Changing Blood Into Wine

Check out these compelling lines from a 6th century Greek Orthodox hymnographer named St. Romanus the Melodist. He writes about Jesus’s first miracle of turning water into wine at Cana in Galilee:


    When Christ, as a sign of His power, clearly
        changed the water into wine
    All the crowd rejoiced, for they considered the
        taste marvelous.
    Now we all partake at the banquet in the
    For Christ’s blood is changed into wine
    And we drink it with holy joy,
    Praising the great bridegroom,
    For he is the true bridegroom, the Son of
    The Word before all time who took the form
        of a servant,
    He who has in wisdom created all things.


Even Greater Things Than Jesus Did??

B 3Jesus says to his disciples in John, “I tell you the truth, anyone who has faith in me will do what I have been doing. He [or she] will do even greater things than these, because I am going to the Father.”

Of course our first reaction is to ask, “Greater than Jesus? How is that even possible?”

One possible meaning: Because I am going to the Father–because I am going to die and rise again–sin and death will be defeated and you will have even more power than you do now.

The Kingdom would be even more fully ushered in at the end of John. Is this what Jesus means?

This, at least, is what D.A. Carson suggests:

In short, the works that the disciples perform after the resurrection are greater than those done by Jesus before his death insofar as the former belong to an age of clarity and power introduced by Jesus’ sacrifice and exaltation. Both Jesus’ words and his deeds were somewhat veiled during the days of his flesh; even his closest followers, as the foregoing verses make clear, grasped only part of what he was saying. But Jesus is about to return to his Father, he is about to be glorified, and in the wake of his glorification his followers will know and make known all that Jesus is and does, and their every deed and word will belong to the new eschatological age that will then have dawned.

I think it could also be helpful to understand Jesus’ statement in light of the signs he has performed.

Jesus says the above in John 14, shortly after the conclusion of the “Book of Signs” portion of John–the first 12 chapters containing his “7 Signs.” John 13-21, then, constitute what scholars call the “Book of Glory.”

A sign, after all, is that which (while good in itself) points away from itself and to a greater, deeper, fuller reality. So if Jesus is referring to “greater things than these signs,” that is not so hard to grasp if we consider that signs always point to something greater anyway. One could read Jesus’ statement as a sort of tautology, where the “greater things” mean that somehow the deeper reality Jesus’ signs point to is more fully unearthed through the ministry of the disciples.

In other words, Jesus says to Philip, these signs are just a foretaste of the Kingdom of Heaven, and you and all the disciples after you are going to work and work and work together to keep bringing the Kingdom in.

When puzzling over John, I can think of no better place to turn than to Raymond E. Brown, to whom I give the last word. Note especially the final sentence of this paragraph.


Ray Brown on John 14.12

“There is No Rejoicing Without Wine”: Jesus’ First Miracle

One preacher says, “Weddings are accidents waiting to happen. Something almost always goes wrong at a service of holy matrimony.”

That doesn’t match my experience with weddings, but there is something quite wrong at the wedding in Cana, in Galilee (John 2:1-11): they’ve run out of wine.

So maybe there’s no better place for Jesus to show up, his first week of public ministry, than at a well-attended, days-long wedding.

Jesus turns water into wine—“the first of his miraculous signs,” John says.


The Seven Signs of Jesus in John


Jesus performed more than just seven signs, but John uses seven signs, or miracles, to organize the first part of his Gospel.

1. Jesus changes water into wine (John 2:1-11)
2. Jesus heals the official’s son (John 4:46-54)
3. Jesus heals the man at the pool of Bethesda 
(John 5:1-9)
4. Jesus feeds the 5,000 (John 6:1-13)
5. Jesus walks on water (John 6:16-21)
6. Jesus heals the man born blind (John 9:1-12)
7. Jesus raises Lazarus (John 11:1-44)

(via The New Testament in Antiquity, by Burge, Cohick, and Green)

What is a sign?

A translator’s handbook, intended especially for those who are taking to Bible into new languages for the first time, talks about it this way:

[A] “sign” is a means of revealing a greater reality to which the “sign” itself merely points. The Gospel of John speaks of seven “signs” of Jesus, and these are “signs,” not necessarily because they are miracles, but because they point to a truth beyond themselves, to a truth regarding God’s salvation.

Signs are good, even powerful, in and of themselves, but they point to a “greater reality.”

A sign is deeper than itself.

The signs of Jesus, in particular, are meant to tell us something about Jesus. The “signs” and wonders Jesus performs are witnesses to his glory. They’re each a vignette, a window into Christ’s revealing himself to anyone who would receive him.


Sign #1: Water Into Wine


Jesus, his mother, and his disciples have all gotten invitations to this wedding. It’s Jesus’ first week of public ministry, as John tells it, and it’s a huge event. It would not be unexpected for just about the whole town of Cana to be there. The local shops and businesses probably all put a “Closed for wedding” sign on their doors. Will be back in seven days. It was likely a week-long event.

But, even if not all weddings are “accidents waiting to happen,” this one was. The guests drank the wine down to the last drop.

It would be pointless (but fun) to speculate as to whether or not this was poor planning on the family’s part, or too much drinking on the guests’ part.

Either way, this family is about to go down in history as “the ones who ran out of wine at their wedding.” You sort of hope for them, at this point, that they don’t have any other kids to marry off, ‘cause no one’s coming.

Verse 3 says, “When the wine was gone, Jesus’ mother said to him, “They have no more wine.”

One early theologian said, “Perhaps his mother, as mothers do, incited him to perform a miracle, wishing that the greatness of her son would be revealed—and thinking that the lack of wine offered the right occasion for the miracle.”

The (1984) NIV gives us the reply: “Dear woman, why do you involve me?” Jesus replied. “My time has not yet come.”

There is a sense in which Jesus isn’t ready to fully reveal all his glory. But he whips into action. It’s a good way of honoring his mother.

Because… not only is the reputation of the family at stake, but the festive spirit of the wedding is in jeopardy. The Talmud, a text of Rabbinic Judaism from a couple centuries after this, bluntly says, “There is no rejoicing [without] wine.”

Jesus is on it. He performs the miracle, in kind of a subtle and smooth way. Maybe this is because his “time had not yet come,” as he said to mother Mary.

Jesus said to the servants, “Fill the jars with water”; so they filled them to the brim.

Then he told them, “Now draw some out and take it to the master of the banquet.”

They did so, and the master of the banquet tasted the water that had been turned into wine. He did not realize where it had come from, though the servants who had drawn the water knew. Then he called the bridegroom aside and said, “Everyone brings out the choice wine first and then the cheaper wine after the guests have had too much to drink; but you have saved the best till now.”

Just to be clear, we are talking about anywhere between 120 and 180 gallons of wine.

This doesn’t mean that a bunch of wedding guests are going to get toasted. If you think of a whole town of people celebrating for a week, a lot of wine is needed.

Here’s the town today that might have been 1st-century Cana:


Maybe Cana
Source: Accordance Bible Lands PhotoGuide


Imagine the effect of 180 gallons of wine!

This picture is probably 30 gallons or a little more:


Some Wine


So if my calculations are correct, here’s a visual on how much wine Jesus made:


More Wine


The result of this sign, besides a happy wedding, is in John 2:11:

This, the first of his miraculous signs, Jesus performed at Cana in Galilee.

He thus revealed his glory,
and his disciples put their faith in him.

Or, in another translation, “There Jesus showed how wonderful he was.”

It was looking back and thinking of moments like this that John could write in his Prologue, in chapter 1: “We have seen his glory, the glory of the one and only Son, who came from the Father, full of grace and truth.” We have seen how wonderful Jesus is.


