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A Journey Toward Understanding - Reflections

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A Journey Toward Understanding

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

by M. Diane Nunnelee



Jesus Christ was born into human history in the fullness of time for our salvation. In time he lived and suffered, and was put to death; but God raised him from the dead... and has put all things under his feet and has made him the head over all things for the church, which is his body, the fullness of him who fills all in all (Ephesians 1:20, 22-23 RSV). Through the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ we are delivered from sin and death, and by the Holy Spirit are born into eternal life with God. This we confess; this we must renew continually in our lives.

So begins the book, From Ashes to Fire, Supplemental Worship Resources 8 (Abingdon: Nashville). We must take time to remember what we believe, so we may confess it. And once we confess it with our lips, it must become real for our lives, day to day. Lent is that time of remembering, of renewing, of real-izing who we are, who Christ is and the truth of our desperate need for him in our lives. It is in these "three R's" that our witnesses of faith must take root. For the Christian this remembrance, renewal and realization is the ultimate foundation that can enable us -- in the consumer-oriented, militaristic, power-driven and self-centered culture in which we live -- to walk the walk of mercy and justice, tear down the walls of prejudice and poverty, stand before the principalities and powers and speak the truth in love and peace that there is another way.

Lent points us to that way. The journey of Lent empowers the journey of our lives lived in faith. And it is a journey that leads us to understand who we are, to understand our need of the Christ and to understand how he would meet our need and, through us, the needs of the world. Thus these meditations hopefully will enable a journey of understanding.

The word "understand" can mean literally "to stand under." These meditations seek to enable the remembrance that we "stand under" judgement, that we "stand under" forgiveness, and that we "stand under" the glory of the resurrection. It is in that remembrance and that understanding that we can find renewal of our spirits and go forth to make real the hope and promise of the risen Christ for human life and society. May you be blessed by the journey, assured always that you are "stood under" and supported by a God who "so loved the world."

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Luke 5:29-35

It begins early in Jesus' ministry -- the questioning of who he is, why he does what he does, what his teachings and ministry mean. He was new; his teachings were different; the relationships he formed called into question the established religious order. The old and the new did not mix. There was a choice to be made.

The same is true today. The questions still abound. We still wonder at his teachings -- and question whether many of them are valid in today's world, a world which demands practicality and conformity. We stand amazed and perhaps aghast when we look deeply at the relationships he formed, at the lives of the people he touched -- and find ourselves hesitating to do the same in the communities and on the streets where we live.

On this Ash Wednesday we begin a pilgrimage of seeking understanding and renewal of our relationship with Christ Jesus. Maybe we even seek reconciliation with God through him, understanding that, in Greek, reconciliation means "to be changed thoroughly" in our relationship with God. This season is about change, about dying to the old and becoming new. The old and the new do not mix. There is a truth to be faced, a choice to be made.

Those of us who will make that journey must first claim the truth about ourselves -- that we need to change, that we are the sinners, unworthy of the love and life God would give us. We must choose to see our lives -- our relationships, our choices, our vocations, our daily routines, our commitment of time and money -- through the life of Christ. And when we look seriously and deeply at our own lives, we understand that we are the sinners whom Jesus calls to repentance. It is we who are called to repentance, to have "a change of mind," to find a new understanding of his truth and claim for our lives, and to let that understanding change not only our minds but the very texture of our lives as they are lived day to day.

In a society which abounds in theories about the importance of a good self-image, to hear that we are called to admit our sinfulness, our unworthiness, our dis-ease before God may seem heresy. Yet we must understand Jesus' words -- "those who are well" have no need of Jesus, no need of the cross, no need of forgiveness. It is only those who are sick who need the healing. It is only those who are wrong who need repentance, "a change of mind." It is only to those who need to change that this sacred season of Lent will hold any meaning, any new understanding of and commitment to the truths revealed on Calvary and through an empty tomb.

We are called to this journey of repentance. As we begin this sacred season, as we commit ourselves to this pilgrimage of change, may we seek to hear, understand, and respond to that call.

PRAYER: God of dust and ashes, God of life and love, help us walk into the life you revealed to us and for us in Christ Jesus. Open our minds and hearts to the truth of who we are that we might journey toward change, becoming who it is you are calling us to be. Amen.

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Luke 4:1-13

Jesus had just been baptized. He had been in prayer and the heavens had opened. The Holy Spirit had descended upon him in the form of a dove. He had just heard a voice from heaven saying, "You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased."

