Tag Archives: Gospel of John

The Spirit of Truth

Jesus said to his disciples, “When the Advocate comes, whom I will send to you from the Father, the Spirit of truth who comes from the Father, he will testify on my behalf. You also are to testify because you have been with me from the beginning.

“I did not say these things to you from the beginning, because I was with you. But, now I am going to him who sent me; yet none of you asks me, `Where are you going?’ But because I have said these things to you, sorrow has filled your hearts. Nevertheless I tell you the truth: it is to your advantage that I go away, for if I do not go away, the Advocate will not come to you; but if I go, I will send him to you. And when he comes, he will prove the world wrong about sin and righteousness and judgment: about sin, because they do not believe in me; about righteousness, because I am going to the Father and you will see me no longer; about judgment, because the ruler of this world has been condemned.

“I still have many things to say to you, but you cannot bear them now. When the Spirit of truth comes, he will guide you into all the truth; for he will not speak on his own, but will speak whatever he hears, and he will declare to you the things that are to come. He will glorify me, because he will take what is mine and declare it to you. All that the Father has is mine. For this reason I said that he will take what is mine and declare it to you.”  John 15:26-27; 16:4b-15.

Today is the Feast of the Pentecost, which serves as the terminus of the cycle which marks and celebrates the life of Christ.  Easter has come and gone; Jesus has ascended to the Father. These events have filled the disciples’ hearts with sorrow.  Their Rabbi, their friend, is returning home and leaving them.

In other sense, however, we sometimes refer to as the birthday of the Church.    The Church must now learn to listen for the voice of God within the community of believers inspired by the Holy Spirit.  Jesus describes the Spirit as the Advocate (in Greek, parakletos).  The word parakletos connotes an advocate in a legal proceeding, who comes to the aid of a witness or a cause.  Just so, the Spirit will come to assist the disciples as they bear witness to the message of Jesus.  The term parakletos also connotes a comforter, an assistant and a companion.

Jesus has assured us of the presence of the Advocate, of the immediacy of the Spirit.  He promises that the Spirit will lead us into the truth. The Spirit will direct us through and to faith, a radical trust in the life and message of Jesus. Our Orthodox brothers and sisters refer to this process as theosis, a journey through which our lives become more and more deeply entwined with the life of the Father and the Son.  Remembering the image of Jesus as the vine, through the Spirit the life of the Father and the Son is grafted onto our lives, our history.

The reading today points also to the unity and interdependence of the Trinity.  Jesus teaches that “all that the Father has is mine” and that the Spirit will take what belongs to Jesus and declare it to us.  Jesus teaches that no member of the Trinity acts independently; similarly we need to learn to live interdependently. Pentecost involves learning to trust God as a companion, and learning to trust each other.

Henri Nouwen once wrote that “education to ministry is an education not to master God but to be mastered by God.”  Pentecost involves listening for the Trinitarian voice within the Church and in the world.  That voice will remain near us and within us.  Jesus promised us that the Spirit of Truth would offer us that sense of comfort, that sense of confidence, that sense of peace.

Pax Spiritus,

James R. Dennis, O.P.

© 2012 James R. Dennis

Abiding in Him

I am the true vine, and my Father is the vine-grower. He removes every branch in me that bears no fruit. Every branch that bears fruit he prunes to make it bear more fruit. You have already been cleansed by the word that I have spoken to you. Abide in me as I abide in you. Just as the branch cannot bear fruit by itself unless it abides in the vine, neither can you unless you abide in me. I am the vine, you are the branches. Those who abide in me and I in them bear much fruit, because apart from me you can do nothing. Whoever does not abide in me is thrown away like a branch and withers; such branches are gathered, thrown into the fire, and burned. If you abide in me, and my words abide in you, ask for whatever you wish, and it will be done for you. My Father is glorified by this, that you bear much fruit and become my disciples. As the Father has loved me, so I have loved you; abide in my love. If you keep my commandments, you will abide in my love, just as I have kept my Father’s commandments and abide in his love. I have said these things to you so that my joy may be in you, and that your joy may be complete. John 15:1-11.

In the Gospel reading from today’s Daily Office, we find Jesus talking about His favorite topic: relationships.  I think Jesus cared more deeply about this subject than virtually any other, and perhaps we should, too.  In this remarkable passage, Jesus addresses our relationships with Him, with God the Father, and with each other.  I believe the refrain within this passage provides the key to Jesus’ meaning.  St. John uses the word “abide” eight times, so we should probably understand the sense in which he uses it.

