I must confess that I have always been envious of those who are able to acquire another language. I have always struggled to learn a second language.
As a child my parents enrolled me in private French lessons, but when French became available at school, it was like starting over again. Each year was the same. I struggled all year to learn a few basics, scrape by with a pass at the end of the school year, and then forget everything over the summer. I would start again from square one, once again, each Fall. I finally dropped both French and Latin in high school. In the first year of seminary, I enrolled in New Testament Greek. Early in the term the professor arranged for us all to take a language aptitude test. My years of struggling to learn another language all came together with that test. Finally everything made sense.
If you have taken the language aptitude test, you will know that it is based on learning a few simple elements of Kurdish. The idea is to see how quickly you can learn it and then answer some questions. A week or so after the test, I sat in the professor’s office to hear my results. He began by telling me he didn’t understand why I was having such difficulty learning Greek, as I had a perfect aptitude for foreign languages. Suddenly he stopped in his tracks. Mumbled oh and said to me, James I see why you are having such difficulties. I was reading the score backwards. You have absolutely no aptitude to learn a second language
I don’t know exactly how that language aptitude test works, but after years of trying to learn French, Latin and then Greek, I didn’t need a test to tell me what I already knew. There is something about my brain that simply can’t absorb languages. I joke that even after thirty years in this country, I still don’t understand and can’t speak American. It has been explained to me countless times, what freshman, sophomore, junior and senior mean, but it needs to be explained to me again each time someone uses those phrases. And please don’t tell me you are a rising sophomore because that will just confuse me even more.
After the death of my parents, I had to settle their estate and then prepare the house that I grew up in to sell. Among the almost five decades of memories were photo albums assembled through the years. In one of these albums is a picture of my Mom and me when I was an infant. She was in her nightgown, her hair in curlers, sitting in a rocking chair holding me. She was lovingly looking down at me and I was gazing up at her, our eyes locked while I sucked on my pacifier. I imagine my Dad seeing the opportunity for the iconic shot and carefully reaching for his camera. It is a picture we have all seen in the many photo albums of our lives or even while walking in the park, eating in a restaurant, or visiting family. The mother gazes at the infant with a gentle outpouring of love, comfort, and safety. The infant returns the gaze, looking up into the eyes of its mother, taking in information, studying her face, expressions, and eyes. This gaze of love is so compelling, you cannot help but to get drawn in. Even though you were too young to remember this interchange, somehow you hold it sacramentally in embodied remembrance.
It was this kind of gaze that came to mind when reading these words in a small book published by our Society called A Cowley Calendar which has a quote of our founder Fr. Benson for each day of the year. On the page marked “Tuesday in the Octave of Ascension” there is this quote: “We must realize that His eye is really upon us. We must therefore rest in the knowledge that He is looking on us. He gazes into our hearts, He knows all the thoughts that are there. He watches when perhaps Satan assaults us with manifold evil thoughts. He encourages us to be strong, to keep ourselves continually gazing upon Him; and if we will only live in His love, then no power of the enemy can tear us away.”[i] In our lection this evening from the Gospel of John we hear Jesus pray to his Father for his disciples in loving intercession. As he begins to pray, the author of John says that Jesus looks up toward heaven. Its almost as if Jesus returns the gaze of his father as he prays about his coming glorification on the cross and then for protection for his disciples.
That’s a lot of love, what Jesus is saying again and again in this Gospel passage appointed for today. In three verses, Jesus names “love” 8 times. How to live? Live loving. Love. Love. Love. Love… With each repetition, Jesus is clearly trying to catch our attention, but how? What does Jesus’ word “love” mean for us? We need to do some detective work, because the Greek of the New Testament has four completely different words for “love,” words which are indistinguishable in English. What love – which of the four loves – is Jesus talking about here, and repeatedly? (And, in our short lesson from the First Letter of John, the word “love” appears five times, and it’s the same word for “love” that Jesus is talking about here.)
- In English, we speak of the love parents have for their newborn baby.[i] They love their precious little girl.
- Or there’s the love we have for a close friend. I write a note to a friend, and I close the note with, “Love, Curtis.”[ii]
- Or there’s the love between two people who have “fallen in love” with one another. They are smitten with passionate love for one another.[iii]
- Or there is the self-sacrificing love of one person on behalf of another, someone giving up their life out of love so that another can live.[iv]
In English we use the same word, “love,” to describe all of these experiences of love, but in the Greek, these are four completely different words. Which of the four Greek verbs for love is Jesus talking about here? It’s the latter, the self-sacrificing love of one person on behalf of another, someone giving up their life out of love so that another can live. In Greek, this word for love is “agápē,” and Jesus lives up to this kind of love in his crucifixion. It’s with that kind of love Jesus is calling us to live our lives: the self-sacrificing love of our own person on behalf of another, so that they can live. Jesus normalizes this love.
