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Learning to Live by God's Truth


Reflections on the Gospel Texts for Lent and Easter (Cycle B)

by Earl J. Smith


The season of Lent and Easter provides us with an opportunity for in-depth study of the life, ministry, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. Through such a study, we can learn how we should live, work and die. As we begin to plan for this most important and festive Christian experience, we need to take time to reflect on the true meaning of Lent and Easter and to recapture that meaning within our lives.

Unfortunately, such reflection is not always easy. During this time of year our culture has developed a loud competing voice that often leads us away from a search for God's truth. Easter has become a time for self-indulgence, a time for buying a new dress, a new suit, a new hat. Our minds become focused on dyeing eggs, giving candy and waiting for that all-important event -- the visit of the Easter bunny.

Designed as a source for meditation on the Gospel texts, these reflections can help both adults and children recapture the real meaning of Lent and Easter. Begin by setting a time when your family or group can meet together each week. While the reflections are suitable for use any day during the week, you may wish to use the sessions for Ash Wednesday and Easter Sunday on those days. Also, plan to have the Scripture text in front of you when you meet.

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What is truth? This famous question, which Pilate asks of Jesus during his trial, is a theme that runs through all of our Gospel texts. In today's world, the word truth is practically meaningless. We hear expressions such as "truth in advertising," "truth or consequences," and "swear to tell the truth." Moreover, what we assume is true today may be false tomorrow. The purpose of these reflections is to explore in depth the meaning of truth in the Gospels and how it affects our lifestyles.

A quick look at some scripture passages from John will give us a better sense of the meaning of truth. First, God is truth and God's word is truth (John 17:17). Truth is given to us from God through Jesus Christ (John 1:17). As a witness to Jesus, John the Baptist was a witness to the truth (John 5:33). Christ proclaims the truth (John 8:45). Christ calls himself truth (John 14:6). The Spirit will lead us into all the truth (John 16:13). The central message for these reflections comes from John 3:21 -- "But those who live by the truth come to the light, so that it may be clearly seen that their deeds have been done in God" (author's translation).

The truth we will be investigating is pure and eternal; it is God's truth. Let us attempt to live by this truth, for the truth will set us free.

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Piety and Truth

Matthew 6:1-6, 16-18

This lesson gives us insight into the three main acts of piety during the time of Christ -- giving alms, praying and fasting. Through such good deeds, deeds of mercy or charity and obligations under the law people praised and honored God.

In this passage, Jesus cautions people from performing these acts in order to be seen by others and, thereby, gain recognition. Although he does not condemn these acts themselves, Jesus condemns performing them with a wrongful purpose. It is grandiosity that he despises.

Giving to the poor was a routine act of worship, especially on fast days when trumpets were said to have sounded in the temple. Some commentators think the vessel for offering may have been shaped like a trumpet and would sound loudly when coins were tossed into it. Whether or not this was so, the message is clear that acts of giving that call for others to praise the giver are not true acts of piety.

During the time of Jesus, it was common for Jews to pray standing. Here it is not the standing to pray or even public prayer that is being condemned, but the act of praying done to enhance one's reputation. Jesus condemns prayer when it is not so much addressed to God but to other people looking on. Remember the many instances where Jesus went off to pray alone.

In addition, it is not the act of fasting that is being condemned, but the way in which it was being done by some to call attention to themselves. Some would dump ashes over their heads, which would settle onto their faces making them look gloomy. Jesus condemns these acts meant to get the attention of others. Instead, he says to wash one's face and put oil on one's head. This washing and anointing was not a daily activity. It was normally reserved for joyous and festive occasions. The message is that fasting before God is joy! There is no place for signs of mourning. Moses and David fasted in preparation for times of revelation. Like Moses and David, we should understand fasting as an act of preparing ourselves for God to reveal God's self to us.

FOR REFLECTION: Do we give from our abundance to others in need in order to demonstrate our love for God? Are our prayers truly meant to be heard by God? Are we receptive to what God may say in return? Do we in some way prepare our minds and bodies for God's revelation to us?