One of the greatest problems we encounter in modernity is that vast number of people who feel adrift, who feel isolated from the world and cut off from anything that offers meaning in their lives.  As Willy Loman observed in Death of a Salesman, “After all the highways, and the trains, and the appointments, and the years, you end up worth more dead than alive.”  Jesus compared such lives to a branch cut away from the vine, which will ultimately wither.  He observed that “the branch cannot bear fruit unless it abides in the vine”.

All of us sometimes feel cut off from our source, and Jesus offers us the remedy:  “abide in me”, “abide in my love”.    Too often, we try to make our way alone.  We forget that relationships provide the very basis of the spiritual life.  To “abide with” means to participate in a very special sort of relationship.  To abide with Jesus and to abide in His love means that we will make Christ our spiritual home.

As with all relationships, abiding with Jesus involves a reciprocal settlement, a complementary arrangement.  Jesus said, “Abide in me as I abide in you.”  Thus, we should ask ourselves, “What sort of dwelling place have I prepared for the Lord?”  Jesus calls us not simply to remain with Him, but also to make a home for Him in our lives.  Unless we permit this mutual indwelling of Christ, we will find ourselves spiritually “dying on the vine”.

St. John does not suggest that we admire Jesus as a historical figure from the past, or that we attempt to emulate something that was quite wonderful once. To abide with Christ does not mean that we merely prepare for that day in the future when we might see Him.  Abiding with Jesus means to make our home with Him here and now.  The term implies persevering, remaining true, and lasting steadily.  When we abide with Christ, we will share St. Paul’s conviction “that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor rulers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.”  Romans 8:38-39.

Abiding connotes that we will remain with Jesus, and He will remain with us.  Like the branches on the vine, our continued existence depends on remaining connected to the Source of our lives.  If we allow the Word to make a home within our lives, we will feel the Divine pulsing and surging across all creation.  At that point, this holy relationship begins to determine how we act and how we love.  Thus, keeping the commandments becomes less like a burden, and more like a presence.  We are thereby grafted onto the tree of life, grafted onto the life of the Father, Son and Holy Spirit.  I think that’s exactly what St. John had in mind when he wrote about a time when our joy would be complete.

I wish you the joy of God’s presence,

James R. Dennis, O.P.

 © 2012 James R. Dennis

Whom Are You Looking For?

Early on the first day of the week, while it was still dark, Mary Magdalene came to the tomb and saw that the stone had been removed from the tomb. So she ran and went to Simon Peter and the other disciple, the one whom Jesus loved, and said to them, “They have taken the Lord out of the tomb, and we do not know where they have laid him.” Then Peter and the other disciple set out and went toward the tomb. The two were running together, but the other disciple outran Peter and reached the tomb first. He bent down to look in and saw the linen wrappings lying there, but he did not go in. Then Simon Peter came, following him, and went into the tomb. He saw the linen wrappings lying there, and the cloth that had been on Jesus’ head, not lying with the linen wrappings but rolled up in a place by itself. Then the other disciple, who reached the tomb first, also went in, and he saw and believed; for as yet they did not understand the scripture, that he must rise from the dead. Then the disciples returned to their homes.

But Mary stood weeping outside the tomb. As she wept, she bent over to look into the tomb; and she saw two angels in white, sitting where the body of Jesus had been lying, one at the head and the other at the feet. They said to her, “Woman, why are you weeping?” She said to them, “They have taken away my Lord, and I do not know where they have laid him.” When she had said this, she turned around and saw Jesus standing there, but she did not know that it was Jesus. Jesus said to her, “Woman, why are you weeping? Whom are you looking for?” Supposing him to be the gardener, she said to him, “Sir, if you have carried him away, tell me where you have laid him, and I will take him away.” Jesus said to her, “Mary!” She turned and said to him in Hebrew, “Rabbouni!” (which means Teacher). Jesus said to her, “Do not hold on to me, because I have not yet ascended to the Father. But go to my brothers and say to them, `I am ascending to my Father and your Father, to my God and your God.'” Mary Magdalene went and announced to the disciples, “I have seen the Lord”; and she told them that he had said these things to her.

In today’s Gospel reading, Mary, the beloved disciple, and Peter discover that Jesus is no longer in the tomb. St. John opens the story with Mary, walking to the Lord’s burial-place early in the morning before sunrise. We’ve studied John’s gospel well enough and long enough to know that he intends to convey a double meaning when he tells us that she walked to the tomb “while it was still dark”. I’m certain that for Magdalene and the other disciples, this was a terribly dark time.

