We say a lot of things as the Church. Many of the things we say are important. The writer of I John reminds us, however, that “we should love not in word or speech, but in truth and action.” (I John 3:18) When we speak words of welcome, forgiveness, faith they are truths that are meant for all. Love however, is a particularity; something we do to and for the person in front of us. As baptism proclaims love to a particular person, and the wine and bread are given “for you” to individuals, love is enacted for each. A sign on the church that says, “all are welcome” is meaningless to those seeking welcome because it does not address the “each.” A theological statement that says the poor should be fed bears no weight until assistance is given to fill a hungry belly. Welcome is for all. Love is for each.
For most folks, “Gentle Jesus” is the image we carry of the Messiah. The whip-wielding, table-turning, angry Jesus who cleanses the temple seems to be an aberration. When Jesus finds that the noise of livestock and clatter of coins is louder than the prayers; when he sees that the name of God is being used for personal gain, he gets angry, righteously angry. We do the same kind of things today. So, what does “cleansing the temple” mean for us?
When most of us think about spiritual things, we think of self-improvement, or happiness, or success. Faith should lead to joy and glory. Religion should help us avoid the “bad things” in life. The scriptural witness however, doesn’t support these notions. Instead, Jesus invites Peter to follow to the cross. Peter doesn’t want to go. Psalm 22 begins with the words, “My God, my God; why have you forsaken me?” – the dying words of Jesus. The psalm answers this lament by pivoting to praise and the promises of God from this heart-wrenching lament. In the midst of our suffering, we don’t reject God, but embrace God all the more.
Paul urges us, “Be reconciled to God!” (2 Cor. 5:20) This is not a requirement of faith or a means of earning God’s love. It is a call to be what we already are, to act out of our status as God’s “Ministers of Reconciliation” which has been granted through the sacrifice of Jesus Christ. Answering this call is precisely why we remember St. Valentine. He was a martyr who gave his life to follow Jesus. Ash Wednesday is the beginning of a time of renewal and repentance as we acknowledge the first truth of being “reconciled to God.” We are not God and we shall die. This is very good news…
When we hear stories about Jesus casting out demons, I’m not sure we know quite what to do with them. Is this possession as illustrated by Hollywood, complete with spinning heads, shaking beds, and evil voices? Or is it just an ancient way of pointing out what they did not understand – mental illness, convulsions or some other such disease? Those kinds of questions obscure two basic truths of these strange stories. First, evil exists and if we are not “possessed” by the Holy Spirit, we are likely to be possessed by something unholy. When I see a world full of violence, abuse, horrific stories of awful deeds done by humans to humans, even children, I find myself asking “What possesses people to do these things?” And there it is – something that drives us to rob life, liberty and peace from others takes our identity as holy people away. Second, fascination with what is unholy in these stories often leads us away from the central truth – God in Christ, revealed in Jesus has power to cast out the unholy and grant peace and life in its place.
The very first words Jesus speaks in the Gospel according to John is a question: “What are you looking for?” Most of us would be able to come up with some kind of spiritual shopping list for Jesus: Prosperity, health, forgiveness, assurance of life after death. The question is, do we really know what we want, what we need? The Jesus presented in John’s gospel knows his followers better than they know themselves. God in Christ, the Word made flesh, invites us to “Come and see.” Maybe what we will see is more than we can imagine. Maybe what we can see is not just God standing before us. Maybe in this Messiah we will see ourselves, our real selves, for the very first time.
We all tend to categorize and organize our lives so that they are easier to understand, easier to control. We put our stuff in boxes and totes. We put other people in boxes and categories based on stereotypes and assumptions. We even try to do it with God. We keep God in a box of our own making; we like God in heaven and waiting for us when we die, rather than messing with us in the here and now. At the baptism of Jesus, God is revealed in Christ as one who will not submit to life in a box we have made. Instead, God rends the heavens, breaks down the boxes and destroys the barriers that keep God at bay. Christ invites us to join him in the water that we might be… just be.