New Things

Sometimes things are made new by being repeated...

Easter 5c • SJF • Tobias Stanislas Haller BSG
The one who was seated on the throne said, “See, I am making all things new.”

I have been reminding us over the last few weeks that Easter is not just a day but a season of fifty days running from Easter day itself through the feast of Pentecost. Every season of the church year has a particular focus or emphasis — in part based on some specific event, but also reminding us of how that event is continually alive in the life of the church and has effect upon our daily lives. That’s why we repeat these themes throughout the year.

The theme of Advent is expectation, and we live in that continued expectation of the day of the Lord’s coming, both personal and corporate. Christmastide brings us the good news of the birth of Christ, and calls us to find a way to let Christ be born in us anew each day. Epiphany describes the ways in which God is made manifest — and continues to be manifest in the lives and works of the members of Christ’s body, the church. The season of Lent calls us to examine our hearts, inspiring us — by the story of Christ’s own suffering — to discipline ourselves in obedience to his call. And of course Easter, the season we now celebrate, brings us to the resurrection and throughout the season of Easter we are given continued assurances of the new life springing forth from the grave.

In today’s readings we are specifically reminded of newness — of novel and unheard-of things as well as of renovation, renewal of all things, in particular as promised by the one whom John saw seated on the throne in his heavenly vision: “See, I am making all things new.”

The Son of God can make all things new because he is both the Alpha and the Omega, the beginning and the end, or as we would say the A through Z (since Alpha and Omega are the first and last letters of the Greek alphabet). As the Psalmist would say, “All times are in your hand.”

God is the source of all that is new, of all novelty, all restoration, all renovation and renewal. And he gives this new life to any and all who thirst for it.

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We get a glimpse of thirsty people receiving something they don’t even know they need in that reading from the Acts of the Apostles — or rather, we hear Peter’s account of what happens when he tries to explain himself to the Jewish Christian believers who are scandalized by the fact that he actually went into a Gentile home, a Roman home, and even sat at table with Gentiles — people unclean by definition. Peter explains that he had been prepared to respond to this invitation from Cornelius, the Roman soldier, by a heavenly vision that came to him. He sees what sounds to me like a trampoline being let down from heaven and full of all kinds of animals, many of them classified as unclean. That would mean that they are forbidden by Jewish dietary law, and since all of the first Christians are Jewish, from Christian tables as well, as Peter reminds the heavenly voice when it commands him to kill and eat; even being so bold as to say to the voice from heaven, “By no means!” Peter protests, but the voice continues to remind him that what God has made clean he ought not call profane. As with Jesus’s instructions to Peter on the beach from a few weeks back — you recall, the ones about feeding the lambs and sheep, and about whether he really loved him — Peter gets another triple lesson. (Maybe Peter is just one of those people who needs to be told things three times before he gets it!) But as he says, the vision is repeated two more times together with the instruction not to call profane what God has declared clean. And so Peter finally gets to understand this, just as he finally got to understand — with those repeated statements about feeding the lambs, feeding the sheep — that Jesus wasn’t talking about him being a shepherd of literal sheep, but about people, the people he would serve. And so too with this vision he finally comes to understand that is not about food but about people — God is about to do a new thing, and no people are to be called unclean or profane; God is about to open salvation to the Gentiles, which is indeed exactly what happens.

Now this was a new thing that some would never quite accept — they had been taught and believed that only God’s chosen people merited salvation, and that the Gentiles were a people unclean by definition and as much to be avoided as Gentile food. But Peter, and later Paul, would both demonstrate how ancient prophecies that salvation would come even to the Gentiles — those people “who in darkness walked” — that those ancient prophecies had been fulfilled in Jesus, and in this particular incident God set a seal upon it through the descent of the Holy Spirit. Peter witnessed the Holy Spirit descend upon these Gentiles, this Roman soldier Cornelius and his family and his household, the same Holy Spirit that came upon the apostles and the other Jewish believers at Pentecost; and it happened before Peter could even finish his sermon; even before he could finish telling them the good news, the Holy Spirit came down upon Cornelius and all in his house. God, it seems, is more eager to save, that we can ask or imagine.

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Finally, in the gospel today, we step back before Good Friday and Easter to the Last Supper. Judas has already left the table to go about his sinister business of betrayal, feet have been washed, and as we know from the other Gospels, bread has been broken and the cup of the new covenant in his blood has been shared. And in this still and reflective moment Jesus pronounces that, “Now” is the moment of his glorification; and he gives the disciples a new commandment.

