Exploring the Word | Spreaker

Saturday, February 1, 2014

"To judge the living and the dead..." 1.12.14

Daniel 12:1-4

“At that time Michael, the great prince, the protector of your people, shall arise. There shall be a time of anguish, such as has never occurred since nations first came into existence. But at that time your people shall be delivered, everyone who is found written in the book. 2Many of those who sleep in the dust of the earth shall awake, some to everlasting life, and some to shame and everlasting contempt. 3Those who are wise shall shine like the brightness of the sky, and those who lead many to righteousness, like the stars forever and ever. 4But you, Daniel, keep the words secret and the book sealed until the time of the end. Many shall be running back and forth, and evil shall increase.”

John 5:15-30

15The man went away and told the Jews that it was Jesus who had made him well. 16Therefore the Jews started persecuting Jesus, because he was doing such things on the sabbath.17But Jesus answered them, “My Father is still working, and I also am working.” 18For this reason the Jews were seeking all the more to kill him, because he was not only breaking the sabbath, but was also calling God his own Father, thereby making himself equal to God.

19Jesus said to them, “Very truly, I tell you, the Son can do nothing on his own, but only what he sees the Father doing; for whatever the Father does, the Son does likewise. 20The Father loves the Son and shows him all that he himself is doing; and he will show him greater works than these, so that you will be astonished. 21Indeed, just as the Father raises the dead and gives them life, so also the Son gives life to whomever he wishes.

22The Father judges no one but has given all judgment to the Son, 23so that all may honor the Son just as they honor the Father. Anyone who does not honor the Son does not honor the Father who sent him. 24Very truly, I tell you, anyone who hears my word and believes him who sent me has eternal life, and does not come under judgment, but has passed from death to life.

25“Very truly, I tell you, the hour is coming, and is now here, when the dead will hear the voice of the Son of God, and those who hear will live. 26For just as the Father has life in himself, so he has granted the Son also to have life in himself; 27and he has given him authority to execute judgment, because he is the Son of Man. 28Do not be astonished at this; for the hour is coming when all who are in their graves will hear his voice 29and will come out—those who have done good, to the resurrection of life, and those who have done evil, to the resurrection of condemnation. 30“I can do nothing on my own. As I hear, I judge; and my judgment is just, because I seek to do not my own will but the will of him who sent me.

As long as I can remember, I have loved the Bible. I think I finished reading the whole book for the first time in 7th grade. A lot of it didn’t make sense, but the overall story did make sense and something about it captured my attention and my heart.

I have also struggled with the Bible a lot in my life. The Bible is challenging and it comes with lots of baggage. I’ve especially struggled with John’s Gospel because it makes such strong claims about Jesus. Favorite passages like John 3:16, that express the amazing love of God in Jesus are followed by the idea that those who don’t believe in Jesus are condemned. I struggled; I still struggle with the image of God condemning people because they don’t believe in Jesus.

I’ve always had friends who don’t believe in Jesus. Whether it was Jewish and Muslim friends in my elementary school or atheists in high school and beyond, there have always been people close to me who don’t accept Jesus as their Lord. These are people who take their responsibility to other people seriously, people who want to make the world better. It has never made sense to me that God would send them to hell because they didn’t understand God the same way I do. I thought of John’s Gospel as the center of this exclusive way of thinking about Jesus, and that kept me from paying much attention to John.

I took another look at John during my seminary internship. During Bible study a great saint of the church I was serving said that her favorite Gospel was Luke but she thought John was most likely to make someone become a Christian. That made me take another look, and what I discovered was the welcoming grace of Jesus I love in all the Gospels in more poetic language.

When we read John or any other part of the Bible we have to understand the passage we’re reading as part of a bigger book. You don’t have to read all the latest scholarship or take a college course about it. But you do need to know what’s around the text. The Bible doesn’t make sense if we read one verse by itself without reading the story it is part of.

The John’s Gospel is about the eternal word of God that was with God from the beginning of creation becoming a human being in Jesus. Jesus came to his own people to show them a different perspective on God. In John’s Gospel Jesus does signs or miracles so people will believe he is the Son of God. When they believe in him as the Son of God they will see more clearly who God is and what God wants. That especially means they will see that God is love: God loves us deeply, and God wants us to love each other.

In all the Gospels Jesus and almost everyone he interacted with was Jewish. When John says, “The Jews,” he means religious leaders who shared Jesus’ faith but generally opposed Jesus. Over the church’s 2000 years we’ve done a lot of harm because we blamed Jewish people for resisting Jesus. For Jesus, he was talking to his own community, not a different group. As much as Jesus and the religious leaders argue, they are part of the same faith community.