What Does the Sign Show?


N.T. Wright says, “The whole point of the ‘signs’ is that they are moments when heaven and earth intersect with each other.”

From these signs of Jesus, we on earth learn more about ultimate, heavenly realities: who Jesus really is, what sorts of things God is capable of, what kind of intervention is possible in the problems of the world today.

Especially with this first sign, when Jesus is fresh on the scene, we get a portrait of who our Savior is.


—Jesus likes to have fun—

“Eat, drink, and be merry” is not just a mindset that the Bible shoots down. Jesus wants us to eat, drink, and be merry—so long as we’re not neglecting important things.

Jesus upset the religious elite of his day by all the feasting he and his disciples did. In Luke some angry leaders say to him,

John’s disciples, like the disciples of the Pharisees, frequently fast and pray, but your disciples eat and drink. Jesus said to them, “You cannot make wedding guests fast while the bridegroom is with them, can you? The days will come when the bridegroom will be taken away from them, and then they will fast in those days. (Luke 5:33-35)

As long as you’ve got me, Jesus says, party on.

And did you catch this nice touch from John: these jars, where the chemical miracle happened, were ones “used… for ceremonial washing.” There’s nothing wrong with religious ritual, per se—I quite like it myself. But these jars for ritual cleansing—Jesus turned them into party favors. That’s kind of like co-opting the baptismal font for a punch bowl.

This family made good choice in inviting Jesus to the wedding. Maybe he already had a reputation as a fun guy—someone you wanted to celebrate with.


—Jesus is generous—

This sign also shows Jesus to be generous. Under his command, the servants “filled [the jars with water] to the brim.” There’s no skimping with Jesus.

Next chapter Jesus will say, “For the one whom God has sent speaks the words of God, for God gives the Spirit without limit.”

God does not withhold his good gifts and his love from us. He wants us coming to him with open hands, even empty cups, so he can fill us with good things.

Also, just a geographical note here: we know the stories of Jesus, so we take it for granted, but Cana was 70 miles north of Jerusalem. This is pretty far outside the city of the religious power brokers.

But being a religious insider or expert, so to speak, has never been a requirement for receiving Christ’s love.

Jesus does not withhold his presence from the ones who have never known power, wealth, or the comfort of living in the mainstream of society. Jesus is generous.


—Jesus is accommodating—

Jesus is accommodating. He says his “time has not yet come,” but then he does the miracle. He seems to be flexible on timing. You’ll see in other places in John where Jesus says “his time has not yet come.”

We know the frustration of when God’s timetable or timing in the world does not match ours. But God is not impassable. God is not unaffected by our needs and desperation.

If God has a massive planner on his desk, with dates and times and places, it’s written in pencil. God can change the future. God can even accommodate our requests when he maybe otherwise wasn’t planning to. Jesus is accommodating.


How Shall We Respond?


Having seen this intersection of the heavenly and earthly, having caught a glimpse of a God who changes reality, a Jesus who is fun, and generous, and accommodating… how shall we respond?

John models a response for us in verse 11: “He thus revealed his glory, and his disciples put their faith in him.”

We can eat, drink, be merry, trusting that our God is a God of celebration… assured that he’s generous… and confident that he’s flexible to respond in real time to our needs and intercessions.

Look at Mary’s response in verse 5 to the servants: “Do whatever he tells you.”

I think we can safely assume, 30 years in, that she’s onto the whole divinity thing. She doesn’t know what he’s going to do or how, but she expects something, when she comes to him with a need: “They have no more wine.” Her words to the servants model an admirable submission to the Son of God: “Do whatever he tells you.”

Do the good you know to do. Act in love, in the ways that you see it within your reach to do. “Do whatever he tells you.”

John, by showing Mary and the disciples’ response to Jesus’ first sign, calls us, too, to submission and faith and trust in Christ.

I think another response this passage can call forth from us is just… relief.

Jesus isn’t boring or a killjoy. He liked to celebrate, to enjoy parties and good wine and food with others.

Jesus says of his mission, “I have come that you may have life, and have it abundantly.” Jesus wants disciples to live life to the fullest, and one implication of this is that we enjoy the good things on earth.

We read in the Psalms:

How precious is your steadfast love, O God!
All people may take refuge in the shadow of your wings.
They feast on the abundance of your house,
and you give them drink from the river of your delights.

Jesus wants us to enjoy the abundance of his creation. He is not stingy. He’s not inflexible.

This passage can offer us relief because it reminds us that prayers regarding needs do affect God. We can invite him into broken and unresolved places in our life.


An Even Greater Wedding Feast


The wedding at Cana, in fact, serves as a foreshadowing of a great heavenly banquet, where Jesus is the groom. And he invites everyone, not just in one whole town, but across many nations. It’s not just a weeklong wedding celebration, but an eternal one, with Jesus as host.

The prophets saw this day and were relieved. Amos rejoiced, “New wine will drip from the mountains and flow from all the hills.” Joel saw a day when “the mountains will drip with sweet wine, and the hills will flow with milk.” (And that milk—it accounts for those who don’t drink wine… so God’s got everyone covered.)

We, like Mary and the disciples, have seen the glory of Jesus. Witnesses to this and many other signs of Jesus, may we put our trust in him. May we hope in him. May we present our needs and lacks to him, asking for his help. May we place our confidence in him. And may we give ourselves over to him, and keep our hands open for the good things he has to give us.

Book Review: Jesus, the Temple and the Coming Son of Man

Mark 13 is one of the most difficult chapters of the Bible to interpret and understand. From the “abomination of desolation” to the claim of Jesus that “this generation will not pass away until all these things have taken place,” the chapter is full of statements that could refer either to the near (historical) or far (apocalyptic) future.

Robert H. Stein’s goal in writing Jesus, the Temple and the Coming Son of Man: A Commentary on Mark 13 is to finish the sentence, “I, Mark (the author), have written Mark 13:1-37, because…”. Stein, author of the Baker Exegetical Commentary on the New Testament volume on Mark, is one of the best commentators one could hope to read on such a challenging and important chapter.

Here is Stein’s outline of Mark 13, in his words (p. 49):


  • 13:1-4: Jesus’ prediction of the destruction of the temple (and Jerusalem) (chapter 3 of this book)
  • 13:5-23: The coming destruction of the temple (and Jerusalem) and the sign preceding it (ch. 4)
  • 13:24-27: The coming of the Son of Man (ch. 5)
  • 13:28-31: The parable of the fig tree and the coming destruction of the temple (and Jerusalem) (ch. 6)
  • 13:32-37: The parable of the watchman and the exhortation to be alert for the coming of the Son of Man (ch. 7)


The majority of the book (chapters 3-7) is taken up with Stein’s exposition of each verse in Mark 13. Chapter 1 defines the goal of the book: “to understand what the author of the Gospel we call Mark meant and sought to convey by the present text of Mark 13” (39). Stein focuses especially on what Mark meant to “teach his readers by the Jesus traditions that he chose to include in this chapter, his arrangement of these traditions and his editorial work in the recording of this material” (45). Chapter 2 is “Key Issues Involved in Interpreting Mark 13.”

Chapter 8 is a really nice add-on, which consists of Stein’s “interpretive translation” of Mark 13. What a great idea! You can read the chapter in one sitting and see right away how Stein interprets it. This could be a really good starting point for the reader, as could the excellent and detailed “Outline” starting on p. 9 (basically an annotated table of contents).

Stein offers at the outset a nice tour of the so-called quests for the historical Jesus, and how that relates to reading Mark. But Stein doesn’t seem to think the authorship (Mark) or genre (historical narrative) of Mark matters much to the purpose of this short commentary. I find his views here less than compelling, but that didn’t keep me from being convinced by the rest of the book.