So what is this new commandment? He does not hesitate to deliver it, but states it immediately, “That you should love one another.” Perhaps he pauses for a moment, as no doubt the disciples are a little startled — not that they should be commanded to love one another, but that this commandment should be given as something new. Had not God always commanded that his people are to love God, and to love their neighbors as themselves? Are these commandments not the same as the ones that go all the way back to Moses.

We can well imagine the disciples wondering at what Jesus means by calling this commandment “new.” Would you not have been as much surprised? So what does he mean?

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It is plain that the commandment to love one another is not new in the sense of never having been given before. But that is not the only meaning of the word new. Sometimes a thing is new because it is a re-issue of something that is old.

We hear in that passage from Revelation this morning of a kind of renovation, in the description of the new Jerusalem. Jerusalem has been reborn, has been made new, and is descending from heaven like a bride adorned for her husband. The old, faithless city has been redeemed and made new. I must say that when I hear that passage I am reminded of an old joke by James Thurber, one of his famous cartoons, in which the caption was, “She’s always living in the past. Now she wants to get a divorce in the Virgin Islands.” But with God all things are possible. The faithless city Jerusalem is made new, is restored to her status of innocence, and clothed afresh with her bridal gown to welcome her husband, Christ himself. With God, newness can always come, even when things have fallen so very low.

As I say, sometimes it is not a new thing itself, but something that has been made new, something restored, or in the case of the book, republished. Even the resurrection itself partakes of this quality of old being made new. For it was the body that suffered and died that rose from the grave, given new life, still bearing the marks of the spear and the nails.

I am reminded — thinking of books — of the epitaph that Benjamin Franklin wrote for himself when he was young (although I’m sad to say this is not the one that actually appears on his grave). His youthful idea of what his epitaph should be reads:

The body of B. Franklin, Printer, like the Cover of an old Book — its Contents torn out and stripped of its Lettering and Gilding — lies here, food for worms. But the Work shall not be lost; for it will — as he believed — appear once more in a new and more elegant Edition revised and corrected by the Author.

(A little long for a tombstone!) That is the sense in which this new commandment is new —it is a command newly issued. And don’t we need to be reminded of that commandment to love one another over and over again. It needs to be made new every day, repeated so that we can take it into our hearts. It needs to be repeated just as Peter needed to be told three times to care for the flock and later to be told not to call profane what God has declared clean.

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But there is another and deeper sense in which this is indeed a new commandment, in the sense of not having been given before — for Jesus adds, “Just as I have loved you, you also should love one another.” So the commandment is not only repeated, but transposed to a higher key, with a more sublime example in the love that Jesus himself shows by giving himself up for them, the greatest love that anyone can show, to lay down his life for his friends. And so the commandment is no longer simply “love your neighbor as yourself,” but “love your neighbor as Jesus loves your neighbor” — loves your neighbor, and you, to the point of sacrificing himself on the cross for you, for your neighbor, and for the whole world. In this great love Jesus gives himself completely and utterly to suffering and death for universal salvation, to the end that all who believe might be saved.

This is not only new, it is earthshaking. It is revolutionary. It is nothing less than the work of God, in which we are invited to participate as the second edition of the people of God, not replacing the first edition, God’s chosen people, but supplementing it, as God has opened salvation to us Gentiles, in a new chapter beginning with that ancient Christmastide and coming to its fulfillment in the never-ending Eastertide in which all of humanity is invited to join, Jew and Gentile. In our obedience to this new commandment, may God our Lord and Savior be glorified and praised; henceforth and to the end of the ages.

Accept or Reject?

Do we accept all that God offers, even when we cannot see how it will be to our good?

Lent 2c • SJF • Tobias Stanislas Haller BSG
Jerusalem, Jerusalem, the city that kills the prophets and stones those who are sent to it! How often have I desired to gather your children together as a hen gathers her brood under her wings, and you were not willing!

All of our Scripture readings today give us powerful examples of acceptance and rejection — and the consequences of those actions. And as the lessons show, those consequences can affect not only the individual but generations to come.

We are presented first with Abram, and God’s promise of a reward. Abram is by no means ungrateful, but he is clearly not content: whatever God gives him will end with him — for he has no heir or descendant. The reward stops with him. And so God makes a promise to go along with the reward — God promises that Abram’s descendants will be more numerous than the stars. Abram believes, but then also seems to step back for a second time and ask God how it is he can be sure of this promise. And there follows a dreamlike passage in which Abram sacrifices a number of animals at God’s instruction and then enters into a deep and terrifying darkness in which he has a vision of smoke and fire passing through the midst of the divided portions of the bloody sacrifice, and a final promise from God: “to your descendants I give this land from the river of Egypt to the great river Euphrates.”