St. John begins the story with a mystery: the body of Jesus is missing. The disciples first encounter only the physical evidence of what looks like a grave robbing. Someone has rolled the stone away, removed the body of the Christ, and left behind only the burial linens. Mary runs to get the other disciples. Peter and the beloved disciple confirm the absence of Jesus’ body, but none of them yet understands what this might mean. Mary then meets a man she assumes to be gardener, and without understanding it, she has encountered the risen Lord.

I’m struck by Jesus’ question to Mary, “For whom are you looking?” We’ve heard Him ask a similar question before. Jesus asked John the Baptist’s disciples, “What are you looking for?” John 1:38. When the soldiers come to the Garden of Gethsemane to arrest Him, Jesus asks them, “For whom are you looking?” John 18:4,7. We also recall in John’s Gospel that some Greeks came looking for Jesus. John 12: 20-21. I suspect that this Easter Sunday, our churches will be full of people who are looking for Jesus, even though some of them may not even know it.

Consistent with John’s repeated theme of misunderstandings, Mary mistakes Jesus for a gardener. Without knowing it, I believe she is right. I think St. John intentionally calls us back, not just to the garden of Gethsemane, but also to the Garden of Eden. Through his resurrection, Jesus has conquered death and re-made creation. That morning, Mary met Jesus and encountered the fulfilment of God’s directive: “Let there be light.” (Gen. 1:2).

It also strikes me that the tomb wasn’t really empty at all. That tomb was full of the visions and hopes of God’s people: dreams of a better world, dreams that they would be better people, dreams that death would not prevail, and dreams for reconciliation with God.

In a sense, that tomb resembles the stable in the Chronicles of Narnia: it is bigger on the inside than it is on the outside. The tomb contained God’s dreams for our life with Him. Within that tomb, the disciples will find the revelation that God’s promises were not empty. Those dreams they had weren’t in the tomb any longer; they were walking around and were alive! The shackles of sin and sorrow and death have been broken.

The passage ends with Mary’s affirmation of faith, despite the darkness of the horror on Golgotha: “I have seen the Lord.” I hope that, on this Easter Sunday, you are looking for Jesus. I’m certain that He is looking for you. And I hope that, like that good saint, we can tell the world : “We have seen the Lord.”

Happy Easter! He is risen!

James R. Dennis, O.P.

© 2012 James R. Dennis

He Loved Them to the End

Now before the festival of the Passover, Jesus knew that his hour had come to depart from this world and go to the Father. Having loved his own who were in the world, he loved them to the end. The devil had already put it into the heart of Judas son of Simon Iscariot to betray him. And during supper Jesus, knowing that the Father had given all things into his hands, and that he had come from God and was going to God, got up from the table, took off his outer robe, and tied a towel around himself. Then he poured water into a basin and began to wash the disciples’ feet and to wipe them with the towel that was tied around him. He came to Simon Peter, who said to him, “Lord, are you going to wash my feet?” Jesus answered, “You do not know now what I am doing, but later you will understand.” Peter said to him, “You will never wash my feet.” Jesus answered, “Unless I wash you, you have no share with me.” Simon Peter said to him, “Lord, not my feet only but also my hands and my head!” Jesus said to him, “One who has bathed does not need to wash, except for the feet, but is entirely clean. And you are clean, though not all of you.” For he knew who was to betray him; for this reason he said, “Not all of you are clean.”

After he had washed their feet, had put on his robe, and had returned to the table, he said to them, “Do you know what I have done to you? You call me Teacher and Lord–and you are right, for that is what I am. So if I, your Lord and Teacher, have washed your feet, you also ought to wash one another’s feet. For I have set you an example, that you also should do as I have done to you. Very truly, I tell you, servants are not greater than their master, nor are messengers greater than the one who sent them. If you know these things, you are blessed if you do them.

Jesus said, “Now the Son of Man has been glorified, and God has been glorified in him. If God has been glorified in him, God will also glorify him in himself and will glorify him at once. Little children, I am with you only a little longer. You will look for me; and as I said to the Jews so now I say to you, `Where I am going, you cannot come.’ I give you a new commandment, that you love one another. Just as I have loved you, you also should love one another. By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.” John 13:1-17, 31b-35.

In the Lectionary reading for today, we feel the reverberation of Mary of Bethany’s act of devotion from Monday’s reading.    In many respects, today’s Gospel contains the adhesive which bonds all of the events of, and the readings for, Holy Week together.  St. John reports that Jesus knew that the hour of his death had come; this passage records how chose to spend his last hours with his friends.  “Having loved his own who were in the world, he loved them to the end.”

