, you note there are 5 teaching sections tethered by repeated transitional statements (7.28-29; 11.1; 13.53; 19.1; 26.1). Our Lesson sits in the second grouping, ch.8.1-10.42, where Jesus’ teaching about mission unfolds what life is going to be like for disciples once they commit to “gospeling” on his behalf.  I have identified 4 points in ch. 10 that lead up to and help us to hear the “teaching” intention in this morning’s lesson. One: Chapter 10 begins with naming 12 – 1st round draft picks (vs. 1-4). They’ll soon be suited up for their most important role – modeling what a discipleship vocation looks like. As the Gospel expands so does the circle of disciples; so their discipleship opens up to all who would be disciples. Vs. 7-42, pinpoint Jesus’ insistence that discipleship as a vocation and its mission tasks challenge one’s self-identity, integrity, faithfulness. Discipleship is a “sending” vocation. Discipleship as a vocation is not private but necessarily involves others. But Two: Vs. 5-10 are ground zero for Jesus’ teaching. Initially the 12 are sent to “the lost sheep of Israel” under the authority of Jesus (vs.5-6). Eventually, 18 chapters later, the disciples will be  given the go-ahead to “make disciples of all nations” (28.16-20). This is the thematic back and forth in Matthew’s Gospel we as readers need to maintain. For example, vs. 40 gives us a thumbnail of their/our commission “Anyone who welcomes you, welcomes me, and anyone who welcomes me welcomes the One (YHWH, the Father) who sent me”.  Discipleship vocation is to faithfully represent YHWH the Father and the Son. In this commission Matthew’s Jesus is not simply another avenue but the only authorized way to the Father – then and now.  So Three: Disciples are to announce a hope-filled message “YHWH’s new management is coming soon” “Get on board. Get in on the ground floor” (vs.7). YHWH’s lordship is where Israel’s identity, its vocation is defined. Their message is a gracious “peace” invitation, a call to live in a way that will honor YHWH as Father (vs. 12).  That’s why we hear in vs. 8ff. it matters, how they dress, how they carry themselves, how they speak. Jesus sends the disciples out travelling light -under-packed, under funded, reliant on the hospitality of random households (vs. 8b-10). They are stepping into a new pair of sandals, to carry themselves in a very distinctive way. They leave any advantages they might have to get alongside folk in the community. And Four: Discipleship is a “speaking” vocation.They’re entrusted with a peace message. It’s not in their job description to be argumentative when the going gets tough.  If people don’t like what they say, then they are to move on, simple as that (vs. 13b-14). But what Jesus achieved with  “whatever village….if anyone will not welcome you or hear your words ….leave that household (vs. 11-14) was to call attention to a need for a decision for or against the message. Opposition arising in verse 14 comes then from resistance to the message not the messenger, although it can play out as “roughing up the messenger” (vs. 16ff). Make no mistake, then and especially now, the Gospel message provokes opposition, sometimes violence. Do not be deceived. In our culture, the goalposts keep moving.  If you do not conform completely to the latest social demands, you will be reviled, cancelled. May I say to you, faithful biblical proclamation doesn’t buy into secular driven diversity or tolerance. Faith formed around Jesus is neither inclusive nor exclusive. To the contrary, it’s particular, specific. Christian faith could only be inclusive/exclusive if other religious programs say “you can come to the Father by us”. Fact is not one religious or secular program invites you anywhere near a father. It seems to me they don’t want to talk about fathers/fatherhood, family and certainly not Jesus the son as the only way to the Father. But a faithful gospel message says you have a problem with the heart and disobedience. Jesus says he is the only way to the cure, the solution: YHWH the Father, the creator of all things visible and invisible. He’s a father who pays the price, who forgives and who transforms. As far as I know, at the start of our service this morning, Jesus was still the forgiving, savior of the world. You want another solution, then you must go find it.  

So Matthew has edited details about mission and message into ch. 8-10 to bring us to this morning’s theme: While mission in discipleship provokes opposition in the wider culture, the choice of whole-hearted commitment to Jesus and his message sometimes provokes opposition from the most unexpected, most difficult of settings – one’s family members (vs. 21, 35-39).  

If we were to read this morning’s lesson isolating it from chs. 8-10 then we could propose Jesus is weakening family structures while elevating individuals and their choices. That might have legs in some churches. And I suppose we all might agree these sentences are not ones usually quoted when trying to attract people to discipleship or send a couple off happily on their wedding day. But we do well to remember in ch. 10.7-42, what we hear is Jesus teaching those whom he thinks already have the potential to be totally committed to his mission.

Now, what about reading Jesus’ “family values” dictionary from vs. 21 forward? Set in the narrative of ch. 8-10, vs. 21, 35-39 suggest this line of interpretation to me.  It seems to me Jesus’ dictionary “betrayal to death, sword, opposition, enemy, disown, “loves more than me….” cutting across family affections dares us, begs us not to look the other way, not to sanitize these words into merely poor behavior or misconduct. They’re chilling. They’re meant to challenge a disciples’ discernment. Remember, disciples are always to be on the lookout, to be peace-bearers (vs. 12-13). Peace-bearing may touch, even soften hearts. But it might not. The one thing peace-bearing does ensure is that you will not – even with a knee on your neck – have made the mistake of closing any personal doors from your side. So I am suggesting here this narrative actually uncovers matters of the heart, some of the escalating struggles, hurt, tragedy that can be experienced in families – on both sides. The intention, then, is to teach disciples from this “family” example that message and mission should never be separated from/distanced from such awareness. Especially when they are pitched into a struggle for those they love who continue to reject Jesus and his message. The words are intended to be shocking, yes,  but we should be aware of reading too much or too little into them. The point is to focus on the teaching topic in the chapters – choosing mission responsibility sometimes has a dividing, sometimes a disastrous effect. So Jesus is definitely not dismissing violence, not disaffection either and certainly not disbanding the family.  There is no doubt for Jesus – family is fundamental to a disciples’ identity. Jesus’ kingdom message wants to reconcile us to a father, to experience family life. Jesus’ view of family values here is not to diminish but to redirect a disciples’ responsibilities.  Family is no longer regulated only by biological/cultural ties but is now redirected by a disciples’ mission vocation. This is the mission challenge that Jesus lays out – not to elevate a family of origin above discipleship mission so that it distorts and disrupts commitments to Jesus and to other disciples. From my own experience sometimes it’s not easily worked out. 

Mission integrity is now intensified.  In vs. 37ff. Jesus turns to “C” in the dictionary. For the first time in Matthew’s gospel, the cross is mentioned and it’s a disciple’s cross not Jesus’. “Bearing one’s cross” is not about displaying one’s personal problems or life’s difficulties or putting a piece of jewelry around one’s neck- as all too often promoted in our culture. In that Roman political-military setting you don’t speak about a cross in the abstract. I suspect conversations become hushed around the darker reality of its violence. It must have been deeply uncomfortable. But for Jesus it is important to speak plainly, truthfully. Discipleship is not an abstraction. Mission and message will come through the cross. It is a call to faithfulness, responsibility, to self-denial – indeed a “dying to self”.  And that certainly crosses across our culture, where individual autonomy and self-recognition are commercialized as moral imperatives. Jesus says “Whoever does not lift up a cross and follow me is not “worthy” of me. (vs. 38). It seems to me a clearer understanding of “worthy” here and vs. 37, would be ” not measuring up.” or “not useful”. Jesus says in vs. 24 “a disciple is not above his master”.  In Matthew’s Gospel, Jesus sets the bar high – suffering for the kingdom. Such a fate comes to a disciple (vs. 32).  Responsible disciples will walk the Calvary road.  If they do not, then, they are not measuring up to the Lord.  If following Jesus meant some of us had to give up eating cheese instead of being perched on a cross or losing one’s family ties, then discipleship would be very easy! The central point of discipleship involves considering the cost of following Jesus. A disciple measures up to Jesus when he is placed ahead of family relationships, even when they become stormy and hostile. It’s a heartache. Jesus doesn’t deny the deep love or obligations between parents, children, relatives, he just requires a clearcut choice for his message and mission. The discipleship road is costly, individually and corporately. So choose wisely.  “Get on board. Get in on the ground floor”

May the Lord richly bless you my Beloved

John 17.1-11 | Sunday after Ascension Seventh Sunday of Easter

John Michael Gutierrez, PhD

The Holy Gospel of our Lord Jesus Christ according to John

1 After Jesus said this, he looked toward heaven and prayed: “Father, the hour has come. Glorify your Son, that your Son may glorify you. 2 For you granted him authority over all people that he might give eternal life to all those you have given him. 3 Now this is eternal life: that they know you, the only true God, and Jesus Christ, whom you have sent. 4 I have brought you glory on earth by finishing the work you gave me to do. 5 And now, Father, glorify me in your presence with the glory I had with you before the world began. 6 “I have revealed you[a] to those whom you gave me out of the world. They were yours; you gave them to me and they have obeyed your word. 7 Now they know that everything you have given me comes from you. 8 For I gave them the words you gave me and they accepted them. They knew with certainty that I came from you, and they believed that you sent me. 9 I pray for them. I am not praying for the world, but for those you have given me, for they are yours. 10 All I have is yours, and all you have is mine. And glory has come to me through them. 11 I will remain in the world no longer, but they are still in the world, and I am coming to you. Holy Father, protect them by the power of[b] your name, the name you gave me, so that they may be one as we are one.

The Gospel of the Lord

In our Sunday context, every year the lectionary places John 17—Jesus’ prayer—as the 7th Sunday of Easter. It falls between the Ascension (last Thursday) and the Pentecost (next Sunday). In Lectionary speak, Jesus has left the building. He has returned to the Father and arranged to send the Spirit. A closer look at our Lectionary reveals Jesus’ prayer in John 17 is divided into three readings: our lesson in Year A is vs. 1-11 but in Year B vs 12-19 and Year C vs. 20-26. For the most part the lectionary sages get things right but today’s numbering isn’t quite what it should be. There is very little disagreement among scholars or readers that the chapter’s themes are best divided: Jesus’ one on one with the Father “ I have brought you glory on earth by finishing the work you gave me to do.” (vs. 1-5), Jesus referring to the disciples at the table “I’m interceding for them” (vs. 6-19) and remarkably Jesus indirectly referring to us “I’m interceding not only for these but for those who will believe” (vs. 20-26).