This is a story of multiple acceptances and very little rejection. Abram understandably can hardly believe the blessings that God is ready to pour out on him and his descendants. He’s a bit like one of those folks on The Antiques Road Show who when told their old jug is worth $25,000, say, “No!” But God accepts Abram, and his sacrifice — and Abram responds by accepting God’s promise in that vision of the night, of smoke and blood and flame.

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The reading from Philippians takes a sharp turn towards rejection, however. Paul is lamenting some who have rejected the cross, and even made themselves enemiesof Christ’s cross and salvation. These are people who have made a choice — they have rejected Christ crucified and have chosen earthly things: starting with their own bellies. These are perhaps some of the Greeks for whom the cross, with all its shame, is foolishness, as Paul would say to another Gentile congregation in Corinth. So they reject the way of the cross — reject following in the footsteps of Jesus and taking part in the sufferings that come with such faithfulness, and seek instead a life of comfort and personal satisfaction. Paul contrasts those who reject the way of Christ with himself and those believers who have accepted Christ, who have put their trust in him, even though they might at present be suffering persecutions and humiliations — as did Christ himself. And so Paul counsels them to stand firm in their acceptance of their Lord and Savior, in that cross with all its shame.

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Finally we come to those who not only reject the cross but Christ himself. Jesus personifies this rejection in the city of Jerusalem: the city that rejects the prophets and those who are sent to it. Jesus knows, of course, that the cross lies ahead of him and he will no more swerve aside from it or reject it, than would the faithful of that community at Philippi under the guidance of Saint Paul. For they know the truth, as Jesus knew, that salvation comes through and by means of that suffering. As the coach will say, “No pain, no gain”; or as an even older and more profound saying puts it, “No cross, no crown.”

But Jerusalem, Jerusalem, as the prophets had warned, likes to sit in comfort and safety — it wants the gain without the pain, it wants the crown without the cross — and in doing so forgets its reliance upon the Lord and God who is the only source of its strength. It is so jealous of its comfort and security that, like the Wicked Witch in “The Wiz” — that musical adaptation of the Wizard of Oz — it shouts out, “Don’t be bringing me no bad news!” It doesn’t want to hear the corrective words of the prophets, the words of warning that might save it. And in the long run that proud city rejects not only the prophets, but the Savior himself. And in doing so it loses its gain, and forsakes its crown.

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And what about us? Do we accept the things that come to us from God’s hand, or are we sometimes moved to turn up our noses when what befalls us does not suit our immediate needs? Or even more so, causes us trouble or pain? Do we ever fall into the trap of despair, as Abram almost did — unsure of how God can bring an answer out of all this mess we seem to have gotten into; beginning to doubt, beginning to lose our trust — not in our own abilities (which we are probably wise to doubt) but in the power of God to do all that God has promised for us? Do I? Do you? Do we, as a community, as a congregation, as a church? Do we let our insecurities or mistrust stand in the way of receiving the blessing that God has promised to pour out upon us when we offer that sacrifice of praise and thanksgiving to God’s holy name? Do we work through our doubts and confusion, facing them and working through them like a dream of smoke and fire and blood — passing through that painful sacrifice to the gainful promise on the other side?

Do we follow the example of Saint Paul, imitating him and living in accordance with the example that he set — working hard even when the reward seems far off; holding fast to the cross for the life-preserver it is in the flood of this mortal life? Do we grasp it — the cross of Christ — as a refuge anchor in the storm and the strife? Or do we let our bellies be our guide — our bodily needs and wants and desires and ambitions, unwilling to suffer any discomfort or inconvenience and so treating the cross of Christ — even his death on the cross — as irrelevant, or at best something to be put on the shelf or the end table, along with the Bible that hasn’t been cracked open in many a day?

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No, my friends, let us not reject the one who is so willing to have us accept him. Let us not be like Jerusalem of old, a city that kills the prophets and stones those who are sent to it; Let us not be like the disobedient children who when called home to safety instead run away to danger and destruction.

Listen, listen, he is calling us still, calling us to come to him, that we might take shelter under his wings. In the storm and the stress, in the smoke and the flame, we may not be able to see him reaching out to save us — we may at most see only the barest outline of his cross before our eyes. But he sees us, my beloved sisters and brothers, he sees us and knows where we are and if we will not reject him he will gather us up into the safety of his loving arms.

