Love & Life in the Light...
WEDNESDAY IN THE 2ND WEEK OF EASTER - John 3:16-21
Jesus continues his discussion with Nicodemus. Jesus points to the nexus of God's remarkable love and the faith of the believer that affects salvation. Jesus' contention that the Son has not come to condemn the world turns one strain of Messianic prophecy and expectation on its head. The Messiah is here to redeem (save) creation, which God loves. This is an important distinction even in 21st Century apocalyptic expectation. So often we are presented with the image of an angry God bent on destroying a world that has become evil. But Jesus tells Nicodemus that not even the Son has come to condemn. The world is something that Giod loves so much that he sends the Son to draw the world back to Himself.
Jesus then turns to human choice and cooperation with God's plan. The one believes in that remarkable love of the Father is redeemed. The one who rejects the Son is one who "prefers darkness to light"and prefer wickness to goodness. The believer "lives the truth" and is attracted to light. The juxtaposition of Light and Darkness is a common theme in the 4th Gospel. Here in these short few verses Jesus summarizes the Johannine Gospel: God's love and human belief lead to light and life. Rejection of God's love (unbelief) will lead to condemnation, darkness and death.
Seraph Serpent lifted up...
TUESDAY IN THE 2ND WEEK OF EASTER - JOHN 3:7-15
I have always been a little disconcerted by the story of the Seraph Serpent in Numbers 21. The same God that just forbade the creation of graven images in the law he gave at Mt. Sinai and who severly punished the Children of Israel in the desert for creating the image of a cud chewing beast (Exodus 32), commanded Moses to make a graven image of a serpent and place it in a place where the people can gaze upon it. It smacks of idolatry [and may be a story leftover from some ancient near-eastern snake cult].
But I digress - the reference to Moses and the serpent serves an important theological purpose in the conversation between Jesus and a "teacher of Israel." The story would have been well-known as a story of God's intervention in Israel's history to give new life to His people. It was an "earthly thing" that pointed to heavenly realities." Jesus uses the image as a sacramental image to help Niocodemus understand what it is that he must accomplish and how it will be accomplished. The image of the Son of Man "lifted up," is central to the theology of John's Gospel. Jesus will come to his full Glory when he is lifted up on the cross. John's crucifixion is so radically different from the crucifixion as it is presented in the Synoptics. The cross is the throne from which the glorified Lord reigns. The cross will become the healing symbol that all infected by the venom of the world and sin will look to for healing.
This is a supremely Catholic image from the supremely Catholic Gospel. The sense of natural, sacramental symbols that represent God's grace are as old as the Hebrew Scriptures. The Hebrew people gazing ont he seraph serpent is beautiful prefiguring of the Christian contemplating the Crucifix (an Sacramental)or gazing upon the Blessed Sacrament (THE Sacrament). Each assures us of the presence of the Son of Man LIFTED UP so that we may believe in him and have life eternal.
MONDAY IN THE SECOND WEEK OF EASTER - This reflection is from a homily I wrote in 2010
“Are you “Born Again?” is a common conversation started for so-called Evangelical Christians. There are many people who identify themselves as “born again Christians.” In modern discussions, it has become a category akin to a denomination. Generally, proponents of this position have a very specific meaning for the phrase “born again:” that at a specific moment on a clock and calendar, one accepted Jesus as his or her “personal savior.” The judgment that attaches to this view is that if you have not had a Pauline Damascus Road moment, you cannot really call yourself a Christian. A related question is “When were you saved?” This is not language that is commonly used by Catholics (and many other Christian groups). This phrase is taken from the John 3 conversation between Jesus and Nicodemus, a Pharisee from the Jewish Council who seeks to understand Jesus’ teachings and motivations better. Here’s the rub: this pet phrase of so-called “Bible-believing born again Christians” is never uttered by Jesus. Jesus never said (at least not in the Christian Scriptures): “You must be born again.” In fact, the phrase that has been so canonized by modern Christians is itself based on Nicodemus’ misunderstanding and is corrected by Jesus.
Now don’t get me wrong: rebirth and regeneration are perfectly valid Christian theological concepts that are related to baptism, justification, and sanctification. And there is no reason to chuck the notion of being “born again.” But it is equally important not to place a false understanding on it and insist that Jesus said “you must be born again - and by that I mean you have to have a point-in-time Damascus Road experience.” The Scriptural witness simply does not support that view.
