Easter 4B

Thoughts on Sunday’s Lessons for April 21, 2024 (Easter 4B)

Ancient Greek Orthodox icon of Jesus, the Good Shepherd..

Ancient Greek Orthodox icon of Jesus, the Good Shepherd.. (Click image to enlarge.)

First Reading: Acts 4:5-12

The Fourth Sunday after Easter is also called “Good Shepherd Sunday” for its focus on God’s protective love. In the first reading from The Acts of the Apostles, we see Peter, brave and bold with the power of the Holy Spirit. He and John have been arrested by the Temple authorities for causing a stir by healing a paralyzed man, then preaching that the resurrected Jesus is the Messiah. Unafraid, Peter tells them that they are the ones who crucified Jesus, whom God then raised from the dead. Quoting the verses from Psalm 118 that we also read recently on Palm Sunday and Easter, Peter declares that Jesus – the stone they had rejected – has become the cornerstone of salvation.

Psalm: Psalm 23

Many Christians know this beautiful Psalm so well – perhaps in the cadences of King James – that we can recite it from memory. But sometimes familiarity robs us of the beauty of rediscovering the details. Try reading it now with fresh eyes and mind. Take it slowly, one verse at a time. Breathe deeply and visualize yourself and your loved ones in each line: walking with God through the green pastures, past the still waters and through the dark valley, then sitting down at God’s table for an unforgettable banquet. God loves us all, always. What could be more comforting than that?

Second Reading: 1 John 3:16-24

Jesus loved us so much that he laid down his life for us. But wait! “And we ought to lay down our lives for one another”? That following phrase makes things a little more complicated! Just as God loves us, we are to love each other, to help our brothers and sisters in need, not just in what we say but in what we do. We are to be not only sheep, but shepherds, too. Filled with God’s love, we are called to be bold, just as Peter was bold in the first reading. We seek to be fired by the Holy Spirit, just as Peter was inspired.

Gospel: John 10:11-18

If we read this passage from John’s Gospel in its full context, this seemingly simple narrative resonates with the day’s reading from the Acts of the Apostles. In Acts, the authorities confronted Peter and John over their healing and preaching. Here, the Pharisees are angry and alarmed because Jesus healed a blind man on the Sabbath, prompting people to speak of him as the Messiah. When Jesus responds by declaring himself the Good Shepherd; he is pushing back hard: If the people are harmless sheep, he implies that it is the Pharisees who are the vicious wolves that prey upon them. Jesus declares that he will lay down his life for the sheep and that he will live again.

Easter 3B

Thoughts on Sunday’s Lessons for April 14, 2024 (Easter 3B)

Christ Appears to the Disciples in Galilee

Christ Appears to the Disciples in Galilee (1308-1311), tempera painting on wood by Duccio di Buoninsegna (c.1255-c.1319). Museo dell’Opera Metropolitana del Duomo, Florence, Italy. (Click image to enlarge.

First Reading: Acts 3:12-19

Christ, the Messiah, has come for all the world: This promise resonates through Sunday’s readings. In the first reading from Acts of the Apostles, Peter and John, filled with the Holy Spirit, have healed a man who could not walk. This astounded all those who saw the beggar joyfully moving about and praising God in the temple. In words that startle us now with their harsh anti-Judaism, Peter tells the crowd that the man was healed through the power of Jesus, the Messiah, whom they had rejected and had killed, but who will forgive them if they turn to him. Language like this, sadly, permeates Acts, which was written a generation after the destruction of the Temple, when Christians and Jews were angrily drawing apart.

Psalm: Psalm 4

In contrast with the many Psalms of anger and lamentation that call on God to crush and destroy the foe, Psalm 4 raises a more quiet and trusting confidence that’s echoed in the Taize hymn: “O Lord, hear my prayer … when I call, answer me.” The Psalmist sings for a people who face severe persecution from enemies, yet stand strong in confidence in a loving and faithful God. We join our voices with theirs, asking that the light of God’s countenance shine upon us and give us peace.

Second Reading: 1 John 3:1-7

Echoing the themes of this week’s passage from Acts, the author of the First Letter of John assures members of the early church that God’s love revealed to us through Jesus makes us the children of God, and that the world will eventually come to know this. Meanwhile, the writer concludes, doing what is right keeps us in relationship with God through Jesus and thus free from sin, for there is surely no sin in Jesus.