Two key points the book makes will give a sense of Stein’s approach:

  1. Stein differentiates between three settings we need to keep in mind: “the first involving the teaching of the historical Jesus to his disciples, the second involving the situation of the early church between the death and resurrection of Jesus and the writing of the Gospels, and the third involving the situation in which and for which the Evangelist Mark wrote his Gospel” (47).
  2. Because of the above point, Stein can tease out different settings and time-frames that different portions of Mark 13 refer to. He says, for example, “Mark does not see the coming of the Son of Man [AKJ: the apocalyptic imagery in 13:24-27] as part of Jesus’ answer (13:5-23) to the disciples’ twofold question (13:4) concerning the destruction of the temple” (72).

Throughout the book Stein keeps in view the distinction between the soon-to-come, 1st century future (destruction of the temple) and the distant, unknown day of the coming of the Son of Man. Stein acknowledges that it is “easy to intermix these two horizons [two settings in time] of the text, and the result is confusion and lack of clarity in understanding either setting in time” (100). Much of the chapter, Stein argues (but not all), anticipates the destruction of the Jerusalem temple in A.D. 70.

You don’t need to know Greek to make good use of this text, but Stein does keep (transliterated) Greek in front of him so he can analyze the text at the word and phrase level. He is really good, too, at using a broader biblical context to help explain specific parts of Mark 13.

I read the book cover-to-cover in a few sittings—it was that intriguing! As detailed and in-depth as Stein’s reasoning is, it reads really nicely: his tone is conversational, which makes it easy to try to sort through some tough hermeneutical issues. Stein’s is certainly not the only possible interpretation of Mark 13, but it’s a persuasive one.


Thanks to the fine folks at IVP Academic for the review copy. Find the book here at IVP’s site, or here on Amazon.

Scot McKnight’s Sermon on the Mount Commentary, Reviewed



My mild obsession with the writings of Dietrich Bonhoeffer can be traced back to a question I asked myself and the congregation with whom I worship in early March: How can Ukraine love its Russian occupiers? And what would Bonhoeffer suggest?

The questions came from my wrestling through Matthew 5:38-48, which I find the be the most difficult passage in the Sermon on the Mount. I concluded, in part,

What seems a fairly straightforward statement, “Love your enemy,” is difficult. What does it mean to love enemies? In what spheres must that take place, and how should it happen, especially in the presence of an inordinately powerful evil? How categorical is Jesus in his forbidding of force? Was he speaking to disciples, or to disciples and states?

You can see how I landed (at least in a sense) at the end of this post.


Enter Scot McKnight


Scot McKnight’s Sermon on the Mount (The Story of God Bible Commentary, Zondervan, 2013) helped me wrestle through the difficult question of just what it means to “turn the other cheek.” While some interpreters (such as Luther) have sought to distinguish between private (interpersonal) and public (political) applications of this text, McKnight responds: “Utter nonsense.” Instead:

One of the main thrusts of the ethic of Jesus is the radicalization of an ethic so that we live consistently, from the so-called “private” to the “public” spheres. There is for Jesus no distinction between a secular life and spiritual life: we are always to follow him. His ethic is an Ethic from Beyond. But others, in words not so wrongheaded as Luther’s, have continued Luther’s personal vs. public or spiritual vs. secular distinction when it comes to ethics.

Jesus, McKnight persuasively argues, was not distinguishing between how the disciples should live in their private lives (whatever that would have meant) as opposed to in public. “The question every reader of the Sermon must ask,” McKnight goes on, is:

Does that world begin now, or does it begin now in private but not in public, or does it begin now for his followers in both private and to the degree possible in the public realm as well?


A New Commentary Series: SGBC


The Story of God Bible Commentary is a new series, with McKnight’s volume and Lynn Cohick’s Philippians volume being the first two published. As the name implies, the series is concerned to interpret and apply Scripture with an eye to how each passage relates to the larger biblical story:

We want to explain each passage of the Bible in light of the Bible’s grand Story. The Bible’s grand Story, of course, connects this series to the classic expression regula fidei, the “rule of faith,” which was the Bible’s story coming to fulfillment in Jesus as the Messiah, Lord, and Savior of all.

There are three primary sections in each passage:

1. Listen to the Story. With the assumption that “the most important posture of the Christian before the Bible is to listen,” the SGBC series begins with the full text of the passage under consideration (using the 2011 New International Version). The section also includes an introduction to the passage.

2. Explain the Story. From historical background to cultural context, from theological explanation to individual word studies, here is where SGBC unpacks “a sound and living reading of the text in light of the Story of God in the Bible.”

3. Live the Story. This is the “digging deeper” into “our world” section. The commentary series is not geared for an academic audience, which allows authors to spend more time imagining 21st century applications of a passage to life. This is especially helpful for preachers and anyone wanting to know how to live out a passage they are studying.


“Better People” or “Better Liars”?


McKnight wastes no time in convicting the reader, much as the Sermon on the Mount itself does. Just before the introduction he quotes Bonhoeffer, who says of the Sermon:

Its validity depends on its being obeyed.

And here’s Dean Smith, via McKnight:

The Sermon on the Mount has a strange way of making us better people or better liars.

(Ouch! But so true.)

McKnight agrees that the incongruence “between Jesus’ vision and our life bothers many of us.” Various interpretive attempts, he suggest, have made Jesus say what he did not really say. By contrast:

There is something vital—and this is a central theme in this commentary—in letting the demand of Jesus, expressed over and over in the Sermon as imperatives or commands, stand in its rhetorical ruggedness.

Jesus intended the Sermon on the Mount as “the claim of Jesus upon our whole being.”

So you can’t just read this commentary in a detached way or use it for dry or “objective” research (as if there were such a thing!). Throughout the commentary McKnight helps the reader hear Jesus’ demanding (yet life-giving) message in resounding terms.


McKnight on Jesus and Ethics


The commentary’s introduction has a substantive (and surprisingly helpful) section called, “The Sermon and Moral Theory,” where McKnight compares “Jesus’ moral vision” to other moral theories, whether Aristotle’s virtue ethics, Kant’s categorical imperative (deontology), or Bentham and Mill’s utilitarianism.

McKnight presents Jesus’ ethics through the conjoining lenses of:

  • “Ethics from Above”—Jesus speaks as God
  • “Ethics from Beyond”—”kingdom ethics” that seek to bring “God’s future to bear on the present”
  • “Ethics from Below”—based on human “inductive observation”
  • An ethical theory that is “messianic, ecclesial, pneumatic”—in Jesus’ “messianic vocation,” he believes that “an ethic can only be lived out in community (the kingdom manifestation in the church) and through the power of the Spirit now at work.”

The introduction offers no structural outline of the Sermon on the Mount. There is just a paragraph about its structure, saying that the matter is “incapable of any kind of firm resolution.” So the omission of an outline seems deliberate, but at least something preliminary would have helped–even a Table of Contents that shows the pericope divisions/commentary chapters at a glance, which this volume lacks.


The Commentary Proper


McKnight breaks the Sermon into 23 chapters in his commentary proper (chapter 1 treats both the very first and very last verses of the Sermon on the Mount together). Each chapter prints the full biblical text (it’s nice to have everything in one place), then proceeds with the sections noted above: Listen to the Story, Explain the Story, Live the Story. His experience in teaching and ministry is obvious throughout the book, which is a refreshing balance of deep exegesis, lucid prose, and convicting application.

To look briefly at just one passage, Matthew 7:12 says:

So in everything, do to others what you would have them do to you, for this sums up the Law and the Prophets.

