A Portrait in Shame

Fillapovna Fyodor Dostoyevsky’s novel The Idiot contains a wild and tragic character named Nastasia Philapovna. She is a temptress who enjoys seducing men of all sorts with her charm and intoxicating beauty. After spending only an hour with her, each of these men fall madly in love with her, but Nastasia takes even more delight by teasing them with her presence. She sleeps with the men during the night, but leaves them by morning, leaving them hopelessly pining for her love and attention. Naturally, she is despised by the other women in the town who are both jealous and afraid of her.

Prince Mishkin, who is the hero of the story and whom many readers of Dostoyevsky believe is a kind of Christ-figure in the story, sees more deeply into Nastasia’s soul. He understands what drives her—a “ferocious, self destructive sense of shame.”

The story reveals that Nastasia was abandoned and homeless as a child. She was eventually taken in by a wealthy patron who abused her and “kept her around like an ornament on a shelf that he could take down and occasionally fondle.” The shame of being abandoned, abused, and misused in this way had scarred her soul. Mishkin explains her plight to others in the story like this:

“Oh, don’t cry shame upon her, don’t throw stones at her! She has tortured herself too much from the consciousness of her undeserved shame…She had an irresistible inner craving to do something shameful, so as to say to herself at once, ‘There, you’ve done something shameful again, so you’re a degraded creature. Do you know that in that continual consciousness of shame there is perhaps a sort of awful unnatural enjoyment for her, a sort of revenge on someone?”

Dostoyevsky wrote his novel in 1868, but his insights into the human experience are timeless. He understood that shame, growing out of deep-seated and long-lasting human hurt, is the root of much self-destructive behavior.

There is much to be said about the story of the Samaritan woman whose encounter with Jesus we read about in John 4. Last week, we looked at Nicodemus’ conversation with Jesus—Nicodemus being a wealthy and respected member of the Jewish elite. It’s interesting, then, that John follows up that story with this one—the story of one who is socially, religiously, and personally an outcast. Where Nicodemus is defined by respect, this woman, like Nastasia, seems to be defined by her shame.

The story opens with Jesus and his disciples traveling north from Jerusalem to Galilee, which was not an easy trek because it would take you into the land of the Samaritans—not a place for a pious Jew to travel. The Samaritans and Jews hated each other because of a civil conflict that had taken place between north and south after the death of Solomon. The northern king set up his own Temple so that his people wouldn’t go to Jerusalem, and the southern Jews hated them for it. When the Assyrians invaded the northern kingdom, the northern Jews intermarried and intermingled, making themselves less “pure” and shamefully gave into the invaders. The southern Jews, on the other hand, had been taken into exile but largely maintained their “pure” Jewish ancestry. The hatred had thus been going on for a long time, so much so that most Jews walked the extra distance around Samaria rather than walking through it and risking an attack.

Jesus, however, leads his disciples right through Samaria, and in a town called Sychar he stops at a well that would have been important to both Jews and Samaritans—the well of Jacob. It’s there, in the middle of the day, that he encounters a single woman drawing water from the well.

Without explaining it in detail, John tells us everything we need to know about this woman. She is a Samaritan, first, thus an outsider. She’s a woman—a second class citizen in the ancient world. She’s alone—women had no status without a man. And she comes to the well in the middle of the day, the hottest part. In most villages, the women would all come to draw water early in the morning and late in the evening, not only to avoid the heat but to catch up with each other on all the latest gossip. This woman, however, is clearly not welcome among the others. She is, after all, the one they’re probably gossiping about the most. Her shame keeps her separated.

That Jesus, a single man, even speaks to her, a single woman, is scandalous. Speaking to her, especially to a Samaritan, makes Jesus, a Jew, ritually unclean. Asking her for water, risking actual contact, makes it even worse. This is a conversation that should never happen, but John tells us that Jesus makes sure that it does.

As we have seen in John, conversations are often happening on two levels. Jesus asks for a drink, she refers to the well. Jesus offers living water and she thinks he’s talking about running water, which is what “living water” meant to most people. Jesus is trying to engage her on a spiritual level, a personal level, but she is focused only on what’s in front of her.

There’s certainly a lot of theological reflection we could do here about living water. Last week we read about new birth through “water and the Spirit” – a clear link to what Jesus is talking about here.

But what always intrigues me about this story is the fact that Jesus changes the nature of the discussion almost on a dime. “Go and call your husband,” he says to the woman. But she has no husband—in fact, Jesus somehow knows that she has had five husbands and the man she was living with was not her husband. There may have been many reasons for this and not all of them salacious. Life expectancy was short, wives were property given to the next brother in line when a husband died, we don’t know exactly. But the fact that she is alone at the well in the middle of the day seems to indicate that she has been shamed in some way, put outside the fellowship of the community. That Jesus asks about her husband in the midst of all this theological talk about living water would appear to somehow address the state of her life. He names her shame.

