Jesus the Blasphemer

But Jesus remained silent. The high priest said to him, “I charge you under oath by the living God: Tell us if you are the Messiah, the Son of God.” “You have said so,” Jesus replied. “But I say to all of you: From now on you will see the Son of Man sitting at the right hand of the Mighty One and coming on the clouds of heaven.” Then the high priest tore his clothes and said, “He has spoken blasphemy! Why do we need any more witnesses? Look, now you have heard the blasphemy. What do you think?” “He is worthy of death,” they answered. (Mat 26:63-66)

[Jesus said,] “I and the Father are one.” Again his Jewish opponents picked up stones to stone him, but Jesus said to them, “I have shown you many good works from the Father. For which of these do you stone me?” “We are not stoning you for any good work,” they replied, “but for blasphemy, because you, a mere man, claim to be God.” (John 10:30-33)

This week a mob in Pakistan attacked three college students accused of blasphemy, killing one and injuring two. According to Al Jazeera, vigilantes have killed 69 accused blasphemers since 1990, while the government has killed 52. Last year, the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom (PDF) reported that there were 40 Pakistanis on death row or serving life sentences for blasphemy. Some of them, like Asia Bibi are Christians. Most are not.

Until recently, modern Americans could close their eyes to the violent passions that religious speech and identity can trigger. Progressive Christians tend to see the violent opposition to Jesus in economic, social or political terms. The empire did it. Indeed, it did. That, however, is not the primary lens through which the Gospel authors viewed the crucifixion. In the eyes of many of his coreligionists, Jesus was a blasphemer. He claimed to be one with the Father, at whose right hand he would soon be sitting. Jesus’ opponents considered this to be blasphemy, and for that he deserved to die.

Seven Words from the Cross

The  church of my childhood always conducted a worship service built around Jesus’ seven last words from the cross. I still think that’s a good way to go.

Father, forgive them, for they do not know what they are doing.
Luke 23:34

Truly I tell you, today you will be with me in paradise.
Luke 23:43

Woman, behold your son …  Behold your mother.
John 19:26–27

My God, My God, why have you forsaken me?
Matthew 27:46 & Mark 15:34

I thirst. 
John 19:28

It is finished.
John 19:30

Father, into your hands I commend my spirit.
Luke 23:46

How to See the Light of the World

Can I tell you a secret? I sometimes – well, frequently – choke up for a moment during worship. It happens when I sing a hymn, say a prayer, or receive the sacrament, and I suddenly realize that I am not just thinking about God or talking about God. I am actually in the presence of the creator of the universe. It’s all a bit overwhelming. It would be, wouldn’t it?

Visionary Worship

Do you know the story of the prophet Isaiah’s experience in the temple? It’s found in chapter 6 of the Book of Isaiah. In one moment, the temple was just a building of stone and wood. Fires were burning on the altar. Smoke and incense were rising into the air. The sounds of sacrifice were echoing from the walls. In the next moment, Isaiah came to see himself as a participant in a divine drama. Unseen by most of the temple’s worshipers were choirs of heavenly six-winged seraphim crying out, “Holy, holy, holy is the LORD of Hosts; the whole earth is full of his glory!

Or do you know the story of Saint John in the Book of Revelation? John tells us that he was in the Spirit on the Lord’s Day. In other words, John was at worship. In the Spirit, John saw the same God Isaiah saw in the temple, with the same six winged creatures who were singing the same song: “Holy, Holy, Holy, Lord God almighty.

The room in which John was praying was an ordinary room, maybe a dining room or a courtyard in a church member’s home. Perhaps John was alone. Or perhaps he was assembled with the church to worship on the Lord’s Day, as became the custom. But in the midst of his worship on the Lord’s Day, John came to realize that he wasn’t just assembled with some ordinary looking shop keepers and fisherman on a Mediterranean island, he was standing in the presence of the host of heaven, of angels and archangels. He was not just standing in a in a room of stone and concrete; he was standing at the throne of God where the Lamb of God reigns forever.

In our gospel reading for today, John wants us to see what Isaiah saw, and what he saw whenever he worshiped Jesus. He wants us to see God. Not necessarily the six winged seraphim and the whole host of heaven – although they are there – but God, nonetheless.

The healing of the man born blind, John tells us, is a sign. It’s a doorway into an invisible reality. John is not just trying to give us new information; he’s trying to lead us into the perception of a new and invisible reality.

Continue reading “How to See the Light of the World”

John 9 and the Feast of Tabernacles

Chapter 9 of John’s gospel belongs to a much longer passage that begins in chapter 7. This entire section takes place in and around the temple during the Feast of the Tabernacles, one of the three annual festivals which Jews from throughout the world were supposed to attend. John’s readers, who would have been familiar with the temple rituals associated with the pilgrim festivals, would have seen some things in John’s story that we most likely will miss.

First, during the Feast of Tabernacles water was drawn from the pool of Siloam. The water, according to some sources, was mixed with wine and poured out at the altar to sanctify the temple and to recall the water God provided in the desert during the Israel’s exodus from Egypt.

So John tells us that Jesus stood up at the end of the festival and announced,

Let anyone who is thirsty come to me and drink. Whoever believes in me, as the Scripture has said, “Out of his heart will flow rivers of living water.” (7:37)

Jesus is the true living water, more central to the life of God’s people than the water drawn from Siloam’s spring, more central even than the water Moses provided in the desert.

Second, a number of giant lamp stands illuminated in the temple during the festival. It was said that they were so powerful that they lit up the entire city of Jerusalem at night.

So John also reports that Jesus proclaimed,

I am the light of the world. Whoever follows me will not walk in darkness, but will have the light of life. (8:12)

Jesus is the light of the world, much more so than the lamp stands that illuminated the whole city during the feast.

Continue reading “John 9 and the Feast of Tabernacles”

The Wrong Sunday for John 9?

John 9:1-41

The gospel for this Sunday is John 9:1-41. My Orthodox friends tell me that we’re reading this passage on the wrong Sunday. They read from Matthew, Mark and Luke during Lent, and from the Gospel of John during the Sundays between Easter and Pentecost. Commenting on John 9, the Orthodox Study Bible says:

This healing is the sixth sign in John’s Gospel. Of all the miracle stories in the Bible, this is the only one in which the person was blind from birth. The blind man is symbolic of all humanity: all need illumination by Christ, the Light of the world. This sign is an illustration of baptism, which is also called “holy illumination.”As Pascha (Easter) is the traditional day to receive catechumens into the Church, the lessons following Pascha reflect a baptismal theology. Thus, this passage is read on the sixth Sunday of Pascha.

I have a friend who is a deacon in the Orthodox Church who describes their practice something like this: The purpose of the synoptic gospels is catechism, basic instruction in the Christian faith. The synoptic gospels lay out the basic teaching every catechumen – every convert to Christianity – needs to know before they are baptized. The purpose of John’s gospel, however, is mystagogy. “Mystagogy” is a combination of two Greek words, “mystery” and “to lead”. And “mystery,” here, doesn’t mean an unsolved puzzle. It pertains, rather, to a sacred experience that words can’t fully describe.

It is the great privilege of the baptized to know the light of Christ, to enter into the divine life of the kingdom here and now. The gospel of John, who sees the life of Christ in the sacraments and the sacraments in the life of Christ, is instrumental in leading us into that light.

I suppose that when the church reads John 9 in worship is not a matter of eternal significance. I find it enlightening, though, to meditate on this text with an Orthodox eye, and to consider why our Orthodox brothers and sisters read this text when they do.