When this passage begins Jesus has just healed a man who had been unable to walk for 38 years. Like many of the healing stories in the Gospels, this one took place on the Sabbath, the religiously commanded day of rest. The religious leaders get upset because Jesus broke the Sabbath. They get even more upset because Jesus says God is his Father, which they think is disrespectful to God.

The argument between Jesus and the religious leaders here is about the relationship between God and Jesus. The religious leaders think of God as holy and totally separate from humans. The way to connect with God for them was to follow God’s commandments faithfully. The commandments strengthened the faith community and connected people to God. Since Jesus wasn’t following the commandments, they figured he couldn’t be following God.

Jesus responds that he’s following God more closely than they can imagine. God sent him with a specific mission: to do God’s will and even to judge the dead. God has given all these powers and all this responsibility to Jesus to so people will be able to understand God more clearly.

The leaders see God in the commandments, and that’s right, but not the clearest image they could have. Imagine a preschool child. The child learns when school starts to find Jevon, his morning partner, so they can share markers and start the day with drawing. The “commandment” the child learns is about finding Jevon, but the point is learning how to share and developing a routine. The commandment isn’t wrong, but it’s part of a bigger picture. You can share without finding Jevon and sharing is the bigger purpose.

The same is true in this story and in Jesus’ ministry as a whole. The commandments teach us how to love God and love our neighbor. The Sabbath commandment is a part of loving God; we set the Sabbath aside as a day specially dedicated to God to help us be more dedicated to God in the rest of our lives. Keeping the Sabbath is also a part of how we love ourselves and other people because we all need rest and a break from our work routine. The Sabbath isn’t the point in itself, but it teaches us about honoring God, and caring for ourselves and other people.

In the strict sense Jesus is breaking the Sabbath, but he’s not going against God’s law. Instead he is showing the people an even clearer picture of love. We can learn what love means even more perfectly by watching Jesus than by obeying the Sabbath commandment. When we’ve faced with a choice between breaking the Sabbath and caring for another person, the more loving, more faithful choice is to care. So Jesus heals on the Sabbath. That’s not something the religious leaders can take in; they can’t accept Jesus because he is too different from what they expected.

The religious leaders are stuck. They think about God as a lawgiver, so following God for them means following the law first and foremost.

Jesus came to set them free from that limited way of thinking and feeling. Of course, God gave the law, and Jesus wants to be clear he comes from the same God. Jesus’ ministry fits into the same story as God’s creation of the world, the call of Abraham and Moses, the Exodus and the law. But God is much bigger than that. Following God is much bigger and simpler than following rules.

More than anything else, God loves the world and every one in it. The way we follow God is by loving others. Jesus came to show us that.

The commandments also teach love, and rules are part of how we learn love, but they can also get in the way. Rules are easy to twist to support our power instead of pushing us to do our best. On the other hand, without rules sometimes we let ourselves off the hook too easily and forget to make love the center of our life. The religious leaders Jesus argued with had more trouble letting the rules get in the way of a vibrant and open relationship with God; our culture has more trouble getting lazy about love and substituting some vague, wishy-washy idea about being nice for the demanding work of love.

Judgment is similar. When we think about judgment as a matter of living up to rules, we will be afraid, but worse than that, we’ll be selfish about following the rules. In other words, we’ll approach life as if it’s a test where the most important thing is for us to follow the rules. That makes it about us.

When we know that judgment is about Jesus, and really, about love, that reminds us above all else to love. That’s why Jesus says that those who honor him and believe that God sent him will escape judgment. Believing in Jesus doesn’t give us a get out of jail free card. Instead, if we actually believe that Jesus is the Son of God and we honor him, we will live as if love is the most important thing in the world. We will actually, in our everyday lives treat people with love even when it is inconvenient or even dangerous. When we do that we will do the right thing consistently and contribute to God’s loving kingdom. So when the dead rise and Jesus judges us, we will have nothing to worry about.

The key to the whole passage, the whole series we’re about to begin and to thinking about judgment in general is the closing line of our passage: Jesus says, “My judgment is just because I seek to do not my will but the will of him who sent me.” The Bible teaches us that God is love, which means love is the heart and foundation of all judgment. At the end of the day that is what matters more than rules or even believing something about Jesus.

God is love; Jesus shows us that love by becoming human, welcoming outcasts and dying for us. It is that active, courageous, loving Jesus who will judge us when the world ends, so we can trust him to judge justly and mercifully. In the end, all will be well because love is in charge.

Thanks be to God.

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