I don’t know about you, but when I read about Paul’s vision of heaven, the first thing I wonder about is not what Paul saw, but what that thorn in his side was.
If Paul were with us today, I’d ask him why he shared that rather personal bit of information about himself. My imagination digresses into all the different possibilities for what might have ailed the apostle.
It seems like it was serious. Paul’s metaphor carries with it something more than just a minor annoyance. In fact, it sounds like it bothered the hell out of him. He was desperate to be rid of it.
Many of you know me well enough to guess the kinds of resources that I considered as I prepared this morning’s sermon. I looked at one of my favorite icons, the Pentecost, which features Mary, seated in the center of the disciples, a dove descends above her, and tongues of fire alight the heads of all.
I thought about works of children’s literature. I even thought for a brief moment about incorporating yesterday’s royal wedding! But the readings from Acts and John are too good to sidestep with other texts or art or even current events.
The risen and soon to ascend Jesus tells his disciples that he will soon depart from them, and in his place, he’ll give them an advocate.
What will this advocate do? Jesus tells us that the advocate will testify on his behalf. This advocate will speak for Jesus, will speak with Jesus’ authority, with Jesus’ identity. This advocate is so important, Jesus explains, that in some sense, Jesus is leaving precisely so that this advocate will come. And that’s curious.
Listen to this sermon.
I suppose it is natural to think that the proof of divinity in Jesus’ story is his resurrection. And if a kind of miraculous proof were what someone were after, then I can’t imagine a much better example than the resurrection. But in this parable, this “I am” statement in John’s Gospel, Jesus claims his divine status not through miraculous deed, but rather through relationship and self-sacrifice.
Jesus calls himself the good shepherd, and he calls us sheep. His sheep. He is not a usual shepherd though. For instance, He knows his sheep and they know him. This is clearly not just recognition. This is a deep and abiding knowledge
I’ve always loved this painting of the rising Christ. Piero della Francesca painted it about five and a half centuries ago in San Sepolcro, Tuscany, where you can still see it, although it’s no longer in its original home, the Palazzo della Residenza, the town hall. According to my favorite research site, Wikipedia, the leaders of Tuscany, before any meeting, would pray standing in front of this image. Of course, for us, that’s a bizarre idea, but for Tuscans it made sense. Sure, as Italians their government had a cozier relationship with Roman Catholicism than American governance has had with any denomination.
But it goes deeper than that. The town’s name, San Sepolcro, literally means the “Holy Sepulcher,” the Holy Tomb. While this might sound like kind of a morbid name for a town, remember that for Christians Jesus has overcome the power of death. The tomb is no longer a symbol of death.
Isaiah 52:13-53:12; Psalm 22; Hebrews 4:14-16; 5:7-9; John 18:1-19:42
You come from one of the most northern parts of Israel, from just south of Lebanon. Your family fishes the local freshwater lake, Gennesaret, or the Sea of Galilee, which, though small, supplies fish for much of the surrounding area.
About three years ago, you and several other Galileans, quit the family business and became students of a rabbi from Galilee. This rabbi, Jesus, son of Joseph, from Nazareth, was at first a pretty unremarkable guy. At the time you started to follow him, he was about 30 years old. So not young, but not exactly established in his teaching career either.
Give thanks to the Lord, for he is good, *
and his mercy endures for ever.
Let all those whom the Lord has redeemed proclaim *
that he redeemed them from the hand of the foe.
In our readings today, we hear about the far-reaching effects of sin, and God’s continual efforts to save humanity from those effects. In each of these passages, sin is not envisioned as simple wrong-doing, as if Adam and Eve’s problem was merely that they broke one of the club rules of the Garden of Eden, and as a result lost their voting rights.
Rather, all three passages focus on sin as a way of life, a state of being disconnected from God. For the Israelites in the desert, sin is like a poison from which there’s no cure but to cry aloud to God; for Paul as he writes to the Christians in Ephesus, sin is a state of death, but God’s grace returns us to life; for Jesus in John’s gospel, sin is the adversary who condemns us, and out of compassion, Jesus takes on a human life in order to save us from that condemnation.
The statutes of the Lord are just
and rejoice the heart;
the commandment of the Lord is clear
and gives light to the eyes.
More to be desired are they than gold,
more than much fine gold,
sweeter far than honey,
than honey in the comb.
By them also is your servant enlightened,
and in keeping them there is great reward.
The great St. Paul, apostle to the Gentiles, asks us this morning, “Where is the one who is wise?. . . Where is the debater of this age?”
It seems that we live in a time saturated by debate. It’s not that fierce debate is new; rather, ours is a time of endless debate. And I often wonder if all of this debate ever goes anywhere.