Tuesday, March 11, 2014
It is interesting that Paul speaks as he does. He does not "proclaim Christ risen," but rather proclaims the crucified Christ as the power and wisdom of God, something inconceivable from a human point of view, either religious or otherwise. Not that Paul doesn't insist on Jesus' resurrection. He does. But he does not view the cross as a little difficulty along the way. It is the very center of his message.
He needs to reiterate this to the Corinthians because they have gotten a little too exuberant and triumphalist in their faith. They are apparently speaking of already experiencing resurrection themselves, something Paul understands as a future event. Worse, because they do not understand the power of the cross, they do not seek to live cross shaped lives.
There is much that feels modern about these Corinthians. Modern American Christianity is filled with triumphalism and often devoid of the cross. It easily turns faith into another consumer item that will make me happier or more fulfilled. It becomes one more item in a long list of "mores" that I think I must have. But Paul insists that real faith reorients us away from typical human thinking, either the religious or the secular kind.
Because Paul sees the crucified Christ as God's fullest expression of power, Paul comes to a whole new understanding of what it means to be human. To be fully human is to be animated by love. This is not romantic love, but like that, it is a devotion to the other that will risk suffering and even death, even when that other is an enemy. It is a power few in the world understand, but we are drawn to those who do.
Martin Luther King, Jr. clearly understood what Paul was talking about. That is why he can say, "Darkness cannot drive out darkness; only light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate; only love can do that." This sort of love is not sappy or easy. It is risky and costly. But for Jesus, for Paul, and for Dr. King, it is more powerful than all those powers that the world leans upon for hope and security.
I often marvel at how conventional, risk averse, and like the world that Church is. I suppose this was inevitable after Constantine made Christianity the official religion of the empire, and the faith came to occupy a central place in Western culture. But I'm pretty sure Paul would say that we got a bit "off message" as a result. We accommodated our faith to those worldviews that see a crucified Christ as either scandal or foolishness. In the process, we robbed the faith of some of its power.
But the power of love, of light, of a crucified Christ, is still there, waiting for us to entrust ourselves to it. "But we proclaim Christ crucified, a stumbling block to Jews and foolishness to Gentiles, but to those who are the called, both Jews and Greeks, Christ the power of God and the wisdom of God."
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Monday, March 10, 2014
Today the daily lectionary begins to read through Paul's first letter to his congregation in Corinth. There are a number of famous passages in this letter. Paul's words on love in chapter 13 get trotted out all the time at weddings even though Paul isn't talking about romantic love. (The sort of love Paul does talk about is probably essential for a lasting marriage though.) And the so-called "words of institution" used during the Lord's Supper come from this letter as well. As with the love passage, it is usually divorced from the situation Paul addresses.
As Paul opens his letter, we find this. "I give thanks to my God always for you because of the grace of God that has been given you in Christ Jesus, for in every way you have been enriched in him, in speech and knowledge of every kind - just as the testimony of Christ has been strengthened among you - so that you are not lacking in any spiritual gift as you wait for the revealing of our Lord Jesus Christ." If you're unfamiliar with the overall letter, you may see nothing particularly significant here. But read a little farther and you'll learn that Paul is angry, upset, and exasperated with the Corinthian Christians, and I've often wondered if Paul means what he says here or if he is simply offering a polite greeting before he gets to what he has to say.
I suppose there is some small comfort in realizing that congregations almost 2000 years ago had problems with petty divisions and arguments. This isn't a problem peculiar to the divisive, highly-partisan culture that we live in. As with modern day church leaders, Paul has his supporters as well as his detractors. He has folks that trash him and talk about him in his absence, and that clearly bothers him. But Paul is even more upset at how badly the Corinthians have distorted what it means to be the church, the body of Christ.
Yet still he opens his letter with what seems like genuine warmth. In some ways I picture Paul not unlike a parent who is devastated by the bad behavior of his children. And so it is out of his love and concern for them than he works so hard to get them to understand how badly they have strayed and need to change their ways.
I have a colleague in pastoral ministry who recently made the difficult decision to leave the congregation he served without having any immediate prospects for employment as a pastor or otherwise. I'm not revealing any private or personal information here. I actually have multiple colleagues who have gone through this, and I've seen it happen because people thought the person too conservative, because people thought the person too liberal, and because people objected to the changes that the pastor brought. The common denominator was a small group of fearful people who were willing to resort to almost anything to rid themselves of a pastor they didn't like.