McKnight writes:

Of the many ways to describe or articulate the Torah, two are pertinent in our text: one can either multiply laws so as to cover all possible situations, or one can reduce the law to its essence.

The verse, which he sets in biblical and rabbinical context, “summarizes the essence of the Sermon” (emphasis in original). And it has much to say to how we ought to live now:

But the Golden Rule is of direct value in relationships in churches. It takes but a moment’s thought to think it through: How do I want to treat others? How would I want to be treated?


This is a fantastic commentary. It’s smart, well-researched, deep, engaging, challenging, and–perhaps best of all–like the Sermon it addresses, issues a clear call to righteous living according to God’s will.


Thanks to Zondervan Academic for the review copy, offered for the purposes of an unbiased review. Find it at Zondervan here or Amazon here.

Because I Said So

We fathers and mothers learn early on, in our roles as parents, that “Because I said so” isn’t usually enough to get a determined child to change course and listen.

It’s the same thing your parents said to you, that you swore you’d never say as a parent. At the same time, you do want your own children to know that you have authority over them, as a parent.

Whether this ends up being an effective parenting move or not, it’s difficult, especially in moments of desperation, to not just point to our own authority as parents. “I’m the dad, you’re the son, you listen.”

Jesus’ Authority–“Because I Said So”?

rublev trinityIt’s fitting that on this Father’s Day, today in the liturgical church calendar is Trinity Sunday.

The so-called Great Commission in Matthew 28 includes an appeal to baptize disciples in the three-fold name of the Trinity: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. To be a disciple of Jesus is to enter into communion with a God who is one God, three persons. To be a disciple also means to learn Jesus’ teachings, and then pass them on to others to follow.

19 Therefore go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, 20 and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you.

As many times as I’ve heard this passage, growing up in the church, I was especially struck this time around by the single word, “Therefore.” “Therefore” is a word that points ahead to what’s next in the sentence, but it also points back to something. X is true. Therefore, Y and Z.

Therefore, Jesus says, “go and make disciples.” On what basis is Jesus calling his disciples to go make more disciples, to essentially replicate themselves?

18 Then Jesus came to them and said, “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me.  19 Therefore go….

It would be easy to read this as the sort of move that fathers and mothers make when we want to try to ensure that we’re going to be obeyed.

“Because I said so….” “Because I am Jesus.…” “Because I have authority, you need to listen to me and make disciples….”

Matthew does tell us, after all, in verse 17

17 When they saw him, they worshiped him; but some doubted.

What’s especially disheartening about this is the fact that the sum total of disciples who are with Jesus for this important commissioning is… 11. Judas has committed suicide at this point, so they’re down a guy… they’re short-handed. And then, how many doubted? 2? 3? 5?

Maybe, since Jesus knew of their doubt, maybe he had to say, “Look–all authority has been given to me. So you need to listen to what’s next.”

Some of you grew up in an era in which our country was experiencing an allergic reaction to authority. Some of you, no matter when you were born, may recoil a bit at the very use of the word “authority,” especially when it shows up in a relational context.

I wonder, too, especially about those doubting disciples–usually for those who are doubting, second-guessing, wondering, calling into question… usually for somebody like that, an appeal to authority goes nowhere fast.

Jesus’ Authority–He Goes Before Us Through the Holy Spirit

I’m not convinced that’s what Jesus is doing here. His disciples were spiritually dim-witted at times, like we can be, but I’m not so sure he’s appealing to his authority just so that they will listen to him.

See–Jesus knows he’s about to give the disciples a tall order. He knows before he commissions the disciples, that even two thousand years later, some Christians will have a hard time with the “d”-word: discipleship. Or the “e”-word: evangelism.

Jesus has doubters in his midst, among the 11. And he’s supposed to start a worldwide missionary movement out of them!

The Mission to the World by JESUS MAFA (1973)
The Mission to the World by JESUS MAFA (1973)

Preacher and writer Tom Long puts it like this:

Telling this little band of confused and disoriented disciples that they were to herd all the peoples of the earth toward Mount Zion in the name of Jesus would be like standing in front of most congregations today—many of them small and all of them of mixed motives and uncertain convictions—and telling them, ‘Go into all the world and cure cancer, clean up the environment, evangelize the unbelieving, and, while you are at it, establish world peace.’

Long goes on:

That is the point, or close to it. The very fact that the task is utterly impossible throws the disciples completely onto the mercy and strength of God. The work of the church cannot be taken up unless it is true that “all authority” does not belong to the church or its resources but comes from God’s wild investment of God in Jesus the Son and the willingness of the Son to be present always to the church in the Spirit.

Jesus’ mention of his authority isn’t a power play–it’s an encouragement, a life-giving reminder, a move that enables his disciples to go.

Jesus’ authority has just been established by his resurrection from the dead. Alfred, Lord Tennyson once wrote, “Authority forgets a dying king.”

But Jesus was no dying king. Or, at least, he was a dying king who didn’t stay dead. He is the Risen King!

If Jesus has power over death, he has power over all of life. And if he has power over all of life, he has power and influence over all who are living. And if he has power and influence over all who are living, there is nowhere his disciples can go that he has not already been.

There is no heart that God cannot soften. There is no human being that is beyond the reach of God’s saving love in Jesus.

Jesus has authority over all people everywhere. As Ephesians would later put it, God the Father “raised Christ from the dead and seated him at his right hand in the heavenly realms, far above all rule and authority, power and dominion, and every name that is invoked, not only in the present age but also in the one to come.”

Because of Jesus’ authority, his power, his rule… disciples who are commissioned to draw others into the life of faith do not have to be scared to do it.

Jesus empowers his followers, by his authority, to fulfill the Great Commission.

Furthermore, after the Great Commission there is the promise of Christ’s presence:

And surely I am with you always, to the very end of the age.

This is an upgrade. Jesus was not actually “with” the disciples “always” before he said this. He often went off by himself to pray. He didn’t engage everyone who wanted his attention. He wasn’t with the disciples always.

But now, there is this new promise, a promise we saw fulfilled in our Acts passage last week, when the Holy Spirit came at Pentecost.

Through the power of the Holy Spirit, Jesus is present with us always, and will be present always with his disciples until the end of time.

All authority is his, and he is always with us. Therefore, we can preach.

Jesus empowers us, by his authority and his presence, to fulfill the Great Commission.

Through the presence of the Holy Spirit, Jesus goes ahead of us. God works on hearts before it even occurs to us to reach out to another. If we want to use the language of “witnessing” to others about our faith, that’s fine, but only if we remember that we are really the second witness.

The Holy Spirit is the first witness, preceding us everywhere, making it possible for us to witness to the goodness of God in our own lives.

We can call to mind again the idea of evangelism and disciple-making as “one beggar telling another beggar where to find bread.” We ourselves are not the bread, but we know where the bread is found.

And so, undergirded, strengthened, and equipped by Jesus, we can say, “Come, taste and see. Come and see what I have found.”

Don’t Be Great, Just Have a Great Message

Jesus empowers us, by his authority and his presence, to fulfill the Great Commission. He equips us to do what he calls us to.

And we don’t have to be “great” to go out in faith to try to build a kingdom of disciples for Jesus.

It’s reported that Graeme Keith, a lifelong friend of evangelist Billy Graham and treasurer of the Billy Graham Association, was once riding in an elevator with Billy Graham. Another passenger got in and recognized Graham: “You’re Billy Graham, aren’t you?”

“Yes,” said Billy Graham.

“You’re a truly great man,” the guy said.

“No, I’m not a great man,” Graham replied, “I just have a great message.”