Shame is incredibly isolating and is usually an outcome of long-kept secrets. If we have felt rejected, abused, unloved, unwanted, exploited, or used in ways that damage our personhood, we can experience what John Bradshaw calls, “toxic shame.” Says Bradshaw:

“Toxic shame, the shame that binds you, is experienced as the all-pervasive sense that I am flawed and defective as a human being. Toxic shame is no longer an emotion that signals our limits, it is a state of being, a core identity. Toxic shame gives you sense of worthlessness, a sense of failing and falling short as a human being. Toxic shame is a rupture of the self within the self.”  He goes on to say that toxic shame is what fuels all addictive behaviors. Because the painful self-exposure is too much, people turn to drugs, work, food, sex, or something else in order to find relief and acceptance.

Shame puts us on an island out there by ourselves, keeping up appearances, avoiding the pain and hiding from the hurt.

I’m coming up on my 30th high school reunion next year. I haven’t made any of the previous reunions, but technology has enabled me to get in touch with many of my classmates who I haven’t heard from in years It was fascinating to me to learn things I didn’t know was going on with the people around me in the hallways each day. One of the girls wrote about her alcoholic father and her fear of going home each day. Another wrote of being abandoned emotionally by his parents. Another friend shared that she was sexually abused by an older brother and told that if she said anything he’d kill her. Now, as adults, all those teenagers who wore Members Only jackets and feathered hair in the 1980s bear the shame and scars of the past. I had my own pain to deal with—my mother had passed away, my father was absent, my stepmother verbally abusive—but we all tried to compensate by being cool or by overachieving or, for some, by engaging in risky or promiscuous behavior.

When shame goes deep, it alters our sense of who we really are and we construct a “false self” in order to hide it. I used to be afraid of the kids who smoked in the bathrooms between classes, wore big railroader boots and bullied people in the hall. I now know that that’s likely not who they really were. I can’t imagine what they may have dealt with at home. I used to be jealous of the jocks and cheerleaders, but now knowing some of their stories I see that many of them were hiding things, too. Then there were the kids that nobody talked to—what kind of pain did they feel? I found myself being profoundly sorry that I didn’t know then what I know now. I hope that any high school students here today would think about this and cut their classmates a break. You have no idea of the burden that person walking past you in the hall is carrying.

Last week we talked about new birth, birth from above. That’s powerful language, especially to those who because of shame believe that they are a mistake, that their birth into the world or into a particular family is a shameful thing. I know I’ve shared this with some of you, but my own birth is one that comes out of the shame of an affair between a Salvation Army Officer (a pastor) and a young woman in the early 1960s. It’s such a shameful thing that when I tried to contact my birth mother through an agency, she refused. My birth is still a deep, dark, shameful secret to her family. She could not open that wound because it’s just to painful.

Steve Seamands, who is one of my professors at Asbury, points out that “no matter how early or smoothly adoption occurs, every adopted child interprets being separated from its biological mother as personal rejection.” He goes on to say that “children of divorce generally perceive the split up of their parents as rejection, too.” I read that and it really hit me—I’ve spent much of my life trying to measure up, trying to make something of myself, trying to be the best, all as a way of trying to prove that my existence isn’t a mistake. Shame makes some people overachieve and it makes others give up altogether.

I imagine there are some of you here today who know what I’m talking about. The shame of rejection, the shame of abuse, the shame of a sordid past. Shame is a mark on many of our lives.

Somehow, we all learn to live with shame by hiding it or deflecting it. The Samaritan woman doesn’t seem to want to talk about it. How did this guy know about me? Sure, he must be a prophet, but let’s get off the personal, shall we? So, she does what a lot of religious people do—she starts a debate. “Sir, I see that you are a prophet. Our ancestors worshiped on this mountain, but you say that the place people must worship is in Jerusalem” (v. 20). Let’s talk temples, not the touchy subject of my inner life. It’s a lot easier to get wrapped up in the rightness and wrongness of religious beliefs and practices, jump on the debates of politicians and pundits, to sort out the differences between me and “those people” than it is to go deep inside and touch the places we hurt. I wonder sometimes if the vitriolic anger expressed in our political and theological debates isn’t merely a byproduct of unresolved shame—the more I can demonize another, the less I have to deal with myself.

Jesus, however, isn’t here to debate the building of temples, but to rebuild a heart broken by shame. It’s not the temples that matter, he says. Remember what we said last week, the great news is that Jesus is himself a new temple. You don’t go to the temple for forgiveness, it comes to you in the person of Jesus and, by extension, his Spirit. “But the hour is coming, and is now here, when the true worshipers will worship the Father in spirit and truth, for the Father seeks such as these to worship him. God is spirit, and those who worship him much worship in spirit and truth” (v. 23-24).

Spirit and truth. To know the truth about oneself, to have your spirit cleansed by the living water of Spirit of God, to be born anew by water and the Spirit, that’s real worship, that’s real transformation—that’s the beginning of a cure for shame.

“Someday,” she says, “the Messiah will come and make this a reality for us.” Most people who are bound by shame are always waiting for someday—the day when everything will be better, the day when they can feel whole again, the day that someone will recognize them for who they truly are—the day that someone will tell them they’re not a mistake. Someday…

How about today? Jesus says. “I am he, the one who is speaking to you.” Someday is today.

Jesus’ disciples burst on to the scene at this point and wonder what’s going on. What is Jesus doing with this woman? Are we going to have to manage a scandal here? But she blows right past them and heads back to the city, back to the very people who had shunned her and shamed her, and becomes one of the first real Christian evangelists. And here is her message:

“Come and see a man who told me everything I have ever done!”