Gospel: Luke 24:36b-48

This week we read a resurrection story from Luke. We pick up just after Luke’s account of two disciples who met Jesus on the road to Emmaus but did not recognize him until he broke bread. Now the disciples are together again, and Jesus suddenly appears among them and wishes them shalom. Their first response is not joy but surprise and terror, as if a ghost had materialized in the room. Much as he had done for Thomas in John’s Gospel, Jesus invited them to touch his wounds. Then he asked for something to eat, and he took a piece of fish, perhaps to show that he is no ghost but flesh and blood. Jesus declares himself the Messiah foretold in the Scriptures, and says that repentance and forgiveness of sins will go out in his name to all nations.

Easter 2B

Thoughts on Sunday’s Lessons for April 7, 2024 (Easter 2B)

Christ Appears to the Disciples at the Table after the Resurrection

Christ Appears to the Disciples at the Table after the Resurrection (1308-1311). Tempera on wood panel from the Maesta Altarpiece of Siena by Duccio di Buoninsegna (1255-1319). Museo dell’Opera del Duomo, Siena, Italy. (Click image to enlarge.)

First Reading: Acts 4:32-35

Christ is risen, and we move forward with joy into the 50 days of Eastertide. Throughout this fifty-day period, our Sunday first readings will be selections from the Acts of the Apostles, the evangelist Luke’s story of the life of the early church. In his Gospel, Luke consistently emphasizes Jesus’s command to shun riches and to serve the poor, the weak and the oppressed. It should be no surprise, then, that in Acts Luke presents the practice of sharing all possessions and caring for the poor as the customary lifestyle of the apostles. This practice would be a hard sell in 21st century politics, which might give us food for thought as we ponder Jesus’s promise of good news to the poor.

Psalm: Psalm 133

Sounding a theme that resonates with the sharing lifestyle that Luke presents in the early church in Acts, the Psalmist celebrates the joy of a community that lives in unity like brothers and sisters. The earthy image of anointing oil running down Aaron’s head, beard and robe may sound odd to our modern ears. But, like the familiar Gospel story of the woman who anointed Jesus with expensive ointment, this reminds us that the most desirable luxuries are not to be hoarded but abundantly shared.

Second Reading: 1 John 1:1-2:2

Our second readings during Eastertide will take us through the First Letter of John. Although this letter was almost certainly not written by the evangelist we know as John, its emphasis on love and on Jesus as the Word and the Light is consistent with the style of John’s Gospel. This document may well have originated later in the same early Christian community that gave us John’s Gospel. “If we say we have no sin, we deceive ourselves,” Sunday’s verses tell us, adding the assurance that, when we confess our sins, God will forgive us and restore our righteousness through Christ.

Gospel: John 20:19-31

Jesus has died. Christ has risen! And now Jesus begins appearing to the disciples, often in mysterious ways that defy imagining. The doors are locked. The apostles are terrified. Then Jesus suddenly appears in the locked room, and their fear is transformed to joy. Thomas, who had missed Jesus’s first appearance to the others, remains doubtful. For this he is remembered forever as “Doubting Thomas.” But Jesus understands. And Thomas, too, like all the others, goes on to testify that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God, and that we all have life in his name.

Easter Sunday B

Thoughts on Sunday’s Lessons for March 31, 2024 (Easter Sunday B)

The Appearance of Christ to Mary Magdalene after the Resurrection

The Appearance of Christ to Mary Magdalene after the Resurrection (c.1833), painting by Alexander Ivanov (1806-1858). Russian Museum, Saint Petersburg, Russia. (Click image to enlarge.)

First Reading or Alternate Second Reading: Acts 10:34-43

Christ is risen indeed! Alleluia! On Easter we celebrate Jesus’ victory over death through resurrection with alleluias and shouts of joy. In this reading from Acts, Luke’s story of the early church, Peter is visiting the home of the Roman Centurion Cornelius, who is considering becoming a Christian. Peter has just had a vision in which God told him that he should join the Roman family at table. No food is now to be considered unclean, a signal from God that salvation through Jesus’ life, death on the cross and resurrection is meant for everyone, not just Jewish Christians. God’s Good News in the Gospel shows no partiality, Peter tells Cornelius’ family. Forgiveness of sin through God’s saving grace is available to every nation, to Jew and Gentile alike: Jesus is Lord of all.