In the process, any semblance of Christian love got tossed out the window. Events were exaggerated or sensationalized, and outright lies were told. It was usually a fairly small minority that engaged in such activity, but rarely, if ever, did the members who weren't upset or angry say or do anything to help the situation. In fact, congregations regularly empower agitators and trouble makers with their almost absolute adherence to that commandment, "Be nice." This commandments seeks to deal with problems, even ones that are tearing apart a congregation, by smiling and acting as though all is well. To criticize those misbehaving wouldn't be nice. Never mind Jesus' command to correct those who stray. Never mind the harsh language Paul has for those damage the body of Christ.
I can't help recalling the words of Martin Luther King, Jr. who wrote in his Letter from a Birmingham Jail, "First, I must confess that over the last few years I have been gravely disappointed with the white moderate. I have almost reached the regrettable conclusion that the Negro's great stumbling block in the stride toward freedom is not the White Citizen's Council-er or the Ku Klux Klanner, but the white moderate who is more devoted to "order" than to justice; who prefers a negative peace which is the absence of tension to a positive peace which is the presence of justice." I think something similar can be said about those good members of congregations who stand by while the worst sort of members wreak havoc.
However, the pastor who does confront troublemakers in his or her congregation - never mind how lovingly - may not be there for much longer. The Apostle Paul has a real advantage here. He is not physically present in Corinth, nor is he dependent on the Corinthians for his livelihood. In my denomination, there is really no one who stands in such a position, and rarely do any troublemakers get taken to task until it is far too late, if ever.
In another of the Pauline letters is found the words, "speaking the truth in love." Even though Ephesians is likely not written by Paul, I suspect he would approve of this phrase. That seems to be what he does with the Corinthians. He speaks hard truth to them because his love for them demands it, and because his authority as an apostle and his lack of financial dependence on the Corinthians allows it.
By contrast, I know more than a few pastors who feel they cannot speak this way. Sometimes they have been so beaten down that it is no longer possible for them to love their congregations. More often, financial self-preservation is the culprit, and so they join with those other, non-trouble making members who smile and try to keep the peace. But speaking the truth in love is not about conflict avoidance.
One of the nice things about this blog is I can address issues beyond the congregation I serve. I'm free to write more like Paul does because I'm speaking to - or at least about - people on whom I am not financially dependent. Unfortunately, I speak with no real authority. Indeed, pastoral authority has all but disappeared in 21st century America. People aren't much swayed by "the pastor says so," or by "the Bible says so" for that matter. No doubt such authority has been misused and devolved into abuse, but when the only authority becomes one's own judgment or conscience, there is next to no chance of building a community that mirrors the kingdom of God.
Speaking the truth in love... I wonder if it might be possible to reclaim this in its fullness. At present the tendency is to sacrifice truth for the sake peace, with peace mistaken for love. The truth gets spoken, if ever, only at the point of detachment or anger, as parting shots over the bow.
I wonder... What might congregations look like if we became communities of loving accountability who were clear about what we mean by the Christian life (See Paul's letter to the Corinthians here.), and, out of love, held each other to such standards?
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Sunday, March 9, 2014
Matthew 4:1-11 (Genesis 3:1-7)
Temptation, Trust, and Identity
James Sledge March 9, 2014
How many of you, on a regular and recurring basis, must resist the urge to commit murder or to rob a bank? I hope it’s not very many of you. I know that we can say things such as, “I’d like to strangle him.” But that’s just hyperbole, right?
If you watch the news or read the paper, you know that some people actually are tempted to such things, but they are a very small segment of society. So what are the things that actually tempt us? No doubt some of our temptations are relatively trivial: temptations to have another piece of cake or watch one more episode of “House of Cards.” But I’m interested in more serious temptations. What are the temptations that can actually deflect us from the life we should live? What are those things that might cause us, when we have grown old, to look back and wish we had done things differently?
I think that a lot of people picture Jesus tempted in the wilderness along the lines of me being tempted to murder someone. Jesus can brush off such temptations as easily as I reject robbing a bank as a reasonable solution for dealing with an unexpected expense. But that is not at all the picture Matthew paints for us.
