Honest Grief

Meditation on John 11

Mary and Martha prayed. They sent their message to Jesus, “Lord, he whom you love is ill”, and implied in that message is a request: “… so come save him!” That’s clear in the frank statements of both sisters upon first seeing Jesus after Lazarus dies: “Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died.” They knew Jesus, they knew He had healed others, and they knew they had a special bond of friendship with Him, so they prayed in faith for Jesus to come heal their brother.

But He didn’t come.

You can imagine the thoughts that must have been running through the heads of Mary and Martha. Did they place too much faith in Jesus? Perhaps He isn’t really as powerful as they believed He was. Lazarus and his sisters were Jesus’ friends, right? Or did He not really care about them as much as they thought? Is Lazarus not he whom Jesus loved after all? Does He really love Mary and Martha?

Maybe it’s easy for you to imagine because for you, like me, these questions and doubts are too familiar. We have all, or will all at some time, experience loss and grief of some kind. We’re all gonna die, and we’re all going to lose loved ones to death. And when we go through this, we are often left with confusion. Does Jesus love us, because if He does… why this? He promised to hear our prayers, to grant our requests, right?

It’s important for us to understand, though, that these weren’t the private or bitter thoughts of Mary and Martha. They give us an example of how to walk through grief in a way that is both honest and faithful. The sisters both tell Jesus boldly that they know He could have prevented Lazarus’ death, and didn’t. Mary weeps at His feet. But Jesus doesn’t rebuke them. Rather, He receives their complaints and enters into their grief alongside them. If the sisters had let their grief and doubt drive them away from Jesus, if they had become embittered against Him, it would be a different story. But they both, in faith, let their grief and questions drive them to Jesus. 

Of course, Jesus did hear the prayer of Mary and Martha. And He did act. But He didn’t act in the way they wanted. He answered their prayer, but rather than giving them only what they asked, He gave them something better. Jesus is all-wise. In the face of impending death, we ask for things to remain the same- stop death, let our loved ones remain. And of course we do- our finite eyes cannot see what God can see. Jesus gives Mary and Martha something better than what they ask: He lets His servant pass through death in order to be transformed in resurrection. Jesus is “the resurrection and the life.” He doesn’t simply preserve life, He transforms. He brings new, glorified life. 

Jesus doesn’t only bring this resurrection life to Lazarus, though. Jesus brings new life to the sisters, as well, through their grief. John wants us to know at the outset of this story that “It was Mary who anointed the Lord with ointment and wiped His feet with her hair, whose brother Lazarus was ill.” But Mary’s anointing of Jesus hasn’t happened yet- that comes in the next chapter, chapter 12. Mary would anoint Jesus with ointment in worship, John wants us to understand, but not until she has anointed His feet with her tears in grief. Passing through grief, and unexpected joy, was necessary for Mary’s transformation as a disciple of Jesus. And we know by faith that our trials, our pain, our grief, works toward this same end. Jesus hears us. Jesus loves us. And He is giving us more than we can ask or think. Through grief and death, He transforms us into disciples who bear the image of a Lord who glories in laying down His life.

Water of Life: Jesus, Temple, and Baptism in John 1-4

[This is an excerpt from a paper I wrote for Theopolis Institute. For the full paper, click here.]

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Introduction

The Fourth Gospel presents Jesus as the New Temple. John shows throughout his Gospel how Jesus fulfills and replaces the Old Covenant rites of purification, feasts, sacrifice, and sets himself up as the presence of God amidst humanity and the new center of the liturgical life of God’s people. The Temple was the place of God’s presence (Ps. 68:16); in it God “…chose to establish his name” (Deut. 16:2) and his glory (1 Kings 8:10-11).John establishes the Temple (or Tabernacle, in this case) theme in his prologue: “…the Word became flesh and tabernacled among us,” (1:14). Jesus entered into our humanity to be God’s presence with his people and to lift humanity up to God.