That’s not exactly the five happy hops to heaven. But it is a cry of good news. Someone has named her pain, someone has quenched the thirst of her dry and lonely life, someone has acknowledged her as a child—a child of God.

The good news of the gospel, the good news of Christ, is that he names our shame. Naming what we have done and what has been done to us, is the first step toward breaking the chains of shame.

But not only does he name our shame, Jesus takes it on himself—all of it. Jesus knows our shame. Hebrews 12:2 says that Jesus, “for the joy set before him, endured the cross, disregarding its shame, and has taken his seat at the right hand of God.” The cross was the most shameful way to die in the ancient world: naked, beaten, bleeding men hung by the side of the road to be spat upon and taunted, their bodies left to rot and forgotten by everyone.

How did such a symbol of shame become a symbol of hope? Steve Seamands puts it this way: “Because Christ willingly endured shame on the cross, we are able to find healing for our shame at the cross. Adam and Eve disobeyed God by eating fruit from an alluring tree in a garden. As a result, they were naked and ashamed. Jesus obeyed God while nailed to a shameful tree on a hill. As a result, we can stand before God, naked and unashamed.

‘A tree had destroyed us,’ said [the early church father] Theodore of Studios. “A tree now brought us life.”

In Jesus, God did not heap shame upon us. In Jesus, God did not ignore human shame and sinfulness. In Jesus, God did not condemn us. In Jesus, God instead took on our shame, participated in it, understood it, suffered with it. No matter what shame we have experienced, we now know that God has been there first and goes through it with us. I am not a mistake—I am beloved by God.

Let that thought hold you for a second. No matter who you are or what you’ve done or what has been done to you—you are beloved by God. That’s what this cross means. It was the ultimate symbol of shame—now it is the ultimate symbol of love.

Jesus is lifted on a cross, as we learned last week, so that everyone who sees it and trusts in the power of his suffering and death, will be healed—people like Nastasia, people like the woman at the well, people like you and me.

“Come and see a man who told me everything I ever did.” Come and see a man hanging on a cross. Come and see…and your shame will be washed away.









Nick at Night: Nicodemus and the New Birth

Visit-of-Nicodemus This week we’re diving into one of the most well-known chapters in the whole Bible—John 3 and the story of Jesus’ encounter with Nicodemus. This is one of those passages, however, that often needs a fresh look because our familiarity can sometimes blind us to the deeper layers of meaning John gives us here. 

Nicodemus is one of the leaders of the Jews, an expert in the Jewish law. He is, in other words, a lot like Nathanael who we met in chapter 1, but even more so. Nicodemus was clearly respected among the people, both the elites and the common folk. He comes at night to meet with Jesus (I almost entitled this sermon, “Nick at Night”).

As with nearly everything in John’s Gospel, there’s a double layer of meaning here. Nicodemus may be coming at night because he doesn’t want to yet be seen by his peers as one who is intrigued with this Jesus. Remember, the leaders of the Jews would be the ones who would eventually call for Jesus’ crucifixion. Coming at night provided a kind of clandestine way for Nicodemus to find out about Jesus without arousing questions from others about Nicodemus’ own character.

But there’s another layer to this story that takes place at night and it has to do with one of the major themes in John: light vs. darkness. We see that in chapter one (v. 5 – “The light shines in the darkness and the darkness did not overcome it.”) For John, “darkness” or “night” is a metaphor for separation from the presence of God, or a place of unbelief, sin, and death. Nicodemus, though he is a respected teacher of the law, comes out of a place of spiritual darkness that, like his peers, prevents him from seeing Jesus as the true light that has come into the world, the very glory of God, as John calls him in chapter one. For John, the light defeats the darkness.

When I was a kid I used to go and visit my grandparents who lived on a little farmette in rural western PA. Pap had an old shed on the property where he kept a lot of his gardening tools, so every so often he would ask me to go fetch something from the shed.

Now, truth be told, the shed scared me to death. It was always dark in there and really dusty, with cobwebs everywhere and all kinds of sharp and rusty instruments everywhere, kind of like a medieval torture chamber. There was one bare lightbulb hanging from the creaky ceiling and you had to turn that on to find anything. What I hated the most was the moment I flipped the light switch, because as soon as that light came on I would hear all kinds of scurrying as all the various mice and snakes and critters bolted for the dark corners, out of sight. Talk about creepy!

For John, Jesus’ coming was kind of like flipping that light switch on in the shed. Jesus’ coming, the Word made flesh, shed a bright light on the evil of the world and exposed it, causing it to run scurrying for the dark corners. You will see John use this often throughout his Gospel.

Nicodemus approaches Jesus not with a question, but with a statement: “Rabbi, we know that you are a teacher who has come from God; for no one can do these signs that you do apart from the presence of God” (3:2). “We” is Nicodemus and his peers in the Jewish leadership, and this “we” sees Jesus as a “Rabbi” or “teacher” who has come from God, the evidence of which has come from the “signs” that Jesus has been doing, like turning water into wine and cleansing the Temple. Nicodemus is pretty sure that Jesus is someone special, like one of the prophets, but John wants us to know that he’s still in the dark as to the full meaning of who Jesus is: The Word made flesh, God himself come to dwell among his people.