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Truth and the Kingdom of God

Mark 1:9-15

Jesus' ministry begins here at the river Jordan. It is with the baptism of Jesus that the Messianic age begins. In this passage, the tearing apart or dividing of the heavens is both an apocalyptic symbol and a traditional event preceding God's revelation (see Isaiah 64:1). Here God is manifest in both physical and verbal forms. The ancients believed that the dove was a symbol for all kinds of virtues since it was thought to contain no bile. The voice proclaims the truth of God -- Jesus Christ is the Son of God, and as such is the bearer of God's love. Herein lies the good news, a message to which our reflections will often return.

Baptism in our various Christian traditions is the sign and seal of God's grace and covenant in Christ. It signifies the faithfulness of God, the washing away of sin, rebirth, putting on the fresh garment of Christ, being sealed by God's Spirit, adoption into the covenant family of the church, and resurrection and illumination in Christ. The body of Christ is one, and baptism binds us all together in one communion. Barriers of nationality, history, race, and practice are overcome in this sign of our Christian unity. The baptism of Christ signified the beginning of his ministry. Our baptism signifies the beginning of our life in Christ and the beginning of our ministry to the world.

The life and ministry of Jesus is characterized by faithful obedience to God. It is with this obedience that Jesus enters the wilderness, an area commonly believed to be the habitation of demons. In this passage, as well as in the rest of New Testament literature, the figure of Satan represents evil, a power dedicated to human destruction through temptation. Although Mark's version does not graphically depict Christ's faithfulness to the truth as clearly as Luke's (see Luke 4:1-13), the phrase "with the wild beasts" may represent his successful resistance to temptation. This phrase may also represent the restoration of an Eden type paradise that is associated with "end times" (see Isaiah 11:6-8).

Certainly this "end time" picture is resounded in the proclamation of Jesus: "The time has been fulfilled...." In Jesus' proclamation, the Hebrew word for time is kairos meaning a decisive or crucial point, a destiny which demands decisive action. The action demanded is one of change, of conversion as a prerequisite to receiving God's kingdom.

FOR REFLECTION: What is meant by "repent and believe"? What changes need we make in our lifestyles before the kingdom of God comes near.

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Commitment to God's Truth

Mark 8:31-38

This passage marks the major turning point in Mark's Gospel. After the confession of Peter in the previous verses, "You are the Messiah," the balance of the book marches steadily forward to the passion, death, and resurrection of Christ. Our lesson begins with a dire prediction: the Son of Man must undergo great suffering. After being tested, he will be rejected by the elders, chief priests and scribes. He will be killed, then will rise again. This is certainly not what Peter or the others expected of their Messiah! No wonder Peter takes him aside for a little talk.

But Jesus is adamant. He rebukes Peter in front of the other disciples calling him Satan. The same Satan we encountered in last week's lesson is here in human form. For human activity to be called satanic it must be directly opposed to the will of God for the salvation of people.

Jesus makes it clear to Peter and the rest that there can be no middle ground. God's truth and human truth are not one and the same. The phrase "on the side of" or "setting your mind" in verse 33 means a whole direction of mind, a commitment. To live by God's truth requires commitment.

In verse 36, when Jesus asks, "For what does it profit a man to gain the whole world, and forfeit his soul?" he is referring to material gains, social and commercial gains, not the created universe. This saying teaches that the proper community response is continuing loyalty to Jesus. To follow is to follow as a disciple, to live like Jesus.

Our quest for truth has taken us to a point of decision. To continue means we must commit ourselves to live by God's truth. From this point there is no going back. The journey ahead promises to be difficult, for we must be prepared to bear our own crosses. For the first readers of Mark's Gospel this often meant suffering and even death. But there is also a promise of hope -- through this quest we will find true life.

FOR REFLECTION: In what ways do today's Christians follow Jesus? What cross(es) do you bear? To what are you truly committed?