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Some years ago there was a terrible house fire in an old three storey frame building. You know these kinds of things happen in the Bronx all the time, especially in hard winter when someone accidentally knocks over one of those kerosene heaters they shouldn’t be using in the first place. Well in this case, the family managed to escape the house — or thought they had, until the father did a quick count of all the children on the sidewalk, and then heard that most horrible sound: his little boy calling to him from the second floor window, as the smoke billowed around him, blinding him so that he could see nothing. The father wanted to rush back into the house, but the crowd held him back, so he ran and stood under the window, calling up to his little son, telling him to jump. The terrified child, his eyes clenched tight against the stinging smoke, yelled out, “But Daddy, I can’t see you.” And his father shouted back, “But I can see you! Jump!”

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That decision to jump is sometimes as hard to make as the decision to follow God’s invitation to trust in him with all your heart and mind and soul and strength. It is hard — but it is the way to salvation. Let us not reject the one who stretches out his arms of love on the hard wood of the cross, who calls to us to come to him — to run, to walk, to crawl, or even to jump into his loving saving arms — even Jesus Christ our Lord.

Interpretation of Scripture

Jesus as the perfect interpretation of Scripture...

Epiphany 3c 2013 • SJF • Tobias Stanislas Haller BSG
The eyes of all in the synagogue were fixed on him. Then he began to say to them, “Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.”

It should come as no surprise to you that reading Holy Scripture has for a long time formed a central part of worship. Every Sunday morning we read passages from the Hebrew Scriptures (or during Easter season, from the Acts of the Apostles), and then also from the Epistles or the Revelation to John, and always from one of the four Gospels. Sometimes we also read — or sing — from the book of Psalms, or from our own Hymnal (the book Psalms being the hymnal of the Jewish people.)

It was also traditional — and still is — for Jewish worshipers to read from the Law and the Prophets and sing the Psalms in the synagogue. The privilege and responsibility to be a reader of the Holy Scripture belonged until recent times to every Jewish man — I add that proviso because women can now take on that role, at least in some Jewish congregations. So important was this responsibility to read the Scripture as a part of worship, that it formed a central part of the Jewish bar mitzvah ceremony, by which a boy entered into manhood as a “son of the commandment” by fulfilling that commandment to read the Holy Scriptures aloud — and an equivalent bat mitzvah has been added for girls becoming women in some congregations.

This reading of the text of Scripture in worship has an ancient pedigree. We see Jesus exercising this responsibility in our gospel passage today. The hometown boy — about whose doings in the neighboring towns so much has been heard — returns home and goes to the synagogue on the Sabbath day, and is honored by the people there by being given the scroll of the prophet Isaiah from which to read. And he reads that beautiful passage about God’s promises.

I will get back to those promises in a moment, but I first want to note something else about reading and interpreting Scripture. And that is brought to mind by our reading from the Book of Nehemiah. This passage describes an extremely important event in the history of the Jewish people — with Ezra and Nehemiah, they have returned from their exile in Babylon, and have set to the task of rebuilding their ruined city and temple. Because they have been exiled from the temple they have been unable to carry out any of the commandments of the Law of Moses having to do with the temple — none of the sacrifices, none of the thanksgivings or offerings, none of the feast days — perhaps most importantly no way to observe the Day of Atonement, the holiest day of the Jewish year.

All of these observances have been impossible for them in their weary exile by the waters of Babylon, where they wept and hung up their harps on the branches of the trees. There in Babylon they even objected to singing the songs of Zion when those who led them away captive asked for a song — “How shall we sing the Lord’s song upon an alien soil?” they cried out. And ironically, their objection to singing itself became one of their best songs, and ended up in their hymnal as Psalm 137, “By the waters of Babylon, we sat down and wept.”

More importantly, because of their long exile most of them have probably never even heard the words of the Law of Moses, much less read it. And so this gathering, back in Jerusalem by the Water Gate, is the first time in several generations, after the 70 years of captivity, that the people would hear all that they have missed — and missed doing.

But something else has changed in the course of time — most of the people no longer speak Hebrew; in their exile in Babylon they have picked up the local language, Aramaic. The two languages are related but not enough for easy understanding. That would be like thinking I could speak Spanish because I studied Italian — I did study Italian in college but I actually discovered that when it came time for me to study Spanish, knowing Italian actually made it harder; because it was close, but not close enough: as the old saying goes, “Close, but no cigar” — just close enough as to cause confusion, as the Italian word would pop into my head instead of the Spanish word.