Alternate First Reading: Isaiah 25:6-9
The Prophet Isaiah imagines a sumptuous feast, a table loaded with rich food and fine wine, set out for all God’s people as a celebration of victory over death. Isaiah foresaw this as a national feast in the context of Israel’s dream of return from exile. It echoes through the ages for us as an image of God’s saving grace through Jesus. “Christ our Passover is sacrificed for us. Therefore let us keep the feast.” Amid the joy of the Resurrection and Easter Day, this affirmation that we repeat at Eucharist resonates for us as we praise God in gladness and rejoice in God’s salvation.

Psalm: Psalm 118:1-2, 14-24

This hymn of exultation in God’s goodness and mercy may have originally served as a processional hymn as the congregation came up the steps surrounding the ancient Temple in Jerusalem, singing out their gladness. Celebrating the people’s triumph as God saved them from slavery in Egypt with a mighty hand at the first Passover, it is filled with both joy and gratitude. We, too, are overjoyed at our salvation. We are delighted at our victory over death. We are grateful for God’s goodness and mercy. As with ancient Israel, God has heard our prayers, laying a new cornerstone for a just world. This is the day that the Lord has made: Let us rejoice and be glad!

Second Reading: 1 Corinthians 15:1-11

Near the end of Paul’s first long letter to the Christians of Corinth, he offers thoughts that serve well for our contemplation on Easter Sunday. Paul points to the central place of the Resurrection in Christian belief: Christ died for our sins, was buried, was raised on the third day and seen by the Apostles and by hundreds of followers. Everyone who saw the risen Christ, he writes – including Paul himself, forgiven despite his unfitness as a former persecutor – now proclaims to the whole world that God’s saving grace comes to us through the crucifixion and the resurrection.

Gospel: John 20:1-18

Like four witnesses discussing a memorable event, each of the four Evangelists tells the story of the first Easter morning in a slightly different way. John’s Gospel gives particular weight to Mary Magdalene, describing her in beautiful, tender verses as the one who discovered the empty tomb and then, after the excited men had come and left, remained there and thus became the first person to witness the risen Christ. In a narrative similar to other Gospel accounts of the risen Christ’s mysterious appearances, Mary did not recognize Jesus until he called her name. Then she became the one sent to proclaim the good news of his resurrection to the rest.

Alternate Gospel: Mark 16:1-8

Mark, the earliest of the Gospels, tells of the events of Easter morning in brisk, concise language, as is the style of Mark. The sun has risen, and three grieving women get up early to take spices to the tomb to anoint Jesus’ beloved body. When they arrive, worrying about who will move the heavy stone that bars the door, they find to their amazement that it has already been rolled away! A young man dressed in white tells them, “He has been raised; he is not here. … he is going ahead of you to Galilee; there you will see him, just as he told you.” It’s not surprising that they were terrified: They ran away and told no one. And there the original version of Mark’s Gospel ends without another word, leaving us to wonder what comes next.

A Kaddish for Jesus: Holy Week repentance and regret for anti-Judaism

I offer this 2013 sermon every year during Holy Week as my annual reminder that the Gospels we read during Holy Week reflect a vicious anti-Judaism that has contributed to misunderstanding and even hate by many Christians over the centuries. Let’s commit to hold these thoughts in context, regret and repent our historic institutional anti-Judaism as we gather for Holy Week services.

A Kaddish for Jesus

Maundy Thursday, March 28, 2013
A Kaddish for Jesus
Robin Garr
Sermon at St. Thomas Episcopal Church
Louisville, Kentucky

יִתְגַּדַּל וְיִתְקַדַּשׁ שְׁמֵהּ רַבָּא

Yitgaddal v’yitqaddash sh’meh rabba …  
“Glorified and sanctified be God’s great name …  ”

Christ Before Pilate Again

Christ Before Pilate Again (1308-1311), tempera painting on wood by Duccio di Buoninsegna (1255-1319). Museo dell’Opera Metropolitana del Duomo, Siena, Italy.

So begins Kaddish, the traditional Jewish prayer in which family members or friends honor the memory of a loved one who has died.

We gather this evening in memory of Jesus’s last supper with his friends, when he showed them the dignity of service and the meaning of humility by lovingly washing their feet.

Tomorrow, Good Friday, we’ll remember Jesus’s passion and death on the cross.  Tonight,  Jesus and his friends are sharing a Passover dinner. Within 24 hours, Jesus’s friends would have been sitting together, mourning his death with an ancient version of something like the Kaddish.

After all, Jesus and all his apostles were Jewish. They studied the Torah and they worshiped at the Temple in Jerusalem.  Jesus was a rabbi, a teacher; many saw him as a prophet.