In washing the disciple’s feet, Jesus assumed the role of a servant, of a slave.  Reluctant to have his Rabbi assume this role, Peter protested.  Jesus assured Peter, however, that this way was the path to sharing in the life of Christ.  He teaches them that serving each other offers a great blessing.  Jesus teaches, “For I have set you an example, that you also should do as I have done to you.”

In a terribly poignant moment, Jesus calls his disciples “little children” and tells them his time with them has grown very short.  Jesus then offers them the great commandment:  to love each other as He has loved us.  We love each other because He loved us first, and showed us how to do it.  I’ve come to believe, the more time I spend in John’s Gospel, that there’s really only one sin:  the failure to love.

I have often heard church leaders talk about a “path to discipleship”, and I suppose that’s a useful discussion in some sense.  But Jesus says that there’s only one true marker of his disciples:  they love each other, reflecting Christ’s love.  Jesus paints a portrait of divine vulnerability, reflecting a God who entered into human history, subjected Himself to shame, and poured Himself out to show us how to live.  This moment in John’s Gospel, in which God acts like a slave, constitutes a critical moment of God’s self-revelation.  “This,” Jesus tells us, “this is what the Kingdom looks like.”

Love serves as the glue which binds the readings for Holy Week together.  Love rode into Jerusalem on a donkey.  Love filled the house with a fragrant oil.  Love lights the way so that the darkness will not overcome us.  Love surrounds us in a great cloud of witnesses.  And tomorrow, Love will be hoisted on a Cross.

Lord, have mercy on me, a sinner,

James R. Dennis, O.P.

© 2012 James R. Dennis

While You Have the Light

Jesus answered, “This voice has come for your sake, not for mine. Now is the judgment of this world; now the ruler of this world will be driven out. And I, when I am lifted up from the earth, will draw all people to myself.” He said this to indicate the kind of death he was to die. The crowd answered him, “We have heard from the law that the Messiah remains forever. How can you say that the Son of Man must be lifted up? Who is this Son of Man?” Jesus said to them, “The light is with you for a little longer. Walk while you have the light, so that the darkness may not overtake you. If you walk in the darkness, you do not know where you are going. While you have the light, believe in the light, so that you may become children of light.” After Jesus said this, he departed and hid from them.   John 12:30-36.

As a child, I always dreaded that moment in the evening when my mother turned off the light.  I was firmly convinced of monsters and the idea that they had particular sway during the night-time hours.  (Up until the age of around eight, my chosen career path was “vampire killer.”)  Years later, I decided that while there are certainly monsters in the world, we make our own evil.  Now, I’ve come full circle and have accepted that there really is something out there called evil, and that evil is a spiritual reality.

In this passage from John’s Gospel, Jesus encourages us to walk in the light “so that the darkness may not overtake you.”  Once overtaken by darkness, we struggle to see where we’re going.  We take the wrong path; we get lost.  Jesus tells us that “the light is with you for a little longer.”  Deep into this journey through Holy Week, we get the feeling that we are walking at dusk, as the light is fading.

This passage resonates with the opening of John’s Gospel, which described the life of Jesus as the light of all people.  “The true light, which enlightens everyone, was coming into the world.”  John 1:9.  If we believe in this light, we become children of God, or “children of light.”  John seems to suggest that living into our Christian life will work a fundamental change in our spiritual DNA.  As we travel through these scriptural pilgrimages during Holy Week, we should remember that Jesus calls us to become children of the light, reflecting the light of Christ into all the dark places of the world.

Jesus does not suggest that His followers will not experience the darkness.  Good Friday teaches us that’s just not the case.  Christianity does not operate as some sort of good luck charm or talisman against the darkness.  Jesus’ assures us of something quite different.  He tells us that the darkness will not “overcome” those who walk with Him.  Once again, that’s got to be good news.

God watch over thee and me,

James R. Dennis, O.P.

© 2012 James R. Dennis

Six Days Before the Passover

Six days before the Passover Jesus came to Bethany, the home of Lazarus, whom he had raised from the dead. There they gave a dinner for him. Martha served, and Lazarus was one of those at the table with him. Mary took a pound of costly perfume made of pure nard, anointed Jesus’ feet, and wiped them with her hair. The house was filled with the fragrance of the perfume. But Judas Iscariot, one of his disciples (the one who was about to betray him), said, “Why was this perfume not sold for three hundred denarii and the money given to the poor?” (He said this not because he cared about the poor, but because he was a thief; he kept the common purse and used to steal what was put into it.) Jesus said, “Leave her alone. She bought it so that she might keep it for the day of my burial. You always have the poor with you, but you do not always have me.” When the great crowd of the Jews learned that he was there, they came not only because of Jesus but also to see Lazarus, whom he had raised from the dead. So the chief priests planned to put Lazarus to death as well, since it was on account of him that many of the Jews were deserting and were believing in Jesus.  John 12:1-11.

