Shown, Not Told

Seventh Sunday of Easter
Acts 1:6-14
1 Peter 4:12-14; 5:6-11
John 17:1-11


“Preach the Gospel at all times. When necessary, use words.”

-often attributed to St. Francis of Assisi, but of uncertain origin

The late New Testament scholar, John Pilch, noted that Jesus, as rendered in the Gospel of John, “tends to get a bit long-winded.” All those extended discourses, repetitions, and interlocking phrases stand in stark contrast to Mark’s rustic efficiency, to be sure, and if it seems like Jesus has been saying goodbye to the disciples for weeks now, you’d be right. This is the fourth week in a row in which the lectionary’s gospel reading comes from John – unless you’re celebrating the Ascension this Sunday, in which case you get a synoptic reprieve. And yes, this is the third consecutive week culled from John’s multi-chapter Farewell Discourse.

Those lost in the Johannine word-cloud might be forgiven for missing the clues in today’s gospel that Jesus has stopped talking to the disciples and is now directly addressing the Father. In other words, Jesus is praying, not preaching. Or is that a misleading distinction?

Perhaps a more helpful terminology comes from the first principle of good writing: Show, don’t tell. In what is sometimes called “The Great Intercessory Prayer,” Jesus stops telling his clueless disciples how to serve, love, and live peacefully with one another. He stops telling them that the Father and Son are one in the unity of the Holy Spirit. He stops telling them they must turn from the world’s ways in order to experience true joy. He stops telling them these things, not because the disciples already know and understand – their behavior over the next several days will destroy that illusion – nor does he stop because the lessons no longer apply. He stops telling them in order to show them. Read more

As We Watch

Transfiguration Sunday

Exodus 24:12-18
2 Peter 1:16-21
Matthew 17:1-9

“…for Christ plays in ten thousand places,
Lovely in limbs, and lovely in eyes not his
To the Father through the features of men’s faces.”
– Gerard Manley Hopkins

The Feast of the Transfiguration is celebrated August 6, yet the gospel passage itself is closely associated with the beginning of Lent. The Revised Common Lectionary proclaims it on the Sunday before Lent while the Catholic Lectionary does so on the Second Sunday of Lent. Both lectionaries give the First Sunday of Lent over to the temptation of Jesus in the desert.

Why should the Transfiguration story – which each of the synoptic gospels places about midway in the course of things – mark our yearly return to the Lenten journey? Standard answers include that the association is already implicit in the synoptic accounts, which place the story near Jesus’ final turn towards Jerusalem; that the Taboric vision is a preview of Christ’s crucified, resurrected, and glorified body; or that the passage links the Old and New Covenants, with Moses and Elijah serving as metonyms for the Law and prophets.

Whatever the explanation, the Transfiguration, with its cryptic signs, wonders, and occasions for awe, has long proved a source for profound theological reflection, fascinating Christological speculation, or incisive literary analysis. It can also stand out from the rest of the gospel narrative as a baffling anomaly. Read more

Lost Sheep and Broken People

Seventeenth Sunday after Pentecost
Twenty-Fourth Sunday in Ordinary Time

Exodus 7:11-14 OR Jeremiah 4:11-12, 22-28
1 Timothy 1:12-17
Luke 15: 1-10

I once imagined the easiest commandment to keep was the one against idolatry. It seemed rather simple: don’t go sacrificing animals to statues of false gods and I’d be fine. I was much younger then. I hadn’t yet lived into life’s ambiguities, hadn’t yet recognized the power of my own desires, hadn’t yet read enough theology – Augustine in particular.

When I understood idolatry as getting the order of my loves wrong, specifically by desiring (and thus secretly worshipping) something more than God, I saw false gods everywhere. Nearly all recorded history – from the founding of ancient Sumer to the unedifying rhetoric of the current US presidential race – can be read through a biblical lens as a very long series of idolatries, all of them sad.

In the same way that a microscope reveals nasty-looking creatures swimming in a glass of tainted water, a biblical lens makes visible the idolatries that reign in what we like to call “the world,” as if we were merely in the world and not of it. The Bible doesn’t cut us much slack when it comes to our dealings with the world. What other nation besides the Jews would include the prophets – those town criers of communal betrayal and merited retribution – in their sacred texts, second only to Torah itself?

As for Christians today, it’s not as if the line between faithful church and idolatrous world is bright, broad, and evident to all. Nor am I one to lecture another on keeping one’s loves in the proper order. If I’m able to rightly name another’s sin, it’s because I know that sin from the inside. Read more

Snaring Satan

Seventh Sunday after Pentecost
Fourteenth Sunday in Ordinary Time

2 Kings 5:1-14 OR Isaiah 66:10-14
Galatians 6:7-16
Luke 10:1-11, 16-20

“The cross of the Lord was the devil’s mousetrap. The bait by which he was caught was the Lord’s death”
– St. Augustine, Sermon 263

The modern mind doesn’t know what to do with the idea of “Satan,” and, try as I might to make it otherwise, I have a modern mind. Like many others, I don’t know if the Hebrew, S-t-n, “the adversary or accuser,” or the Greek, diabolos, “the slanderer,” can still be understood a personal, superhuman enemy of God Rather than catalogue modern answers to that question, I’ll pose a riddle: “Is Satan’s first deception persuading us that he exists or that he doesn’t?” Read more