In the context of the 4th Gospel Jesus is portrayed as a faithful, obedient Jew who repeatedly travels to Jerusalem to participate in Passover – the yearly reminder of YHWH’s saving act on behalf of Israel.

Passover is unique among Israel’s festivals because it is not done in the temple or the synagogue but in a neighborhood, in a household with family and friends. Gathered around a table, led by the father or the oldest son, the folk remember and give thanks to YHWH for having delivered Israel from Egypt and slavery.

John 13-17 describes such a family/friends Passover meal. After a bit of washing up, chapters 13-16 narrate Jesus’ final words concerning the impending tearing of the social fabric of his family. He’s positioning this core group that he has been training—those that had been walking beside him observing his teaching, preaching and healing— to take over his ministry in his absence. In the deepening shadows, he imparts instruction about what is soon to happen, expresses repeatedly concern for their well being and importantly reveals who will hold the group together – the Spirit (16.4b-15). The 14 sentences of our lesson open the closing prayer of Jesus’ life. The prayer in its entirety is a series of sincere petitions and intercessions asking the Father for the help that his siblings (1.12), his friends (15.`14-15) need in the present and would need in the future. The prayer balances two perspectives: the self-focus on Jesus’ /Father’s substantial and secure relationship with that of the disciples and their not quite yet substantial and secure relationship.

Now a few words about our context. Recognizing that the Lectionary has moved the fence posts in the prayer’s first two thematic sections, I have found it difficult not to move the fence posts to encircle the “us” in the third section. Here’s why. The Passover prayer exposes the deeper divine mystery that Jesus has experienced with YHWH as father. It seems to me the Gospel intends to break through to us, to say there is something life-giving, deeper than we imagined in prayer. So we have here a way of looking at the mission of Jesus, the mystery of his suffering and also the depth of our faith and our prayer experience in a prayer bound up in the Passover.

The narrator breaks the hours of Passover table talk by observing Jesus “looks toward heaven” (vs. 1). Making a well known prayer gesture, he turns away from the disciples to speak directly to YHWH as father. The disciples, and we as readers, become listeners for the next few minutes.

Jesus speaks of an “hour” which we readers of the Gospel know is a code word for the cross. He petitions to fulfill his role as the Son who brings honor. If we as readers are to see honor in the crucifixion, then we must see it in a biblical way. The crucifixion completes Jesus’ mission of honoring YHWH. By laying down his life in an act of love he gives himself so completely that we come to know Jesus’ love for and YHWHs love for the world expressed in loyalty, in service and in unqualified obedience (John 3:16; 14:31). About to cross the fateful threshold he looks back over the course of his life and ministry and is able to point to the eleven at the table – the evidence that he has accomplished one part of the task given to him (vs. 2). Jesus the Son honored the Father by completing this part of the mission he was sent to do (vs. 4).

The prayer’s use of “Father” (vs. 1,5,), only true God (vs. 3), Holy Father (vs. 11), and Name (vs.11) is consistent with the Fourth Gospel. On the one hand, in the ancient near east, accessibility to divinity meant accessibility to power and authority. In John’s world, at this Passover table,“father” is a distinctive designation having its rooted-ness in the Exodus/Covenant traditions of Israel worked out as the love of a father for a son/child (Dt. 1.3,8.5,14.1). In calling YHWH “father,” Jesus embodies the only begotten son who can speak to the revelation of YHWH as the only true loving god. In addressing YHWH as father Jesus, the obedient messianic son, speaks to his trust, his confidence in YHWH’s loving fatherly ways. This covenantal relationship—of utter loving commitment—lies at the heart of Jesus’ prayer.

As the “hour” darkens, with every high lonesome word this prayer pushes us toward intimacy. In calling YHWH father Jesus presents us with a sensitive, nuanced relationship. As the elder son he models our parental relationship with YHWH “I pray for them…for they are yours” (vs.9). Parental relationship is at the core of this prayer. Parental relationships worked out in prayer acknowledges there is a supernatural reality around, above and underneath us. Sometimes for me, perhaps for you, when we as parents pray for our child, we come to know that the motivations of prayer are deep, primal. I am suggesting the deeply loving intercession in this prayer made in our favor by Jesus should be dearly, dearly treasured. Prayer, then, is family table talk, voiced in the most profound words we have on the tip of our tongue “I”,”my”, “you”, “our”, “we”, “they”.

The prayer reveals Jesus has been dispatched by the Father with authority to change people’s lives with a supernatural gift: eternal life (vs. 2). In the Fourth Gospel, eternal life is quality of life, not only life after death. It is a way of living now that makes the presence of the Father/Son/Spirit flourish.The life that Jesus offers us is infused with supernatural revelation. It reveals symptoms of what is going on within our heart. It reveals the wounds and brokenness that often stand in the way of life, our entanglement with others, our service. Eternal life is healing, living life as it is meant to be lived – to the full. It is living who we were meant to be, not living life for ourselves only.

In this Passover prayer, then, I am reminded that how and what Jesus prays for reveals a lot. At a very deep level his prayer describes what our worldview, our life,relationships, priorities and concerns should be. Ultimately his prayer reveals an understanding of who God is as a father. In this Passover prayer, I am reminded that I am not the only child. I belong to a family with siblings, an older Son and a Father who loves all of his children. My destiny in this prayer is to be drawn into a community committed to obedience and honor of the Father and the Son. Jesus’ prayer begins to fill out a pattern for me of what it looks like to be a christian in prayer in a community as the Spirit leads.

By way of illustration, I would like to highlight one pattern of prayer from our Sunday service that shapes the character and quality of community.

On the way to the Eucharist table, where we are invited to meet with the crucified and risen Jesus, we pass through the Prayers of the People. For me, the Prayers of the People is a sacred time in which the priesthood of all believers is experienced. It is a time in the service when you and I speak to the needs, concerns and thanksgivings of family, community, workplace and acknowledge those who have gone before us in faith. As we together voice the petitions/intercessions, they begin to draw us, heart and soul, into discovering how deeply we are loved and cared for and how deeply those we are praying for are loved and cared for. Everyone has been hurt by life’s trauma. Part of the emotional power of the Prayers of the People is its ability to unlock human hearts. Don’t we all know that having someone else who knows and cares is an ointment on a wound. Don’t we all feel hugely relieved to have another bear some of the weight, even if separated by distance. It’s grace-filled.

This final sentence of our lesson “Holy Father, keep watch over these you have given to me in your name so that they may be one as we are” (vs. 11) reminded me of the “encircling” attributed to St. Patrick. At the start of a journey or in uncertain situations, a person draws a circle around herself or himself depicting the Lord’s unifying care, praying:

“Christ with me, Christ before me, Christ behind me, Christ in me, Christ beneath me, Christ above me, Christ on my right, Christ on my left, Christ when I lie down, Christ when I sit down,

Certainly, we are always encircled by Jesus’ unified protection in the midst of the world in which we remain but to which we do not belong, but note the prayer’s final lines

Christ in the heart of everyone who thinks of me, Christ in the mouth of everyone who speaks of me, Christ in the eye that sees me, Christ in the ear that hears me”.

– when we unite ourselves with others we can have added confidence in challenging times.

May the Lord richly bless you my beloved

Luke 24.13-35 | Easter 3A

John Michael Gutierrez, PhD

The Holy Gospel of our Lord Jesus Christ according to Luke

13 Now that same day two of them were going to a village called Emmaus, about seven miles[a] from Jerusalem. 14 They were talking with each other about everything that had happened. 15 As they talked and discussed these things with each other, Jesus himself came up and walked along with them; 16 but they were kept from recognizing him. 17 He asked them, “What are you discussing together as you walk along?” They stood still, their faces downcast. 18 One of them, named Cleopas, asked him, “Are you the only one visiting Jerusalem who does not know the things that have happened there in these days?” 19 “What things?” he asked. “About Jesus of Nazareth,” they replied. “He was a prophet, powerful in word and deed before God and all the people. 20 The chief priests and our rulers handed him over to be sentenced to death, and they crucified him; 21 but we had hoped that he was the one who was going to redeem Israel. And what is more, it is the third day since all this took place. 22 In addition, some of our women amazed us. They went to the tomb early this morning 23 but didn’t find his body. They came and told us that they had seen a vision of angels, who said he was alive. 24 Then some of our companions went to the tomb and found it just as the women had said, but they did not see Jesus.” 25 He said to them, “How foolish you are, and how slow to believe all that the prophets have spoken! 26 Did not the Messiah have to suffer these things and then enter his glory?” 27 And beginning with Moses and all the Prophets, he explained to them what was said in all the Scriptures concerning himself. 28 As they approached the village to which they were going, Jesus continued on as if he were going farther. 29 But they urged him strongly, “Stay with us, for it is nearly evening; the day is almost over.” So he went in to stay with them. 30 When he was at the table with them, he took bread, gave thanks, broke it and began to give it to them. 31 Then their eyes were opened and they recognized him, and he disappeared from their sight. 32 They asked each other, “Were not our hearts burning within us while he talked with us on the road and opened the Scriptures to us?” 33 They got up and returned at once to Jerusalem. There they found the Eleven and those with them, assembled together 34 and saying, “It is true! The Lord has risen and has appeared to Simon.” 35 Then the two told what had happened on the way, and how Jesus was recognized by them when he broke the bread.

The Gospel of the Lord

Our Gospel lesson from Luke describes two disciples leaving Jerusalem struggling with the death of Jesus even after getting a report that very morning something remarkable had happened. In Luke, people on journeys have been an organic part of the Gospel from its beginning. And he uses it one last time to join the Emmaus travellers with the interplay of Jesus’ two dramatic appearances to his disciples. Luke shows Jesus turning the tide of resistance to his resurrection first with these two disciples (vss. 13-35) before meeting with the larger group (vs. 36-48) and before springing on readers a meeting with Peter not dramatized in this Gospel (vs. 34).