Perhaps Mary of Bethany shows us the only authentic response to Holy Week: she responds with an extravagant love.  At a dinner for the Lord, she acted out of  lavish charity and kindness toward Jesus.  She anointed him for his death, filling the house with this remarkable and extravagant fragrance.  (Scholars report that this perfume would have cost the yearly wages of a laborer.)  I think St. John meant to remind us that following Jesus might sometimes require that we forego counting the cost of loving God.

Mary’s extravagance carries with it the sort of sensuality that would have made the other guests, and almost any good Jew, more than a little uncomfortable.  She anointed Jesus’ feet and wiped them dry with her hair.  No respectable Jewish woman would have behaved this way. Social custom would have limited this sort of affectionate behavior to a woman’s husband or perhaps her family, and even then, only in private.  Mary’s conduct  reflects a profoundly intimate relationship.

In anointing Jesus, Mary prefigures the preparation of His body for burial.  But although  Jesus awaited His death with his friends, the presence of Mary’s brother (Lazarus) reveals that death holds no finality here. Mary anoints Jesus for his burial while he is still living.  Lazarus, who was dead, has joined them for dinner.  We encounter here the intersection of death and life, woven together in a story of reckless mercy, in the context of having a meal together.  St. John teaches us that death will have its say, but not the last word.

John juxtaposes Mary’s remarkable fidelity with Judas’ treason.  Similarly, he contrasts the beauty of the perfume’s scent and this deeply affectionate moment with the ugly brutality of the impending crucifixion in which hatred seems to win the day.  St. John tells us these events took place six days before the Passover.  The timetable echoes with the days of creation, and through his Passion Jesus makes “all things new again”.  Jesus renews all creation through the his death on the Cross, a death by which love conquers fear, hatred and death itself.

Pax Christi,

James R. Dennis, O.P.

 © 2012 James R. Dennis

Hosanna!

The next day the great crowd that had come to the festival heard that Jesus was coming to Jerusalem. So they took branches of palm trees and went out to meet him, shouting, “Hosanna! Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord– the King of Israel!” Jesus found a young donkey and sat on it; as it is written: “Do not be afraid, daughter of Zion. Look, your king is coming, sitting on a donkey’s colt!” His disciples did not understand these things at first; but when Jesus was glorified, then they remembered that these things had been written of him and had been done to him.  John 12:12-16.

Once Jesus raised Lazarus from the dead, the chief priests and the Pharisees ordered anyone who knew of Jesus’ location to reveal it so that they could arrest him.  John 11:57.  So when Jesus entered into Jerusalem amid all this acclamation, He was already in trouble.  In response to this, He acted provocatively, subversively, and prophetically.  The crowd carried palm branches, perhaps echoing the crowd’s exultation at Simon driving the pagans out of Jerusalem as described in 1 Maccabees 13:49-52.  Historically, the people of God carried palms to celebrate a military victory.

The crowd greeted Jesus with one of the psalms of ascent, saying “Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord.”  Psalm 118:26. They proclaimed Jesus as the Messiah, during the festival of the Passover (a celebration of the liberation of God’s chosen people).

As Marcus Borg and John Dominic Crossan have suggested, Pilate may have entered the city  at about the same time, traveling with a legion of combat-hardened Roman soldiers.  Jesus arrived from the east; Pilate approached Jerusalem from the west.  Entering on an ass rather than in a military procession, Jesus may even have intentionally mocked the fanfare of Pilate’s entry into the city.  One didn’t need to be a scholar or a theologian to see trouble coming.

Typical of John’s sense of irony, the crowds announce Jesus as the King of Israel.  While they are right, they don’t understand what they’re saying.  For all the wrong reasons, they proclaim the beginning of a new kingdom.  Ultimately, they will decide that Jesus isn’t the Messiah, or at least that he’s the wrong kind of Messiah.  Jesus signals the nature of his kingdom by riding in on an ass, a humble mount, in sharp contrast with the Roman war horses and chariots.