Jesus’ reply to Nicodemus thus took the Jewish leader off guard: “Very truly I tell you, no one can see the kingdom of God without being born from above.” Nicodemus expects Jesus to respond to a complement, but Jesus’ response reveals that Nicodemus doesn’t know who Jesus really is because he doesn’t yet have the eyes to do so. To be able to see Jesus as he really is requires a whole new orientation to life—a new birth.

The Judaism into which both Jesus and Nicodemus were born had a lot to do with being born into the right family: the family of Abraham. If you were born into that family you had a certain identity that marked you as a particular member of that family. The mark was even a physical one: circumcision. You were one of God’s chosen covenant people simply as a matter of birth.

Jesus, however, essentially tells Nicodemus that a new family is being formed—a family where your identity comes not so much from your biological and ethnic heritage but from “above”—meaning, from God and at God’s initiative. You need this birth in order to “see” the kingdom of God and, by extension, to really know the truth about the King himself.

Remember what “kingdom of God” means in the Gospels. It does not mean “heaven” in the sense of a faraway place above the clouds. It means God’s reign and rule on the earth. The kingdom of God is God’s redemptive mission for the whole world—a mission that humanity has been called to participate in as people created in God’s image. To participate in that image means that you have to be born the first time—our birth is our emergence into God’s good world. Our birth as children is a marvelous thing, which is why we celebrate it and remember it year after year.

But Jesus says that birth from our mother’s womb is only one part of being a citizen of the kingdom that is coming on the earth. We don’t become people of the kingdom through our ethnicity, but through a new birth that comes from God—a spiritual birth that enables us to move out of the darkness and into the light of the kingdom, which illuminates Jesus as God’s redemptive king.

Nicodemus, steeped as he is in his identity as a son of Abraham, can only frame things in terms of his ethnic, physical birth. You mean I have to crawl back into my mother’s womb a second time, he asks?

Jesus’ expands the teaching: to be able to see and participate in the life of the kingdom of God, one must be born into that kingdom as a child of the king. That birth is, to borrow another metaphor, “mid-wifed” by the Spirit of God who makes that new birth possible by God’s grace and love offered through Jesus, the one who was himself born, as the Gospels tell us, in the flesh AND by the Spirit. It is, in other words, a birth that enables a person see the movement of God’s Spirit in the world, to know where Jesus has come from and where he is going, and to be able to take the first steps in following him into the new future he brings to the whole world.

The point of birth, however, is not to stay an infant but to grow up. I mean think about babies. They’re so cute right? But they’re also leaky, burpy, screamy, wake you up in the middle of the night six nights in a row, drive you nuts, little bundles of …whatever. When someone says about a baby, “I wish they could stay little forever,” they’re exercising selective memory. Greatest days of our lives were when both kids were out of diapers and both could buckle themselves in the car seat! They grow up fast, which is hard, but they do grow up, and helping them get there, rather than holding them back, is our biggest task as parents. We are preparing them for the life ahead, a life of meaning, a life of vocation.

Being “born again” and “born from above” is the beginning of citizenship in God’s coming kingdom in the present, and the beginning of a lifelong vocation of working for that kingdom to become a reality. Paul uses the language of “growing to maturity” often, and our own Wesleyan heritage is based on the idea that the new birth is just the beginning, not the end of process. To grow to maturity in Christ means that we can begin to know which way the wind of the Spirit of God is blowing and we see how it is shaping the world into the mold of the kingdom. “So it is,” says Jesus, “with everyone who is born of the Spirit” (v. 8).

Nicodemus has a hard time grasping this. “How can this be?” he asks Jesus. Jesus chides him—if you are a teacher of Israel, how did you miss this? “If I have told you about earthly things and you do not believe,” says Jesus, “how can you believe if I tell you about heavenly things?”

 Jesus tweaks Nicodemus with this ironic statement. As a teacher of Israel, Nicodemus would have understood that the place where earthly things and heavenly things came together was the Temple. John’s placement of Jesus’ conversation with Nicodemus comes right after Jesus “cleanses” the Temple at the end of chapter 2, which is rightly interpreted by the “Jews” (read Nicodemus and the religious authorities”) as a “sign.” For Jesus, turning over the tables in the Temple was the sign that this long-held icon of Israel was being judged by God. Look back to  chapter 2 v. 18. “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.” This was a baffling statement. It took Herod the Great 46 years to rebuild the Temple (and it still wasn’t done during Jesus’ time). How could this supposedly holy place, signifying the place where God dwelt with the people of Israel, the place where heaven and earth meet, be destroyed and then replaced in three days?

Jesus reveals the answer to the confused Nicodemus. Look at 3:14- “And just as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of man be lifted [raised] up, that whoever believes in him may have eternal life.”

Jesus refers to a story from the Exodus, which is found in Numbers 21. The people of Israel are grumbling and complaining loudly against God and against Moses. So God sent poisonous serpents among the people, whose bites killed many. Hard to imagine a worse plague than that!

The people then come to Moses, repenting and asking forgiveness for their complaining, and God tells Moses to fashion a serpent out of bronze and set it up on a pole and, God said, “everyone who is bitten shall look on it and live” (Num. 21:8). Later, that bronze serpent would be a decoration in the tabernacle and, later, the Temple, as a reminder to the people of this story.