So here we are, the 3rd Sunday of the Easter octave, and the lectionary sages have put us back into the turmoil surrounding the resurrection. How? Well t​his isn’t a stroll through the countryside. Luke makes no attempt to whitewash their confusion, anguish. They’re arguing, complaining. They’re wrestling with their dashed hopes (vs. 14). Although we’ll be told their vision was blurred (vs. 16) when it came to recognizing Jesus. May I suggest to you their eyes were very wide open looking every which way for either the religious authorities or the roman military. But ​why are we back here? ​It is an important reminder that the death and resurrection of Jesus, while a standard belief today, might have been a difficult sell in the first century. ​This lesson is a reminder, then, that Easter faith comes at a great cost. ​So a​fter the resurrection, this scene is intended to present us with that reality and, may I add, a hope-filled way out.

Allow me to explain with some background. Imagine what it was like for the disciples to experience the brutality of the arrest, the harshness of the trial, the horrors of the cross and the burial. Exhausted the disciples are now into voluntary lockdown. Think about what they gave up, their occupations, their family ties. For a number of years they placed their hope in Jesus that he was the messiah who was going to establish the rule of YHWH in Israel. Let’s not be naive.They hoped to be sitting beside him, that is, until this last week. It all fell apart.​ ​All that imagined social, political, religious authority – poof! No longer talk of a kingdom – Jesus the liberator had been crushed like a bug. How could they get this so wrong?

Back to our Gospel, Luke has two disciples drift away from the community. Any idea the disciples were standing by the windows waiting to see a risen Jesus is a non-starter. These two leaving hints there is a “flee” infestation in the community. It’s collapsing because of hopelessness, disappointment, and confusion. These two turn their backs on the community and Jerusalem and leave for – Ok, Emmaus – sure, whatever. But this 7 mi round trip journey to the Emmaus village is not as straightforward as it might seem. It’s a labyrinth of emotions, a maze of confusing ideas.

In vs 14, they’re not simply talking as they hightail it out of Jerusalem. They’re involved in an argumentative conversation. They’re throwing words back and forth at each other (also vs. 17). In their confusion, their mourning, the shattering of their world had become an all consuming reality. They’re lost.

As we watch the disciples walking to Emmaus, their shoulders slumped, their faces downcast, their low-pitched voices, ​we could sit here and think “how can they be so dense”? But have you ever been lost? – really lost. If you’ve ever struggled with depression, disillusionment, loss then I hope you can empathize with these very human emotions. They’re powerful. When you’re in the middle of confusing anxiety everything it seems has gone missing. As we read in vss. 18-24, these two disciples speak of doubt, despair and disappointment. They express it frankly. And as we will hear soon (vss. 30-32) something familiar will become an overwhelming relief for them.

Notice how unassuming, how ordinary when Jesus makes his appearance into the scene. Luke tells us they didn’t recognize him. It seems to me this is due to their panic, their haste “to get out of Dodge”. But I also suppose they were suspicious about the person who approached them. Could this be someone intending to arrest them? Jesus asks them “Why the heated tossing words back and forth?” (vs.14, 17). They clam up momentarily, striking a sullen, long-faced expression rivalling that of my most favorite stuffed grey donkey in the whole world – Eeyore from Winnie the Pooh.

At the center of our Lesson, vss. 19-27, Luke writes a lengthy dialog of the recent events told by the two disciples ending with the perplexing events of that very morning. Perhaps we can hear a bit of layered comedy here. “​Are you the only pilgrim visiting Jerusalem who doesn’t know the things that have happened there, these last few days?” (vs. 18). ​The first identification of Jesus within the story is as a “Passover pilgrim”. They then begin telling Jesus about what happened to him from their perspective. Can’t you hear him responding to their story with: Is that so….You don’t say….Oh my…. Goodness. Eventually Jesus will take over the direction of the conversation “Well, perhaps, you might consider thinking about the events this way.”(vs. 25). They speak to him from the fog of hopelessness. He speaks to them from the clarity of the resurrection.

Now a closer look. It begins with a second identification of Jesus. They believed he was widely recognized as a mighty, powerful prophet. ​So that vs. 21 “we had hoped that he was the messiah who was going to redeem Israel”. But the religious and political leaders had other plans – they crucified him as a messianic pretender (vs. 20). ​Oh well, another failed messiah whose promises of deliverance fell victim to the authorities. ​Again vs. 21 “And what is more, it is the third day since all this took place”. ​Luke uses “third day” to ring bells for the reader that don’t ring for the disciples Luke turns us back to chs. 9.22; 18.33 where Jesus said he would be killed and then raised on the third day. But for these disciples “the third day” extinguished the last ray of hope. We’re done here. They leave the city of death. The scandal of the cross has tripped them up.

And what’s more, curiously, there was a glimmer. Earlier that morning in saturated, dark shadows, three Mary’s, Johanna plus others returned to the tomb fully expecting to find Jesus’ body. They found an empty tomb and angels who declared “he’s alive”. Other disciples went and found no one. The empty tomb generated astonishment among the disciples, notice what their last sighing words focus on in vs. 24 “they did not see Jesus”. Insult to injury, They’re thinking: no body, therefore, hopelessly lost.

In a very real sense, Luke’s characters intend to encourage us to realize despair, confusion, hopelessness are not alien to human experience or Easter faith. He writes their experience of despair and loss as very, very real. The events before, during and after the resurrection were weighed down with the kind of confusion, disappointment and loss that turned their world upside down, their souls inside out. By the Lord’s mercies, we’re not that different from these disciples. ​What do I do with losses? That’s the first question that faces me. Do I hide them? Am I going to live as if confusion/disappointments weren’t real? And here’s something for us, the community of faith. Are we going to keep these thoughts/feelings away from fellow travelers? Or more pointedly, should we keep them from the “pilgrim” who walks with us? Many of us may be strong enough to keep going through a daily routine, perhaps, even with a smile on our faces, giving no hint that our hearts have been ransacked and our confidence shaken. Still, the reality is I hurt. I grieve. I struggle.

And this is where the “pilgrim” comes back into the story with something familiar, something reassuring. Notice the supposed, clueless “pilgrim” doesn’t rush in, saying “you can stop fussing now, it’s all ok, I have everything under control, please believe me” but, instead, walking, listening, he turns “informed teacher” filling in blanks about resurrection (vs. 25-27). He doesn’t deny the ​deep realities of their emotions but begins to give them a sense the hope-deflating events are alive with connections ​between Israel’s scripture and the messiah’s destiny​. What vs. 25 means:​ they have failed to orient themselves fully to the mosaic of Israel’s scriptures. They’re coming up short of the conclusion of resurrection faith. Jesus, talking about himself in the third person, proposes the messiah’s death was YHWH’s intention all along. The messiah’s resurrection is divine vindication restoring honor and authority (vs. 26).

The “pilgrim’s” bible lesson doesn’t take them that far along the road. There’s another part. Luke will show us this journey has a destination just not the one we might have thought (vs. 28).​ ​The village comes into view. ​Wrapping up his teaching, the “pilgrim” indicates he will be moving on but the two disciples grab him under his arms, and hustle him into the roadhouse where they sit him at a table (vs. 28-29). This is the ninth of ten meals in the Gospel. And as the food arrives, Jesus takes up a role they might have seen a few hundred times. He takes a loaf of bread​, gives thanks, breaks it and gives pieces to them (vs.30). Then poof! He vanishes (vs.31). The confusion clouding the two disciples evaporates.​The familiar was an overwhelming relief. The “clueless, teaching Passover pilgrim” has now become the “risen Jesus”. They might not have fully grasped the bible study but the emotional transformation that resulted from it “our hearts burned within us” was unmistakable (vs. 32). It was a hope-filled way out.

Whatever the initial reason(s) for their leaving, they hightail it back to Jerusalem, to the gathered disciples to report their experience but before they can spill their story an emphatic announcement is made to them “the Lord is risen, indeed”. And what’s more “Simon has talked to him!” (vs. 33-35).

And now more about that hope-filled way out. This Emmaus journey has a likeness to the prayer book. So may I ask you to walk with me. It’s not a long walk. It’s ​a prayer book journey to a table with Jesus. And like these two disciples we will be in conversation (aka prayer) with each other and Jesus. Now this walk requires at least three things. First, you have to decide. It is not going to just happen. Second, walking requires direction. The prayer book is heading in a particular direction and will not be going your way. So you will need to reorient yourself. Third, prayer book walking is not something you do one day and then check it off your list. It is a consistent commitment of faithfulness and obedience. Oh, by the way,​ I have assurances from those who are well above my pay grade ​that when we get to this table Jesus will be on his best behavior, minding his manners and not vanishing. His presence will be real. And he will be deeply, profoundly available.

Like the Emmaus experience, the Liturgy of the Word begins the conversation looking inward: Almighty God, to you all hearts are open, all desires known and from you no secrets are hid….” Beginning the journey of coming to the Lord’s table​ ​so openly is hard. Honestly like the disciples going to the village we are a bundle of thoughts and emotions any given week as we walk to the Lord’s table. Yet like the disciples, we are people of the book. Lectionary Bible lessons intend to ​transform us, rearrange our thinking and forge connections to Jesus: his life, his death, his burial, his resurrection and ascension. May I push a little further down the road to the Nicene Creed: “For our sake he was crucified under Pontius Pilate, he suffered death and was buried, and rose again on the third day inpage4image100753088accordance with the Scriptures.” This line is the most widely-used and recognized statement of Christian faith. Jesus’ Passion and Resurrection is central to the Gospel message. ​​Keeping in mind ​what the Lord has done for us in Jesus​, the Bible lessons present to us the very real world in which we all live, a world that can be full of hardship and calamity that often comes unbidden and unmerited. This gives us insight why the psalms are embedded into the Bible lessons. The psalmists express for us the pains, the heartaches that settle themselves into our lives, disturbing us. But they also tune our ears to gifts of observation, insight, to hear praise, gratitude and reverence. With prayer and wisdom that comes only from lived experience, prayer book liturgy guides us through and out of losses and setbacks of all kinds.