We have this remarkable image, then, of two parades.  On Palm Sunday, Jesus rides into Jerusalem amid shouts of adulation and triumph.  (You can almost hear the whispers in the crowd:  “Now we’ll show those Romans who’s boss.”)  The crowd shouts “Hosanna”, which probably best translates as “we pray, save us!”  Nothing about this procession would have amused the Romans as the city of Jerusalem swelled to about four times its usual population.

By Friday, Jesus will march in another parade, carrying shame on his back, stumbling toward Golgotha.  While the crowd praises Jesus as their Messiah, only a few days later his cross will bear sign mockingly describing Him as The King of the Jews.  Hindsight and God’s grace alone will permit the disciples to make sense of these two processions.  At the time, their meaning was lost in the din of the crowd’s shouts and jeers.

Shabbat shalom,

James R. Dennis, O.P.

© 2012 James R. Dennis

We Wish to See Jesus

Now among those who went up to worship at the festival were some Greeks. They came to Philip, who was from Bethsaida in Galilee, and said to him, “Sir, we wish to see Jesus.” Philip went and told Andrew; then Andrew and Philip went and told Jesus. Jesus answered them, “The hour has come for the Son of Man to be glorified. Very truly, I tell you, unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains just a single grain; but if it dies, it bears much fruit. Those who love their life lose it, and those who hate their life in this world will keep it for eternal life. Whoever serves me must follow me, and where I am, there will my servant be also. Whoever serves me, the Father will honor.

“Now my soul is troubled. And what should I say– `Father, save me from this hour’? No, it is for this reason that I have come to this hour. Father, glorify your name.” Then a voice came from heaven, “I have glorified it, and I will glorify it again.” The crowd standing there heard it and said that it was thunder. Others said, “An angel has spoken to him.” Jesus answered, “This voice has come for your sake, not for mine. Now is the judgment of this world; now the ruler of this world will be driven out. And I, when I am lifted up from the earth, will draw all people to myself.” He said this to indicate the kind of death he was to die.  John 12: 20-33.

In today’s passage from John’s Gospel, we feel the imminent approach of the Passion, as though the gravitational forces surrounding the Cross were drawing Christ to them.  Just as these Greeks (who may have been Gentiles or may have been Hellenized Jews) come seeking after Jesus, Christ announces that His ministry is coming to its fruition.  It’s a terribly strange notion of fruition, however, because Jesus teaches his disciples that while he will be “glorified”, His glorification will entail His death.  Jesus compares Himself to a grain of wheat, a self-description consistent with his earlier announcement:  “I am the bread of life.”  John 6:35.

While the world struggles to see Jesus in his glory, Jesus teaches that death isn’t the end of the story.  Placing this story in context, Jesus hinted at this teaching earlier.  We should recall that just one chapter earlier, Jesus raised Lazarus from the dead.  We already have a sense, therefore, that Jesus’ ministry will entail a redefinition of “dying”.  This new understanding will entail the notion that surrendering our autonomy (serving Jesus rather than ourselves) and involves following Jesus even following Him through death’s door.

Jesus does not face these facts lightly, admitting that this prospect troubles His soul.  I suspect it shook Him to his core, just as it should trouble us.  Despite these terrible struggles, Jesus knows that the reason for the Incarnation lies within this hour, within these events. God then announces His intention to use these horrific events for the glory of His name and kingdom.  As is so often the case in John’s Gospel, however, the people misunderstand and think it’s just the thunder, or maybe an angel.

Once again, John plays upon the double-meaning of the notion of Jesus being “lifted up”. This time, the phrase  carries with it the double meaning of Jesus lifted up on the cross, and his ascension into heaven.  Again, this passage recalls Moses lifting up the bronze serpents in the wilderness, healing those who look upon it.  Jesus says that when He is lifted up from the earth, He will draw all people to Himself.

Now, we begin to get a sense of the remarkable gravitational pull of Jesus and the cross, drawing all of mankind into their vortex.  In that gravitational maelstrom, we will encounter the unbearable weight of the cross, which even Christ could not carry alone.  Within that vortex, we find love, hatred, beauty and pain, humanity, and God.

In the 26th verse of this passage, Jesus tells his followers, “Whoever serves me must follow me, and where I am there will be my servant also.”  This passage echoes with the name God offers Moses as the name of the divine.  Ex. 3:14  (“I Am Who I Am”).  Following Jesus requires presence, but offers the gift of the presence of the Father.

If, like those first century Greeks, we “wish to see Jesus”, this is no time to cover our eyes.  It’s happening now; “the hour has come”.  Jesus views these events as God’s judgment on the world, which will bring about the expulsion of our Ancient Enemy.  (In the Greek, the word for that judgment is krisis, from which we derive our word “crisis”.)  Jesus came for this time, and those who follow Him must go through this Passion with Christ.