Did you catch this? A serpent on a pole, lifted up for all to see. It’s kind of like a caducious, that symbol of the medical profession. It’s a symbol of healing. But snakes were also a symbol of evil. God tells the people through Moses to gaze at the snake to be healed from the snakes. What’s the cure for snakebite? Antivenin, which is made from—snake venom. The cure for snakes is a snake.

Jesus will get lifted up, raised up, on a cross—a symbol of evil, a symbol of shame, a symbol of death. And Jesus says, like Moses’ serpent, I must be lifted up in order to bring life in the midst of death. Those who look to the cross, those who trust and believe in what it represents—evil turned to healing–will have everlasting life. Death is defeated once and for all.

The cure for snakes was a snake. The cure for death would be a death. His death, raised up for the world to see. It is in the cross that we see heaven and earth come together in an explosive way. The cross becomes the new Temple, the place where human evil meets divine love, the place where sins are forgiven through the blood of the true Lamb, the place where human pain meets divine healing.

It’s with this image in mind that Jesus offers the verse that most people remember- John 3:16.:

For God—the creator of the universe

So – in this way, the way of the cross

Loved (not despised) the world (God’s whole creation)

That he gave (sacrificed, offered up)

His only Son (his very life)

That whoever believes in him (whoever looks at Jesus on the cross and trusts in his power to forgive, to heal, to reconcile, and restore them to life)

Should not perish (succumb to the poison of evil and sin)

but have everlasting life (present tense, not just in the future, now).

See, says Jesus, God didn’t send me here to condemn the world as being beyond hope. No! He sent me here so that the world might be saved at the cost of the cross. Those who will look at my pain and trust in a love that will go this far, they will see themselves healed. Those who don’t, well, the snake will be nipping at their heels all the way to the end.

“Now is the judgment of this world;” says Jesus in John 12, “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” (12:31-32).

What the Temple did for a people born into Abraham’s family, the Cross did for all people. To see it, we need fresh eyes of faith. We must be born by water and the Spirit.

This story of Jesus’ encounter with Nicodemus doesn’t have a quick resolution. Nicodemus doesn’t just suddenly say, “Oh, now I get it!” The story is just kind of left hanging. We do see Nicodemus again in the story, however. In chapter 7, Nicodemus is in a meeting where the rest of his peers want to have Jesus arrested, and he reminds them that the law says that they have to have a hearing before they can arrest anybody. He doesn’t come right out and expose his conversation with Jesus and his own curiosity, but sticks to the tenets of the law. He is someone who John sees as still on the way to knowing who Jesus really is.

 We see Nicodemus again at the end of the Gospel, when he brings a hundred pounds of spices to help Joseph of Arimathea anoint Jesus’ body for burial (a hundred pounds being wildly and extravagantly expensive and way more than was necessary). With that action, Nicodemus’ devotion to Jesus became public.

 Nicodemus reminds us that it’s not easy to be a disciple of Jesus. It can take time. When a baby is due, we’re used to waiting awhile, and sometimes the labor can be very painful and go on for a long time. Spiritual birth can be like that, too. Sometimes we need to struggle a bit before the new life emerges. Sometimes the pain of leaving behind the old life is so great that it feels like we’ve been dumped into a snake pit.

 But the good news is that God can deal with that pain. When we bring ourselves to the foot of the cross, we can be healed. When we crawl out of the darkness and into the light, we can be made new. And when we feel like our lives are going nowhere, God offers us the chance to be born all over again into a new life.





Come and See (John 1:43-51)

Fig tree Today we begin our Lenten sermon series “We Would See Jesus,” which will take us into the Gospel of John and into some stories of the different ways that people encounter Jesus. The season of Lent has traditionally been the forty days (not counting the Sundays) leading up to Easter, and is a time of preparation, penitence, and prayer—a time to focus deeply on our relationship to God—Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. John’s Gospel is thus a perfect text for us to study because it’s focused on the stories of people who are coming into a relationship with Jesus and, in doing so, see their lives transformed.

 A word about John’s Gospel as we begin. If you’re a student of Scripture (and we all should be!), you might notice that John is quite different from the other three Gospels (Matthew, Mark and Luke). We call those the “synoptic” gospels, meaning that they’re “seen together.” Matthew, Mark, and Luke give us a particular perspective of the story for a particular audience and with a particular purpose in mind: the good news of the kingdom of God revealed in Jesus, the true king. The synoptic Gospels contain much of the teaching of Jesus—parables, sermons, instruction to disciples and the like—but also accounts of Jesus’ deeds, his death on the cross, and his resurrection. The synoptic writers seem to share some of the same sources in telling their story of Jesus, and their purpose is to outline the main points of Jesus’ life and message for their particular communities of faith. The missionary aspect of the synoptics is pretty clear—there’s a lot of use of the word “go.” It’s in the synoptics that we get the great commission (Matthew 28) – “Go and make disciples of all nations, teaching them to obey all that I have commanded you.” “Go” and “teach” are the operative words.