As we enter the three holy days of Jesus’s passion and death leading to the Easter joy of Christ’s resurrection, I’d like us to take a few minutes to remember  – and honor – the Jewish tradition that Jesus believed and that Rabbi Jesus taught.

Now, you might be thinking, “Why bring this up?”  Certainly it’s no secret that Jesus was Jewish and that Christianity is rooted in Judaism, sharing the same First Testament. But why go into all that now, during the holiest days on the Christian calendar?

I would suggest that there is no better time for us to think about our relationship with our Jewish brothers and sisters than now, when our scripture readings through Lent, Palm Sunday and Good Friday confront us with the harsh words that the leaders of the early church had for the Temple authorities.

Early in the Gospel of Luke, “the Jews” in Jesus’s home town got so angry with his first preaching that they chased him out of the synagogue and tried to throw him off a cliff. Luke goes on to tell how the Jewish scribes and priests were constantly spying on Jesus and trying to trick him into saying things that would get him in trouble.

In tomorrow’s Good Friday services we’ll hear John portraying “The Jews” as a nasty gang, out to get Jesus. They’re dead-set on making sure that the Roman governor Pontius Pilate won’t let Jesus off on a technicality. Earlier in the Gospel, John calls the Jews “children of the devil,” and warns  that the Jewish authorities were constantly hatching plans to kill Jesus.

We  hear “The Jews … The Jews … The Jews” like the beat of an angry drum. But as we listen to John’s Gospel tomorrow, let’s bear in mind that in Jesus’s time there were many Judaisms, not just one.  Much like the church today, there was a huge variety of Jewish practices and scriptural interpretations, and they didn’t all get along.

Jesus very likely squabbled with a group of Temple authorities who saw nothing but a troublesome uproar over  his active public ministry, his healings and his call for “good news for the poor.” In these days, especially at Passover time in Jerusalem, the Roman rulers weren’t shy about cracking down on anything that looked like trouble. This noisy rabbi was getting a lot of attention, and nobody wanted that!

And when Matthew wrote that “the Jews” shouted out to Pilate, “His blood be on us and our children,” he set down a vicious charge that would be hurled back at Judaism for 2,000 years. Placing the blame for Jesus’s death on “the Jews” set a flame that would ignite a shameful history of pogroms and persecutions and, eventually, the Holocaust.

In this post-Holocaust world, all people of good spirit look back and say, “never again.”  To this end, let’s not just shrug off the anti-Jewish verses that still reside in our scriptural tradition.

It’s important to recognize that the stories about Jesus – the Gospels – were not written down until some 40 to 70 years after the crucifixion. Not many first-hand witnesses were still alive, and bad attitudes and prejudices had already built walls between Christians and Jews.

Forty years after the crucifixion, the Romans had destroyed the Temple, and most of Jerusalem with it. The Christian faith had reached out to embrace Gentile converts and was spreading across the Mediterranean and beyond, but its leaders still thought of the church as “Christian Jews.”

Judaism, meanwhile, focusing on the synagogue as center of community in a world without a Temple, now viewed the Christians as more than heretics.  Christian Jews were thrown out of the synagogues and told to stay out. Everyone involved was human and flawed. Anger and tempers flared. It was in this fiery setting that the Gospel stories were written and the idea of “the Jews” as unrepentant killers of Jesus set in stone.

But as Marcus Borg points out in his recent book, Evolution of the Word, the Gospels don’t indict  all Jews, only the individuals responsible for Jesus’s rejection – and, years later, the Christian community’s rejection from the synagogues. “To fail to recognize the historical circumstances and the limited intention of these passages,” Borg says, “is to perpetuate the long history of Christian anti-Semitism.”1

“His blood be on us and on our children”?  “The scribes and chief priests …       watched him and sent spies”? “The Jews, The Jews, The Jews”? When we hear these words during Holy Week, the holiest week of the year, let’s remember that it would not be inappropriate for us to pray Kaddish for Jesus:

“Yitgaddal v’yitqaddash sh’meh rabba … Glorified and sanctified be God’s great name throughout the world, which God has created according to God’s will. May God establish God’s kingdom in your lifetime and during your days, and within the life of the entire House of Israel, speedily and soon; and say, Amen.”