Julian of Norwich
Amid the swirling death and anxiety of pandemic, amid the social and political upheaval of today, we remember Julian of Norwich, who as James recently told us Brothers, is a good companion because she lived in a similar time. The late fourteenth century had much anxiety, death, and change. The Great Famine killed many and about twenty years later when Julian was born, the Black Death began killing millions. Then there were social and political revolts and beginnings of church reform.
Amid of all this, Julian received a series of visions and committed herself to a life of prayer, lived in a church, listening to and praying for many who came to her, and wrote a significant book reflecting on her experiences.
Julian’s life and writings embody our text from the Letter to the Hebrews. She encourages us to persevere because of who we know God to be. “Therefore, my friends, since we have confidence to enter the sanctuary by the blood of Jesus … let us approach … with faith … let us hold fast to the confession of our hope without wavering … and let us consider how to provoke one another to love and good deeds … .”
Julian lived that faith and hope confident in God’s abiding love for all of us. Robert Ellsberg wrote: “Her central insight was that the God who created us out of love and who redeemed us by suffering love, also sustains us and wills to be united with us in the end.”[i] May we join our prayers with Julian in response to God’s creative, redeeming, and sustaining love, confident in her words that “All shall be well, all shall be well, and all manner of things shall be well.”
We often imagine what it must have been like for those disciples to be living with Jesus during those years of ministry together in Galilee. Particularly in the Synoptic Gospels we come to know a Jesus in all his humanity: his kindness, his gentleness, his anger, his sadness, his love. There are times, especially in Jesus’ healing miracles and perhaps above all at the Transfiguration, when the disciples glimpse something of his divinity, but so often Jesus tells them not to tell anyone of this. More often, Jesus is portrayed as a very human, who draws close to us in his humanity.
But when we move to the Gospel of John, we breathe a very different atmosphere. Here, in this gospel, it is as if Jesus can barely conceal his divinity at all. At any moment his glory is likely to ‘flame out like shining from shook foil.’ In our Gospel today, we have such a moment. Jesus comes to his disciples, walking on the water, and they are terrified. On seeing Jesus, the disciples were experiencing what Rudolph Otto in his book ‘The Idea of the Holy’ described as the numinous. The experience of the numinous, he says, underlies all genuine religious experience. Scripture is packed with such experiences, and perhaps the first famous one is in the account of Moses and the burning bush in Exodus 3. The experience of the numinous has three components, which Otto calls ‘mysterium tremendum et fascinans.’ First is ‘mysterium’. The numinous experience is wholly other; entirely different to anything we experience in ordinary life, and it evokes a reaction of wonder. So, the disciples in the boat stare in awe and wonder at a man walking on water. Secondly the numinous is ‘tremendum’. It provokes terror, because it presents itself as an overwhelming power and majesty. And the poor disciples were terrified! But thirdly, the numinous is ‘fascinans’. We are attracted and drawn to it, as something merciful and gracious. The disciples longed for this terrifying figure on the water to come closer to them, and into the boat.
Today, on this Wednesday in Holy Week, we have just heard read one of the most emotionally charged passages in all the Gospels. In an act of intimate, self-giving love, Jesus has just washed his disciples’ feet. But he then turns from love, to betrayal. We are told, laconically that Jesus is ‘troubled in spirit’; perhaps an understatement. For he has just washed Judas’ feet. Jesus loved Judas, as he did all his disciples. Jesus’ heart likely burned with a deep sorrow at what Judas was about to do.
But love and betrayal exist side by side. And there is a very close parallel between what Jesus did by washing his disciples’ feet, and what Judas was about to do. That parallel is made very clear by one word in the text, and that is the word betrayal. But that is only one translation of the word used by John. In the Greek of the original text, the word translated as ‘betrayal’, is ‘paradidomai’. This literally means ‘to hand over or give over power to another, or to hand over another into the power of another’. Here, that verb is translated as ‘to betray’ because this ‘handing over’ of Jesus by Judas is done treacherously. But elsewhere in the New Testament this very same word is used in a beautiful and loving way. In the letter to the Ephesians for example, we read that Jesus ‘has loved us and given himself for us.’ The same verb, paradidomai. Jesus so loves us that he freely gives himself over to the power of another. And this is what Jesus was expressing so beautifully when he laid aside his robe and washed his disciples’ feet. So great is his love for us that he laid down his divine power and became as a servant; became vulnerable and ‘woundable’. Through love he exposed himself to the power of Judas, he gave himself over to the power of the darkness in men’s hearts, ‘and it was night.’