Full of that experience, perhaps with the voice's words still coursing through his mind and with his heart pounding in amazement and wonder, he is led into the wilderness. The Interpreter's Dictionary of the Bible states that, while the translation of several different words as wilderness "are often used interchangeably with 'desert,' an accurate translation is difficult because the so-called wilderness regions included arid and semi-arid territory as well as sandy desert, rocky plateaus, pasture lands and desolate mountain terrain." Therefore, unlike our mind's eye view of what a "wilderness" entails, there was food most likely available -- berries, grains, small animals.

But Jesus did not eat. He fasted. He denied himself bodily sustenance. He was looking for another kind of nurture. Surely his mind and spirit needed feeding by the assurance of God's presence. Perhaps he wanted, surely he needed, to understand exactly what those words meant, the words the voice had spoken: "You are my Son, the Beloved, with you I am well pleased." What might this identity mean? What was it about him that was pleasing to this voice ... to God? And surely there was a hunger for an understanding of what this identity, this "pleasing" would mean as it was lived out in the world.

Jesus was in the wilderness for forty days. He met the devil. He came face to face with evil in the world. And he encountered temptations. He witnessed the power of evil that pulled at the human spirits of every man and woman who lived in the world, that same evil that pulls at our human spirits now.

Where does evil take hold? Where the desire of self-satisfaction is a driving factor, where the desire for power and prestige reigns supreme, and yes, even where willingness to test God's commitment to one's self takes the place of faith -- it is there that evil takes hold of our lives.

Those of us who have chosen to make the pilgrimage of repentance now walk in a wilderness during these forty days of Lent. Let us not be deceived. Our wildernesses are not necessarily places of stark and desolate terrain. Our wildernesses can be pasture lands, as well, seemingly easy-to-live-in places that lull us into a false sense of security. And evil is with us, temptations are real.

These forty days offer us an opportunity to understand our identity as Christians, called to live as Christ in the world. And, if we are honest with ourselves, we will begin to see and understand the lure and even the hold that self-satisfaction, prestige and control, and a desire to test the boundaries of God's limits have on our lives.

The Spirit of God would lead us, in this sacred season, into the wilderness with our identity as a daughter or son, that we might know and understand the presence of evil in our lives, as well as the power of the cross of Christ and his empty tomb for our lives. Let us follow that leading in faith.

PRAYER: God of the wilderness, as we are led by your Spirit, so may we be nurtured and fed by your grace and upheld by your power over sin and evil in our lives. Amen.

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Luke 9:28-36

Jesus "went up the mountain to pray." This is not an unusual scene in the gospel -- Jesus stepping apart to pray. This occurrence is noted several times in the gospels. Given the call of his ministry, the demands for his teaching and healing, the frustration he surely felt, it is by no means surprising that the need to pray was very much a part of his life.

The difference is that, in this case, he takes Peter, James and John with him up the mountain. They must have been tired -- either from the climb up the mountain or by the labors of the day -- for we are told that they "were weighed down with sleep." But this was an important time. They had been chosen to accompany Jesus for a time apart in prayer. So they stayed awake. And in their wakefulness they saw him, transfigured, standing and talking with Moses and Elijah, the man of law and the prophet of God.

Here is Jesus, their leader, standing on equal ground with the great ones of the Hebrew faith as if in the divine glory of God. They are startled, unsure of what to do or say. Peter talks of building shrines. They are overshadowed by a cloud and then the voice speaks -- this time not for Jesus, but for those who follow him, "This is my Son, my Chosen; listen to him!" And then they are with him and nothing more is said of this happening.

Did Peter, James and John understand? Did they perceive the full import of what they saw? Do we? The law and the word of God proclaimed by the prophets find their fulfillment in Jesus. All that is needed for life is revealed through him. And we, like Peter, so often rush to build shrines rather than let the truth of that revelation fill our daily lives with commitment to God's will and compassion for God's people and creation.

So often we want to set a place apart for worship and prayer without reckoning with the fact that Jesus came down from the mountain. There he was called to deal with the reality of his ministry and his life -- confronting the faltering faith of the disciples in the face of evil, the very ones who had already been given "power and authority over all demons" (Luke 9:1), and giving heed to the cries for healing and help.

Our journey to understand during this Lenten season is a journey up and down the mountain -- taking time apart, yes, to be open to the full revelation and impact that the Christ of the cross, the Word made flesh, the Law fulfilled has for our own lives. But further, we must seek to understand how that revelation translates into witnessing with our daily living to his compassionate and confronting truth for all. To do one without the other is to miss the meaning of life, death and resurrection.