Think carefully about those words. Hear what they say. And now think about this: That first verse of Kaddish sounds a lot like the words that Jesus taught us when we asked him how to pray:

“Our Father in heaven, hallowed be your name.  Your kingdom come. Your will be done,  on earth as it is in heaven.”

Speedily and soon; and say, Amen.

1Borg, Marcus J. (2012-08-28). Evolution of the Word: The New Testament in the Order the Books Were Written]. HarperOne. Kindle Edition.

Holy Week 2024

The Descent from the Cross

The Descent from the Cross (c.1435), oil painting on oak panel by Rogier van der Weyden (c.1399-1464). Museo del Prado, Madrid. (Click image to enlarge.)

Illuminations on the Lectionary readings for Holy Week 2024

Lectionary readings for March 25, 2024 (Monday in Holy Week)

Isaiah 42:1-9 [He has established justice in the earth]

Psalm 36:5-11 [Your love, O Lord, reaches to the heavens]

Hebrews 9:11-15 [He is the mediator of a new covenant]

John 12:1-11 [You always have the poor with you, but you do not always have me]

Lectionary readings for March 26, 2024 (Tuesday in Holy Week)

Isaiah 49:1-7 [The Lord called me before I was born]

Psalm 71:1-14 [In you, O Lord, have I taken refuge]

1 Corinthians 1:18-31 [Consider your own call, brothers and sisters]

John 12:20-36 [Whoever serves me, the Father will honor]

Lectionary readings for March 27, 2024 (Wednesday in Holy Week)

Isaiah 50:4-9a [It is the Lord God who helps me]

Psalm 70 [O Lord, make haste to help me]

Hebrews 12:1-3 [Let us run with perseverance the race that is set before us]

John 13:21-32 [“Very truly, I tell you, one of you will betray me”]

Lectionary readings for March 28, 2024 (Maundy Thursday)

Exodus 12:1-4, (5-10), 11-14 [The first Passover]

Psalm 116:1, 10-17 [O Lord, I am your servant]

1 Corinthians 11:23-26 [This is my body that is for you]

John 13:1-17, 31b-35 [Jesus knew that his hour had come]

Lectionary readings for March 29, 2024 (Good Friday)

Isaiah 52:13-53:12 [The Suffering Servant]

Psalm 22 [My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?]

Hebrews 10:16-25 [He who has promised is faithful]

or Hebrews 4:14-16; 5:7-9 [Jesus the Great High Priest]

John 18:1-19:42 [“It is finished.”]

Lectionary readings for March 30, 2024 (The Great Vigil of Easter)

At The Liturgy of the Word

At least two of the following Lessons are read, of which one is always the Lesson from Exodus. After each Lesson, the Psalm or Canticle listed, or some other suitable psalm, canticle, or hymn, may be sung. A period of silence may be kept; and the Collects provided on pages 288-91, or some other suitable Collect, may be said. It is recommended that the first Collect on page 290 be used after the Lesson from Baruch or Proverbs. (pp 893, BCP)

Genesis 1:1-2:4a [The Story of Creation]

Genesis 7:1-5, 11-18, 8:6-18, 9:8-13 [The Flood]

Genesis 22:1-18 [Abraham’s sacrifice of Isaac]

Exodus 14:10-31; 15:20-21 [Israel’s deliverance at the Red Sea]

Isaiah 55:1-11 [Salvation offered freely to all]

Baruch 3:9-15, 3:32-4:4 [Learn wisdom and live]

or Proverbs 8:1-8, 19-21; 9:4b-6 [Does not wisdom call]

Ezekiel 36:24-28 [A new heart and a new spirit]

Ezekiel 37:1-14 [The valley of dry bones]

Zephaniah 3:14-20 [The gathering of God’s people]

At The Eucharist

Romans 6:3-11 [Death no longer has dominion over him]

Psalm 114 [Tremble, O earth, at the presence of the Lord]

Mark 16:1-8 [His appearance was like lightning, and his clothing white as snow]

Lectionary readings for March 31, 2024 (Easter Sunday – Early Service)

Use one of the Old Testament Lessons from the Vigil with:

Psalm 114 [Tremble, O earth, at the presence of the Lord]

Romans 6:3-11 [Death no longer has dominion over him]

Matthew 28:1-10 [He has been raised; he is not here]

Lectionary readings for March 31, 2024 (Easter Sunday – Principal Service)

Acts 10:34-43 [God raised him on the third day]

or Isaiah 25:6-9 [This is the Lord for whom we have waited;]

Psalm 118:1-2, 14-24 [Give thanks to the Lord, for he is good]