Shabbat shalom,

James R. Dennis, O.P.

© 2012 James R. Dennis

How Can These Things Be?

From Mount Hor the Israelites set out by the way to the Red Sea, to go around the land of Edom; but the people became impatient on the way. The people spoke against God and against Moses, “Why have you brought us up out of Egypt to die in the wilderness? For there is no food and no water, and we detest this miserable food.” Then the LORD sent poisonous serpents among the people, and they bit the people, so that many Israelites died. The people came to Moses and said, “We have sinned by speaking against the LORD and against you; pray to the LORD to take away the serpents from us.” So Moses prayed for the people. And the LORD said to Moses, “Make a poisonous serpent, and set it on a pole; and everyone who is bitten shall look at it and live.” So Moses made a serpent of bronze, and put it upon a pole; and whenever a serpent bit someone, that person would look at the serpent of bronze and live.  Numbers 21: 4-9.

Jesus said to Nicodemus, “Just as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of Man be lifted up, that whoever believes in him may have eternal life.
“For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life.”  John 3: 14-16.

The first passage, from the Book of Numbers, deeply challenges our understanding of Yahweh, and confronts our  imaginations.  It takes place against the backdrop of  the consistent theme within the Exodus narrative:  forty years of wandering in the wilderness, marked by the people’s resistance, God’s punishment, the people’s repentance, and God’s restoration.   As the people near the end of their journey, a campaign of rebellion  arose against both Moses and God.  The text reports that God addressed this issue through an infestation of seraphs (poisonous snakes).

One might reasonably conclude that there were already poisonous snakes among the Hebrew people, spreading this contagion of destructive grumbling.  While we may struggle with the notion that God sent the snakes down upon the Hebrews, I want to suggest that those vipers were merely visible tokens of the toxic rebellion that already enveloped them.  The serpents which would lead to their deaths were already there.  God merely revealed a physical sign of the spiritual reality they already confronted.  It’s as though the Lord were telling them, “This is what your way looks like.”

In this fitting Lenten passage, when the people acknowledge their complicity for their situation, God intervenes to save them.  God instructs Moses, who creates a bronze serpent placed upon a pole.  When those bitten by snakes look upon this image, this icon, God heals them.  Out of this destructive pattern of sin and death, God will raise up a way of healing.  This leads us to the Gospel reading for today.

In the Gospel passage, we encounter the terribly interesting figure of Nicodemus, a Pharisee who secretly followed Jesus.  Immediately prior to this passage, Jesus challenges Nicodemus’ imagination, teaching about the need for a man to be “born again”.  Jesus then reveals his messianic role, drawing on the iconic image of Moses lifting up a serpent in the wilderness.  This statement carries with it the double-meaning of the Christ being raised up as the Messiah and of Jesus raised up on the cross.  As with the earlier passage from Numbers, Jesus describes a spiritual reality that the world cannot yet comprehend.

The cross will become the source of healing this broken world.  Just as with the bronze serpent, that which we perceived as an image of fear and death becomes the source of our new life.  Again, it’s as though God said to the world, “All right.  This horror on Golgotha is the result of the way you want to do business.  But I can still create life where you see nothing but death and shame.”

 Jesus teaches Nicodemus that believing  in the Son “lifted up” provides the way to eternal life.  It’s important to note that the Greek phrase John uses isn’t actually “believes in him” but rather “believes into him”.  In other words, Jesus isn’t describing an intellectual assent to a set of propositions, but rather a radical submission and new way of life.  Jesus offers eternal life, therefore, to those who join in His way of life.  Thus, St. Paul could accurately say “I no longer live, but Christ lives in me.”  Gal. 2:20.

John’s Gospel offers us a deeply rooted theology of the cross.  In fact, for St. John, the cross operates as the fulcrum point upon which all of human history turns.  This passage seems to answer, perhaps a little obliquely, Nicodemus’ question, “How can these things be?”  John 3:9.

Jesus points to a spiritual reality we cannot yet see, that we cannot yet understand.  Our new life, our eternal life, in Christ originates in one mysterious, glorious, incomprehensible notion:  “God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes into him may not perish but may have eternal life.”  Salvation arises through God’s love, revealed on the cross.  In the depth of this Lenten season, that’s good news.

Shabbat shalom,

© 2012 James R. Dennis

Moses and the Bronze Serpent © Fr. Lawrence Lew, O.P.