It is in the context of this Temple Christology that John presents the sacraments of Baptism and the Eucharist. John gives his theology of the sacraments through the themes of water and meals which run throughout his gospel. He juxtaposes these themes with the cleansing and feasting rites of the Temple to show that Jesus is the intended fulfillment of the whole of the Old Covenant, particularly in his death and resurrection. Jesus’ teaching and signs are pointers to the cross, and the event of the death and resurrection continues in the life of the Church.

The sacramental references can, in some cases, be clear and direct or, in other cases, be more broad and thematic. I contend, though, that in most all of these cases, John’s use of water, bread, wine, and meals in general are intended to to be understood sacramentally. John presents Jesus as the New Temple, and the sacraments of Baptism and the Eucharist as the fulfillments of the Old Covenant rites. In this paper we will explore John’s sacramental theology in the context of Temple Christology primarily in the first four chapters of the Fourth Gospel.

 

Hermeneutical Considerations

 

The first issue to consider is one of hermeneutics: Is John’s language intended to be read symbolically in reference to the sacraments and life of the church, or merely in a straightforward fashion in reference to the historical events of the life of Jesus?

The early readers (or hearers) of the Gospels heard these symbols in a  context that was saturated with sacramental significance. That they might hear Jesus’ words about new birth by water and the Spirit, or of His flesh and blood as true food and drink, and not associate these with Baptism and the Eucharist seems very unlikely. Even the less direct instances, such as the wedding at Cana and feeding the five thousand, would likely bring the sacraments to mind in some degree.

John gives us a key to understanding his Gospel through his repeated references to the disciples remembering Jesus words and events after the Christ even. Oscar Cullmann, in Early Christian Worship, notes this theme of remembrance: “… the writer is constantly impressing on his readers that those who have seen all these events have grasped their true meaning only after Jesus’ death and resurrection.” These statements occur frequently in the Gospel: in chapter 2 John tells us that the disciples understood Jesus’ identification of his body with the Temple only after the resurrection (2:22); they understood the events of his entry into Jerusalem only after he was glorified (12:16); and Jesus tells Peter that understanding will come later while washing his feet (13:7).

The disciples cannot understand what Jesus is saying and doing because they need the help of the Holy Spirit. Jesus promises that he will send the Spirit, and “he will guide you into all truth” (16:13). The Spirit would open their eyes to the fullness of what took place in the life of Jesus.

If the disciples could not understand Jesus words and actions until after he was glorified and the Spirit was given, we ought not to suppose that the significance of the Fourth Gospel lies in the bare historical facts alone. It is only in the Spirit-formed community of the Church, in the liturgical context of the community of faith, that these things become clear. Oscar Cullmann, again, is insightful here. He points out the John’s Gospel is full of multiple layers of meaning. “…the Gospel of John indicates in so many places the necessity of a double meaning, that enquiry into the deeper unexpressed sense is to be raised, in this Gospel, to the status of a principle of interpretation.” In discussing signs in the context of the miracle at Cana, Cullmann presents a method for interpretation which we will employ throughout this paper: “… in a particular way the plain historical fact contains a reference to the Christ event which continues in the community of the Church.” The text of John’s Gospel, then, is to be read with three layers of meaning in view: the historical event described, the fulfillment of that event in the cross and resurrection of Christ, and the continuation of both the event and the Christ event in the life of the Church.

John establishes themes in his Gospel through use of symbolism. Craig Koester defines a symbol in John’s Gospel as “an image, an action, or a person that is understood to have transcendent significance.” Some of the common symbols in John are light, water, bread, and the vine. Koester distinguishes between “core symbols” and “supporting symbols”, the former occurring most frequently have holding the most significance in the narrative, while the latter occur alongside the core symbols but do not stand alone. “A recurring cluster of core and supporting images creates a motif (emphasis added). The recurrence of water imagery with the several effects it brings forms a baptismal motif in the early chapters of the Fourth Gospel, which we will now consider.

[…] For the rest of this paper, click here.