Just as in the Emmaus action, t​he Liturgy of the Eucharist depicts for us an ordinary, yet most revealing divine gesture: ​giving thanks for bread and giving it to others. The eucharist table liturgy voices for us the importance of Jesus’ death and resurrection in the formation of community. When we gather at the table, we remember and celebrate in memorial what he has done for us. At the table, Jesus lovingly intrudes into our everyday life teaching us, challenging us, bringing comfort and peace.​ ​Being at the table with Jesus, being part of a community, doesn’t dismiss, remove confusion, loss or pain completely. It does, however, give us a place to be in prayer with others who have these experiences in their lives. This is a table for the mortal, the earthbound where Jesus’ arms have been stretched out on a cross in obedience to the Lord’s purposes. This is a table for the weak, the lost, the disillusioned where we are invited to join our suffering to Jesus’ resurrection life. At Jesus’ table we can look directly into the eyes of confusion, loss and have something worthwhile to say.​ ​At Jesus’ table, those acknowledging their neediness and brokenness, can truly know resurrection healing.​ At Jesus’ table, we can be energized by his presence to go and share the good news. This table is a hope-filled way out. May we, like those disciples, have our hearts ignited, our eyes opened to recognize Jesus and one another.

May the Lord richly bless you my belovedpage5image100753472page5image100755008page5image100754048

Good Friday Meditation Year A

John Michael Gutierrez, Ph.D.

One of the crucified lamented….

Jesus can you throw me a line….
         All I wanted was something better for us
                 My wife, my loving heart
                         We were so poor
                         But you so rich
                                 Your eyes sparkle silver in the starry night
                                 Your face glows golden in the day’s sunset
                 And now… and now… this is the end
Jesus can you throw a dying man a line….

Jesus can you throw me a line….
         My son, my only son, won’t you remember me
         I can’t be with you any longer
                 A freedom fighter’s life is never free
                 It’s getting dark, too dark to see
Jesus can you throw a dying man a line….

Jesus can you throw me a line…
         All I wanted was peace on earth
                 I hold my breath for as long as I can
                 Waves of pain roll over my face
                 I pray for the strength not to want to breath
                 Fluid fills my lungs, I want to collapse
         All I wanted was peace on earth
Jesus can you throw a dying man a line….

Jesus can you throw me a line..
         I asked questions I didn’t want answered
                 Voices in my head, voices in my heart
                 Nails in my wrists, nails in my ankles
         All I wanted was peace on earth
Jesus can you throw a dying man a line…

Jesus can you throw me a line….
         My god, there’s a red river flowing away from me
                 It’s separating me from all I know and love
                 My name isn’t even written above my head
         I’ll be lost to everyone’s memory soon
Jesus can you throw a dying man a line….

Jesus can you throw a dying man hope?
Jesus can you throw a dying man faith?
Jesus can you throw a dying man love?
Jesus king of the Jews remember me!

And Jesus answered
         You didn’t have to go it alone
         I could have taken some of the blows
         You could have given some of the pain to me
Give it to me now!
Truly I tell you Today you will be with me in paradise

John 9.1-41 | Lent 4A

John Michael Gutierrez, PhD

The Holy Gospel of our Lord Jesus Christ according to John

1 As he went along, he saw a man blind from birth. 2 His disciples asked him, “Rabbi, who sinned, this man or his parents, that he was born blind?” 3 “Neither this man nor his parents sinned,” said Jesus, “but this happened so that the works of God might be displayed in him. 4 As long as it is day, we must do the work of him who sent me. Night is coming, when no one can work. 5 While I am in the world, I am the light of the world.” 6 After saying this, he spit on the ground, made some mud with the saliva, and put it on the man’s eyes. 7 “Go,” he told him, “wash in the Pool of Siloam” (this word means “Sent”). So the man went and washed, and came home seeing. 8 His neighbors and those who had formerly seen him begging asked, “Isn’t this the same man who used to sit and beg?” 9 Some claimed that he was. Others said, “No, he only looks like him.” But he himself insisted, “I am the man.” 10 “How then were your eyes opened?” they asked. 11 He replied, “The man they call Jesus made some mud and put it on my eyes. He told me to go to Siloam and wash. So I went and washed, and then I could see.” 12 “Where is this man?” they asked him. “I don’t know,” he said. 13 They brought to the Pharisees the man who had been blind. 14 Now the day on which Jesus had made the mud and opened the man’s eyes was a Sabbath. 15 Therefore the Pharisees also asked him how he had received his sight. “He put mud on my eyes,” the man replied, “and I washed, and now I see.” 16 Some of the Pharisees said, “This man is not from God, for he does not keep the Sabbath.” But others asked, “How can a sinner perform such signs?” So they were divided. 17 Then they turned again to the blind man, “What have you to say about him? It was your eyes he opened.” The man replied, “He is a prophet.” 18 They still did not believe that he had been blind and had received his sight until they sent for the man’s parents. 19 “Is this your son?” they asked. “Is this the one you say was born blind? How is it that now he can see?” 20 “We know he is our son,” the parents answered, “and we know he was born blind. 21 But how he can see now, or who opened his eyes, we don’t know. Ask him. He is of age; he will speak for himself.” 22 His parents said this because they were afraid of the Jewish leaders, who already had decided that anyone who acknowledged that Jesus was the Messiah would be put out of the synagogue. 23 That was why his parents said, “He is of age; ask him.”

24 A second time they summoned the man who had been blind. “Give glory to God by telling the truth,” they said. “We know this man is a sinner.” 25 He replied, “Whether he is a sinner or not, I don’t know. One thing I do know. I was blind but now I see!” 26 Then they asked him, “What did he do to you? How did he open your eyes?” 27 He answered, “I have told you already and you did not listen. Why do you want to hear it again? Do you want to become his disciples too?” 28 Then they hurled insults at him and said, “You are this fellow’s disciple! We are disciples of Moses! 29 We know that God spoke to Moses, but as for this fellow, we don’t even know where he comes from.” 30 The man answered, “Now that is remarkable! You don’t know where he comes from, yet he opened my eyes. 31 We know that God does not listen to sinners. He listens to the godly person who does his will. 32 Nobody has ever heard of opening the eyes of a man born blind. 33 If this man were not

from God, he could do nothing.” 34 To this they replied, “You were steeped in sin at birth; how dare you lecture us!” And they threw him out. 35 Jesus heard that they had thrown him out, and when he found him, he said, “Do you believe in the Son of Man?” 36 “Who is he, sir?” the man asked. “Tell me so that I may believe in him.”

37 Jesus said, “You have now seen him; in fact, he is the one speaking with you.” 38 Then the man said, “Lord, I believe,” and he worshiped him. 39 Jesus said,[a] “For judgment I have come into this world, so that the blind will see and those who see will become blind.” 40 Some Pharisees who were with him heard him say this and asked, “What? Are we blind too?” 41 Jesus said, “If you were blind, you would not be guilty of sin; but now that you claim you can see, your guilt remains.

The Gospel of the Lord

When you read and/or study the Fourth Gospel, it doesn’t take long to realize it’s a narrative with sophisticated literary organization and complex theology. Our Gospel lesson, covering the entire ninth chapter, is widely regarded as a masterpiece in storytelling. So at this point we as readers should not be surprised other literary-theological strands have been woven into a substantial cable. It will benefit us to unravel the cable a bit here and there. Ch. 9 begins by telling us Jesus heals a blind beggar on a Sabbath in Jerusalem. But this is only one lengthy scene in a wider context. The actual context stretches from ch. 5 to 10, and is staged mostly in Jerusalem, sometimes in the Temple, during three festivals: Passover, Sukkoth, aka Pentecost and Dedication, aka Hanukkah. This single block of five chapters narrates a “dust up” played out between Jesus, Temple and Pharisaic religious leadership, collectively identified as the “Judeans” (9.18), festival crowds and some of Jerusalem’s residents. The conflict simmers in chs. 5,6,7, then power boils in ch. 8 and 9, then boils over in ch. 10. From ch. 11 onward, the scenes are setting the stage for the final rejection of Jesus and his mission. May I say to you at the outset: this is a limited “family” dust up. A dispute carried on between Jesus and some religious leaders and other Jewish folk, not all religious leaders or folk, either then or for all time.

Readers enter the scene as the disciples and Jesus are about to pass by a blind beggar on a Jerusalem street. We know how begging usually works, then and now. With difficulty, daily, he makes his way to some spot on a road and calls out to passers-by for spare change. But a blind man cannot “see” his prospective donors coming so he has to listen very carefully for the sounds of people passing by. The blind man hears footsteps stop in front of him. He has been seen! He can feel it in his bones. We are not told he asks for spare change. But why wouldn’t he? He listens to voices talking about him in the third person. Nothing unusual here – Everyone talks about him as if he was invisible. To most folk, he was a nuisance, and the way to avoid him was to not “see” him. So why should this day be different? Little does he realize how different this day and many others will be! Then a voice questions: “Rabbi, who sinned, this one or his parents, that he was born blind?” (9.1-2). I doubt whoever raises the issue of sin, my money is on Philip and Andrew, does it under their breath. So the blind man overhears the question. Then another Voice rejects the “sin” reasons. Listen to the Voice’s rejection in Eugene Peterson’s translation, The Message. It’s insightful: “You’re asking the wrong question. You’re looking for someone to blame. There is no such cause-effect here. See instead what God can do.” The Voice says blindness

is not about the parent’s sin or even his own sin. He had not gotten what he deserved. (b. Shabb. 55a). The Voice says: “what is about to happen is a sign that the Lord sees (9.3).

Doing God’s work involves “seeing” while there is opportunity to act. Doing God’s work is about making a difference in someone’s life. The Voice will say “I am the light of the world” set down into the midst of people’s lives in vs. 5. But notice the writerly skill—before the “I” there is a “we” in vs. 4 “we must do the work of him who sent me”. Anyone, you and I, anywhere, on any street, can be of service, meeting needs, treating people right.

Then the Voice acts. The blind man hears someone spit. He flinches at the sound then realizes he hasn’t been spit upon. He thinks triumphantly “Hah, Missed!” At first sight, what must surely feel cruel to him, mud is being put on his eyes. Then the Voice tells him to go over to the Siloam pool and wash his eyes. The Voice promises nothing and says nothing further. As he turns to go, he hears the Voice’s footsteps going the other way. Arriving at the pool, he washes the mud off his eyes. He can see light. He can see people. He can see for the first time in his life!