 John, on the other hand, seems to be telling the story from the opposite direction. Instead of “go” and “teach,” John’s operative words are “come” and “see.” In the synoptics, Jesus and the disciples are always on the move. In John, Jesus never seems to be in a hurry. Whole chapters are spent invested in exploring a conversation that Jesus has with an individual. Jesus seems to invite people to come and stay awhile, to encounter Jesus on a much deeper level, and then to leave transformed by the encounter.

 I think this is a reason a lot of people like the Gospel of John. It’s highly relational, it’s dramatic, it reads more like a novel than the others. For me, John demonstrates why we need four Gospels and not just one—the story of Jesus has many layers to it—historical, theological, personal, and we need them all to get the full picture.

 Dr. Ben Witherington, who teaches New Testament at Asbury Seminary, my alma mater, suggests that John was written for an evangelical purpose, but the purpose was not that it be distributed as a tract to try and convince unbelievers of the truth about Jesus. Rather, it was written to train early Christian missionaries about the various ways in which all different sorts of people could come to faith in Jesus as the Savior of the world. “It’s no accident, then,” says Witherington, “that so much stress is placed in [John’s] Gospel on witnesses, witnessing, and adequate testimony. Such is the lifeblood of missionary work.”

To put it another way, what we have in John is a number of case studies of the ways in which people might come to faith in Jesus. These case studies inform our own faith as well, inviting us to consider our own stories of encounters with Jesus. John invites us all to “come and see” Jesus for ourselves as we prepare to “go and teach” about him to others.

 In this series, Joe and I are going to invite you into some of these case studies—to invite you to find yourself in them and, additionally, to think about others whom you might invite to “come and see” Jesus for themselves. Lent gives us intentional time to slow down and hear again to Jesus’ invitation to come and stay awhile and know him in a new and life-giving way.

 And so we begin with this story about the first disciples. This section actually begins at verse 35, when some of John the Baptizer’s disciples begin following Jesus. Notice the difference here, though, between the traditional stories in the synoptic Gospels. In Matthew, Mark, and Luke, Jesus seeks out disciples on the shores of the Sea of Galillee. He calls Peter, James, and John, for example, to drop their fishing nets and follow him. In John, however, these first disciples seem to want to follow Jesus without having received an invitation. Look at verse 38: “When Jesus turned and saw them following, he said to them, ‘What are you looking for?’” They want to know where he is staying, and Jesus invites them to “come and see” (v. 39).

 Andrew is one of those who spends the afternoon with Jesus, then goes and finds his brother, Simon, and brings him to meet Jesus as well. The disciples are bringing one another to Jesus. It’s an invitation.

If John is teaching his community how to be evangelists, he seems to be making it clear right up front that evangelism is really about invitation. If we’ve had our own encounter with Jesus, then we naturally want to invite others to “come and see” as well. Many Christians are afraid to talk about evangelism because they see it as an unpleasant chore that involves going door to door and offering a sales pitch about Jesus. Here we see that real evangelism is an invitation to a relationship. Jesus himself doesn’t begin with a list of propositions, spiritual laws, theological proofs, arguments… he only says, “Come and see.” Come and see what I have found. Experience it for yourself. Give it a try and see where it goes.

 In verse 43, Jesus calls Philip in a way that echoes the synoptic gospels. Jesus simply says to him, “Follow me,” which is really another form of invitation. Like Andrew, Philip is eager to extend an invitation to someone else to come and see Jesus. We see Philip again, for example, in Acts 8 when he encounters an Ethiopian eunuch, a member of the Ethiopian royal court, and invites him into a dialogue about the Scriptures and about Jesus. Philip is sort of the quintessential evangelist because he is enthusiastic about sharing his faith, but in a way that invites others to come with their questions rather than dispensing definitive answers.

 We know this because the first person that Philip invites to come and see Jesus after answering his own call is his friend Nathanael. Philip explains that he and some others have met Jesus son of Joseph from Nazareth, the Messiah they have all been waiting for. You can almost hear his excitement in the text. He’s just bursting.

 Nathanael, however, attempts to pop Philip’s enthusiastic bubble. “Can anything good come out of Nazareth?” If Andrew and Peter and Philip are the first disciples in John’s Gospel, then Nathanael is the first skeptic.

 Three things are interesting about Nathanael right up front. The first is that his name does not appear in any of the lists of the disciples of Jesus in any of the other Gospels. He is unique to John. Second, his name means “given by God.” Third, the text suggests that Nathanael isn’t just your average run of the mill skeptic. He’s a smart guy and has some good reasons to be leery of his friend’s enthusiasm.

 We get a couple of clues about Nathanael’s background from the text, namely the reference to the fig tree in v. 48. In Jewish tradition, those who studied the Torah, the law of Moses, traditionally (symbolically) did so under a fig tree. The Old Testament prophets sometimes used figs as an analogy for Israel (Hosea 9:10, Amos 8:1-2, Nahum 3:12). That Jesus sees Nathanael “under the fig tree” is another way of saying that he is a faithful student of the Scriptures, and thus, as Jesus also calls him, “an Israelite in whom there is no guile—no deceit.” He is, in other words, a truthful witness and his skepticism comes from an authentic, biblical, and theological Jewish worldview.