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Learning the Truth Through Signs

John 2:13-22

A key to understanding this passage is revealed in its placement in John's Gospel. It follows directly after the first sign of Jesus (2:11) and just before a discussion of the value (or lack of value) of signs as a means for people to believe in him (see also 12:37). A sign is a symbolic action which demonstrates a greater reality of which the sign itself is a part. Is this symbolic act, this work of Jesus, itself a sign?

The basic sense of the passage is straightforward. Jesus and his followers have come to Jerusalem to celebrate the Passover, the annual Jewish festival celebrating the might acts of God in the Exodus. (For its origin see Exodus 12:21ff.) For this festival, animals were sold in the temple courts so that travelers coming from great distances would have sacrifice offerings. Since the price had to be paid in Tyrian coinage, moneychangers were needed to change other forms of currency. A charge of 2-4 percent was made for this service.

The actions of Jesus which follow are nothing short of miraculous in themselves. With a small whip made of cords, Jesus single-handedly drives the animals and merchants from the temple grounds. He commands them to stop making his Father's house a marketplace. Zechariah 14:21 is helpful in interpreting this action for it predicts a time when major changes will be made in the sacrificial system, a time when "there shall no longer be traders in the house of the Lord of hosts." While the acts of trade in themselves are not wrong, it is wrong when these actions deprive the temple of its rightful purpose as a house of prayer for all people.

The writing remembered by the disciples in verse 17 is most probably Psalm 69:9. In today's passage, Jesus is equated with the Psalmist whose loyalty to the temple brought him grief. When John refers to "Jews" in verses 18 and 20, it is believed that he refers to the various Jewish officials who oppose Jesus. These officials ask him for a sign to prove his authority in acting on behalf of God. His answer -- "Destroy this temple, and in three days I will raise it up" -- is meaningless to them for they do not know the truth. However, it becomes clear to his disciples for they know and believe the truth as it has been revealed to them by God's word and by the words and actions of Jesus. Jesus is to become the sacrificial lamb who takes upon himself the sins of the world and makes atonement for them through his death on the cross. His body, first destroyed, then raised from the dead, is to be the true temple, the house of prayer for all people. Christ is now our mediator with God.

This act of Jesus does, indeed, seem to be a sign which demonstrates the power and character of God. In this symbolic act we see that through the life and work of Jesus, God's kingdom has broken into the world.

FOR REFLECTION: What are some signs of God's kingdom breaking into today's world? (e.g. the Berlin wall, peace among nations, etc.) In what ways is commercialism infringing upon your worship experiences?

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Finding Truth Through God's Love

John 3:14-21

This familiar passage brings us to the central point of our quest and the fundamental truth of God -- God is love. All of creation comes from God and is the object of God's love. God sent the Son into the world to reveal that love to all people.

The beginning of this Lenten passage compares the lifting up of the serpent to the lifting up of the Son of Man. What is being hinted at is not a Son of Man coming in clouds of glory but upon a cross lifted up. The Jewish interpretation of the serpent event is that the serpent drew the hearts of Israel to God for their salvation (see Numbers 21:4-9). Lifted up either in suffering or in glory, Jesus also gathers God's children to God. The next verse adds the purpose for this suffering and exaltation -- those who are in him may enjoy life in the age to come. God's truth is revealed to be love for us. Living by God's truth is true life.

In verse 16 we learn that the alternatives to living by God's truth are absolutes -- "to perish," "to die," "to suffer destruction." The word "save" in verse 17 simply refers to life everlasting. Salvation or life everlasting is attained by faith in Jesus Christ.

FOR REFLECTION: Verse 21 provides the central message of our reflections. What does "do what is true" or "live by the truth" mean? Will our doing, our living, our works, our deeds show others that we are in Christ, in God?

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Obedience to God's Truth

John 12:20-33

With the approach of the Greeks we see a major turning point in John's Gospel. Jesus has completed his work within Judaism and now the rest of the world seeks him (see 12:19). However, the time to reach out to the rest of the world has not yet arrived. The mission to the world can only begin with Jesus' death, his resurrection and the continuing ministry of the church. Jesus does not respond to the Greeks' request to see him. To Jesus they are but signs of what is to come -- the hour of suffering, death and glorification. The hour finds Jesus ready. The hour refers to Christ's death, a death which leads to glorification.