Matthew tells us that the Spirit leads Jesus into the wilderness to be tested. This testing, these temptations, are necessary in some way. They serve some purpose and so they cannot be foregone conclusions. They must be actual temptations, not unlike the ones that tempt us to be something other than we are meant to be.
Theologian Douglas John Hall says that there are not really three temptations but three variations on a single theme. Echoing the story from Genesis, these temptations are about power. “You will be like God,” says the serpent.  Who wouldn’t want to be like God. No waiting for God to provide. You can take care of everything yourself. No need to entrust yourself to God.
Thursday, March 6, 2014
My own Calvinist tradition has emphasized the problem of making gods out of things that aren't, and the belly (especially metaphorically) works quite well. Some folks literally seek fulfillment in food and eating. Many more chase after other sorts of hungers. Trouble is our hungers are not always the most reliable guides. America's struggle with obesity makes that point clear, and the same hold true for other sorts of hungers.
That's one reason I get a little nervous when people evaluate faith practices or worship based on whether or not it "feeds" them. As with actual food, we do have a need to be fed, but when we start to treat faith as a consumer item that we need more of to make our life better, there's a good chance we will misunderstand faith. If our faith practices are ultimately focused on feeding me or making me happy or some other hunger, that hunger easily slips into God's place, becoming the thing I serve.
The first question in the catechism that Presbyterians used to learn says that the primary purpose of human beings "is to glorify God, and to enjoy (God) forever." The emphasis was on the former, and so there's a story/joke about prospective pastors being examined to see if they were of sufficient faith and orthodoxy to be ordained. The story relates an examination question that asked, "Would you be willing to be damned to hell for all eternity for the glory of God?" The question is admittedly absurd, but it does emphasize a willingness to go to almost any length to fulfill one's true purpose. (In the story the pastor candidate is willing. He is also willing for the entire assembly examining him to be so damned as well if that will help.)
No one would ask such a question today. Not only is it highly likely that the pastor candidate would know the story and so the story's tongue in cheek response, but neither are we inclined to think of ourselves as created for God and God's purposes. We are much more inclined to think - or at least act as though we think - that God was created for us and our happiness. This is a god that the Apostle Paul clearly knew well.
In the gospel reading for yesterday's Ash Wednesday services, Jesus labels as hypocrites those who give alms, say prayers, or fast so as to be noticed and praised. And he tells his followers to practice their piety in secret. I'm not sure Jesus is so much creating more religious rules as he is pointing out how easily our religious practice serves us rather than God. If I engage in faith activities because I think others will be impressed or that it will provide something beneficial to me, am I serving God or simply looking out for myself? But if I do such things in secret, it is perhaps more likely that I am doing them for God rather than some ulterior motive.
Even the best religious rules easily become trivialized, and trying to turn Jesus' words about private piety into a rigid rule of some sort will surely result in such trivial foolishness. One of the reasons I've tended not to give up things for Lent is because the practice often, though by no means always, smacks of such triviality. No doubt there is some benefit to learning any sort of discipline in our lives, but I'm not sure losing a few pounds during Lent really serves God in any significant way.
However, if I were able to find a Lenten discipline that helped me identify those god's of the belly that I serve, that would be another matter entirely. Perhaps it would be helpful to think of those things that I know I could never give up, for Lent or any other reason, and consider whether or not they might be gods of the belly that I actually serve rather than the God I am called to serve.
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Tuesday, March 4, 2014
It is not unusual for people to comment on sermons, thanking me for something I've said that was helpful to them. But often I can't figure out, for the life of me, what I might have said that caused them to feel this way. Sometimes we've discussed my "helpfulness" sufficiently for me to realize that they heard something I had no intention of saying. Usually I chalk this up to the Spirit using my efforts to accomplish something more than I intended.
As I read today's verses from Philippians, I found myself wondering about how it is we hear the things we do. I was prompted by this phrase, "...as to righteousness under the law, blameless." Paul is describing the reasons he has to be confident "in the flesh." He is a good Jew from a good family who was raised with care under the law of Moses and has followed that Mosaic tradition faithfully. And, as he says quite clearly, he is "blameless" in terms of following the law. "Righteousness" here refers to being right in the eyes of God according to the law.