Great or not, courageous or not, fully comfortable with what this passage calls us to or not–we have a great message. And Jesus empowers us, by his authority and his presence, to deliver it, near and far. Because he said so–because he ultimately has authority over every living person, because he goes before us, we can go and witness to our God.

It would be daunting to share the good news of God’s love with others if we had no backup, if we were cutting a new trail. But Jesus promises to go ahead of us and walk beside us, always.

The above is adapted from the sermon I preached on Matthew 28:16-20 today. Scripture quotations above are 1984 NIV. The second image in this post is used and covered under the Creative Commons Attribution Noncommercial ShareAlike 3.0 License.

Geffrey B. Kelly’s Reading Bonhoeffer

I’m a sucker for biblical and theological studies with an unapologetically doxological posture. So it was with excitement that I read John W. Matthews’s concluding sentence in his foreword to Geffrey B. Kelly’s Reading Bonhoeffer: A Guide to His Spiritual Classics and Selected Writings on Peace. Matthews writes:

I believe both the author and the subject [Bonhoeffer] would be disappointed if this book did not somehow draw you, the readers, closer to Jesus Christ and to your neighbor.

Kelly’s short yet substantive book does very much that. His first encounter with Bonhoeffer is intertwined with a beautiful story of his own re-awakening to Jesus. He says in the Preface:

Through Bonhoeffer’s inspirational words Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount seemed to be addressed to me personally for the first time. I was hooked.

Reading Bonhoeffer has four major sections:

  1. Dietrich Bonhoeffer: A Biographical Sketch
  2. On Reading Bonhoeffer’s Spiritual Classic, Discipleship
  3. Life Together: Bonhoeffer on Christian Community
  4. Selected Writings on Peace: An Ecumenical Conference and Two Sermons

The Preface, after describing Kelly’s transformative first read of Discipleship, offers some helpful background information and resources for Bonhoeffer studies. Kelly mentions, for example, his involvement with the International Bonhoeffer Society, English Language Section. He writes about the International Bonhoeffer Congress. And he discusses the genesis of the Dietrich Bonhoeffer Works series (English translation), published by Fortress Press.

1. A Riveting Biographical Sketch

Kelly’s “Biographical Sketch” is longer than Renate Bethge’s short work, and (obviously) a much quicker read than Eberhard Bethge’s monumental biography. 28 pages follow Bonhoeffer through his life, writings, and ministry.

Reading BonhoefferThere are a few things that stand out about Kelly’s short biography. For one, though it’s scant on details of Bonhoeffer’s early life (to be expected, given its length), the overview is thorough and really orients the reader well to Bonhoeffer. Kelly has a knack for succinctly summarizing Bonhoeffer’s writings in understandable language–even Bonhoeffer’s challenging Sanctorum Communio!

Second, Kelly’s biography is itself a gripping narrative. There is real movement as he progress through the various pastoral and academic positions Bonhoeffer held, from Berlin to London, from the seminary at Finkenwalde to the church struggle, Bonhoeffer’s arrest, and his imprisonment. I found myself wanting more dates in places (e.g., “Once back in Berlin…”–when?), but perhaps this omission was deliberate to keep the narrative moving. I was not able to put the book down until I had finished the page-turner of a biography.

Third, Kelly describes many of Bonhoeffer’s key terms and concepts, both in this first section and throughout Reading Bonhoeffer. Even a reader with little or no Bonhoeffer background will walk away from the biographical sketch with confidence to read any of Bonhoeffer’s writing.

Fourth, Kelly is clearly in awe of his subject, and rightly so. This, in turn, allows the reader to be inspired by Bonhoeffer. Kelly includes a treasure trove of Bonhoeffer quotations, some familiar, and some more off-the-beaten path. To wit:

I was quite pleased with myself. Then the Bible, and in particular the Sermon on the Mount, freed me from that. Since then everything has changed…. It was a great liberation. It became clear to me that the life of a servant of Jesus Christ must belong to the church, and step by step it became plainer to me how far that must go.

2. Kelly on Bonhoeffer’s Discipleship

Kelly served as co-editor, with John D. Godsey, of Discipleship, volume 4 in the (English) Dietrich Bonhoeffer Works series (DBWE). This second section of Reading Bonhoeffer offers more than 60 pages of commentary on that well-loved Bonhoeffer book, known also as The Cost of Discipleship.

After a brief “history of the text” Kelly proceeds section-by-section through Discipleship. In short, according to Kelly,

Discipleship is a book in which Bonhoeffer uses Jesus’ own words as recorded in the gospels and the exhortations of the apostle Paul to confront readers with the uncushioned challenges to all their inaccurate ideas, falsified by Nazi propaganda, of what it means to be a follower of Jesus Christ.

DBWE DiscipleshipReaders of Discipleship will of course already know that much of the book exposits Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount, but Kelly’s unique contribution as a commentator here is in highlighting the historical context that makes Bonhoeffer’s writing even more remarkable. Not only does Kelly note a particular Nazi evil to which Bonhoeffer may have been alluding, he also points ahead in Bonhoeffer’s life to instances where he would live out the call of his own writings.

As Kelly was co-editor of the DBWE volume, to read his chapter-by-chapter commentary on Bonhoeffer’s Discipleship is to have a guided tour by a leading expert, complete with summary statements and key quotes from that book. It’s well-footnoted with reference to the page numbers in the DBWE edition, so following up in Bonhoeffer’s text is easy. It’s an essential companion.

3. Kelly on Bonhoeffer’s Life Together

The first Bonhoeffer book to be published in the DBWE series was Life Together, which appears as volume 5, bound together with Prayerbook of the Bible. Kelly served as editor of that volume, which includes an introduction and critical apparatus (i.e., lots of informative and orienting footnotes).

DBWE Life TogetherAs with the previous section of Reading Bonhoeffer, Kelly’s commentary on Life Together, although significantly briefer in its section-by-section analysis, serves as a really useful reader’s guide. Its introductory section in this book is thorough, drawing on Kelly’s introduction in the DBWE edition. This sets up the reader well to better understand Bonhoeffer’s important work on community life in the Church.

Kelly, for example, points to “Bonhoeffer’s distinction between being with and being for the others in community.” He traces Bonhoeffer’s interest in building a community, going back even to socio-theological themes in Sanctorum Communio, Bonhoeffer’s first doctoral dissertation. Kelly summarizes and comments on each of the five sections of Life Together in turn: Community, The Day Together, The Day Alone, Service, and Confession and the Lord’s Supper.

4. Peace Writings

Kelly notes the tension that many students and readers of Bonhoeffer experience when they realize a conspirator against Hitler was a peace activist. After tracing the development of Bonhoeffer’s concern for peace, via an overview of his friendship with pacificst Jean Lasserre, Kelly looks at “three texts in which Bonhoeffer reveals himself as an uncompromising advocate for peace on the troubled earth where Nazism ruled with tactics of fear, violence, and the promise of a return to German military glory.” These include a 1932 conference lecture in Switzerland (with excerpts), a 1932 sermon (also with excerpts), and Bonhoeffer’s address to the Ecumenical Council of Christian Churches at Fanø, Denmark in 1934.

Together these orations display Bonhoeffer’s boldness and even impatience at times with inaction around him. In the address in Denmark, for instance, Bonhoeffer says,

Why do we fear the fury of the world powers? Why don’t we take the power from them and give it back to Christ? We can still do it today. The Ecumenical Council is in session; it can send out to all believers this radical call to peace.

Kelly helps Bonhoeffer’s call to peace come alive for the reader many decades later.