1 Corinthians 15:1-11 [His grace toward me has not been in vain]

or Acts 10:34-43 [God raised him on the third day]

John 20:1-18 [ “I have seen the Lord”]

or Mark 16:1-8 [His appearance was like lightning, and his clothing white as snow]

Lectionary readings for March 31, 2024 (Easter Sunday – Evening Service)

Isaiah 25:6-9 [Then the Lord God will wipe away the tears from all faces]

Psalm 114 [Tremble, O earth, at the presence of the Lord]

1 Corinthians 5:6b-8 [A little yeast leavens the whole batch]

Luke 24:13-49 [He showed them his hands and his feet]

Palm / Passion Sunday B

Thoughts on Sunday’s Lessons for March 24, 2024 (Palm / Passion Sunday B)

The Denial of Saint Peter

The Denial of Saint Peter (c.1607-1643), oil painting on canvas by Adam de Coster (c,1586-1643). Whitfield Fine Art, London. (Click image to enlarge.)

Liturgy of the Palms B

Gospel: Mark 11:1-11

Palm Sunday and Passion Sunday were once celebrated on separate Sundays, but the celebrations were combined in the time of ecumenism that followed Vatican II. As a result, we take a quick and startling turn in the course of Sunday’s worship. First we hear of Jesus’ triumphal entry into Jerusalem, riding a donkey and greeted as a king by throngs spreading their cloaks and leafy branches in his way, shouting “Hosanna!” And then, just a little later in the liturgy, we are yanked through a shocking reversal as those same crowds angrily shout “Crucify him!” This contrast sets a tone for Holy Week as we follow Jesus to the cross: God is always with us, in joy and in sorrow.

Alternate Palm Sunday Gospel: John 12:12-16

All four Gospels tell of Jesus’ triumphant entry into Jerusalem, riding a modest mount and hearing the acclaim of crowds. But each Gospel tells a slightly different story. John’s version, for example, is the only one that explicitly declares Jesus the King of Israel, and the only one that tells us the disciples did not understand what was going on. But all four versions share the image of crowds triumphantly waving branches – in John’s version, explicitly described as palms – and the crowd’s joyous shouts of “Hosanna!”

Psalm: Psalm 118:1-2, 19-29

On Palm Sunday as we chant this ancient hymn of celebration and praise – traditionally titled “A Song of Victory” – imagine a joyous crowd approaching the Temple, clapping hands and singing in celebration of the Lord their God, whose steadfast love endures forever. Its words of joyous praise for God’s works and God’s mercy foreshadow the words we sing in the Great Thanksgiving as our Eucharistic Prayer begins: “Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord! … Hosanna in the highest.”

Liturgy of the Passion B

First Reading: Isaiah 50:4-9a

These familiar verses from Isaiah introduce us to the prophet’s familiar vision of the Suffering Servant. These evocative verses prophesy a servant leader who who would receive the enemy’s blows on behalf of the people in exile, and who would eventually guide them back home to Jerusalem. We must respect the original intent, but it is hard for Christian readers to ponder these verses without imagining parallels with Jesus, our messiah and king, who also suffered for us and taught us to give our backs and turn our cheeks to those who strike us.

Psalm: Psalm 31:9-16

Perhaps the Psalmist had Isaiah’s Suffering Servant in mind in framing this Psalm of lament, with its litany of sorrow, distress, grief, sighing, misery, scorn, horror, and dread. The speaker suffers. His neighbors scheme. They plot his death. It is hard to imagine a thought more pitiful than “I am as useless as a broken pot.” Yet amid all this misery, hope glows like the sun breaking through clouds: Trust in God, place our faith in God’s love, and wait to be saved.

Second Reading: Philippians 2:5-11

We might imagine parallels with the Suffering Servant in Paul’s writing, too, as he tells here of Jesus’s death on the cross. We accept Jesus as both fully human and fully divine, and all the Gospels show us glimpses of a Jesus who knew his stature and God-sent mission. Yet Paul, possibly quoting a very early Christian hymn, speaks poetically of a Jesus who willingly set aside his divinity, his equality with God – “emptying himself” – to bear the horrific pain of crucifixion as a vulnerable, frightened human. Jesus took on the full weight of all that suffering to show us the true exaltation of God’s love, calling us only to respond with love for God and our neighbor.