As the now sighted man enters his neighborhood, a new cast of characters enters the story—”neighbors” who knew him primarily through his blindness. And others who knew him primarily as a beggar. In his first telling, he eagerly contrasts his sight gift with the gross way it started. “I heard this person, Jesus, spit, then felt a wet, gritty mud anoint my eyes. Then he told me to go wash the mud off, and then I could see!” (vs. 11). We don’t know how he knows Jesus’ name. He cannot say much about Jesus other than calling him a person. But the neighbors are now uncertain as to his identity. Note carefully, there’s no joy in this hood. Rather than seeing smiles the first time he ever sees his neighbor’s faces or hearing sounds of celebration, he sees frowns and mouths arguing whether it’s actually him. What should have been a restoration of social relationships has been turned upside down. He is made to defend himself. There’s only questions about his being a “blind impersonator”, demands to identify who did this and, finally, demands about where this person “Jesus” can be found (vss. 8-12).They could understand, they could live with sin or supposed sin that led to his blindness, sin that led to a breakdown in social relationships. But this, this healing, it doesn’t fit into their worldview. Watching the awkward debate about whether or not he is who he says he is, he pleads “it’s me, for heaven’s sake!”(vs. 9). Deflecting his plea, they want to know where this person, Jesus is. He says, “I don’t know” (vs. 12). The neighborhood is thinking: How can a miracle worker disappear so quickly? Why didn’t he stick around to have his picture taken for the Daily Prophet?

The heated neighborhood conflict hits power boil when the now sighted man, and soon after his parents, are brought before religious leadership, Pharisees and temple authorities, named collectively “the Judeans” in vs. 18. The tension is ratched up at least a couple more notches when the narrator informs us “Jesus made mud on a sabbath”(vs. 14).

The once-blind man tells them a clearly edited version of the incident. He no longer says that Jesus “anointed” his eyes only that he merely “put” mud on them. Neither does he name Jesus and says nothing about washing at the Siloam pool. But from what he does tell them, they determine Jesus did things which were not “lawful” on a Sabbath: spitting to make mud, anointing and allowing washing (b. Yoma 84b; p. Shabb. 14, 14d, 17ff; b. Av. Zar. 28b; m. Shabb. 7.2).

They hear evidence of his restored sight and now “see” he is able to “see”. Yet they turn to debate about the nature and timing of the healing. They argue over Jesus’ authority to make mud, to heal on a Sabbath. Just as there’s no joy in the neighborhood; there’s no joy in this synod. Instead we hear their “voiced” belief-conflicted dilemma: some of them argue, theoretically, a godly person could do a healing but others argue only a sinner would ever do this kind of act on a Sabbath (vs. 16). Don’t miss the point of their dilemma: both want to preserve supervision authority over ritual and behavior. So fast forward to vs. 28. “We are disciples of Moses”. Here we need to unravel a theological cable. Why does “making mud and healing on a Sabbath” make Jesus a sinner? It’s because he disregards their Oral Torah. In the Second Temple period Oral Torah was an evolving collection of supposed “original” interpretations passed down from Moses. The Pharisees were describing the Oral Torah as a “fence” around the Sinai Torah (m. Avoth 1.1; m. Shabb, 7.2, 8.1). They were in the process of elevating this collection to co-status with Sinai’s Torah. Their interpretations, the Oral Torah, are a way of clothing the covenantal experience of obedience with a regulated, supervised conformity. For the Pharisees, a fence keeps things out. But as Jesus repeatedly confronts this pharisaic remodeling project in all four gospels, he keeps pointing out that “traditions of men” not only keep ideas out, but the “fence” keeps the authoritative Torah from getting out also. The pushback is especially acute in the 4th Gospel right from the first chapter where Jesus, identified as the Word, is theologically presented as the authoritative, the only Oral Torah who was born and moved into the neighborhood (1.14).

The formerly blind man knows he has experienced something mysterious, transforming. For him, Jesus is now a prophet not merely a person and by the end of the story he will be Lord (vs. 17, cf. vs. 11, vs. 38). Then the authorities make another move. In order to confirm that he was born blind they bring in his parents. They ask “Is this your boy, who, you say, was born blind? How is he able to see?” (notice boy not man!). But they will only confirm he was born blind. They don’t know who did this or how it happened. And they back out of the scene (vs. 21). The narrator tells us the reason for their departure: the Judeans were threatening anyone who confessed Jesus as messiah (vs. 22). The parents were not prepared to deal with such a threat. But what’s such a threat to this man? He’s been an outcast, on the edges of social religious relationships his whole life. He won’t be bullied by their increased hostility.

In vss. 25-33, the now sighted man tweaks the Judeans’ nose “Why do you want to hear it again? I’ve already told you twice and you haven’t listened”. He slyly asks, “Do you also want to become his disciples?” He delivers a pointed theological lecture. Again Eugene Peterson “This is amazing! You claim to know nothing about him, but the fact is, he opened my eyes! It’s well known that God isn’t at the beck and call of sinners, but listens carefully to anyone who lives in reverence and does his will. That someone opened the eyes of a man born blind has never been heard of—ever. If this man didn’t come from God, he wouldn’t be able to do anything.”

Their rage explodes, “How dare you lecture us!” In their anger, they spit “You were steeped in sin at birth” (vs. 34). And the man thinks triumphantly “Hah, Missed!”. The Voice already rejected that reason. (vs. 3). The synod scene exposes how deeply the authorities were threatened by Jesus. Gales force winds are gusting down upon their “fencing” project. The religious leaders were unable to accept the healing. This healing doesn’t conform to their understanding of religious propriety. The Lord doesn’t heal on a Sabbath, they assert. Healing only occurs in prescribed ways and times, they claim. Anything else cannot come from the Lord, they believe. At this point, the religious leaders have flat out rejected the healing as the Lord’s act. They’ve returned to their understanding of the man’s blindness as a product of sin and nothing more.

And they give him the left foot of fellowship. And Jesus heard they expelled him, goes looking for and finds the man (vs. 35). Vss. 39-41 tells us the story has flipped. We thought this is a story about the hardships of, and judgments about blindness. Only to find out it’s criticism about the judgements of social and religious blindness to how the Lord acts. And we realize John’s storytelling can’t get any better than this.

As for me, sometimes I get stuck when I “see” the Lord being/acting contrary. I don’t like it when the Lord goes rogue. I like the Lord to color between the lines, to drive the speed limit, in fact, to stay in the far right lane. But it’s Gospel lessons like this that let me “see” the Lord likes to speed, sometimes likes to change lanes – without signalling. Not only does the Lord not color between the lines; it sometimes appears that he doesn’t even know that the lines are there. The authority, the position involved in mediating access to divine knowledge is seductive, not only for the Judeans. When I “see” the Lord and his acts in the world through my interpretation of how he could or should behave, I have “fenced” him in. Chasing that which I cannot capture, I have created, in the words of the Anglican Bible translator JB Phillips, “a God who is too small”.

Lenten Peace, my Beloved.

Matthew 17.1-9 | Transfiguration A

John Michael Guiterrez, PhD

The Holy Gospel of our Lord Jesus Christ according to Mathew

1 After six days Jesus took with him Peter, James and John the brother of James, and led them up a high mountain by themselves. 2 There he was transfigured before them. His face shone like the sun, and his clothes became as white as the light. 3 Just then there appeared before them Moses and Elijah, talking with Jesus. 4 Peter said to Jesus, “Lord, it is good for us to be here. If you wish, I will put up three shelters—one for you, one for Moses and one for Elijah.” 5 While he was still speaking, a bright cloud covered them, and a voice from the cloud said, “This is my Son, whom I love; with him I am well pleased. Listen to him!” 6 When the disciples heard this, they fell facedown to the ground, terrified. 7 But Jesus came and touched them. “Get up,” he said. “Don’t be afraid.” 8 When they looked up, they saw no one except Jesus. 9 As they were coming down the mountain, Jesus instructed them, “Don’t tell anyone what you have seen, until the Son of Man has been raised from the dead.”

The Gospel of the Lord

This is the seventh Sunday of Epiphany and in lectionary arithmetic it’s named Quinquagesima counting down 50 days until Easter. The vision scene described in this morning’s Gospel lesson, the transfiguration, found in three of the four gospels, has been a regular visitor to lectionaries since the Fourth Century. And through various prayer book revisions has found what seems to be its permanent position as the last Sunday of Epiphany. It’s brilliance has been positioned as a theological bookend to the brilliance of the resurrection. The transfiguration is something of a good Cliff’s Notes introduction presenting a clear discussion of Matthew’s Gospel thought and its significance about the stories of Jesus’ suffering and death that fill out the bookshelf in-between. We can get a library card in three days—Ash Wednesday.

Previously Jesus and his entourage departed from the familiar sights and sounds of the north shore of Lake Galilee walking NE to the agricultural/urban area around Caesarea Philippi. We don’t know much about his movements. Roughly, whichever owl you choose, he was now about 25 miles north of Capernaum and about 120 miles north of Jerusalem. Matthew tells us Jesus was wildly popular. Ordinary folk gathered around him as he passed through villages. The crowds kept getting bigger and bigger. Matthew also tells us he had come under the critical religious surveillance of the Temple authorities as well as the Pharisees. What Matthew also tells us, “now” is the turning point. Here is the “come to Jerusalem” moment for Jesus: 16.21 “From that time on Jesus began to explain to his disciples that he must go to Jerusalem and suffer many things at the hands of the elders, the chief priests and the teachers of the law, and that he must be killed and on the third day be raised to life.” Here is also the “come to Jesus” moment for any would-be disciples:16.24 “Whoever wants to be my disciple must deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me.” The road ahead for both will run through suffering and for some, death.

So heading across the EW road to the NS crossroad as they approach a village named Meron close to the slope of the 4000 ft Mt Meron, they slow down, then stop. Three fishermen, Peter, James and John don’t know it yet but they’re going to climb that mountain with Jesus.

If we pause to look briefly to the end of the scene, vs. 9, we read Jesus instructs them not to mention this event until after his Resurrection. And they were pretty tight lipped about what happened. But I suspect they couldn’t think of much else for days. Like when you stare at the sun for even a moment, and for a long time afterward, when you close your eyes, the imprint of that dazzling sun is still there. We don’t know how long it took for Matthew to pry the details out of them. I suppose it took careful conversations and after that careful wording to edit it into a Gospel narrative.

Now circle the scene with me. Leaving the crowds and the other disciples, they set off not really knowing what to expect. But I do think they hoped they might have a chance to talk Jesus out of all that strange, scary stuff he had been saying about suffering and dying, about saving or losing lives.