Concluding Remarks

There is little to critique in Kelly’s book. However, I was distracted by a number of sentences that were long (multiple modifying prepositional phrases) and comma-less. For example:

[Bonhoeffer] recognizes the danger posted by abandonment of Christ’s vision for the world and the manner in which even basically good people can succumb to the temptations to fall into the compromises in morality for which worldly attitudes are particularly prone, business and government plaudits given to acts of avarice and violence serving as prime examples of why it is necessary to be single-minded in following Christ.

A re-read of every such sentence showed that it was generally clear enough. But additional punctuation or shorter sentences would have helped. If there are future printings of this fine book, perhaps this and a few other minor editorial oversights could be re-visited.

Woven throughout Reading Bonhoeffer are “the twin aspects of Bonhoeffer’s spiritual legacy: scholarly expertise and pastoral care.” Kelly himself writes as one in the academy whose own pastoral sensitivity and concern is fully on display. I can only imagine how engaging and inspiring a Bonhoeffer course with him must be.

Reading Bonhoeffer would be a stimulating read for pastors, theologians, seminary students, and Christians who are intent to more faithfully follow Jesus in both individual and community contexts. The discussion questions at the end of each section will facilitate this book’s use in a small group, Sunday school, or classroom setting.

Kelly writes about Bonhoeffer, yes, but Bonhoeffer points so often and so clearly to Jesus, that a good commentary on Bonhoeffer (which this book is) will do the same. I am grateful for this short, hearty work that Kelly has written, and hope that more DBWE volumes receive similar treatment in the future.

By the way–I’m also grateful to Wipf and Stock Publishers for the review copy. They’ve provided a 40% off coupon code to readers of this blog, good toward the purchase of Reading Bonhoeffer or anything else on Wipf and Stock’s site. Simply use the code LETTERS at checkout. It’s good through the end of May.

Do Not Our Hearts Burn Within Us?

Supper at Emmaus, by Dr. He Qi, 2001
Supper at Emmaus, by Dr. He Qi, 2001

N.T. Wright compares the two disciples on the road to Emmaus to people who have gotten up early to watch the sunrise, but were looking westward, rather than eastward.

They were like people on a hillside, watching eagerly for the sunrise. …Disoriented, they are facing the wrong way. The expected moment comes and goes, and nothing happens. Then they become aware that, though the sky they are scanning remains dark, light seems to be shining anyway. With a strange excitement they turn around, to see the sun shining in full strength in the very place they least expected it.

The day Luke describes in Luke 24:13 is the day of Jesus’ resurrection, although it was decidedly not Easter to these two travelers. This is why Wright says “they least expected it.”

The women had seen the empty tomb, and these two disciples knew that, but they hadn’t pieced it all together yet. To them, Jesus was still dead. So they have this road trip now to talk about the death of Jesus, the denial of Peter, the betrayal of Judas, the crowds shouting, “Crucify!”, the weeping of the disciples at the cross, and the shock and shattered dreams of the community of Jesus’ followers.

One of the questions Luke is posing to his listeners and readers is: will we, when Jesus shows up, have eyes to see him?

The Road to Emmaus Was Covered With Tears

Jesus chastises the two, as only a loving and trusted teacher can do, for not understanding, for not knowing who he was.

But, in one sense, we don’t really want to blame these two disciples. To be fair, they were utterly devastated. “[T]hey crucified him,” they said, “but we had hoped that he was the one who was going to redeem Israel.”

When our eyes are cloudy with tears, when we’re sinking beneath the weight of death and tragedy and incomprehensible outcomes… do we recognize Jesus?

They must have felt like that speech from Macbeth that I had to memorize in high school:

Out, out, brief candle!
Life’s but a walking shadow, a poor player
That struts and frets his hour upon the stage
And then is heard no more. It is a tale
Told by an idiot, full of sound and fury
Signifying nothing.

Good Friday and the days following were just an idiot’s tale, not a compelling narrative of an entire nation’s redemption. It all meant nothing.

Jesus and the Disciples on the Road to Emmaus, by Gustave Doré (1832–1883)
Jesus and the Disciples on the Road to Emmaus, Gustave Doré (1832–1883)

We don’t know for sure where Emmaus is–people who like to study these things have made two or three suggestions. It was within walking distance from Jerusalem, at least.

But I think we do know what Emmaus was. It was an escape. It was another town, it was not-Jerusalem, which was just too painful a place for these two disciples to be. It was a pre-emptive break from the regular weekday schedule that surely awaited the disciples on Monday morning. Those routines would have been unbearable with Jesus gone. So at least if they could go somewhere where the buildings and mountains and water wouldn’t remind them of him, maybe their sorrows could be numbed a little bit.

They were done. It was over. The road to Emmaus was a road of confusion, frustration, and tears.

Jesus Shows Up

Then Jesus shows up. They don’t know it’s Jesus. It’s another fellow traveler, and it would not have been weird at all for them to walk together, even if they hadn’t met.

“They were kept from recognizing him,” Luke says, a curious phrase. Was it their own sadness that kept them from seeing? Was it lack of faith? Did they think, “Hey this guy does look a little like Jesus, but no way it’s him”? Did God somehow keep them from seeing, so this scene could play out?

When he asks what they’re talking about, they can hardly bring themselves to re-live the tragedy. Cleopas does his best and, surprised that anyone wouldn’t have heard the front-page news, he goes on and tells about the criminal’s death his supposed Savior died.

[W]hat is more, it is the third day since all this took place. In addition, some of our women amazed us. They went to the tomb early this morning but didn’t find his body. They came and told us that they had seen a vision of angels, who said he was alive. Then some of our companions went to the tomb and found it just as the women had said, but him they did not see.

They knew this was the “third day,” when something was supposed to happen. And they knew the tomb was empty. And they knew the women were excited and had seen angels at Jesus’ tomb. But they hadn’t yet seen Jesus alive, outside of the tomb.

Jesus rebukes them for not knowing how it was supposed to all go down, a gentle (or maybe not-so-gentle) reminder to us to pay attention to what God is doing in the world… to pay attention to who Jesus is. No matter what led these two followers to go to Emmaus, there were some mysterious things afoot in Jerusalem, and they didn’t bother to stick around to see how it would play out. Maybe this is why Jesus calls them “foolish” and “slow of heart.”

Jesus then goes through the Scriptures (“Moses and all the Prophets,” or the whole Old Testament) and shows how it all points to him.

They Recognized Him

They get to Emmaus, so they get ready to stay the night there. Middle Eastern hospitality requires that they ask Jesus to join them, so he’s not out walking by himself. They sit down to eat. If the guided tour of the Hebrew Bible by one of its co-authors wasn’t enough, the two disciples now at last recognize Jesus, as he breaks the bread. Jesus goes quickly from table guest to host at a meal that would forever transform these two:

When he was at the table with them, he took bread, gave thanks, broke it and began to give it to them. Then their eyes were opened and they recognized him, and he disappeared from their sight. They asked each other, “Were not our hearts burning within us while he talked with us on the road and opened the Scriptures to us?”

The Disciples Recognize Jesus at Emmaus,  Rembrandt (1606–1669)
The Disciples Recognize Jesus at Emmaus,
Rembrandt (1606–1669)

Now they know Jesus, in the breaking of the bread. Perhaps they recall the feeding of the 5,000, or the Last Supper that they had probably heard about from the other disciples who were there. On both of those occasions, Jesus took bread, gave thanks, broke it, and distributed it.

So they go back to Jerusalem, where all the commotion is, and make their contribution to the unfolding events of the first Easter:

They got up and returned at once to Jerusalem. There they found the Eleven and those with them, assembled together and saying, “It is true! The Lord has risen and has appeared to Simon.” Then the two told what had happened on the way, and how Jesus was recognized by them when he broke the bread.

Jesus appears to them through the reading of Scripture and through fellowship at a table.