Gospel: Mark 14:1-15:47

Finally we come to Mark’s account of Jesus’ passion and death. The palm branches and hosannas are only memories now. We hear the dark, painful way of the Cross as we prepare to walk through Holy Week with Jesus. Watch closely as we see first Jesus’ followers, and then even his friends, slip quietly away, deserting him, leaving at the end only those few most close to him, and a Roman centurion – a pagan, a soldier of the hated empire – whose faith showed him the light and thus opens the way to us all.

Lent 5B

Thoughts on Sunday’s Lessons for March 17, 2024 (Lent 5B)

The Prophet Jeremiah

The Prophet Jeremiah (1508-1512), fresco by Michelangelo Buonarroti (1475-1564). Sistine Chapel ceiling, Vatican City, Rome. (Click image to enlarge.)

First Reading: Jeremiah 31:31-34

The consistent pattern of our Lenten Lectionary readings continues as Palm Sunday and Holy Week draw near: In the Gospels we have followed Jesus and his disciples toward Jerusalem. Our Hebrew Bible readings have told of God’s covenants with the people. The first reading for the Fifth Sunday of Lent draws from the Prophet Jeremiah. The prophet laments that the chosen people have broken the covenant promise to walk in God’s ways that their ancestors made at Mount Sinai. Now Jeremiah tells of a new covenant that is to come. This one will be permanent, he says. It is not only written on stone tablets but directly on their hearts.

Psalm: Psalm 51:1-13

Legend tells us that King David himself wrote this psalm. In a powerful narrative, the prophet Nathan had confronted David after David sent his general, Uriah, to die in battle so he could take Uriah’s beautiful wife Bathsheba for himself. In poetic words that reflect covenantal ideas, the Psalmist pours out David’s shame and grief. He admits to wickedness, makes no excuses, but begs for God’s mercy and forgiveness to restore in him a clean heart. A heart on which God, perhaps, can write God’s covenant of love.

Alternate Psalm: Psalm 119:9-16

Psalm 119, the longest of all the Psalms, carries a message of covenant throughout its many verses: Those who follow God’s laws and teaching, modeling their lives on Torah so as to walk in God’s ways, will reap rewards. These verses, “With my lips will I recite all the judgments of your mouth,” seem to reflect God’s response in Jeremiah’s call to prophesy. When Jeremiah said, “Truly I do not know how to speak, for I am only a boy,” God answered, “you shall speak whatever I command you. … Now I have put my words in your mouth.”

Second Reading: Hebrews 5:5-10

The Letter to the Hebrews, scholars believe, was not addressed to a specific congregation. Rather, it was a broad appeal to formerly Jewish Christians who had returned to their original faith late in the first century to avoid the persecution falling on Christians by Rome. Its author argues that Jesus, as Christ, follows in the great tradition of Jewish high priests. That line goes back through millennia to Melchizedek, the ancient king and great high priest who had blessed Abram before God offered the first covenant to Abram and Sarai. As Jesus has become the source of eternal salvation who intercedes on our behalf forever, the unknown author writes, there is no longer any need for priestly sacrifice.

Gospel: John 12:20-33

It is not clear from John’s Gospel whether Jesus actually did consent to meet with the Greek visitors who told Philip that they wanted to see Jesus. John places them in this passage, perhaps, to emphasize that Jesus will draw in all people: Jew and Greek, men and women, slave and free; everyone. Now, as John’s narrative moves toward Jesus’s last Passover, his passion and death, Jesus has words for the world and the ages to hear: Just as Jesus must die to bear the fruit of salvation through his resurrection, we are the seeds of faith, called to grow in discipleship. Do we lie fallow and die, or do we grow and bloom where we are planted, bearing fruit as we follow and serve Christ?

Lent 4B

Thoughts on Sunday’s Lessons for March 10, 2024 (Lent 4B)

Moses and the Brazen Serpent

Moses and the Brazen Serpent (1618-1620), oil painting on canvas by Anthony Van Dyck (1599-1641). Museo del Prado, Madrid. (Click image to enlarge.)

First Reading: Numbers 21:4-9

Sunday’s first reading recounts the Book of Numbers’ bewildering account of God sending deadly poisonous snakes to punish an ungrateful people – and a curative bronze serpent that seems suspiciously like an idol. This might strike us as an ancient legend, easily ignored. But then John’s Gospel shows Jesus citing those same verses to set the context for the famous words in John 3:16, which we will hear in Sunday’s Gospel! This makes the serpent story a little more difficult to ignore. Here’s a way to internalize it: When you think you’re surrounded by snakes, look up. Remember that God is with us.