I was raised as a good Protestant, and so I knew well that being righteous, that is right before God, is a matter of God's grace and not my good efforts. Trying to make it via the law, through good works, would inevitably leave me in despair at the impossibility of such a task. Fortunately, the Apostle Paul had helped us understand about righteousness "that comes through faith in Christ," otherwise we'd know how far we were from God but have no way to close the gap.
Martin Luther got us started down this path. He was a man who was acutely aware of his failings. There are stories of him driving his confessor crazy trying to remember and confess every single sin and misstep. And Luther was mortified that he had forgotten some and so might not be forgiven them. Then he found Paul's words about being justified by grace through faith, and he was freed from his despair. And ever since, we have read the letters of Paul assuming that Paul shared Luther's despair at not being able to keep the law perfectly.
So what are we to do with today's words from Paul saying, "...as to righteousness under the law, blameless." Paul clearly didn't share Luther's despair about failing under the law. He was "blameless." (In all likelihood what he didn't mean by this that he never failed to keep the law. Rather, he tried to keep the law and sought forgiveness for those times when he did fail.) Paul's rejection of the law isn't because keeping it is an impossible or onerous task, and it is not because Jesus has relieved him of this terrible burden.
In other letters, Paul speaks much more about his issues with the law. There he seems to describe a problem of putting one's faith in the law rather than in God and God's grace. But in today's letter, Paul simply says that everything he once valued has been superseded by "the surpassing value of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord." He has experienced God's love and grace so powerfully in Jesus that all the things he once thought important have receded.
Paul couldn't be more clear about this, but for hundreds of years, we Protestants have insisted that Paul said something quite different. Luther heard something that was immensely helpful and liberating for him, even if it wasn't quite what Paul actually said. And we've been mishearing Paul with Luther ever since.
I wonder how many other places we mishear or misunderstand the Bible and the basics of our faith because we are hear and see through some inherited point of view, distortion, or bias. I've become increasingly aware of one in recent years. Both Protestants and Catholics have often acted as though the whole Christian faith was about getting folks to heaven when they die even though Jesus spoke much more often about God's reign coming to earth. Jesus was trying to transform creation, but the Church often seemed preoccupied with helping us escape it.
I'm thinking that a good Lenten project for me would be reading the lectionary passages while trying hard to let go of any assumptions that I already know what they are about. I have no illusions that I am completely capable of tuning out my own biases and assumptions, but still I suspect this might be beneficial. Who knows? I might hear a word from God I've never heard before because I have been mishearing something God never said.
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Sunday, March 2, 2014
To Whom Shall We Listen?
James Sledge March 2, 2014
Because Lent arrives later than usual this year, we’ve had the chance to hear to a great deal more of Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount than is often the case. We’ve gotten to hear him tell us to love our enemies and put anger in the same camp as murder. We’ve heard him tell us to be salt and light to the world, life givers who we show the world a new way. We’ve heard Jesus say that those who mourn, who are meek, who long for a better world, who work for peace, and who are looked down on for doing as he says are those who are closest to God.
Because Lent arrives later than usual this year, we’ve had the chance to hear much of Jesus’ core teachings between Epiphany and Lent, but it’s not as though they are big secrets. Many of us have heard them before. Some of us are also familiar with the events leading up to Jesus transfigured on the mountain. We know that Peter confessed Jesus was “the Messiah, the Son of the living God,” and that Jesus then began to teach his followers that he would go to Jerusalem and be killed. That got Peter so upset he confronted Jesus, and Jesus in turn called him Satan. And Jesus then taught his disciples that any who wanted to follow him must deny themselves, take up the cross, and be willing to lose their lives for Jesus’ sake.
I’ve been reading Brian McLaren’s latest book, Why Did Jesus, Moses, the Buddha, and Mohammed Cross the Road?: Christian Identity in a Multi-Faith World. It’s a book about the need for Christians to develop a strong Christian identity that is also benevolent, welcoming, and respectful to outsiders. In it, McLaren describes having lunch with a Muslim friend who is an imam. In the course of their conversation, he asked his friend to tell him about how he became and imam and what he loved most about Islam. In turn, his friend asked him about how he became a pastor and what he loved most about Christianity.