Again?! More?! More giving up, letting go, and self-denial, more awareness of need and sin, more repentance and vulnerability? Do we really need more Lent? The past year feels like a long Lent with so much loss and grief, and it is as if we are still waiting for Easter. Now more Lenten wilderness again? Let us keep praying with the psalmist “How long, O Lord?”[i] Scripture both gives voice to our lament and reminds us of our story.
Back near the beginning, in the Book of Genesis, seeing evil pervasive throughout the world, God sent a flood. God also chose to save through the ark. Afterward, God gave a promise: I will never destroy like this again. I choose you and all living creatures forever. The flood is not as surprising to me now as it once was because I have experienced more of the prevailing evil. I see the wrong not simply in others as it is easy to point out, but that which is in myself. I mess up so much over and over again in thought and action, opposing God, not loving my neighbor, nor loving myself. The flood reminds that we all sin and fall short.
Notice God’s promise to Noah. It’s one-sided. There is no requirement for how Noah or humanity must behave. It’s all up to God. Just after this passage, Noah gets drunk and is ashamed. In the Bible, we hear stories of human folly again and again. The characters cheat, steal, fight, conspire, sleep around, murder, and all the other things that, if we are honest, resonate with our desires and actions. From the flood and throughout, scripture reminds us we all need salvation.
All of us have secrets: secret thoughts, secret feelings, secret fears, hopes and desires. All of us know more about ourselves than we care to share with others. We allow others to think we have pure hearts, but we know that we harbor impure thoughts. We hope others will notice how unselfish we are, yet we know that selfishness still resides in us. We want people to see us as strong and courageous, but we know that often we are weak and afraid.
We live with secrets, all of us. We’re sometimes shocked when we learn something about a person that we never would have guessed, something that had been hidden from us. But the truth is that we will never fully know even the closest of our friends and companions. We are mysteries to each other, like icebergs of which we can see only the tip. And we are mysteries to ourselves. We will never fully understand why we think and act in the ways we do. Only God knows the secrets of our hearts.
Jesus often exposed the secrets of others. He perceived the hypocrisy of the Pharisees. He discerned the true motives of the crowds that followed him. He saw into the hearts of his disciples. He knows our secrets. He knows that what we do on the outside does not always match up with what is going on within us. We may appear to be seeking God and trying to do what is right, and yet inwardly we are preoccupied with the impression we are making on other people. We may give the appearance of serving God, but it may not actually be God’s approval that we are seeking, or God’s purposes that we are trying to advance.
As is always so in the power of the Holy Spirit, this evening’s scripture readings address the present moment in surprising ways. This occurs somewhat serendipitously as we read the story of Jacob’s courtship of Rachel on the eve of the Valentine’s Day celebration of romantic love.
However, after nearly a year of pandemic loss and isolation, I would like direct our prayerful reflection on the present moment, on God’s eternal ‘now’, through the story of Jesus’s encounter with the blind beggar Bartimaeus.
Mark’s Gospel narrative has reached an important juncture here. Jesus and the disciples have journeyed away from Galilee where great hope and joy have been generated among the people by Jesus’s ministry of teaching, healing and proclaiming the Good News. The travelers have now come to Jericho from which they are turning toward Jerusalem for the celebration of the Passover festival, joined by a great crowd of expectant pilgrims. Yet on the road Jesus’s disciples have been deeply disturbed by his repeated disclosure of the purpose for their journey: at Jerusalem Jesus is to fulfill his identity and mission as the martyr-messiah of God’s kingdom. In misunderstanding and fear at the prospect, the disciples have retreated into deep denial. Thus when Bartimaeus raises his loud cries, “Jesus, Son of David, have mercy on me!”, the disciples, in their alarm, join the festal crowd in attempting to silence the poor man.
I don’t know about you, but this reading from Mark always strikes me as a bit of a scandal; to encounter Jesus with a very human prejudice on his lips. I’ve always found it a bit disturbing, especially to see a woman with a deep need coming to the incarnate Word of God, only to be met with an oddly human formation. Where’s the good news in this?—I often have to ask myself.
As I sat with this scandal of a reading for the past few days, I discerned three possible ways I think it might speak some good news to us, and might actually communicate some of the wideness of God’s mercy at play.
One of the things that speaks a word of good news is also one of the things that is most unsettling about this: we encounter a very human Jesus. A Jesus who has been formed by human communities with their own blind-spots, prejudices, and hatreds. Children verses dogs.