Time and time again the early church and the church throughout the ages would gather to hear the Word of God proclaimed and the sacrament of communion celebrated, and in so doing the church would continue to recognize its risen Lord.

Hearts Burning Within Us

During an Easter hymn two weeks ago, I was filled with awe at just how transforming the resurrection is for those who believe in it.

I began to think, “What if we remembered more often, both when we’re together and when we’re apart–what if we remembered more often that we worship a risen Jesus, and Christ’s resurrection completely transforms how we see the world? The victorious life over death of the resurrected Jesus is foundational to our identity.” We worship a Lord who could not be shut up in a tomb. Therefore, we, too, are resurrection people, disciples who have been forever changed by Christ’s victory over death.

Do not our hearts burn within us when we gather to hear God’s word, and when we break bread at Christ’s table? And do not our hearts burn within us, as we see Jesus in each other, at brunch or meals in each other’s homes, at coffee, through small group prayer, and notes of encouragement? Do not our hearts burn within us when we realize we’re not alone on the road, but have each other for traveling companions?

Do not our hearts burn within us when we truly recognize Jesus through an encounter with him?

And this encounter with Jesus is just as likely to take place on our defeated path to Emmaus… in those moments where we walk away from our hopes and dreams and visions of the future that are now traded in for just the hope of making it to lunchtime….

We see Jesus on our roads and sidewalks, because he comes and finds us there. We weren’t even looking for him. We didn’t even recognize him, and he came–the resurrected Lord, giving us his broken body and blood for our new life–he came and enlivened our hearts, rekindled our passion, made us excited about something again. Jesus gave us renewed purpose and vision. Jesus offered us hope when we were grasping at straws.

Do not our hearts burn within us?

And so we, who have seen this risen Lord, say with the two Emmaus-bound disciples and the others:

“It is true! The Lord has risen!”

This becomes a foundational truth about our identity, our make-up as believers in Jesus.

We are a people who have seen the risen Lord.

“It is true! The Lord has risen!”

We may invite him in as a guest to our gatherings, as those two road-walkers in our passage did. But we quickly find Jesus himself to be host, the one who invited us into fellowship with him in the first place. And do not our hearts burn within us as we hear his invitation to come to his table?

“It is true! The Lord has risen!”

Come, see Jesus now. The table of fellowship is set. Recognize him as he opens his table to us who journey along the road. And let your heart beat a little bit faster as you encounter the risen Jesus there.

The above is adapted from the sermon I preached on Luke 24:13-35 today. All Scripture quotations come from the NIV (1984) or TNIV. See my other sermons, if you desire, here. The image at the beginning of the post is used and covered under the Creative Commons Attribution Noncommercial ShareAlike 3.0 License.

Death Has Been Swallowed Up in Victory

The resurrection

You don’t go to a tomb to rejoice. You don’t go to a graveyard, shortly after someone has been buried there, to celebrate.

And so, Matthew writes, “After the Sabbath, at dawn on the first day of the week, Mary Magdalene and the other Mary went to look at the tomb.”

They have come to pay their respects and to remember their now deceased teacher. They have come to mourn–expecting to find comfort, perhaps, in being together, but not expecting much more than that.

Then an angel pushes away the stone covering the tomb–we can think of the tomb as a sort of underground walk-in closet. And the guards are so scared, they shake and are petrified.

“Do not be afraid!” the angel has to say to the unsuspecting women. “Jesus is not here–he is risen!” Come, look, the angel says, “see the place where he lay.” “Go quickly and tell his disciples–He has risen from the dead!”

As they hurry off, their fast-beating hearts a jumble of joy and fear, they see Jesus. “Greetings,” he says, nonchalantly. (“Hey, what’s up?”)

They kneel down, grasp his feet, and worship him.

They had gone to his tomb to weep.
Instead, they went away laughing and rejoicing.

They had come early that morning to encounter the stark reality of death.
Instead, they found the glorious miracle of new life.

They had come to process an immense and unthinkable loss.
Instead, they met a living Jesus, the triumphant victor over death.

These women, and then, in turn, all of Jesus’ disciples from that day forward, would never see death the same way again.

Death Swallowed Up in Victory: Paul’s Reminder

Some years later Paul would remind his church of the “gospel,” the good news of Jesus.

The good news, he says, is “that Christ died for our sins according to the Scriptures, that he was buried, that he was raised on the third day according to the Scriptures….”

By this “gospel,” the good news of Jesus’ death and coming back from life to show himself again to his followers–by this “gospel,” Paul says, you are saved. You are delivered.

Where your life had been a prison,
you are freed.

Where you had once seen darkness,
now you see light.

Though you had come to a tomb, ready to mourn because of the end of things,
now you rejoice at a new beginning and fresh possibilities.

Where it had once been a long, hard, cold, relentless winter,
the spring of new life is finally here.

Because Jesus was raised on the third day, we will never see death the same way again.

“Death has been swallowed up in victory.” Paul speaks of a day when that will come true, when death itself is finally and forever dead.

But the way Paul is talking–it’s so certain a fate for death, for it to be completely vanquished and drowned in new life… it’s so certain that he’s saying it’s true, in a sense, right now.

Through the resurrection of Jesus, death and evil have already been defeated.

“Where, O death, is your victory?
Where, O death, is your sting?”

Christ’s resurrection proved that, when God is at work, “dead” isn’t really “dead.”

Feeling Defeated by Death

And yet, such an idea was the farthest thing from the minds of the disciples that weekend.

How long Good Friday to Easter Sunday must have felt that year!

When you lose a friend, a brother, a spouse, a parent, a child, someone you love… the day of your dear one’s death is painful. Agonizing. Unthinkable. Whether unexpected or expected, there’s always a quality of “this is not how it should be” when a loved one dies. So much still could have been… should have been.

Then there’s something about the second day that hurts even more. Maybe the initial shock is gone (though probably not really), and reality sets in a bit more. This death wasn’t a bad dream you woke up from. You’re still here, and your good friend, your valued family member is really gone.

I bet that second day–Saturday–was even more difficult for the disciples than the Friday when they watched Jesus die a criminal’s death.

Jesus was not just any loved one…he was, to his followers, a teacher and friend and humble servant, but he was also supposed to be their deliverer, their shepherd, their light, their life… NOT someone who just goes dying on them.

Was he not who they thought he was?

Was their promised deliverance, their offer of hope and a new life, just a farce?

Was Jesus just one among many other teachers claiming to be divine, but in reality, mortal like everyone else?

Jimmy Chitwood HoosiersOne of my favorite movies, and arguably the greatest sports movie of all time, is the movie Hoosiers. It’s based on the true story of a high school basketball team in rural Indiana who in 1954 won the state championship, beating much bigger and more established schools along the way.

And even though I know how it ends, I still watch it, probably at least once a year. “Did they win again?” I’ve often been asked after watching it for the umpteenth time.

It’s a little easier to watch through the suspense and nail-biting overtime games when I know the outcome. But for the characters in the movie, of course, the players and fans that the actors played, there was no guarantee of a good ending.

It’s hard for us to get at just what those women, characters in the story, must have been feeling as they went to the tomb. We know how this story ends. We know what (or, rather, who) is waiting for them at the tomb.

But they felt firmly wrapped in the grip of death, of disappointment, of shattered dreams, of hopes delayed or even demolished. Perhaps their trust had been severely misplaced, after all.

They’re blindsided when they see the angel, the empty tomb, and then… Jesus. That’s why Matthew says they are both filled with joy and scared out of their minds.

It’s not that they had weak faith, but Jesus was dead! Not just mostly dead, but dead dead.