Glory is a favorite theme of John. In the Old Testament glory is the quality of God that makes God impressive. It refers particularly to the visible manifestation of God. The New Testament applies this glory to Christ. Here we find that the glory of Christ is not visible in itself -- Christ must first be glorified by way of the cross (cf 13:31). Jesus is to die as Son of God and obedient servant of God. He is thereby lifted up on the cross and lifted and exalted into heaven. Jesus is the epitome of faithful obedience to God.

What is asked of us here is faithful obedience. We are being called to serve and follow Jesus even unto death. But there is hope for this journey, for the Father will honor those who follow him. We too will share in his glory! (See Romans 8:17, also Hebrews 5:7-10)

FOR REFLECTION: Do our Easter fertility images (butterflies and bunny rabbits) adequately reflect the meaning of verse 24? Does the saying that follows in verse 25 shatter those images even more? How should we change the ways we celebrate Easter?

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Rejection by This World

Mark 14:1-15:47

For many of us our Easter celebration goes from the "hosanna" cries of Palm Sunday to the "hallelujahs" of Easter morning. In the process we miss the passion of Jesus. This year's Scripture lessons challenge us to understand and feel the passion -- the rejection, suffering and death of Jesus Christ.

Mark's account of these events may not be for everyone. Many scholars agree that Mark wrote his Gospel for mid-first century Palestinian Jewish Christians. These people experienced rejection, isolation, segregation and discrimination by members of their Jewish nation who did not believe in Christ. Many of them experienced suffering, torture and even death for what they believed. For them living by God's truth meant rejection.

Even today, many people suffer rejection. Many experience rejection or discrimination because of race or skin color. Others are rejected because of age, sex, weight, height, social status and physical limitations.

Have you ever experienced rejection because of the way you look? Have your social, religious or political views been different from the majority? Have you ever felt depressed because it seems no one else cares for the hungry, the thirsty, the naked, the imprisoned, the suffering? If you can identify with any of these then Mark's account is for you!

FOR REFLECTION: In living by God's truth, are you rejected by others? How can we learn to rejoice though we experience rejection?

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Following Christ into the World

Mark 16:1-8

This passage makes a perfect ending to our quest. It implies that searching for and learning to live by God's truth is an ongoing journey. The good news of this Gospel message is present in the simple statement of the young man, "He has been raised; he is not here."

In reading Mark's account, we can learn much from the women who faithfully served Jesus, ministering to him both during his life and after his death. These same women witness both Jesus' death (15:40) and confront his resurrection (16:6).

When they realize that Jesus has risen, the women are alarmed, afraid by what they see and hear. Although they are commanded to go and tell the disciples, and especially Peter, that Jesus "is going ahead of you into Galilee," the women are overcome with fear and run away trembling. We are told that they say nothing to anyone. This is common of the early Christian community that lived in fear -- in fear of rejection, persecution, even death. It is an ending to reassure Christians that even the eyewitnesses to Christ's death and resurrection were also terrified to speak up.

It is not easy to live by God's truth. It requires commitment and obedience to God through times of rejection and suffering. Let us learn to live in loving obedience as we follow the risen Christ into the world.

FOR REFLECTION: How can we follow Christ into the world? What have you learned in this quest to learn to live by God's truth? In what ways may our quest continue?

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About the author

Earl J. Smith, the former Interim Director of Alternatives, now serves as Pastor of Lakeview Presbyterian Church in St. Petersburg, Florida.

©Creative Commons (originally Alternatives).
For more resources (some in Spanish) for Advent & Christmas, Lent & Easter, weddings and other celebrations, visit SimpleLivingWorks.org.

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GRAPHIC: Worship Alternatives #3719

Page updated 23 Jan. 2015

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