On the climb, somewhere, all of a sudden Jesus’ face started to shine brighter than the sun making the day feel dark. He was changed before them quite literally. The thin veil of this earthy setting was pulled away so that a presence could be seen in all its essential transcendance: Jesus—God with us—wrapped in light as in an overcoat. And the overcoat was not royal blues, like those Roman pretenders to the title “Lord”, nor multi-colored robes worn by the Temple hierarchy but simple white cloth.

Matthew winks knowingly at the readers.They had come up here to be alone, but once on the mountain, here comes company. Matthew doesn’t give us any clues how they know it’s Moses and Elijah appearing beside Jesus but notice in the scene the presence of Peter, James and John is ignored in this mystical proceeding. For their part, they might feel they have stumbled upon something they were not supposed to see. In this instant of transfigured clarity, however, they see the humanity of Jesus infused with divine presence. Quick on the uptake they may have the impression from Jesus talking with the two great figures of Jewish faith that the kingdom had arrived. For a moment they may have even contemplated that this glorious, shining, dazzling super-human Messiah will wipe away all opposition. What a spectacle they could make on the journey to Jerusalem. Think of the advertising possibilities—Jesus with Moses and Elijah. What a sight when they enter the city.

Peter finds his voice and speaks to Jesus “Lord, it is good for us to be here” but his words are little more than a plea to be useful: If you wish, I will put up three sanctuaries: one for you, one for Moses and one for Elijah.” It seems reasonable to me his proposal refers to the modular sanctuary positioned in the midst of the 12 clans. A sanctuary that shielded Israel from the shekinah brilliance of YHWH’s presence during the Wilderness treks. Here’s what I think Peter wants to do. He wants to shield/cover this shekinah-like brilliance, to package it in order to take it down the mountain and on the road trip to Jerusalem.

But he only gets it partly right—shippable sanctuaries might be ok for Moses and Elijah but Matthew has positioned us as readers to know that this supernatural vision confirms once again Jesus is “God in the midst of us” and that already his body is the transporting sanctuary.

Now you may be thinking. And you’re right. Here’s where I’m supposed to say to you: Peter is a dufus. That’s a useful theological term you might want to hang onto. When I look back on the privilege, the deep mysterious gift of my British education, I realize it was partly my American mentor who positioned me to be in the midst of one of the most significant turn-arounds in Biblical Studies. There have been three significant, lasting developments: 1) the fundamental orientation of the Bible’s theological library is Jewish, 2) close reading of the Bible’s final form is foundational to developing its meaning and 3) the original author influences how the literatures are to be read by choosing a literary form or, in the case of the Gospels, creating one.

Privilege in christian terms comes as responsibility. To whom much is given much is required is the guiding text of privilege. If you and I are deeply privileged then we are called to real responsibility. May I say to you allowing Matthew to have a controlling, a teaching interest in this scene and in the disciples’ and Peter’s characterizations direct us to look more responsibly at his discipleship theme.

As I mentioned the conventional expectation is to get in with the twitter mob and pile on Peter for always blurting out ideas without thinking, always good at missing the point, always looking at things from a human perspective. All the while we act as though we’re more knowing, more enlightened, to stay with the imagery of our brightly lit scene. Usually at some point, feeling self conscious about being so hard on him, we try to find a way to bind up the bruises and wounds – his and ours.

I want to propose a more balanced way to understand the disciples’ and Peter’s characterization. Specifically Matthew’s intentions for discipleship are best viewed from a wider characterization. Please allow me to take us back to chapter 16 for two very important incidents that complement this transfiguration scene

In the first scene, 16.13-20, Matthew has Jesus question all the disciples. The effect is to show us that they are very much engaged in the hustle/bustle around Caesarea Philippi. They’re tracking with the events and listening to the various conversations. Initially he asks them “what’s the ‘word on the street’?”, that is, what’s the buzz about me? (vs. 13-14). Then he narrows the focus “who do you, disciples, say I am?” Matthew has Peter answer for them “You are the Messiah, YHWH’s son”(vs. 15-16). We might think. Right. No more phone calls. We have a winner. Then Jesus’ first qualification is heard: Peter is right but his prompt comes from Fatherly help “ for this was not revealed to you by flesh and blood, but by my Father in heaven” (vs. 17). For your consideration I suggest Matthew is here prompting us, who would-be disciples, not to evaluate Peter or the other disciples’ lack of understanding or insight as a “negative” characterization. It simply reflects a disciple’s condition in general. We are always in need of divine, that is, fatherly revelation. Then Matthew emphasizes the positive value of the scene: Peter’s name is changed by Jesus. But as with all plays-on-words, there is slippery-ness. And you and I can talk at length about the Roman Catholic route where the pun between rock and stone is Peter himself as the founder of that church or the Patristic-Reformation route where the pun between rock and stone makes the Messianic identification the building block of the church. Whichever one you choose, I still expect you to pay for my lunch. Then Jesus’ second qualification is heard: Don’t spread this “Messiah” identification stuff around (vs. 20).

Bottom line for Matthew, unless there is revelation from the Father about, say, “why the Messiah must die and rise again”, even a perceptive disciple will probably not connect the dots. So in the second scene, 16.21-23 Matthew again shows us the disciples are engaged with Jesus’ conversations. His ministry is swinging around toward Jerusalem. So He begins to speak about the road ahead “I must go to Jerusalem and suffer much from the elders, the chief priests, and the teachers of the Law. I will be put to death, but three days later I will be raised to life” (vs. 21). The high point of acknowledging Jesus as Messiah is now muddied by his talk of dying. Matthew has arranged this scene to follow the previous one in order to shatter any supposed triumph with the actual difficult path that lies ahead. The disciples fail to grasp the significance. Matthew positions Peter to express their confusion with a plea-like, “Mercy, no!” or “May YHWH in his mercy prevent this from happening to you.” Matthew implies that the disciples speaking through Peter could not perceive any way YHWH’s will could be accomplished by Jesus’ death. Then Matthew lines up Peter for another business card. Taking the more Jewish meaning of the word “satan”, Jesus says “Get back, who appointed you, my adversary”? This time there was no divine, no revealing prompt from the Father.

The disciples’ characterizations in ch. 16 along with those in the transfiguration scene matter enormously. Matthew’s Gospel holds in tension transcendance with the mediation of a living, dynamic, reciprocal relationship in which Jesus and the Father emerge from the mists of divine mystery. As “God with us”, Jesus makes it possible to stand in the Father’s presence, to know and be known, without being overwhelmed by the gap between us and a loving, yet holy person. Matthew intends to draw us into this relationship through Peter’s and the disciple’s characterizations. These scenes are intended to teach us that sometimes circumstances are quite overwhelming and yet we should try to find our footing in them. Sometimes in the ordinariness of life we make that discovery. Sometimes circumstances will remain mysterious, unanswered. In Matthew’s wider teaching intentions, disciples should be creating a community setting in which all can/should speak up. Sometimes you, perhaps I, will get it right. Sometimes I, perhaps you, will get it wrong. Sometimes you, perhaps I, will get it partly right. And sometimes I, perhaps you, won’t get it at all. The implication of Matthew’s intention for disciples: you/I should be teachable, that is, open to a divine prompt, a new direction, a new instruction, even correction sometimes. These scenes show every disciple that Peter and the others are wrapped up in human limitations and understandings, which in itself is not a negative thing, just a normal thing, a disciple thing.

The divine voiceover “this is my son, my beloved one. I am pleased with him. Listen to him” brings us back to the scene. May I suggest Matthew has verbally joined the two most profound stories in all the Bible. We know Matthew has linked this scene to Jesus’ turning toward Jerusalem and the cross (ch. 16.). And now the voiceover undergirds this turning by weaving in a father-son relationship. Matthew has subtly front-loaded another father-son relationship. In the genealogy that begins the Gospel he has referred to Jesus as Abraham’s son along with Isaac (1.1-2). The voiceover here “my son, my beloved one” echoes the resonance of Abraham and YHWH’S conversation: “Take, pray, ​your son, your only one, whom you love, Isaac,….and offer him up as a burnt offering on a mountain I will show you.” (Gen. 22.2-3)​. I suggest Matthew’s narrative genius has deliberately woven a dramatic burden into his Gospel. Specifically, like Abraham and Isaac, as Jesus, the favored son, the beloved son, the only son walks toward the sacrifice mountain, he will not be alone but be accompanied by the Father. It is appropriate for us to consider that YHWH walks with Jesus toward the calvary mountain and for us to consider Abraham’s theological realization is ours also “On YHWH’s mountain, he will be seen.”(Gen. 22.14). Beginning today, Matthew, and in three days our Anglican tradition, will ask each of us: Am I/Are you ready to walk the walk with the Father and the Son? Am I/Are you/Are we ready to walk the walk with each other? Remember Jesus exhorts us the discipleship road is costly. It will transform us, individually and corporately. May I suggest everything/everyone you will need for a Lenten journey is here now. So choose wisely.

Now, my beloved, may the word of the Lord richly dwell in us in all wisdom. Amen

Matthew 4.12-22 | Epiphany 3A

John Michael Gutierrez, PhD

The Holy Gospel of our Lord Jesus Christ according to Matthew

12 When Jesus heard that John had been put in prison, he withdrew to Galilee. 13 Leaving Nazareth, he went and lived in Capernaum, which was by the lake in the area of Zebulun and Naphtali— 14 to fulfill what was said through the prophet Isaiah:

15 “Land of Zebulun and land of Naphtali,
the Way of the Sea, beyond the Jordan,
Galilee of the Gentiles—
16 the people living in darkness
have seen a great light;
on those living in the land of the shadow of death
a light has dawned.”

17 From that time on Jesus began to preach, “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near.” 18 As Jesus was walking beside the Sea of Galilee, he saw two brothers, Simon called Peter and his brother Andrew. They were casting a net into the lake, for they were fishermen. 19 “Come, follow me,” Jesus said, “and I will send you out to fish for people.” 20 At once they left their nets and followed him. 21 Going on from there, he saw two other brothers, James, son of Zebedee and his brother John. They were in a boat with their father Zebedee, preparing their nets. Jesus called them, 22 and immediately they left the boat and their father and followed him.

