Where are you from? It may seem polite conversation, or an extraneous identifier, but it matters. In politics, it matters a lot. In the ongoing Republican quest for a nomination in the presidential race, certain candidates have made it clear that what matters are the delegates—and winning the states that secure the most delegates. If you’re not from one of those states, at least in this matter, your vote carries less weight. Similarly, as a registered democrat in a strong Republican county, my vote in the presidential race if I vote party line, is unlikely to actually change the dispersion of my state’s votes in the electoral college. And even more locally, when I moved to a small town in Western Pennsylvania, a dear friend who had lived in that town for more than 30 years, worked there, retired there, and raised her family there, advised me, “Don’t worry about being new to town; everyone here is welcoming, but after thirty years, I’m still not ‘from here.’” She was right. Where you’re from matters…
In the end, John 3 presents a very troubling political and theological landscape: there is us and there is them, and them are where they are because they hate what we stand for. The warm and fuzzy feeling that is generally associated with John 3:16 can only be maintained if one stops reading right there. It gets scary and divisive and not very loving thereafter.
John offers the temple story at the beginning of his gospel although the other Synoptics place it at the end. Why might this be so? In my view, John wants to introduce us to the portrait of a “radical” Jesus whose revelatory message supercedes and fulfills the tenets of Judaic law, even to the point that it abolishes aspects of this law, a theme that will continue throughout the rest of his gospel.
“Baptism…now saves you…through the resurrection of Jesus Christ, who has gone into heaven, and is at the right hand of God, with angels, authorities, and powers made subject to him.” (1 Peter 3:22)
Aside from winning awards for the number of clauses in a single sentence (and the Greek sentence actually begins before verse 21), today’s epistle reading makes big claims! God has made all powers subject to Jesus Christ! But “all” is a big term, especially in a world that doesn’t always feel subject to God. And so the question that lingers today is, “What did the author of 1 Peter mean by “angels, authorities, and powers?”
The “comfortably numb” posture of many a pastor in the West has become a commonplace, aided and abetted by congregations who want to have confirmed what they already believe and who want their “prophets” fit for the Rotary or the Chamber of Commerce and who either can’t see or can’t say what they see.
In an age when nothing is sacred nothing is more difficult to understand than violations of sacred space. Yet that’s precisely what Mark demands of us in his account of Jesus’ first public action, an exorcism in the synagogue.
From the moment Jesus sets foot in the religious and political center of Capernaum, he is engaged in a contest with the scribes over authority concerning that space itself and all that it represents. It’s clear from the beginning that his audacious move catches the attention of everyone. The people notice: “They were astounded at his teaching, for he taught them as one having authority, and not as the scribes” (1:22).
I should add, from a Christian point of view, liberty is neither a virtue nor an ideal. History is ripe with examples of how liberty may turn to tragedy for individuals as well as for whole peoples and civilizations. Nonetheless, there is, it seems, a stubborn fact: in the soul of one who is not free there can neither be reason, nor beauty, nor love. One could say that a man doesn’t really exist as a man without these, and can’t even begin to comprehend the divine. Shortly before his death Christ told his disciples: “Unless I go the cross, the Holy Spirit will not come to you.” And do you know why? Because as long as there is some higher authority, be it even God personified, from whom men simply take words as facts, as some kind of a command, then they are not acting according to their own free will. And community with the Holy Spirit is reserved for free souls. Without freedom, love is impossible.
The world is ever changing and God calls Christians of every time and every place to be a part of this change. While often misread as a call to abandon the world, this weeks reading from Paul’s letter to the Corinthians is one of many of these calls contained within Scripture — urging Christians who are in the world to change the way in which we interact with and thus influence the world.