“Can anything good come out of Nazareth?” is thus not so much a slam on the little Galilean town as it is a theological question. Philip proclaims that Jesus is the Messiah, but Nathanael, being a student of the Scriptures, knows that the Messiah isn’t supposed to come from Galilee. Not only that, he is Jesus son of Joseph—too common, too ordinary. John has already told us in the first part of chapter one that Joseph of Nazareth wasn’t Jesus’ father, but the disciples don’t yet seem to get this. None of the traditional messianic markers line up for Nathanael here, so he’s a skeptic.

 I give you all that background as a way of making the point that I think John wants us to get here: that when it comes to Jesus, it’s often religious people who are most skeptical because they are the ones who are certain that they have everything figured out. Religious people, especially religious Christians, are often the ones who are the most skeptical about things that don’t fit their paradigms. John and the other Gospel writers make it clear that Jesus doesn’t fit our expectations and, therefore, it’s the religious who need to be converted first!

 Is this why Nathanael is “given by God?” I think so. He’s a gift because he reminds us that our own skepticism needs to be overcome before we can lead others to Christ. We may have been “Christians” our whole lives, until we’re willing to open ourselves to the possibility that Jesus will say and do things that shatter our paradigms, until we are willing to open our theological and doctrinal categories to allow him to work in surprising ways, then we’re always going to be skeptics: skeptics that are always griping and wrangling and criticizing the very people and ideas that are important to Jesus.

 Contrast Nathanael to Philip. Philip didn’t need to have it figured out. Philip doesn’t have to have everything fit into neat theological categories. He’s not following Jesus because of a list of bullet points and propositions. Jesus simply invites him, and he comes along for the ride. Who knows where it will lead? Who knows what we might learn? “Come and see” he says to his skeptical friend. “Come and see what I found!”

 To his credit, Nathanael comes along. He encounters a Jesus that blows up his categories—a Jesus who knew him already even before Philip showed up with an invitation. What changes Nathanael’s skepticism isn’t the fact that he has compiled a list of propositions proving what he knows about Jesus—it’s the fact that Jesus knows him! It’s not about the information, it’s about the relationship. It’s because Jesus knows him through and through that Nathanael gives his confession of faith. This is not just the son of Joseph, he is the Son of God, the King of Israel!

 And Jesus tells him—if you only believe that, then you ain’t seen nothin’ yet!

 For me, Nathanael represents so many of us in the church. We know a lot about Jesus, but we’re not always willing to really know him or, more precisely, to allow him to know us that intimately. We may have made a decision to follow Christ a long time ago, but somewhere along the line the relationship we had with Jesus turned into a religious dogma. We come to church week after week, but we don’t want to be surprised anymore. We want a Jesus that fits neatly into our preconceived notions of what faith and discipleship is all about.

 This story invites us to push that religious skepticism aside and, once again, “come and see.” Jesus invites us to come with fresh eyes and ears, to come with no preconceived notions, to come with open hearts, to come and follow him on a journey that will take us to places we would never have dreamed of. To come, and to invite others to join us.

One of the things I love about being a Methodist is that our church was born out of a sense of skepticism. John and Charles Wesley grew up in a strict church environment, went to church as kids, and became priests themselves. John was a strict student of the Scriptures and as disciplined religiously as a person can be. And yet, there was always something missing. Experiencing a crisis of faith, he volunteered for a mission trip that would take him from England to the colony of Georgia, where his strict religious practice alienated the convicts and Indians he was trying to convert. He returned home a broken man. “I went to America to convert the Indians,” he wrote in his journal on the trip back, “but, oh, who shall convert me? Who, what, is he that will deliver me from this evil heart of unbelief?” The religious man recognized his own need for conversion. He wrote those words on January 24, 1738.

 On May 24, just four months later, Wesley was invited by someone to a meeting. Like Nathanael, he responded somewhat “unwillingly” to the invitation. Here’s how he describes what happened.

 “In the evening, I went very unwillingly to a society in Aldersgate Street, where one was reading Luther’s Preface to the Epistle to the Romans. About a quarter before nine, while he was describing the change which God works in the heart through faith in Christ, I felt my heart strangely warmed. I felt I did trust in Christ, Christ alone for salvation; and an assurance was given me that he had taken away my sins, even mine, and saved me from the law of sin and death.”

 The one who had a method for everything, the one who was the epitome of religious devotion for most of his life, was surprised—surprised by the grace of God, surprised by an encounter with Christ. All because he responded to an invitation.

 Lent is an invitation—an invitation to you and me to “come and see” what Christ might be up to, and to open ourselves to the surprising, transforming power of his grace, his love, his mission. It’s during Lent that we take the time to prepare, to listen, to put aside our professional and theological skepticism and simply “come.”

 Like Philip, I want to invite you during these next six weeks to “come and see.” Let us join in a time of prayer together each day. Let us come together around the table on Wednesday evenings and learn how to open ourselves to the Spirit of Christ, let us join together in worship and encounter Christ through the lenses of these marvelous stories. And then, having encountered Jesus, let us invite others to come and see for themselves what he has done in us, and what he wants to do in them. 


A Day of Tragedy

This morning's news of a devastating earthquake in Japan leaves us all reeling from the suddenness and tragedy of a high magnitude disaster. Hundreds have lost their lives and hundreds more are missing. The resulting tsunami has affected many others on the Pacific Rim as well, bringing waves of tragedy to many places. 