So it was for the people gathered there at the Water Gate. The Scripture was read in Hebrew, the language in which the Law of Moses was written — and so, as Nehemiah reports, those who read gave an interpretation — giving the sense in Aramaic line by line, in that common language that everyone spoke by then. These Aramaic interpretations, originally given on the fly, were eventually written down, so that people unable to study the Scripture in its original Hebrew could make some sense of it in the synagogue — just as we all read the Scriptures in English, rather than in the original Hebrew, Aramaic, or Greek. It would not do any of us much good if I stood up here reading the New Testament in the language in which it was written — Greek.

This use of one language rather than another, a language one understands — translation — is the most basic kind of interpretation. Because when you translate you must also interpret; there is more to translation than just plugging one word in place of another, because any given word in almost every language can have more than one meaning.

Which brings me back to Jesus and that reading of Isaiah in the synagogue. He may have read from the Hebrew text and given the Aramaic himself line by line, or he may even have been reading from one of those Aramaic translations itself. But whatever he did as a matter of interpretation, he did something much more significant. He did not just interpret, he fulfilled the Scripture. He presented himself as the fulfillment of the promises in that holy text.

It wasn’t just about words of God, words spoken through the prophet; it was about the Word of God, the Word made Flesh, the Word Incarnate — Jesus himself. For we believe that Jesus himself is the living Word of God, just as we believe the Scripture is the written Word of God. You see, even the word word can mean more than one thing! Jesus is himself the interpretation, the incarnation — and in keeping with this season of Epiphany — the showing forth, the revelation, the manifestation of God’s eternal presence, word and wisdom. As a line from a famous poem attributed to Queen Elizabeth I says, “He was the word that spake it.”

Jesus, the Word, takes that written word in his hand, and then speaks it out in application to himself, saying, “Today this is fulfilled in your presence” — and now we too have this testimony coming to us in the written words of the Gospel that I read just a few moments ago, proclaimed anew today; — and today it also is fulfilled in your hearing. For Jesus is, always, everywhere, the Word of God — today and every day.

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Now I realize as I say this that our old friend Saint Augustine is watching me, from the stained glass window over there, looking past his mother Monica over my shoulder and keeping an eye on me — a good reminder for any preacher. Saint Augustine once said something very wise about interpreting Scripture, and it is in keeping with the relationship between the Written Word of Scripture and the Living Word, Jesus. Relying on the commandment Jesus emphasized, the commandment to love God and your neighbor, Augustine said,

If you think that you understand the scriptures, in such a way that your understanding does not build up the twin love of God and neighbor, then you have not understood them... If on the other hand you interpret the scripture in ways that are helpful for building up this love of God and neighbor, but have not said what the original author actually intended, then your mistake is not damaging, and you cannot be accused of lying.

In other words, an interpretation that tears down loving relationships is always inferior to one that builds up the love of God and neighbor, even if it is not the “correct” interpretation or the author’s original intent.

Jesus shows himself at work in this, for he is the both the only completely correct interpretation of Scripture, and in a very real sense its author, since he is the living Word of God. The Spirit of the Lord is upon him, and he is there — and here, and everywhere, at all times and in all places — to preach good news, of release from captivity, of freedom and favor — to build up in love, not to tear down in condemnation. For as the evangelist John would later say, “God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but that the world might be saved.” It is about building up.

True preaching of the gospel will always point us back to those eternal truths: that Jesus is the Son of God, the word spoken through the prophets, the Word of God made flesh, fulfilled in every gracious moment, and all for the love of God. May all of our preaching and teaching and learning and hearing keep us ever mindful of that eternal Word.+

Presto Change-O

There is more to Cana than miraculous catering...

Epiphany 2 • SJF • Tobias Stanislas Haller BSG
The nations shall see your vindication, and all the kings your glory; and you shall be called by a new name that the mouth of the Lord will give.

We come now to the second Sunday after the Epiphany. Epiphany is the season in which we recall how Jesus showed himself forth, how he revealed himself to be who he was— as “God in man made manifest” — manifestation being a fair translation of Epiphany. This year the season is a bit short because Lent starts so early, but we did have the advantage of the Feast of the Epiphany itself falling on a Sunday two weeks ago, and so we got to celebrate the first great manifestation of the son of God: the revelation to the Magi, or Three Kings, as custom calls them.

Then last Sunday, as on every First Sunday after the Epiphany, we took note of the Baptism of Jesus — another revelation or manifestation of his true nature, when the Holy Spirit descended upon him like a dove in bodily form, and a voice spoke from heaven proclaiming him to be God’s beloved son.