So what does Jesus say in John 3 that Nicodemus misunderstands as “born again?” Jesus says “ἐὰν μή τις γεννηθῇ ἄνωθεν, οὐ δύναται ἰδεῖντὴν βασιλείαν τοῦ θεοῦ. ” which translates “Unless a man is begotten from above, he cannot see the Kingdom of Heaven.” The Greek word “ἄνωθεν ” (anothen) is used in the NT only 13 times, 2 of them right here in John 3. It always speaks of realities that are above (i.e. heavenly). Its basic root is “ano” which means “up” or “above” in Ancient Greek. It never means “again” or “a second time.” Interesting. So where does the idea of a “born again come from?” A confused Nicodemus (or perhaps a man playing with words) asks about crawling back in his mother’s womb and being born “δεύτερον” or “a second time” or “again.” Voila – “Born Again!” But Jesus corrects Nicodemus’ misunderstanding: you are talking about your birth in the Flesh, which avails only flesh, I am talking about a birth in Spirit and Water – a clear Baptismal reference. Remember that John is the most Catholic of the Gospels and is written near the end of the 1st Century– he focuses on the sacramental life of the Church in many of his writings. These instructions are for the Church. The Water reference here is to the rebirth that happens in the regenerating waters of baptism. Paul also spoke of this in his letter to the Romans, only he would choose death/resurrection language instead of birth/rebirth language: “Or are you unaware that we who were baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death? We were indeed buried with him through baptism into death, so that, just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, we too might live in newness of life.”
Why this language in this particular conversation. Context is everything. Jesus’ definitive statement about being born from above is given to this “Leader of the Jews” who believes that his relationship with God is guaranteed by his birth. He has the blood of Abraham in his veins, he must be part of the Kingdom. Jesus assures him that his fleshly birth has produced nothing but flesh and that more is required, a birth in the Spirit. Again, the context for much of the Fourth Gospel is the conflict between Church and Synagogue. By the last decade of the First Century, Christians are being actively expelled from Jewish Communities (This will give the context for the believer/unbeliever dichotomy later in chapter 3). John is writing instructions for his Jewish followers who must understand that that under the new covenant, the relationship offered to Jews and written in their flesh, is offered to all in the Spirit and will be written on their hearts in their belief and by their baptism.
The Fourth Gospel is structured so differently from the others because of this important historical reality. Chapters 3-10 are instructions for the suffering Church intermingled with post-temple Judaism. It draws on teachings and actions of Jesus which provide answers for the specific problems faced by the Johannine community as they mourn their expulsion and rejection in Jewish society. This knowledge helps us know how to appropriate the lessons of the Fourth Gospel in our 21st Century context.
So why is this prepositional distinction important? I said that rebirth and regeneration are valid theological concepts. So why make a fuss about this text? Because this misinterpretation is used by some arrogant modern era Christians to beat others over the head – “You must be born again!” has a very specific meaning in those circles – and is used to perpetuate the “us/them,” “insider/outsider” language that has plagued Christianity since the reformation. I would argue that what is said by those who insist on a narrow “born again experience” are NOT saying the same thing as the theologically correct understanding of rebirth presented either in John 3 or the rest of the Christian Scriptures, which understand and encourage the gradual growth in faith in the context of community that is by far the more common experience of Christians throughout history. This prepositional distinction is important as an exercise in proper use of and reading of the Bible. Many people take at face value that Jesus said “You must be born again,” and have developed a modern theology around it based on the canonization of a misunderstanding. That theology is not supported by the text, and the arrogance with which it insisted upon hurts the cause of the Church.
Thank God for the Damascus Road experience for those who experience and need it. But for most of us, the coming to faith is more an “Emmaus Road” experience wherein faith and understanding evolve over time and experience with the help of Jesus who understands that, or a Thomasine upper room experience where Jesus, the good teacher, invites us gently to move from “unbelieving to believing” and provides us with help to make that transition. But that’s another sermon for another time.
For every baptized believer, the answer to the question “Have you been born again?” is a resounding “Yes!” Because what Jesus insists on in John 3 is a combination of our belief and being “begotten in water and the Spirit.” While many of us cannot remember precisely when we started believing (even if we can mark a baptism on a calendar), our belief is no less valid than those who have had the so-called “born-again” experience.