Lifted Up

Raymond Brown points out (The Gospel and Epistles of John) the twofold meaning in John 3:14:

“By twofold meaning the word ‘lifted up’ refers both to being lifted up on the cross and being lifted up into heaven. In Jesus’ return to his Father in heaven, the cross is the first step on the ladder of the ascension. Only when Jesus is raised up can the Spirit of which he has spoken to Nicodemus be given.” Raymond Brown

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By Jerzy Strzelecki – Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=3353192

 I would add that, just as the cross was the “first step” in Jesus’ ascension, this path ought to be seen as paradigmatic of Christian discipleship. Jesus has gone before us, and where he is there we shall be also (14:3). But it’s also true that where he has gone, there we shall go. We must take up our own cross in following Jesus (Matt. 16:24). But it’s precisely in taking up our cross, in our crucifixion, that we are walking on the path of ascension to the Father. We too must be lifted up, and the cross is our “first step” of elevation.

New Temple

Jesus’ visitation of the Temple in Jerusalem in John 2 marks a significant transition in the life of Israel. As with his miracle at Cana, during which Jesus changed the water “…for the Jewish rites of purification” (v.6) into the wine of the New Covenant, Jesus continues fulfilling Jewish rites and institutions and doing away with the Old Covenant order.

Raymond Brown describes this transition well in The Gospel and Epistles of John: A Concise Commentray: “In the outer court of the Temple Jesus finds a virtual market where visitors could purchase the animals necessary for sacrifice and change their money for Tyrian half-shekels (coins religiously not objectionable). In attacking this commerce, Jesus is doing more than purging an abuse; the animals are the coins were necessary for Temple worship. In this cleansing Jesus is attacking the Temple itself. He has replaced Jewish purifications at Cana; now he shows that the very center of Jewish worship loses its meaning in his presence. The glorious presence of God, once confined to the Temple, has now become flesh in Jesus.” (p. 30)

The Lord has surely come to his temple. “But who can endure the day of his coming, and who can stand when he appears? … he will purify the sons of Levi and refine them like gold and silver, and they will bring offerings in righteousness to Yahweh. Then the offering of Judah and Jerusalem will be pleasing to Yahweh as in the days of old and as in former years.” (Mal. 3:2-4)

Jesus judges the Jerusalem temple and sets himself up as the true Temple. John emphasizes that his historic body is the Temple that, though destroyed, will rise “in three days.” (Jn. 2:19) Paul draws this out in 1 Corinthians 13 to tell us that, with Christ as our head, the ecclesial body, the Church, is “God’s temple” in which he dwells. “The glorious presence of God”, as Brown says, formerly housed in the Temple, incarnated in Jesus, is now with us. 

“The Humanness of John Calvin” by Richard Stauffer: A Brief Review

Richard Stauffer’s little volume on the person of John Calvin wonderfully paints the picture of who Calvin was in his roles as husband, father, friend, and father. Calvin is the reformer whom many love to hate, and false characterizations have abounded from early on. Stauffer’s aim is to “…exonerate the name of Calvin,” displaying, against misconceptions, Calvin’s “true stature” and “real humanness.”

John_Calvin_by_Holbein

From early on, Calvin’s critics have resorted to harsh personal attacks in order to discredit the theologian. Jerome-Hermes Bolsec was an early critic of Calvin’s. He joined the Protestant movement only to eventually go back to Rome, and in 1577 published a biography of Calvin that Stauffer describes as “no more than a vile tract.” In it, Stauffer reports, Bolsec ascribes to the Reformer all manner of faults, from arrogance and ignorance to being a liar and a sodomite. Accusations of this manner stuck, and Calvin’s opponents from the church of Rome often relied on marring his character in order to discredit his doctrine and ministry. Later, the critiques became more subtly, simply portraying Calvin as cold-hearted, sectarian, and tyrannical. As Stauffer points out, these sorts of accusations also came from Calvin’s Protestant opponents. Stauffer quotes Alfred Franklin, nineteenth-century liberal, to sum up the modern notion of Calvin: “Austerity without enthusiasm, an unfeeling and cold heart, never showing emotion. Did he ever laugh? Did he ever cry?”