And today we come to the wedding feast at Cana, which the evangelist John describes at the end of the reading as the first sign by which Jesus revealed his glory and led his disciples to believe in him. But isn’t it striking how different this episode is from the two previous events. At first glance it seems a bit like a parlor trick, or perhaps a little bigger than that, like a stage-show magic act. Why, Jesus even treats the servants in the same way a magician treats his assistants, instructing them to fill the stone water jars and then to draw some off to take to the chief steward.

Yet surely there is more going on here than simply a magic act, a bit of presto change-o. This is the Son of God, not a Las Vegas stage performance, however spectacular. So what is going on in this miraculous change of water into wine?

The editors who assembled the readings today knew what they were up to: for both the reading from Isaiah and the one from the First Corinthians have to do with transformation; and what is more, transformation as a sign and a revelation, a manifestation of the presence of God: an Epiphany.

Isaiah speaks of God coming to redeem Zion and Jerusalem, vindicating them and releasing them from their captivity — raising them up literally like Cinderella, to be taken from the dust and ashes and to become a crown of beauty and a royal diadem. Holy Zion would even be given new names; no longer Forsaken or Desolate, but now Hephzibah and Beulah — well, yes, the translators were probably right to give those names in translation; and their meaning is beautiful — “My Delight Is in Her” and “Married” — I think today very few young women would like to be named Hephzibah or Beulah.

But a change this is, what a transformation, what a wonderful manifestation of the power of God! Lifted from the dust to be set on the throne — no glass slipper, but a royal diadem — all by the power of God.

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And the transformation that Saint Paul describes in First Corinthians is no less wonderful — no less a manifestation of God’s Holy Spirit. It is a result of the action of God upon those people. God has taken these ordinary Greeks — some of them slaves, a few of them craftspeople, merchants, mostly working class, a few of them perhaps well-to-do, but none of them likely of the “1 percent” — God has taken these ordinary people and poured out upon them an abundance of spiritual gifts, each of them given as a manifestation of the spirit for the common good: the ability to speak with wisdom or knowledge or faith; the gifts of healing or the working of miracles; to prophesy or discern spirits, or to speak in tongues or to interpret tongues — and all of this not as a result of classes at Monroe College or the University of Phoenix, or even at the local philosophers’ school, but suddenly and miraculously and from above — a sure sign that this is the work of God and not merely human learning.

So when we arrive at the wedding feast at Cana, we are prepared — and called — to see the transformation of the water into wine as more than Jesus simply acting as a miraculous caterer. There is something deeply important, deeply significant, about this change, and John the evangelist is careful to alert us by placing important details in his account.

First of all note those opening words: “On the third day...” What else happened on a “third day?” Another great manifestation? Yes! And so John starts off right from the beginning, by mentioning a “third day” — we’re up to something important here.

So then notice how he mentions where the water comes from: this is not drinking water. This is water that has been set aside for rituals of purification — John even includes the important detail that the water is in jars made of stone; for under Jewish law stone vessels could never become ritually impure — if you put pure water into them, pure it will remain, until you draw it out and use it. And what did they use it for? This water was set aside for people to wash their hands, which one would do many times in the course of a ritual Jewish meal.

This is the water that Jesus chooses to transform— and the second thing to note is that there is a lot of it; each of those jars holds over 8 gallons — about what you would need for a large wedding party to be able to wash its hands several times during each meal in the course of a seven-day wedding festival, but also obviously much more than enough wine, particularly late in the celebration, as the steward notes - another detail to pay attention to. So Jesus takes water intended for rites of purification, and transforms it into wine for celebration — and not just any wine, but good wine, and not just a cup or a flagon or two, but 48 gallons — that’s about 240 bottles of wine.

So this isn’t just a simple magic trick, something to impress the disciples; but a sign, a manifestation to teach them something about the very nature of who Christ is. Just as Zion is not simply transformed into a free city, but into a royal diadem; just as the Corinthians are not just made into good pew-sitters and member of their local congregation, but are given powerful gifts as leaders; so too Jesus transforms water that had a merely earthly purpose — something as prosaic as washing your hands — into a sign of his kingdom and its coming: wine in abundance to gladden the heart of those invited to drink of its goodness.

All of these things reveal and manifest the glory of God: the restoration of the city once forsaken, transformed into the crown jewel of the kingdom; the astonishing gifts bestowed by the Holy Spirit upon the people of that newly formed Christian community in the Greek city of Corinth; and the transformation of washing-up water into gallons of the finest wine. These are transformations and manifestations far and away more important than the most spectacular magic act, more than a presto change-o or an abracadabra. These are the kinds of things that happen when the power of God sets to work. And God is working still — right here, right now, in your hearts, when you invite him in.