...to EVERY creature
SATURDAY IN THE OCTAVE OF EASTER - Mark 16:9-15. This is the so-called longer ending to Marks Gospel and compared to the Post-Resurrection appearance appended to the other Gospels is remarkably short and lacking in detail. Like in the other Gospels, Mary Magdalene is the first to receive confirmation that Jesus has returned from the dead and is given the task of taking the message (the purest form of "The Gospel") to the disciples. Predictably, they do not believe the report. Chapter 16 actually presents quite a negative picture of the shape of the disciples' faith. The early verses tell of the women who go and discover the empty tomb. They see a vision of angels who tell them "You seek Jesus of Nazareth, the crucified. He has been raised. He is not here. Behold the place where they laid him..." This is followed by instructions to go tell Peter and the disciples. But the original ending said that they women left the tomb and "said nothing to anyone" because they were so afraid.
Then comes today's reading. Mary told the disciples, "who were mourning and weeping," that she had seen the Lord, and they do not believe her. The implication is that their sadness and fear are getting in the way of the way of their faith. They have been with the Lord, they have heard his message, and seen the signs that he is the messiah, the anointed one of God. They have expresed their faith. But now they are too afraid. The crucifixion was just too much. The plan of the religious leaders to make an example of Jesus seems to be working. Jesus' movement will die because of fear and sadness. Fear and sadness will overcome faith.
A second report is made to the disciples. Two of their company were walking in the country and Jesus has appeared to them (Is this the Emmaus pair that Luke tells about?) The disciples don't believe them either. Wouldn't Jesus appear to his friend Peter first if he was truly resurrected?
Finally Jesus appears to them and rebukes them for their lack of belief "and hardness of heart." Hardness of heart seems, in the Scriptures, to be a direct afront to belief. There seems to be a component of will involved in hardness of heart. It is as though, because of their fear and sadness, they are CHOOSING not to believe. Jesus calls them to openness. Immediately thereupon, he commissions them to take the Gospel to the WHOLE WORLD - TO EVERY CREATURE. This highlights the connection between letting go of fear, letting go of sadness, letting go of hardness of heart, and our ability to complete the REQUIREMENT of our Christian faith. That's right, the spreading of the good news of the Resurrection is a REQUIREMENT of every believe, The believer cannot keep the good news to himself. He must take it to the world that needs the Good News.
After the resurrection and ascension of Jesus, the Church is tasked with the continuation of Jesus' ministry and message. Our fear and hardness of heart will cause us to "say nothing to anyone." This is in direct disobedience to the Risen one, who calls us to take the message to the whole of his creation. Every Christian is an evangelist, a "good newser," who is called to bring his or her belief in the Risen one to the 4 corners of the world. Even as we proclaim the season "Alleluia! He is Risen!" Easter is a time for us to renew our belief in the resurrection, and therefore to renew our commitment to the mission we have been given: "Go into the whole world and proclaim the Gospel to every creature."
Come, have breakfast
FRIDAY IN THE OCTAVE OF EASTER - John 21:1-14. The events in this Gospel reading are commemorated in the Holy Land at Tabgha on the Northwest shore of the Sea of Galilee, very near Caphernaum. This picture shows the intrior of the little church at Tabgha called "The Primacy of Peter." Within the sanctuary is the rock called the "Mensa Christi" or "Table of Christ" whereon Jesus is said to have cooked the bread and fish to feed his disciples.
There are a number of notable details in the story. Peter and the disciples return to what they know: fishing. Here in John's Gospel, Jesus does what he says he is going to do in the Synoptics: he meets his disciples in Galilee.
The miraculous catch of fish is reminiscent of the story recorded in Luke 5 at the BEGINNING of Jesus' ministry and the call of Peter. Perhaps it is the same story and John has simply moved it to this place. Or maybe he is telling the story as a second event that helps Peter recognize the risen Lord (giving Peter a kind of deja vu moment). Both stories end with Jesus telling Peter to "Follow."
The particular meal: Bread and fish, is intended by John to remind his reader of Chapter 6: the feeding of 5000 and the Bread of Life Discourse, wherein John gives his complete Eucharistic theology. Like the Emmaus story in Luke 24, this post resurrection story is a Eucharistic story.
Finally, I would invite you to see in Jesus' invitation to "breakfast" more than a simple invitation to eat. He doesn't invite them simply to eat. He invites them to break their fast. They are invited to let go of the fear and sadness that has typified their lives since the crucifixion. They have fasted from joy because the bridegroom has not been with them . But now they must break their fast because the bridegroom is with them again (Mark 2, Matthew 9) and will continue to be with them.
Fr. Bart Hutcherson, OP
Fr. Bart Hutcherson, OP is a Roman Catholic Priest & a Friar of the Dominican Province of the Most Holy Name of Jesus-USA. He is on the Pastoral Staff at Most Holy Rosary Parish in Antioch, California, and uses this page to post Homilies and Scripture reflections.