Though critiques like these seem too wild to believe, this is the image that many in our day seem to have of the Reformer. Stauffer’s strategy for exonerating Calvin is simply to hold up Calvin’s personal correspondence, much of which has been preserved, and show who he was in his relationships with family, friends, and his parish. In these letters, we hear from a man who, though certainly not without fault, was compassionate, loving, sympathetic, and shepherding. Calvin’s deep love for his wife and his son are evident particularly as he grieves the loss of them both. Jacques, his son, died as an infant. Idelette, his wife, became ill after her pregnancy, and went through recovery and then back into illness often until her death in 1549. These losses greatly affected Calvin, and had a profound shaping influence on the rest of his ministry. In his letters he often counsels and grieves along side his friends and parishioners from the lessons he learned through these experiences.

Calvin’s friendships are inspiring. He was a loyal friend to many, and kept up correspondence with friends for years. According to Stauffer, “… there were few men who developed as many friendships as he and who knew how to retain not only the admiration, but also the personal affection of these friends.” Farel and Viret were two of his closest friends, having ministered with him for a time in Geneva. When the three were separated, “an active and often very moving correspondence maintained their warm unity.” He often sought to breach divides with friendships, such as the divisions with the followers of Zwingli as well as the Lutherans. In his friendships, Calvin displayed humility, warmth, and self-sacrificing unity.

As pastor, Stauffer emphasizes Calvin’s devotion, sympathy, and steadfastness in ministry. He cared for the needs of those in his church, related to them in their grief and hardship, and constantly preached the Word of God to them. He was certainly not, as many seem to think he was, the lofty intellectual who never dirtied his hands with the sheep. Calvin was more than a theologian: he was a shepherd.

Stauffer book, though brief, is much needed. He gives a refreshing and inspiring look at Calvin’s life in relation to others. Though John Calvin was not perfect, he was a great gift of God to the church, not only for his theological works, but for his example of a life lived for God and others.

Colossians: Chiastic Structure of 1:3- 2:5

Paul arranges the introduction to his epistle to the Colossians chiastically:

A: Thanksgiving for good report – Paul absent yet represented through Epaphras (1:3-8)

B: Prayer for Colossian’s growth in Christ (1:9-14)

C: Creation and new creation in Christ (1:15-20)

C’: New Creation in Colassae (1:21-23)

B’: Paul ministering for Colossian’s maturity in Christ (1:24- 2:3)

A’: Warning against deception – Paul absent in body yet present in spirit (2:4-5)

Bookending the section is the fact that, though Paul is not physically present with them and has not met them, he longs to be with them, and his co-laborer, Epaphras, is representing him. He begins (A) by giving thanks for the good report from Epaphras, and ends (A’) warning about dangers that could lead them away from their good beginning. He does not want his absence from them to discourage the young church or to take away from his apostolic authority.

Paul prays (B) that they will grow in their knowledge of God, and then shows (B’) how his ministry is for the goal of their maturity in Christ. The Colossian’s growth into full maturity forms the driving goal of the epistle (see also 2:8-10.)

And, central to the section is Paul’s Christ hymn (C) exalting Jesus as captain of creation and new creation, and (C’) Jesus’ new creation in Colossae. This is the basis and center for Paul’s argument throughout the letter: The world has died and been reborn in Christ, and the Colossians likewise have been made new in him. Paul’s goal of their maturity finds its basis here explicitly in 1:22 when he states that they were reconciled in order that Christ might present them “holy and blameless and above reproach,” if they persevere.

Things More Wonderful

Then Iluvatar spoke, and he said: ‘Mighty are the Ainur, and mightiest among them is Melkor; but that he may know, and all the Ainur, that I am Iluvatar, those things which ye have sung, I will show them forth, that ye may see what ye have done. And thou, Melkor, shalt see that no theme may be played that hath not its uttermost source in me, nor can any alter the music in my despite. For he that attempteth this shall prove but mine instrument in the devising of things more wonderful, which he himself hath not imagined.’

– J.R.R. Tolkien, The Silmarillion