PRAYER: God, you who are present in the mountains and on the plains of our lives, teach us and lead us and keep us wakeful to your revelations in Christ for our lives. Amen.

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Luke 13:1-9

I imagine most of those who heard Jesus' parable had grown up in homes where divine retribution was the understanding of the day. Throughout the Old Testament we hear it. The main focus of the book of Job was to address it -- the question of why people suffer. The Jewish doctrine of retribution basically said that bad things happened to people because they were guilty of sin -- the worse the happening, the more sinful the person.

Jesus doesn't beat around the bush, or the fig tree in this case, but comes straight to the point. "No, I tell you" -- the Galileans who were killed by Pilate, the eighteen on whom the tower of Siloam fell were not worse sinners, no more guilty than others. He brooks no argument, merely stating "No, it is not so." But then, as if to say, "Stop worrying about others and take a good look at yourself," he calls them to repent, warning them that, if they do not, their fate will resemble those others.

There is a paradox here. On the one hand Jesus says that people do not suffer in accordance with the amount of sin in their lives. Then he says that if they (and we) do not change, they (and we) will perish like the others. Is it not possible that he means our unwillingness to change, our refusal to seek faithfulness, ultimately results in bringing upon ourselves our own failure and demise? Is it not true that in giving ourselves to the way and will of the world -- to its invitation to consumerism, to its promise of economic and political power as the meaningful accomplishment of life, to the false sense of security through military might -- holds no value when we are touched by the dark realities of life. When we lose the promises of love in divorce, when we find ourselves alone at the top of the success ladder, when death tears from our lives those most precious to us -- in those times all we have accumulated, all we have achieved seems empty and worthless. We then find ourselves perishing as we stand at the abyss of meaninglessness.

The parable of the fig tree brings a stark reminder. There is only so much time. This is the only life we have in which to live faithful to God. This is the only time in which to bear the true and lasting fruits of life. And that faithfulness is not only for God, not merely to do our part in the coming to fruition of the ultimate reign of God in human life. That faithfulness is for ourselves as well. For in seeking to repent and change, in desiring to establish our lives in the grace and wisdom of God through Christ, we step back from the abyss of meaninglessness and into the life of joy and hope and peace that is the assurance of faith.

And bearing fruit is what this life of faith is about. To answer the call to repent, to say we are willing to change, to commit ourselves to Christ's leading is to make a commitment to bear the fruit of God's kingdom with our lives. And that fruit is compassion and mercy, hope and health, freedom and justice for all God's people, for all God's creation. Such is the fruit of the kingdom through our lives.

PRAYER: God of the vineyard, root us in your truth, nurture us with your grace, that we may yield fruit of faith through the Spirit of Christ. Amen.

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Luke 15:1-3, 11-32

It is perhaps the most familiar story Jesus told, the most beloved parable. It's a story that can touch any parent and any child with the truth of mercy and love that abide in the human heart -- this "Parable of the Prodigal and His Brother."

Of course, we need to understand why Jesus told it. That is why it is important for us to read vss. 1-3 along with vss. 11-32. He told the parable for the sake of the Pharisees and the scribes who were "grumbling" because the tax collectors and sinners -- those most lowly on the worthiness scale -- kept gathering to listen to him... and he didn't push them away. They didn't understand that -- and he wanted them to understand. Of course, the tax collectors and sinners were also there, and their hearing of the parable would help them understand God better, as well. All of them could find themselves somewhere in the story. The same is true for us.

It is obvious where the tax collectors and the sinners fit in. Tax collectors were known to "skim a little" off the top of their receipts. In the minds of most people of that day, "tax collector" was synonymous with "thief," and thieves were sinners. Sinners squander their lives seeking after immediate satisfaction, self-focused and trapped in a downward spiral into despair. The prodigal son took his inheritance, took what his father had given him freely in love and certainly with hope for the best, and wasted that life in depraved living. And life caught up with him. Famine, hunger, desperation became so great that he would even eat the food he was to feed to the pigs. Sin and desperation, even in the midst of feelings of such lowly value, drove him home -- and straight into the arms of his loving father. Hear it, you sinners, and believe!

Then there is the elder son, the prodigal's brother. The older brother comes in from a hard day's labor to find a celebration for the return of his reprobate brother who had taken his share and walked away from them all -- leaving him to toil and labor for his father. Judgment and resentment fill the older brother's heart. The father comes to him and reminds him that "you are always with me, and all that is mine is yours." The older brother, the Pharisees, perhaps even some of us need to understand the full import of those words.