McLaren began by telling him what he loved about Jesus. The imam confessed that all he knew about Christianity was what he’d heard from other Muslims, and he was thrilled to hear McLaren speak about Jesus. “When you say that you love Jesus, it fills my heart with joy,” he said. “We Muslims love Jesus, too. We believe Jesus is a great prophet and we love him dearly. So you and I— we have this in common. We both love Jesus.”
McLaren noted that he could, at that point, have engaged in an argument over the need to believe that Jesus was more than a prophet, but instead, he asked his friend what it meant for a Muslim to think Jesus was a great prophet. His friend said that Jesus’ teachings and example must be followed and God would judge us by that measure. As his friend spoke, McLaren was struck by an irony, and he writes,
Thursday, February 27, 2014
Answer me quickly, O LORD;
my spirit fails.
Do not hide your face from me,
or I shall be like those who go down to the Pit.
It seems a bit strange to think that the God who comes to us in Jesus, who desires relationship with us, nonetheless hides from us. Perhaps it only seems that God hides, but I've not know many people whose faith I admire who do not admit to experiencing God's hiddenness. In fact, I doubt that it is possible to enter into a serious life of faith without occasionally encountering this absence, this experience of a hidden God.
On the one hand, this may sound terribly distressing. From time to time I speak with folks who assume that pastors don't have faith doubts and struggles. They think that faith sufficient to draw one to seminary surely insulates pastors from such difficulties, and to hear that their pastor is struggling in a manner similar to them is not at all comforting.
But on the other hand, knowing that one's pastor struggles with faith - not to mention people whose faith is in an entirely different league from this pastor - can be liberating. To realize that struggling to find God is not necessarily a sign of failed faith can be a tremendous relief, one that may allow people to cry out with the psalmist, and so to share in the psalmist's hope that God will indeed respond to such cries.
I have discovered in my years as a pastor that some people need permission to cry to God or to yell at God. They have somehow learned that faith is about proper decorum, and so they dare not speak in an unseemly way toward God. Yet the psalms are full of such cries, and in some of these psalms, decorum gets lost in anguish. "My God, my God, Why have you forsaken me?" comes to mind. Indeed, that huge collection of lament psalms seems almost tailor made to encourage those struggling with God's hiddenness to demand that God show Godself.
I wonder if it does not take a faith of some depth to speak so to God. Even though some people think yelling at God inappropriate and even sacrilege, such speech makes little sense in the absence of faith. If faith has been lost, there's little reason to expend energy crying out or yelling.
So... yell at God any lately?
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Wednesday, February 26, 2014
Tuesday, February 25, 2014
I woke up this morning with this post already bouncing around in my head. I'm not sure why. I had not been thinking about it yesterday nor had I read or watched anything on the topic. Nonetheless, I awoke to thoughts about income inequality, "the market," and idolatry.
For those not overly familiar with Presbyterian/Reformed theology, idolatry is a big one for us. When the Presbyterian Book of Order outlines the basic tenets of our faith documents, the last bullet point reads, "The recognition of the human tendency to idolatry and tyranny, which calls the people of God to work for the transformation of society by seeking justice and living in obedience to the Word of God."
Idolatry is not understood as worshiping statues or other cultic objects. Rather is describes anything other than God in which we place ultimate trust or give ultimate authority over out lives. In this sense, all manner of things can become idols, even things that are not necessarily bad. Some Christians make an idol out of the Bible or the church itself. Country or family can also become idols. That is not a statement about some latent problem lurking in such institutions. Rather it is a statement of the human tendency to put inordinate trust and authority in things that do not deserve our absolute loyalty and obedience.
This morning I awoke thinking about the loyalty and authority some people accord "the market." I'm thinking of phrases such as "the invisible hand of the market." Some people use the phrase in an almost religious manner, and some seem unable to imagine any higher authority.
The phrase itself came from Adam Smith more than 200 years ago. I'm no economist, and I don't know much about the level of authority and trust he had in markets. But I do know that in our country's history, we have often felt the need to intervene in the market in order to restrain it and make it accountable to our values of fairness and moral obligations to care for those the market seemed willing to trample over.