 When things like this happen, we all wonder what we can do to be helpful to the many victims of the tragedy. I want to offer two suggestions for things you can do today to show your concern. 

 First, I invite you to pray. Spend some time in prayer for all those affected, and for those who will be helping them in the days to come. Wherever you find yourself today, take the opportunity to pray for God's guidance, peace, and comfort upon those who have lost loved ones, property, and their livelihood. 

 Second, one of the best ways that we can begin to help the recovery effort is to give to organizations that can make a difference in a short amount of time. Our United Methodist Committee on Relief (UMCOR) is geared toward providing help where it is needed most. UMCOR's overhead costs are paid for by our One Great Hour of Sharing offering each fall, thus 100% of whatever money is donated for relief during a particular disaster goes to directly to aid those affected. 

 UMCOR has a dedicated fund for Asia-Pacific emergencies, which you can access here: 

http://secure.gbgm-umc.org/donations/umcor/donate.cfm?code=3021317. You can donate by credit card on this site, or you can write a check and drop it in the offering plate this Sunday, when we'll have a special second-mile offering for UMCOR. Just write Advance number 3021317 on your check and we will make sure it gets there as soon as possible. 

 Our spring break mission team will also be heading to the UMCOR Depot in Salt Lake City in just a little over a week. They will be packing supplies that may be used to support the relief effort, including health kits, layette kits, and other kits that will be of immediate use. If you'd like to make a kit, you can find the specifications and contents at http://new.gbgm-umc.org/umcor/getconnected/supplies/. Bring your completed kits to the church between now and Friday, March 18 and the team will take it with them to the Depot. 

 May we all remember that wherever the world is in pain, God is already there. May we join Him as the healing begins. 


Monuments of Ash – A Meditation for Ash Wednesday

Thinker5B15D In the Old Testament, ashes represented repentance – a realization that we are nothing apart from God but dust and ash. On Ash Wednesday we recognize our own mortality with the sobering phrases, “Ashes to ashes, dust to dust – from dust we came, to dust we shall return.” It seems so simple, so symbolic.

 But just like everything else in our culture, even ashes have moved from something to be sober about to something to celebrate. As more and more people choose cremation as their mortuary option, some people have jumped on the trend and offered a way for you and your loved ones to put your ashes to good use.

 A typical human cremation yields an amount of ash that’s equivalent to a five-pound bag of sugar. Most people just keep them in an urn or scatter them, but now it’s possible to actually turn at least some of those ashes into a stunning work of art for all posterity to see.

  I cut an interesting article from the Salt Lake Tribune awhile back about a company called “Eternal Arts.” For a mere $3-400, two cups of your cremains can be made into a classic sculpture. Imagine your ashes worked into a replica of Rodin’s “The Thinker”, or Michelangelo’s “Pieta”. Perhaps your tastes run in the more popular realm – perhaps you’d like to become the Statue of Liberty, or a bust of Napoleon or Alexander the Great. Of course, you can go high end as well – having your ashes worked into a 20-inch statue of Jesus, for example, will run you about $800 and if you want a custom bust made of your face that’ll cost a whole lot more – but it’s possible.

 There’s another company called LifeGem that goes even a step further – taking the carbon from human ashes and turning them into man-made diamonds! Imagine yourself as jewelry! And think of the implications – you get engaged, give your bride a diamond ring – imagine saying not, “This was my grandmother’s but “IT’S MY GRANDMOTHER!”

 It could be a new fashion trend – creepy chic.

 Sure, this kind of stuff would be hard for most of us to consider. But it does raise an interesting question: What do you want to become…eventually?

 That’s a great question for Lent. It’s a shame to think that our lives could simply be boiled down to become a monument of ash…a conversation piece, a ring, a cheesy statue on the mantle. God is calling us to be a whole lot more.

 At some point, the Bible reminds us, we’re all reduced to ash. Death is a reality. But Lent reminds us that it’s not a permanent reality. As we go through these forty days we’re reminded that God has broken into our ash-heap of a world and offered new life – resurrection, a fresh start.

 God’s not interested in our monuments of ash, our tributes to our own accomplishments or (bad) tastes. Rather, God is interested in the person we’re becoming, both now and in the future. In Christ, God has broken into the world and given us a reason to hope beyond hope, to see even death as a means to life. What we do now, who we are now, matters in an eternal context. To borrow a phrase from Russell Crowe’s character in “Gladiator” – “What we do in life, echoes in eternity.” That’s a realization that lives can be lived way beyond this dusty, dirty reality.

 The good news of Lent is that God wants to remold and remake us in HIS image, not our own. The disciplines of prayer and fasting, the sacraments, worship, and study are all means of allowing our ashen selves to be made into something way better than even a diamond – we can become God’s own, masterfully created in his perfect image – the image of Christ. That’s a transformation that is both free and priceless at the same time!

 “Remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return.” Remember, but don’t plan on staying that way! That’s the joy of Lent and the promise of Easter.

 Source: Nailen, Dan. “Cremains ‘live on’ in many forms.” The Salt Lake Tribune, October 24, 2003, p. A.1.