Psalm: Psalm 107:1-3, 17-22

The theme that we hear in this passage from Psalm 107 offers soothing balm after the shock of venomous snakes and bronze serpents in the reading from Numbers. The Psalmist invites us to repent, to turn back, to give thanks for God’s mercy with shouts of joy. Even when we are foolish, when we rebel, when we sin, when we are afraid, these verses offer reassurance: As soon as we cry out for God, God will respond to us as beloved children, granting us healing and salvation.

Second Reading: Ephesians 2:1-10

This letter, likely written to the people of Ephesus and other communities by a later Christian leader writing in Paul’s name, imagines something just about as frightening and potentially deadly as a passel of serpents: A shadowy spirit, a “ruler of the power of the air,” stands ready to lure those who prefer passion and the flesh to a saving life in Christ. Like those healed by gazing at Moses’ bronze serpent, those who follow Christ are saved by God’s mercy and raised up by the gift of grace through Jesus. In words that would inspire some reformers a millennium and a half later, the author of Ephesians declares that we are saved by grace only, not by anything that we do to try to earn salvation.

Gospel: John 3:14-21

“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.” For many Christians, this week’s lessons could start and finish right there with John 3:16. But wait! Did Jesus just begin by comparing himself to Moses’ bronze serpent? This passage picks up in the middle of Jesus’s conversation with the Pharisee Nicodemus, who came to visit him by night. Surely Jesus is teaching from the Torah, with which both he and Nicodemus would have been intimately familiar; Numbers is his text. We cannot take John 3:16 out of its context without reading the verses that come before and after. John makes clear that we all have power to choose between darkness and the light. Just as God provided the Israelites a way to repent and be healed, so a loving God offers healing grace to all.

Lent 3B

em>Thoughts on Sunday’s Lessons for March 3, 2024 (Lent 3B)

Christ driving the money-changers from the Temple

Christ driving the money-changers from the Temple (c.1570), oil painting on canvas by El Greco (1541-1614). Minneapolis Institute of Art. (Click image to enlarge.)

First Reading: Exodus 20:1-17

So far in Lent we have heard the ancient stories of God’s covenantal promises to Noah and Abraham. Now we come to the great covenant with Moses and the people in the desert at Mount Sinai. God promises that the people will become a holy nation, that they will live and prosper in the promised land. In return, the people agree to walk in God’s way, making a covenant that they will live in accord with God’s commandments. Now they hear those commandments uttered for the first time, echoing over the throng as God’s thunderous voice shakes the mountain. These ten simple principles sum up the way in which the people shall live, detailing how they are to love God and love each other.

Psalm: Psalm 19

“The heavens declare the glory of God.” This familiar hymn of praise and thanksgiving sings in exultation at the beauty and wonder of all God’s creation. In beautiful poetic language it shouts with joy about God’s gift to all the people of the world and to all the span of the universe. And within that creation, the hymn rings on, God’s laws and statutes – the great commandments – give us wisdom and joy and lead us to righteousness.

Second Reading: 1 Corinthians 1:18-25

Paul’s first letter to the people of Corinth in northern Greece is listed among his greatest epistles. Throughout its 16 chapters we see him offering loving pastoral advice to a distant community that has been splitting into factions over a variety of issues. In this passage taken from near the beginning, Paul clearly expresses the overarching theme of this letter: The Cross unites us as one! We may appear foolish to both Jews and Gentiles for worshiping as God a man executed on the brutal Roman cross, a symbol of pain, shame and degradation. But their opinion doesn’t matter, Paul writes,because we prefer God’s “foolishness” to mere human wisdom. We celebrate God’s weakness over the limited power that humans consider strength.

Gospel: John 2:13-22

For the remaining Sundays of Lent we turn from Mark to John’s Gospel, beginning with the familiar story of Jesus throwing the money-changers out of the Temple. This narrative appears in all four Gospels, but curiously, while Matthew, Mark and Luke all place it at the beginning of Holy Week, in John we find it near the beginning of the Gospel, during an earlier trip to Jerusalem for Passover that none of the others mention. Moreover, John alone tells of Jesus not merely throwing over the money changers’ tables but fashioning a whip of cords to lash them in his anger at their exploiting the poor in the name of God. Then Jesus foreshadows his own passion and death, likening his own body to the Temple and declaring that he will “rise up” three days after his body’s destruction.