The Pharisees and the scribes gave their lives to seeking to live by the law. It guided and undergirded every facet of their lives. But Jesus wanted them to understand that the purpose of the law was not so they might earn God's love or their promised inheritance.

One of my seminary professors, Dr. Bruce Rahtjen, pointed out a subtle truth in this parable that has helped to shape my own faith. When the younger brother asks for his share of the property, the father "divided his property between them." The younger son went and squandered, yes. The problem with the older son is that, although the father had already given his share to him, he had never claimed it as his own. The salvation of faith is ours. We no longer have to strive, hoping someday to earn our way into the heart of God. We abide there already.

If the truth be known, I imagine we can find ourselves in both sons -- squandering some of the gifts God has given us and leaving others unclaimed though they lie right before our eyes. May this sacred season lead us to understand all that is offered, all that is given for our lives in Christ Jesus.

PRAYER: God of boundless giving, open our eyes to see and our hearts to receive the gift of life redeemed and restored in Christ Jesus. Amen.

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John 12:1-8

May I first invite you to set aside the variant stories of the anointing of Jesus' feet with oil as you have found them in Matthew 26 and Mark 14 in order to see the way God can use this particular word in our lives. In this text, Mary is identified as Mary of Bethany, the sister of Lazarus. That happens to be important as I approach meditation upon this scripture.

This event is preceded by the death of Lazarus and the condemnation of Jesus by both Mary and her sister Martha that if Jesus had only gotten there sooner, Lazarus would not have died. It is Mary, however, whom Jesus saw weeping and we are told he "was greatly disturbed in spirit and deeply moved." And it was out of that troubled spirit that he asked to see the burial place, began to weep himself and, perhaps, made in that moment the decision to give Lazarus back his life.

Mary was there, he saw her tears and she saw his. Is it not out of that incredible sharing of deepest sorrow -- and receiving from him the restoration of life, turning now from sorrow to fullest joy -- that her action comes? It is surely no wonder that at their next meeting Mary would bring costly perfume, would offer a gift of such great value to Jesus and would anoint his feet with the oil and wipe them with her hair. He had given her resurrection, had stepped into the darkness of her despair and brought light. Could there have been any doubt in her mind that this was indeed the Messiah, the promised one? Her anointing would have been her witness to who she now understands him to be -- her Savior, her Messiah and Christ. What we are seeing here is Mary's allegiance to Jesus as her Messiah -- and no gift is too costly.

Jesus, as well, knows his death is upon him. We have only to read John 11:52 and following to understand this. He is preparing to enter Jerusalem for the Passover festival. He knows the threat and danger. He understands what awaits him. It is therefore no surprise that on the night before his triumphal entry he would speak of his burial.

It is his statement, "You already have the poor with you, but you do not always have me" that has offered a stumbling block to so many. Yet, for me, this passage puts in focus where our devotion is to lie. For those committed to justice for the poor, for those committing resources of time and money and energy to obliterating the root causes of poverty and hunger and its damnable curse of hopelessness on the human spirit, I call a pause to consider what Jesus may be saying, now as well as then.

His words might have been that "poverty will be with us, because greed will be with us and the will to power will be with us, because sin will be with us." As Christians the beginning of and continuance in our commitment to the poor and hungry and powerless of our world begins and continues in our allegiance and devotion to Jesus our Christ as God among us. It is the place we must begin if we are to continue.

PRAYER: God of hope and power, it is in you that we find the will and way to bring hope and power to others. Set in us that will, show us that way, in Christ Jesus. Amen.

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Luke 19:28-40

Jesus had, in a manner, rehearsed his disciples. He had given them directions -- "Go into the village... and as you enter you will find a colt... Untie it and bring it here." Not only has he rehearsed them in their movement, he has also given them their lines: "If anyone asks... just say this, 'The Lord has need of it.'" The script had, in fact, been written for them. All they had to do was act it out.

Psalm 118 had given the crowd their lines. The Feast of the Dedication, which celebrated the redeeming of the temple in 165 B.C., actually had as a part of the service the words of Psalm 118:25, "save us" which is translated "hosanna" and was followed by the words of verse 26, which are reminiscent of what the crowd shouted, "Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord!" The people knew the psalms. These were their prayers. One phrase reminded them of another. They had been rehearsed and prepared for this time. Even Zechariah 9:9 had rehearsed their minds to receive this image of salvation, promising, "Lo, your king comes to you... humble and riding on a donkey...."