The Gospel of the Lord

Consistently during the Sundays of Advent through Christmas, Matthew’s Gospel readings develop the complexity of Jesus’ messianic identity through dreams, the shaping presence of the Spirit, speeches, angelic appearances, probing questions and geography. During Epiphany’s Sundays, the climax of the Advent/Christmas season, the complexity of Jesus’ mission is developed through dreams, the shaping presence of the Spirit, speeches, angelic appearances, probing questions and geography. This morning’s lectionary brings the core ideas of Jesus’ identity and mission in the two seasons together around the Baptizer. In Advent 3’s Gospel John sent some of his disciples from his imprisonment to Jesus with probing questions intended to clarify his messianic identity. This morning’s Gospel reading, Epiphany 3, takes us back before John’s arrest to Jesus’ response to the first news about that arrest. As it turns out the Baptizer’s arrest signals for Matthew the beginning of Jesus’ mission and his assembling a nucleus of followers to share in the task of reaching Jews and Gentiles with the kingdom message.

This Sunday’s Gospel, a mere 11 sentences, needs close reading in order to unpack its key features. So allow me to pause for a public service announcement: One of the ways to enrich our personal study of Matthew’s Gospel in this year is to place a map next to our Bible. For it seems to me that Matthew reckons we are familiar with the geography of the Land. Because what Matthew does involves more than Google maps. Woven into the fabric of the Gospel’s narrative is his distinctive intention to teach us the Geography of the Spirit.

Now, a bit of a road trip. Our Gospel reading on the first Sunday of Epiphany gave us a sense of the Land, and a few other ideas. So let’s backtrack to Jesus’ geographical path in ch. 3. Jesus decided to leave his home, Nazareth in the Galilee, walking SoEast through the Decapolis and Perea into Judea. He enters the Jordan delta to meet up with the Baptizer’s kingdom renewal movement. Once there, he was baptized and then “spirited” into the Judean wilderness. Now our Epiphany 3 reading tells us Jesus, still in Judea, hears that the Baptizer has been arrested. So he decides to retrace his path back to the Galilee. He wades back through the Jordan river, the approximately 90 miles to his home, Nazareth. But he doesn’t stay there long, In a strategic decision, he leaves to reside in Capernaum – a harbor village on Lake Galilee, 30 miles to the NE. Now a 100 mile plus journey may not sound like much to us, who are accustomed to driving 70 miles an hour plus (may the Lord have mercy on us!), but in a day when nothing moved faster than you could walk,100 miles plus was quite a bit more than a stroll. Only after reading further into Mathew’s Gospel, will we discover that Jesus’ taking himself very far away from Judea, from Jerusalem and its temple was a spirit driven necessity. We will learn, also, that Matthew’s Jesus, although residing in Capernaum, is, nonetheless, a nomadic wanderer having embraced the Lord’s call. And there is in this- a detail I would like us to hold on to: before Jesus asks anyone to leave their home or family and follow him, he has already left his home and family in Nazareth.

Capernaum was one of a dozen back water fishing anchorages along the northwest lake shore. Magdala was the largest village but Capernaum had the largest harbor. Boats came and went regularly, plying their trade. While not on the main road, Roman roads still made it a trade center. In the Galilee during Herod Antipas’s reign the economic situation was largely one of heavy taxation due to his increased building projects. State control over commerce and fishing was imposed by tax collectors and toll rates. It is not without a good reason that the word “debt” keeps popping up in this Gospel.

But now Matthew inserts a snippet of an oracle from a prophetic heavyweight – Isaiah- moving us to consider that charting Jesus’ path involves more, much more than geography. The quote is a marker that geography has a theological dimension. These covenant-evoking names, Naphtali and Zebublun, frame the land as a divine gift yet this land is occupied by imperial powers- previously by Assyria but presently by Rome so much so that it has changed its name “Galilee of the Gentiles”. The hovering “shadow of death” that covers the land that engulfs both Jew and Gentile is not creation’s daily rhythm. This darkness is a human creation. Imagining light shining into that darkness images the Lord’s action to save Jew, Gentile and the Land. On the one hand, Matthew positions Jesus in Capernaum at the beginning of his ministry as someone who has become “God with us”by becoming a neighbor, On the other hand, Matthew positions Jesus as YHWH’s light, his saving presence, shining into that darkness. Matthew wants us to expand our perspective about mission so that when we come to the end of the gospel, Ch. 28, we are primed to hear Jesus’ voice not Isaiah’s, say “Go, Make disciples of all the nations”. Divine geography ripples out from Galilee into the farthest borders of the Roman Empire. Right from the start Jew and Gentile are co-recipients of salvation through Jesus.

Moved by John’s arrest, having settled in Capernaum, Jesus began preaching in Galilee the very message his predecessor preached in Judea. “Repent, for the kingdom has come near.” He has found his voice. Repent is a geographical word, an action word. It has the sense of turning around and going in a different direction. Repent means to do spring cleaning, to clear that path of debris and stuff so that there is a clear, straight path for the Lord to enter and direct my life. It has the sense of reversing the way I look at the world and carry myself in it. It draws a line between whatever is happening out there and what most needs to happen inside me. Jesus’ message also makes use of imperial language – kingdom/empire. The Biblical idea is YHWH is a great king who asserts authority over Israel and the nations. But as Matthew unpacks YHWH’s authority it will be redefined in scenes of healing, service, compassion, and dramatically, resurrection, that repair Imperial damage. It will be the kind of kingdom that empowers and restores, bringing individuals into community relationships. This Kingdom becomes the hope that the current kingdom of this world is not final.

“As Jesus was walking along the lakeshore…”, he tosses out “Come on. After me.”. He doesn’t pitch any ideas or persuade anyone. This One with a Davidic ancestry doesn’t ask questions about ancestry, education, abilities, even the availability for an extended time away from the job. He seems merely to look for what gets tangled up in a verbal net. And he catches two sets of brothers hard at work – fishing. On the surface, each has little reason to leave their current way of life. Each seemingly has a steady job and, more importantly, familial ties to their vocations.

Now I do most of my fishing at the Olde Ship pub in Fullerton so my understanding is limited to reading primary and secondary sources. Fishing was an important part of the Galilean economy. Sea-fairing communities ebb and flow to a rhythm of daily and seasonal life, developing a hard won body of navigational skills above and below the waterline. In short they live in a world very different from farmers and urban dwellers. Being a first century seaman was no day at the beach, so to speak. A fisherman’s life was a seasonal occupation, full of extremely hard work and long hours. Although there are a number of ways to fish in the ancient world, the overwhelming choice is netting. The two most common methods of net fishing involve either repeatedly tossing a net overboard and slowly rowing, hauling the net in, sometimes catching nothing to reward the effort or standing in the shallows and tossing out a weighted net hoping all the while to trap fish under it. It seems, however, that fishing had such a strong pull that while there may be other work during the off season fishing always pulled the fisherman back. On the one hand, then, from the background of fishing, we can understand why maybe the two sets of brothers willingly leave their nets when Jesus called. But on the other, from Matthew’s perspective, the two sets of brothers illustrate the seriousness of responding to Jesus’ call to change direction. Leaving their vocation and family illustrates obedience is not merely a suggestion.

“And I will send you out to fish for people” is a brilliant repurposing of a cultural image for a second life in ironic opposition to its original intention. The purpose of fishing is to capture and kill fish to use for food mostly. But in “Jesus fishing” people are “netted” in order to bring them into a renewed Israel, a believing community and give them life. “Change direction” was only half the equation. “Follow me” means do not expect to stay the same. The point is to create a sense of identity through adapting their skills to a new environment from land/sea to land/village. Their world is about to be turned right-side-up. Their vocation with its skills now comes under Jesus’ direction and guidance. Becoming a “fisher for people” is going to bring these Galilean seamen not only into relationship with Jesus, but into changed relationships with others. Simon Peter and Andrew highlight Jesus’ call to a new vocation. James and John highlight Jesus’ call takes priority over family commitments – a startling idea when family responsibility was rooted in oral tradition and Torah.These brothers were ordinary individuals called to an extraordinary task. They would not have completely understood what it meant to become fishers of people. Little did they realize how significant the change in direction would be from land/sea to the hustle/bustle of land/village. Yet they followed without hesitation. In the coming days they will often fail both to understand and to obey him. And little did they know that Jesus is about to bring another shipmate on board from Capernaum – a tax collector!

One of the most dangerous /anxiety producing things for me in reading/studying the Bible is that just when I think everything’s OK it turns and begins to read/study me! As those fishermen knew, a vocation takes time and work to develop. Today’s Gospel reading shows me, in a glimpse, that ministry is viewed through vocation. That ministry is developed out of vocational skills. In other words, ministry is found where I am found in my life. It seems to me that when I look back over my life – Jesus chose me not because I’m soooo skilled that he just can’t help but have me around. But in reflection because he saw potential in my vocational skills like he saw in some fishermen. And the question was the same: was I willing to change the direction of my life to follow him? Was I willing to become a small working model of the kingdom? And along that same line, little did I understand how difficult it would be to be consistently obedient to the stewardship of that change in direction. It seems to me there are a couple of takeaways from this reading for us. You and I have some acquired talents/skills over time but only when we change direction and follow Jesus will they be transformed into spiritual gifts. Gifts that will be effectively used in the community of faith. The very character of a vocation/ministry means that you and I are necessarily and continuously entangled in the netting of life with others. So the stewardship of our vocation/ministry with and for people is not a matter of catching but of gathering in. It’s a different mindset. It’s a different way of doing tasks. The stewardship of our vocation/ministry for and with Jesus means when we cast a net – It’s a different kind. It’s one that frees rather than captures. Our spirit gifted vocation is not easy. Sometimes there are heavy and painful burdens. Sometimes you just can’t find the fish. Sometimes you’re just exhausted.. As G.K. Chesterton observed “Christianity has not been tried and found wanting. It has been found difficult and not tried”.

Long ago, on the other side of the Atlantic, I was a shipmate on an Anglican boat. Now near the Pacific, I find myself in the shallows of St. Stephen’s Anglican. My desire is to bring my skills to this community to be transformed into spiritual gifts. To go fishing here by faith as the Lord makes possible. My prayer for each of us is that we “fish” together in serving this parish expressing an Anglican identity in ways that demonstrate to others that we are tangled up, netted with each other. And that we invite others to get tangled up, netted with us. What about you?

