Saint John the Evangelist (Lockport, IL)

Friday, February 18, 2005

Comments on the Lessons for this Sunday

A brief commentary on the lessons for this Sunday.

The readings for this Sunday center on belief. The story of Abram leaving family and country to go to an unknown place far away because God promised him a greater family and nation causes us to wonder whether we could believe as Abram did. Could we just chuck it all in, and go to a new place far from our original home and family; so far enough away that we could never go back even if we wanted to? But Abram (and his wife Sarai and his nephew Lot) left Haran (in present day south-east Turkey) and travelled on foot into the present day land of Israel and Palestine because God promised that he would be the father of a great nation.

If we look at this text in Genesis carefully, we have to notice that there is not a lot of detail given about Abram. In fact, there isn't much more than that he was seventy-five, he was married, and he had a nephew. There is nothing to indicate what it was about Abram that caught God's eye. At the end of chapter 11, Terah (Abram's father) and family had left Ur of the Chaldeans to move to Canaan. But they made it only to Haran where it seems Terah abandoned his quest. There are a few indications that the family may have been somewhat wealthy, but there is really nothing else present to indicate why God focused on Abram. The emphasis in this narrative is that God made a promise to Abram, not because of any thing special about Abram, and that he acted on that promise.

The apostle Paul uses Abram to illustrate his thesis that God has accepted believing Gentiles into the family of God. For Paul, the key point is that Abram believed God's promise before he was circumcised. As a result, Gentiles who believe in Jesus the Messiah are under the blessing of God just as completely as are Jewish believers. Paul can make this argument because God accepted Abram's faith in God's promise before he was circumcised. In Paul's words:
The purpose [of Abraham's circumcision] was to make him the ancestor of all who believe without being circumcised and who thus have righteousness reckoned to them, and likewise the ancestor of the circumcised who are not only circumcised but who also follow the example of the faith that our ancestor Abraham had before he was circumcised. (Romans 4:11b-12)

Paul argues that belief, faith, trust in God's redeeming work through Jesus the Messiah's death on the cross is what defines a member of God's family. One does not become a member of the Kingdom of God because of physical descent (being Jewish), rather one becomes a member of the Kingdom of God through believing God's promise of redemption.

This is the point with which Nicodemus was struggling, who is accepted into the Kingdom of God. The apostle John in the first two chapters of his Gospel has introduced us to Jesus. He begins in the very first verse by informing us that Jesus -- the logos/word -- was God. Then John tells us that John the Baptist confirmed for his followers -- and for us -- that Jesus is the Lamb of God, that Jesus is the Son of God.

The next story illustrates this by telling us of the miracle of turning water into wine at the wedding in Cana of Galilee. For John this is a major point in his story:
Jesus performed this first sign in Cana of Galilee. He displayed His glory, and His disciples believed in Him. (John 2:11)
For John this was one of seven great signs he recorded that revealed Jesus' divine nature (John 20:30-31). As a result of this miracle his disciples' belief in him strengthened. But they still had more to learn about Jesus and his mission.

After the wedding, John tells us that Jesus and his disciples went to Jerusalem for Passover. While visiting and worshiping in the temple, Jesus drove the merchants out of the temple.

What is John telling us in these stories? I think it goes something like this: Jesus is unique. (John lets the reader in on a secret in the first few verses of the book: Jesus is divine!) John the Baptist also affirmed this uniqueness by pointing out that Jesus stood in a special relationship with God. Other people began to understand that there was something unique about Jesus by virtue of his turning water into wine at the wedding. A different aspect of Jesus and his ministry is then revealed in his repudiation of the official religion of Judaism. (His display of anger was pointed directly at the religious and secular hierarchy [they were one and the same], who profited from the transactions. By driving out the merchants, Jesus was implying that he wanted to drive out those in authority over the temple and religious matters.) John reports that while in Jerusalem many people began to believe in Jesus. As a result of these things, controversy began over Jesus. Some were for him, some were against.

John then gives us the story about Nicodemus coming to Jesus after dark. John presents Nicodemus in a positive way: he is trying to figure out who this Jesus is. On the one hand, his activities before coming to Jerusalem were probably generally understood in a positive way. On the other hand, his recent actions in the Temple brought out a side to Jesus' mission that many did not approve of, especially those in authority. Nicodemus wanted more information directly from Jesus in order to better understand what Jesus was up to.

In this story John is emphasizing the radical nature of the entrance requirements of Kingdom of God as presented by Jesus. The commonly held Jewish belief that physical birth into the nation of Israel would result in participation in the Kingdom blessings was being challenged by Jesus' teachings that belief in God's promises and a life lived in obedience to God because of those promises was the key to entrance into the Kingdom of God.

The lessons for this Sunday thus emphasize the grace of God. It doesn't matter if we are Gentile or Jew, rich or poor, meritorious or undeserving, it is our belief in the promises of God that make all the difference.

Lord, I believe; help me in my unbelief! (Mark 9:24)


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