Let us pray. O Lord of transformation, you lifted up the forsaken city from the dust, you poured out gifts upon the people of your church, and you revealed yourself to your disciples by changing the water of purification into the wine of celebration: So send your mighty power and restore, and grace, and change us too, that we may bear forth your message of hope and joy to a world in need of change; through Jesus Christ our Lord.

From Jerusalem

SJF • Easter 3b • Tobias Stanislas Haller BSG
Repentance and forgiveness of sins is to be proclaimed in his name to all nations, beginning from Jerusalem.

You have to be careful sometimes what you read on the subway or an airplane. People will look over your shoulder, and often feel free to offer a comment on what you are reading. I studied Hebrew when I was in seminary, and one day on the subway I was reading from the Hebrew Scriptures, when an Orthodox Jewish man sat next to me. After a few moments, he leaned over and asked, with some astonishment, “Do you understand what you are reading?” I resisted the temptation to say, “Why, that’s just what Philip asked the Ethiopian eunuch when he saw him reading Isaiah in his carriage.” Instead I explained I was studying Hebrew in seminary. We went on to have a good conversation about Christians and Jews and their points of agreement and difference. I didn’t get much studying done, but this may have been a blessed opportunity for something more important!

In a similar fashion, one stormy night, an evangelist was flying to Philadelphia, when the man sitting next to him discovered he was a Christian — the evangelist was reading his Bible, and not just because it was a bumpy flight. After learning that the evangelist was a minister, the other man immediately launched into a recitation about how he didn’t feel the need for organized religion. (I guess he liked disorganized religion — which just goes to show he hadn’t checked out many churches, as I think if fair to say we get along being about as disorganized as anybody!)

Anyway, he was one of those who took this life easy, and thought the life to come would be easy too. He wasn’t an atheist, he just didn’t have use for any particular religion, and took the view that there were any number of ways to salvation.

As the plane bumped along its stormy course, the man expounded on this comfortable theology. “Anyone who lives a good life here and now will have a good life in the world to come.” He said, “There are many ways into heaven. I mean, here we are traveling to Philadelphia by plane. But we could have taken the train or bus, or driven if we’d felt like it. I think it is the same way with heaven.” The evangelist listened to all of this patiently.

Then the voice of the pilot announced the final approach to Philadelphia. Because of the severe weather the landing would be delayed, and the pilot asked people to be patient and endure the bumpy ride. Naturally people were nervous, including the minister and the man in the seat next to him. As the pilot concluded his message, the preacher turned to his seat-mate and said with a smile, “I’m glad the pilot doesn’t share your theology!” “What do you mean,” the other asked.

“Well, right now the pilot is getting precise instructions from the control tower in Philadelphia. They are sending out a radio beacon to guide us to the landing strip. If he departs from the beacon by even a single degree, we’ll miss the landing strip. I’m sure glad the pilot isn’t saying, ‘There are many ways to get to Philadelphia; I can take any approach I like. I can turn the radio off if I want to.’ I’m glad the pilot is saying, ‘There is only one way I can land this plane safely, one radio beacon to follow, and I’m going to stick with it!’”

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Today’s readings turn our attention not to Philadelphia, but to Jerusalem, the Jerusalem of two thousand years ago, and to particular events that happened in that certain time and place, events which we believe have a bearing on all times and all places. For it was in Jerusalem that Jesus was crucified; it was in Jerusalem he was raised from the dead; and it was from Jerusalem that the word began to go forth, proclaimed by Peter and the other disciples, teaching and preaching that there is salvation in no one else than Jesus; that there is no other name given among mortals by which we must be saved. Through the storm and the night, there is one sure and certain means to salvation, just as through that stormy late-night flight, there was only one beacon to guide to a safe landing.

This is what theologians call the “scandal of particularity.” Many people think it harsh to say that there is one way to salvation, one Lord, one faith, one baptism, one God who rules over heaven and earth, one incarnate Lord who died and was raised to life again. But the Christian faiths responds, That’s the way it is. Or rather, That’s Who the Way is!