Cleaning (God’s) House

The Passover of the Jews was near, and Jesus went up to Jerusalem. In the temple he found people selling cattle, sheep, and doves, and the money changers seated at their tables. Making a whip of cords, he drove all of them out of the temple, both the sheep and the cattle. He also poured out the coins of the money changers and overturned their tables. He told those who were selling the doves, “Take these things out of here! Stop making my Father’s house a marketplace!” His disciples remembered that it was written, “Zeal for your house will consume me.” The Jews then said to him, “What sign can you show us for doing this?” Jesus answered them, “Destroy this temple, and in three days I will raise it up.” The Jews then said, “This temple has been under construction for forty-six years, and will you raise it up in three days?” But he was speaking of the temple of his body. After he was raised from the dead, his disciples remembered that he had said this; and they believed the scripture and the word that Jesus had spoken.  John 2: 13-22.

Few paths offer a quicker road to trouble than criticizing someone’s religion or their politics.  Almost certainly, Jesus knew that about us, and travelling down that road got Him killed.  In today’s reading from the Lectionary, Jesus criticized both the religion and the politics of the Judean authorities of that time.

The Temple stood as a monument to something sacred and holy:  it represented the intersection of heaven and earth, the dwelling place of the Living God, and a visible symbol of both national identity and God’s covenant with the Jewish people.  Most people would perceive an attack on the Temple  as an attack on the faith (and the nation) itself.  These events took place as the city of Jerusalem swelled with the Passover crowds.

All four Gospels record this event, one of the few occasions on which Jesus became deeply angry.  In the other three Gospels, Jesus calls the Temple a “den of thieves.”  John places this event near the beginning of Jesus’ public ministry, as opposed to the synoptic Gospels which place it much later.

Jesus apparently became enraged upon observing the barriers thrown up by the priestly authorities, barriers which stood between God and His people.  For example, because Roman coins were forbidden in the Temple, they had to be exchanged (at a substantial discount) for the currency of the Temple.

The Temple authorities also collaborated with the Roman occupation, and Jesus overturned that table as well.  In John’s Gospel, Jesus  insults the Temple culture, calling it a “marketplace.”  Trading on access to the Holy was then, and still remains, a special kind of blasphemy.  Jesus became enraged when He saw the Sacred being traded like a commodity.  I think we underestimate the Gospel if we see this as a historical criticism of “the Jews” back then.

Our churches still seek to collaborate with political power.  We still fall under the thrall of a purity system that separates the righteous from the sinners, the holy from the impure and the whole from those who are broken.  We might well examine the ways in which we still place obstacles in the paths of those who come looking for God.  We might wonder whether our churches, like the Temple in Jesus’ time, have become comfortable monuments to the status quo.  We might ask whether our houses of worship have become mutual admiration societies rather than instruments of change.  Perhaps we should share the Savior’s sense of outrage when we encounter it.

The Judean authorities asked Jesus to provide them with a sign (seimeion), in other words, to show them the authority by which Jesus issues this prophetic condemnation.  Asked for an explanation, Jesus replies with an enigma.  Jesus responds that upon the destruction of “this temple”, he will raise it up in three days.  As is so often the case in John’s Gospel, Jesus is misunderstood.  (We find the classic example of this in Jesus’ trial as Pilate questions Him.  John 18, 19.)  Jesus speaks of the sanctuary of His body; the Judeans think He’s talking about the architecture.

Ultimately, Jesus will displace the Temple as the intersection of heaven and earth.  As He told the Samaritan woman only two chapters later, “the hour is coming when you will worship the Father neither on this mountain nor in Jerusalem.”  John 4:21. Further, Jesus’ death would signal the final sacrifice, rendering the Temple culture obsolete. Jesus thus appropriates the functions of the Temple for Himself.  The life of Christ would come to operate as the new meeting place for those seeking El Shaddai (God Almighty).

Like the Temple culture of Jesus’ time, many of us would still prefer a God we could do business with (see here).  Jesus offers us something radically different:  He offers Himself.  He becomes the locus point (the alpha and the omega) where human history intersects with the Father. He has been raised as the new edifice where we can encounter the holy.

As we come to this new Temple, Jesus doesn’t expect us to bring a dove or to engage in some special ritual.  He asks us to take the whip into our own hands, and chase away everything that separates us from God. He asks us to come and offer ourselves, our whole lives, without reservation. He asks us to take up our cross and follow Him.

Shabbat shalom,

James R. Dennis, O.P.

© 2012 James R. Dennis