Now, my beloved, may the word of the Lord richly dwell in us in all wisdom. Amen

Matthew 1.18-25 | Advent 4A

John Michael Gutierrez, PhD

The Holy Gospel of our Lord Jesus Christ according to Matthew

18 Now the birth of Jesus the Messiah took place in this way. When his mother Mary had been engaged to Joseph, but before they lived together, she was found to be with child from the Holy Spirit. 19 Her husband Joseph, being a righteous man and unwilling to expose her to public disgrace, planned to dismiss her quietly. 20But just when he had resolved to do this, an angel of the Lord appeared to him in a dream and said, ‘Joseph, son of David, do not be afraid to take Mary as your wife, for the child conceived in her is from the Holy Spirit. 21 She will bear a son, and you are to name him Jesus, for he will save his people from their sins.’ 22 All this took place to fulfil what had been spoken by the Lord through the prophet:

23 ‘Look, the virgin shall conceive and bear a son, and they shall name him Emmanuel’, which means, ‘God is with us.’ 24 When Joseph awoke from sleep, he did as the angel of the Lord commanded him; he took her as his wife, 25 but had no marital relations with her until she had borne a son; and he named him Jesus.

The Gospel of the Lord

Miriam, Hey, Miriam. there’s someone at the gate. Can you see who it is? I’m starting to fit a plow together. Matthew, a tax collector, you say. Tell him to come back next month. I’ll have finished the roof and stairs in Sepphoris and have some money then. What? not a tax collector. Oh, Matthew, it’s you. Sorry, don’t you know tax collectors, and all that. Please. Sit there while I finish up. There’s some water for your hands and feet.

Oh gosh, Matthew, where to begin. I’ve had a lot of years to think about that time in my life. Well, Ok, this is my view on how the events around Jesus’ birth unfolded.

In those years Nazareth was a small, poor village like so many others in the Galilee. But because it was close to Herod’s Galilean capital Sepphoris with its roman garrison, our village supplied skilled labor for the building projects. I was apprenticed in the family construction business. Through construction work our family and others in the village were working more than we had been in a long time. Although, as you well know, Roman taxation practices required exhausting, physical labor merely for survival. Everyone here experienced varying levels of poverty and bad health. But it was also a time to strengthen ties between the village’s clans. The elders and relatives of our families negotiated the first steps of the marriage and made the betrothal arrangements for Miriam and me. While our families come from the same village, we only saw each other on occasion. Really not much opportunity to get to know each other. I would begin the process of constructing a room in the family house and she would remain in her father’s household. But in the intervening months, before I could get a room built I had no idea how much things were about to change.

I could and did visit Miriam from time to time. On one of those times she was standing behind me. I whirled around so fast I lost my balance. Our conversation was stopped short. You’re what? – pregnant! pregnant by YHWH’s spirit! It swept me off my feet. I didn’t know her very well. I didn’t have a reason to distrust her. Did our families take too much for granted? Did we get our signals crossed? Please – tell me the truth. I tried to listen to her. I tried not to blame her. But that one word built a wall between us. Something had been lost. I felt that my undivided affection with Miriam had been stolen. Not another word was spoken between us that day. Things weren’t going as planned, not as I had planned anyway, and not as things were supposed to go. Boy, oh boy, did that one word ever change things and set in motion a most improbable, dare I say, miraculous series of events.

Look around this workshop, as you can see, I’m a tradesman, poor and someone of no consequence. Yet when I think back on that time, I realize I was being led by the Lord in a way that would transform my life in ways I would never have imagined.

It’s safe to say that my days and nights were filled with anxiety and exhausting flights of emotion. I was out of my mind. Night after night as I lay in the dark, as I pulled the blanket up over my head – I hoped that in the morning it would all be gone- just a bad dream. But I woke up every morning with a headful of ideas that were driving me insane. Could I take the risk? How do I remain faithfully obedient to the Lord? What kind of person will I become? What will others think of me? I don’t know if I can do this Lord. I need some help here.

On the other hand, should I leave her to deal with the unborn child? Would she be driven to despair, feeling abandoned? As I was thinking over Miriam’s explanations, what if they were true? Do any decisions need to be seen in a different way? What if Miriam came into the family? Could I let this child be raised as if he/she were my own? Admittedly, there were more than a few moments when I believed she had been unfaithful but it took another event (more about that in a few minutes) and years of reflection to gain a more even-handed understanding of Jesus’ birth.

And then, there were the questions, so many questions: Do I risk disobedience, becoming an outcast to the family? How should I tell the elders? What would they decide? Should I have a plan to present to them? Culturally, there’s not a lot of wiggle room. The religious traditions are simply too strong. Upon such a revelation, a response is required. The betrothal had been damaged, a violation of trust. It is a matter of personal/family honor and shame. This pregnancy, well, it’s proof that this marriage was a wrong decision. Understandably some in the family, on both sides, were outraged and would have kicked her to the curb. But I had to find some way to repair the family boundaries, to put off feuding and an endless getting even.

And do I risk becoming an outcast in the village? Will word of the pregnancy burn like a wildfire through our village? If I went ahead with the betrothal, then folk would think I had gotten her pregnant. That might be a lot easier. The town folk would have fewer reasons to question our commitment to each other. I was trying to handle this with a minimum of damage. A public divorce would bring shame and dishonor. It would have been messy. If I decided it would be simpler to break the betrothal privately then only two witnesses would be required before the elders. Although nothing is ever really private in a small village! I figured that for the rest of our life, we will be surrounded by scandal if we followed through with the betrothal. I realized I was juggling how to set things right for the child and his/her upbringing in the village. I was trying to shield him/her. I was hanging onto every bit of hope that I could muster that I could put up with the sideways glances and the gossip. I would try to protect her and the child from what I could. I would try to protect myself from what I could. Maybe I would just be angry about what has happened and maybe I would just let people talk.

I have always been careful to faithfully observe Torah and by grace I will continue. But how could I be faithful to Torah and be righteous in this situation? Leading with my heart, caring about Miriam’s vulnerability, I decided to break the betrothal privately. Ah, but that decision didn’t settle things. I still yearned for assurance that what I decided was the right thing among Torah’s options. Now all that was about to be turned upside down. Honestly, Matthew, sometimes I do lose sight of my faith. But the Lord is always there, waiting for me to come to him with my weaknesses.

But the Lord didn’t wait for me this time. He intervened with a luminous dream, cutting short the nightmare visions of accusation and estrangement playing in the theater of my dreams – unveiling the truth, – speaking to the depths of my heart, – revealing what my reasoning had failed to grasp, – plunging me back into the village.

The angelic messenger instructs me to do something more daring than a private or public dismissal of Miriam. He tells me to embrace Miriam’s pregnancy as an act of YHWH’s spirit. It’s a boy, Joe Davidson. And you will name him Jesus. Although not the father, as a Davidson, I’m to name the boy so he can take up his place in king David’s ancestry. I’m to parent this child who is the divine presence in Israel. I’m to commit myself to participating with Miriam in YHWH’s plan.

YHWH certainly is the Lord of mystery. So this is how the messiah would slip in among us – wrapped in a scandal, wrapped, also, in a miraculous act of the spirit. Through Miriam, the messiah’s destiny was set in motion. Wrapped up in Jesus, hope and deliverance came to Israel. He would not be a political or military ruler but an antidote to sin, the spiritual and moral virus which infects everything, of all the – moral, emotional, physical, intellectual – stuff in our lives and culture that just doesn’t work. He gained his power by embracing the failures.

The angel called me Joseph Davidson in the dream and that pushed me to go back and climb up my royal family tree. I found four branches, each of them, a woman, who had something of the same honor/shame shadow cast over them that makes their inclusion in Davidic ancestry extraordinary. In David’s monarchy, itself, there is Bathsheba who sprouted a branch under circumstances viewed by many as unsuitable to the dignity of royal lineage. Then there was David’s great-grandmother, the Moabite, Ruth who sprouted Jesse – the royal branch itself. And at the conquest of land, a Canaanite prostitute, Rahab was grafted in becoming Ruth’s mother-in-law. Lastly, way up in the canopy, the honor/shame incident with the patriarch Judah, himself, and Tamar, the Aramaean. To the participants in these ancestral events, things must have looked like a scandal, but when I look back now, YHWH’s hand is visible, steady and sure.

These weren’t the only women or times in my family’s royal history when events remained outside the hands of human management. I hope this isn’t too subtle. But think back with me for a moment, Matthew, to consider an event in the monarchy of Ahaz, the 10th king of Judah. Threatened by the armies of Syria and Assyria, Ahaz needed to learn that fortified cities don’t protect. Sooner or later they’re smashed down. YHWH points out a young woman to Ahaz. A young woman whose imminent birth of a Davidic princeling named “God with us” will offer Ahaz a sign of hope that the dreaded kings would be put down.

“God with us” Now I want you to consider for a moment the profound meaning cascading down upon me in that name.This child, Jesus, conceived in a virgin, Miriam, by YHWH’s spirit, is “God with us”, the real presence. Although merely a description for Jesus “God with us” is the sign of hope that underscores the surprise, the excitement, the wonderful mixing of the miraculous, the unexpected, the divine, the human. This child, Jesus, “God with us” sets in motion the accomplishment of YHWH’s saving act in his death, as a ransom for people from every clan and nation, by his resurrection and reaches its climax when he sits beside the Ancient of Days to judge Israel and the nations.

So I finished building the room in the family house. The child was born. I held him ever so lovingly in my arms. Miriam completed her mothering ritual. At his circumcision he was named Jesus. By naming the child I became his legal father and he sprouted his branch in the royal family tree. After a road trip to Egypt we returned to Nazareth and Miriam brought all her belongings to set up our household. I fed him, walked him around the room until he fell asleep on my shoulder. He squeezed my finger tightly as he took his first steps. I took him to the synagogue on the Sabbaths. I apprenticed him into the building trades. I listened to his hopes and dreams as we worked side by side. And then, one day – he was gone.

And may I say to you, Matthew, you know more about that part of his life than I do.

Now, my beloved, may the word of the Lord richly dwell in us in all wisdom. Amen