If you think about it in terms of your own life you will see that particularity is not so strange after all. Each of us is particular; each of us is unique. There are many, many people in the world, but there is only one me, only one of each of you. There may be people who look like me, or have the same name as me, but they are not in fact me. There other Tobias Hallers out there — both “Tobias” and “Haller” are common names in Germany, where my father’s family came from generations back. I know, through the courtesy of Google, of at least two German Tobias Hallers: an ethnobiologist and a rock-climber. Believe me, we have very little in common but our names! And speaking of family history, generations back, in Frederick Maryland where my ancestors lived, two sons of my many-times-great-grandfather both had their own sons about the same time, and perhaps through a lack of communication, each gave their son the name Tobias. So it was in that one small town there were two Tobias Hallers running around, two cousins, who in later years. to tell them apart, people always referred to them by their trades: Hat-maker Haller and Mason Haller. I’m descended from the mason, by the way, not the hatter — which may explain my interest in restoring our buildings! But apart from that interest, which I share with my ancestor, and the name I share with all of them, this handful of Tobias Hallers than our shared name, and in one case a bit of our genes, some of our DNA. Each of them is or was him, and I am me, each of us totally unique people. And we’ve got the name tags to prove it! I’ll say more about that at announcement-time; but they’re downstairs waiting for everybody.

To put this into the context of our readings, in a more geographical sense, there are many cities in the world; there is even another Philadelphia — at least it went by that name in the days of the apostles — now Amman in Jordan. But even if there are other cities that bear the name, there is only one ancient Jerusalem.

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The special position of Jerusalem was announced long ago by the prophets. Jerusalem, a particular city built on a particular hill, would one day become the center of the world. And this is where we begin to turn from the scandal of particularity to the gift of universality. This is where we begin to see that the uniqueness of Jerusalem, and of Jesus Christ, is what makes the them accessible to all, what makes the kingdom of heaven accessible to all.

The prophet Micah said that one day the mountain of the Lord’s house would be raised up above all the other hills, and that peoples would stream to it. He foretold that many nations would come to it and would turn to the God of Jacob, to learn to walk in his paths. Isaiah and the other prophets echoed this message: all the world would come to Jerusalem.

And in Jesus Christ the prophecy came true, as he promised that everything written about him in the law of Moses, and in the prophets and in the psalms would be fulfilled. Through one person salvation was made available to all people. As Paul would say, “For as in Adam all die, so also in Christ shall all be made alive.” Instruction did go forth from Jerusalem, carried by the voices of the apostles, teaching that Jesus was risen from the dead, and that in him new life and salvation lay, available to all. Those who were witness to the resurrection would carry that word to the ends of the world, beginning from Jerusalem. The word would be preached to all people everywhere, starting from a tiny group or people somewhere, from the particular to the universal, from the unique center to the infinite multiplicity of points on the edge of the circle, from Jerusalem to the ends of the earth — which though it has many places on its surface, but only one and exactly one center.

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So it is, my brothers and sisters in Christ, that the word of salvation has come to us. There is one signal being broadcast, but many can tune into it. There were, that stormy night in Philadelphia, no doubt many planes that landed safely, all guided by that signal from the single control tower, that radio beacon. There is one key to the door that leads to salvation, but once the door is opened anyone can enter through who chooses to. As Saint John the Divine wrote at the dictation of a voice like a trumpet, to the ancient church in that other Philadelphia: “I have set before you an open door, which no one is able to shut.” That door stands open still — one door through which many may enter. And that is only bad news to those who seek another way, or ignore the invitation.

There is one center to a circle, but an infinite number of points on its edge, each and every one of them exactly the same distance away from the center. There is one savior, Jesus Christ; his salvation is available to all who turn to him, to all who place their trust in him; he is equally close to all who seek him who is the firm center to anchor our compass.

As we continue our journey through the storm, through the night of our earthly life, may we remain attentive to the beacon, the shining light to keep us on course, the center point that will keep our circle true. That signal was first sent out, beginning from Jerusalem, from the little hill called Golgotha, outside the city walls, and then proclaimed more fervently from the heights of Jerusalem itself, proclaimed to its people to bring them to repentance, and then from holy Zion instruction went forth, out into the ends of the world, to the nations who dwelt in darkness; and the beacon is beaming brightly still, as Zion continues to publish glad tidings. All who tune their receivers to it can hear it, all who turn their hearts to the one who speaks through the ages and in all ages, can have their hearts warmed and spirits strengthened at the sound of his voice.

As we are buffeted by the winds of temptation, or tossed by the storms of sin and grief, when the darkness appears and the night draws near, and the day is past and gone, may we keep our hearts fixed on the one true signal of salvation that is beamed towards us from the heart of Jesus Christ our Lord, to bring us safely home.+

The story about the evangelist is freely adapted from an account by Tony Campolo.