They had been rehearsed for this day. It is almost as if the script and staging had been laid before them across the ages. But somehow they hadn't understood the directions. Somehow they missed their cue.

We, too, have been rehearsed across the Christian year. We've been rehearsed through Advent and the celebration of the promised coming of the Emmanuel, God with us. We've been rehearsed through Christmas when the good news was proclaimed that "Lo, to you this day is born a Savior who is Christ the Lord." We've been rehearsed through Epiphany as we've begun to allow our minds to open to the mystery and wonder of God incarnate in our midst. We've been rehearsed through this Lenten season as we've journeyed toward understanding who he is and what our need of him really is.

This now is dress rehearsal week. This is where our journey has been leading us. To walk with him through the garden of Gethsemene, to bear the burden of the cross with him up the Via Dolorosa, to stand at his feet at Golgotha. We have been rehearsed to this point to receive the fullness of our salvation -- the healing and wholeness, the forgiveness and freedom that is offered.

We, too, can miss our cues. We can forget our lines. We can forget our directions. Nevertheless, the stage is set. The fullness of life, redeemed and renewed, is being offered. We have been rehearsed for this time.

And, like that day other actors stood along that path down from the Mount of Olives and missed their cues, the truth is today what it was then -- nothing can stop the outcome of this week. Even if we miss our cue, even if forgotten lines cause us to go silent, the words he spoke still ring true, "I tell you, if these were silent, the stones would shout out." Such is the final truth of salvation, such is the final hope for our lives.

PRAYER: God of all times of our lives -- both the shouts and the silences -- help us to remember, help us to act as you have directed us, that Christ's saving truth might be made real in our lives and in our world. Amen.

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Luke 24:13-35

Mary Magdalene, Joanna, Mary the mother of James and some other women return to tell "to the eleven and to all the rest" (vs. 9) what they have seen and heard at the tomb. These two on the road to Emmaus are part of "all the rest." One of them is named "Cleopas." (No one by this name is ever mentioned again in scripture.) The other is not even named. We don't know how long they've been following Jesus. And we certainly have no clue as to why Jesus would have chosen to reveal his resurrected self to them.

We do know that he came to them while they were walking sadly down the road and asked them what they were discussing. I've never been sure why they were so sad, especially when it becomes clear that they had heard what the women had reported. At the same time, we know they hadn't fully experienced the resurrection for themselves.

Even Jesus, in his resurrected glory, though as yet unrevealed, shows a little impatience at their foolishness and the slowness of their hearts to believe. And then he opened to them the understanding of who he was as revealed in the scriptures. Still, they don't recognize him.

But now they stand at the door of their home. It is the close of the day, evening falling around them. And they urge him, they convince him to stay -- this stranger who has met and walked with them along the road. They have not understood what the women have told of him, they have not understood who he is through the teaching he shared. No, it is in the humble act of hospitality, the sharing of table, the breaking of bread together that the recognition comes.

What if they hadn't opened their home and hearth to him? What if they hadn't "urged him strongly" to stay? What if they had gone through the perfunctory motions of making the invitation, but without sincerity or seriousness? Perhaps the more important question is, what if we don't today?

The risen Christ is with us -- but we must ask him to stay with us, to go home with us, to sit at table with us, to share our lives with us. However, there is a problem with this.

If we open the hospitality of our hearts and lives to him, life will not be the same. We may find ourselves changed, like these "two of them," rushing back to our companions of faith, receiving the commissioning words that follow in Luke 24:48-49 -- "You are witnesses of these things. And see, I am sending upon you what my Father (your God) promised." We may find ourselves where these "two of them" most likely were in Luke's continued writings in the Acts of the Apostles, receiving the Holy Spirit and the power and the gifts of ministry and mission in the world for which Christ died.

In other words, our worlds might be turned upside down -- or right side up, as the case may be. Such is the power of the risen Christ, such is the transformation of resurrection. Do you understand this? Are you willing to take the risk, to open wide the doors of your lives, to offer hospitality to the risen Christ? If so, somewhere will go forth a word unspoken across this Lenten season, for the journey will be ending -- and beginning. The shout will go forth. Alleluia! Amen! So be it!

PRAYER: God of our Alleluias, God of our Amens, we would join the "two of them" on the road with the risen Christ. Lead us where you would as we open the hospitality of our hearts to your power and glory, to your hope and life. Amen. =

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