The "trust busting" that happened 100 years ago in this country (hard to imagine a Republican president leading such things as Teddy Roosevelt once did) put significant restraints on the market, on our capitalist system. I see a fundamental theological truth here. No human institution can operate without restraints and checks on its power and authority. But in our day, many seem able to see this only with government institutions. For some reason, they place remarkable faith in business, capitalism, and the market to solve our problems, and that sounds like the start of a great idol to me.
The yawning and growing income gap between hourly workers and their bosses, between CEOs and regular employees, has entered uncharted territory in this country and shows no sign of abating. And I am convinced that those who think this is simply the market determining what people are actually worth, who imagine that the market can be trusted to do what is best for our society, have placed their trust in a pernicious idol. Pernicious, not because the market is inherently evil, but because, as the saying goes, "Power corrupts, and absolute power corrupts absolutely."
I regularly hear conservative Christians lament the loss of our Christian values, but often these seem restricted to a few social issues. In Luke's gospel, Jesus begins his ministry by saying he fulfills these words from the prophet Isaiah. "The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to bring good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free, and to proclaim the year of the Lord's favor."
This year of jubilee (see Leviticus 25) was a time when all debts were to be forgiven. I'm guessing the the market and those beholding to it are not much interested in such a practice. There was actually an attempt to encourage such a practice with the debts of some third world countries back when we crossed into the current millennium, but business interests would have nothing of the sort. In fact, the market has little inherent interest in Christian values or principles at all.
Thus it would seem that Christians should be heavily invested in reigning in any idolatrous bowing to the forces of the market, yet I see little evidence that Christians as a group are much worried about such idolatry.
I read something the other day in Brian McLaren's book, Why did Jesus, Moses, the Buddha, and Mohammed Cross the Road? where he spoke of a conversation with a friend who is an imam. Discussing the different ways they understood Jesus, McLaren was struck with how his Muslim friend thought of Jesus as a great prophet, meaning that God would judge us by how well we followed Jesus' teachings. Meanwhile Christians, who claim Jesus is much more than prophet, often feel little need to follow Jesus' teachings. As long as we "believe in him" and think rightly about a few doctrinal points, doing as Jesus says is not really a core Christian expectation.
In most Christian denominations, proclaiming Jesus as Lord is a basic faith affirmation. The religious symbolism of the word "Lord" sometimes blots out its actual meaning, but it is fundamentally a statement about loyalty and authority, one insisting that Jesus alone is owed ultimate allegiance, loyalty, and obedience. Such allegiance loyalty, and obedience demands that Christians struggle against idolatries and work for a just and better society, not leaving people's fates in the hands of the market.
I'm not suggesting any particular plan of action. I appreciate that people of faith can legitimately disagree about the best ways to bring good news to the poor and restrain idolatries that lead to tyranny, poverty, and a situation where working hard for 60 hours a week may well not provide an income adequate to live on. But I do not see how Christians can ignore growing income disparity and suffering by "the least of these." Even more, I do not understand how we can fail to see the blatant idolatry that is a significant part of this problem.
Monday, February 24, 2014
Curiously, however, when Jesus first speaks this words, he is not speaking of a hope for life after death. He is talking to Lazarus' sister, Martha, who laments that her brother would not have died if Jesus had been there. Assured by Jesus that her brother will rise again, she responds, "I know that he will rise again in the resurrection on the last day."
Martha already believes in a resurrection. Her hope of resurrection is similar to that found in Paul's letters, where he also speaks of the resurrection of the dead when Jesus returns. But Jesus seems to want Martha to see something more. Resurrection is not just some far off hope. It is present to her now, and so Jesus says, "I am the resurrection and the life. Those who believe in me, even though they die, will live, and everyone who lives and believes in me will never die."
John's gospel, here and in other places, insists on a resurrection that is both future promise and current reality. There is a new quality of life that manifests itself in believers. Jesus speaks of the Father and himself coming and making their home with believers, leading to an abundant life marked by love, a Spirit guided life marked by truth.
It is surprisingly easy to forget the witness of John's gospel, to turn the Christian life into a belief system (sometimes with and sometimes without a life of following Jesus' teachings) that gets one a ticket to heaven when we die. But in Jesus' words today, he speaks of something more.
What are the signs of new life, of resurrection, that manifest themselves in your life and in the life of your faith community?
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