Jesus had cheated death before by slipping through hostile crowds and, for all we know, dodging stones thrown his way, but this was not supposed to happen, or so his mourning disciples thought.

The Last Scene Was a Victory

Resurrection 2But a tomb was not the last scene in this story.

The apostle Peter would later preach to a crowd in Acts, “But God released him from the horrors of death and raised him back to life, for death could not keep him in its grip.”

Death did not have dominion, mastery, or the power of intimidation over Jesus. Once Jesus got a hold of death, it would never be the same.

Through his miraculous coming-back-to-life, Jesus showed that even death cannot stop him. Through Jesus’ resurrection, Paul says, “Death [was] swallowed up in victory.” As one preacher wryly (but accurately) said, “Jesus beat the hell out of sin and death.”

And so “dead” for Jesus didn’t really mean “dead.” It wasn’t the end. There was life on the other side of it.

We who follow the risen Jesus, then, do not need to be afraid. Though death is maybe one of the scariest, or most painful things that many of us can think of, the Christian’s death does not actually end in death. We, too, have been raised with Christ.

As one Christian martyr put it:

The fact that Jesus Christ died is more important than the fact that I will die. And the fact that Jesus Christ was raised from the dead is the sole ground of my hope that I, too, will be raised on the day of judgment. Our salvation is ‘from outside ourselves.’ I find salvation not in my life story, but only in the story of Jesus Christ. Only those who allow themselves to be found in Jesus Christ — in the incarnation, cross, and resurrection — are with God and God with them.

“Death has been swallowed up in” the victory of the life of Christ, a life in which we are invited to participate, a life which we can receive by believing in the risen Lord. As we see the living Jesus and hear his invitation to life, how else can we respond but to do what the two Marys did, and throw ourselves at him and praise him?

Death is cause for lament and mourning–you don’t go to a tomb to rejoice–yet just as death no longer has dominion over Jesus, it no longer shall have dominion over us.

Jesus’ resurrection means that death is no longer our intimidator, master, or schoolyard bully.

Evil loses, and death is dead.

Paul taunts death in the Corinthians passage, “Whatcha got, death? I’m alive with the resurrected Christ–how you like me now?”

Paul had to remind his church of the powerlessness of death, just like we need to remind ourselves, because it so often looks like death and sin and evil and inhumanity reign supreme in the world around us. Death and evil are still talking a big game.

But that’s all it is–it’s just talk.

Sin is no longer the undefeatable foe it might have once seemed to be. Evil is not inevitable. Death is not really the end.

We do not have to be afraid.

Through the victory of the resurrected Christ, the lifeless are made alive. Darkness becomes light.

Mourning turns to rejoicing.

Winter turns to spring.

The impossible becomes possible.

Dormant dreams can spring back to life again.

Good outcomes can result from bad things happening.

Because of Jesus’ decisive victory over the powers of evil and death,
even what looks like a cold and empty tomb
contains within it a glimmer of hope,
and the promise of new life.

The above is the sermon I preached on Easter Day 2014.

A Personal Reflection on Dietrich Bonhoeffer: What I’ve Found This Lent


Bonhoeffer with Confirmands, 1932
Bonhoeffer with Confirmands, 1932

I knew when I was preaching through the Sermon on the Mount recently that I would make good use of Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s Cost of Discipleship. I had no idea that a single question I asked would lead me–in my quest for an “answer”–so far into the life and writings of Bonhoeffer.

Of War and Peace: Which Bonhoeffer? (Revisited)

Russia invaded Ukraine in early March, just days after the Revised Common Lectionary reading was Matthew 5:38-48, which reads in part:

You have heard that it was said, ‘Eye for eye, and tooth for tooth.’ But I tell you, do not resist an evil person. If anyone slaps you on the right cheek, turn to them the other cheek also.

You have heard that it was said, ‘Love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ But I tell you, love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, that you may be children of your Father in heaven.

I wondered: does “turn the other cheek” apply just on an interpersonal level, or at a state level? I turned to Bonhoeffer, who rejected a privatized read of Jesus’ words. In 1937’s Discipleship he wrote:

The overcoming of others now occurs by allowing their evil to run its course. The evil does not find what it is seeking, namely, resistance and, therewith, new evil which will inflame it even more. Evil will become powerless when it finds no opposing object, no resistance, but, instead, is willingly borne and suffered….

Should Ukrainians (or other oppressed peoples) just let themselves be invaded (or oppressed)? I struggled with Bonhoeffer’s words:

There is no thinkable deed in which evil is so large and strong that it would require a different response from a Christian. The more terrible the evil, the more willing the disciple should be to suffer. Evil persons must be delivered to the hands of Jesus. Not I but Jesus must deal with them.

And yet in 1945 he was hanged for his involvement in a conspiracy to kill Hitler. This was not the “no opposing object” and “no resistance” that Bonhoeffer had talked about in Discipleship.

But maybe Bonhoeffer differentiated between evil done to him and evil done to others? Should the Christian be willing “to suffer” in the former instance but willing to act and resist on behalf of another in the latter instance?

As I asked these questions a month and a half ago, I found my own response to Matthew 5 and “turn the other cheek” to be more tension-filled than I would have liked.

Is There a Resolution to the Tension in Bonhoeffer? 

I had been hoping that further study of Bonhoeffer would help me to find some writing where he would essentially repudiate his non-violence stance in Discipleship, saying instead something like, “But when others are oppressed, take up force to eliminate evil, if necessary.”

Bonhoeffer never said any such thing. In fact, on July 21, 1944, the day after a bomb intended for Hitler failed to kill him, Bonhoeffer wrote from prison (about that 1937 book) to his good friend and biographer-to-be Eberhard Bethge:

Today I clearly see the dangers of that book, though I still stand by it.

He still stood by it. Did he mean he also stood by the line from that book, “Not I but Jesus must deal with them”? Was not his involvement in an effort to bomb Hitler a way of trying to deal with him? (Note: I’m not sure I fault Bonhoeffer either way.)

After a Lenten discipline of reading Bonhoeffer (and sections of his biographies) slowly and meditatively, I’m no closer to a resolution of such tensions than I was when I first discovered them. If anything, I’ve been encouraged to see other readers of Bonhoeffer wrestling with the same sorts of questions. This question of whether a ready-to-use-violence Bonhoeffer is consistent with the turn-the-other-cheek Bonhoeffer is, in fact, a fruitful question in Bonhoeffer studies.

What I’ve Found Instead

Tension in Bonhoeffer notwithstanding (and I’m actually coming to appreciate it), I’ve been deeply moved at nearly every turn as I’ve delved more deeply into the life and writings of an activist pastor.

I’ve found:

  • An inspired and passionate preacher, not afraid to tell the truth about life and about Jesus
  • A brilliant writer, already evident at age 19 and age 21
  • An eloquent catechist and Christian educator
  • A brave and gutsy man, who valued the life of others more than his own
  • A gifted poet with incisive awareness of the human condition

His preaching has encouraged mine. His deliberateness in pastoral care and visiting congregants has inspired me. I used one of his catechisms for our church membership class (his writing in that context was met with appreciation by all of us). His courage has bolstered mine, even if I don’t face the sort of trials that he did.

And, best of all, he has pointed away from himself and to the cross of Christ, so that my appreciation for Bonhoeffer doesn’t finally center on Bonhoeffer himself. Rather, through the writings of Dietrich Bonhoeffer–no doubt inhabited again by the Holy Spirit–I have come to see and know and love Jesus more deeply.

As Bonhoeffer says of the early disciples, listening to Jesus on the mountainside:

They have only him. Yes, and with him they have nothing in the world, nothing at all, but everything, everything with God.