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Receive the Spirit

Receive the Spirit

John 20:19-23

by the Rev. Dr. E. Scott Jones

First Central Congregational Church

23 April 2023

               Two weeks ago I was yet again at the State Capitol in Lincoln to protest yet another one of this year’s legislative attempts to rob people of their liberty of conscience and bodily autonomy.  The first speaker at our press conference was Rabbi Deana Berezin of Temple Israel.  She drew attention to the fact that that day was the last day of Passover and yet she was there at the state capitol instead of leading services at the synagogue.  Why?  Here’s what the rabbi said,

I stand here today in the midst of a holiday that celebrates the victory of freedom over slavery, and the liberation of a people who were under the yoke of oppression, because good people stood up to a Pharoah who held their futures captive and demanded something more.

And it was not just Moses. It was Miriam and it was Aaron. It was Batya and it was Yocheved. And it was every ordinary Israelite and many of their Egyptian friends and neighbors. It was all of them, together, an entire people demanding in one voice “Let My people go, [so]that they may worship [their God].”

I stand here today as did my ancestors before me – to demand religious liberty in the face of those who stand to hold it captive.

               In Warren Carter’s commentary on the Gospel of John he points out the importance of the Jewish Passover as the context for Jesus’ death and resurrection in the story John is telling.  Passover “celebrates a way of life free of . . . oppressive rule and structures,” Carter writes.  And so the author of the Gospel of John wants us to draw parallels to the story he is telling about Jesus and his disciples.

               Carter proclaims, “Jesus’ revelation of God’s life-giving purposes is necessary because the world is contrary to God’s purposes but does not seem to know it.”

               This Easter Season we are taking our time with the stories the Gospel of John tells us about the resurrection of Jesus and the disciples’ reactions to it.  We’ve already focused on Peter and John running to the tomb and Mary weeping in the garden.  Today we get the story of Jesus’ first appearance to a group of his followers, who are gathered in a room together, afraid.

               And their fear is legitimate.  They’ve seen armed guards arrest Jesus.  They either watched or heard about his beating, being paraded through the streets, the crucifixion.  They must be worried that the authorities are looking for them too, especially if they are too public.

               And now they’ve heard confusing stories about the empty tomb and must be wondering what this means.  And they’ve most likely heard from Mary and probably aren’t sure they understand what she’s told them. 

               So, they are confused, anxious, uncertain, and afraid.

               And, suddenly, here is Jesus, standing in their midst.  Clearly not a corpse, but wounded none the less.  A traumatized but resurrected body and he tells them “peace be with you.”

               Throughout these gospels it’s pretty common that the disciples don’t understand what’s happening.  They often don’t grasp the full meaning or intentions of Jesus.  And here again they are having an experience that transcends their comprehension.

               But what makes them disciples is not full understanding, but following.  Trusting Jesus even when they don’t understand.  Carter writes, “Disciples bear witness to and confess Jesus’ identity as God’s agent.”  That’s the core thing.  In Jesus they’ve experienced God at work.  They don’t fully understand what and how, but this they trust and so they are going to follow, to stake their lives upon it.

               And once they realize this truly is Jesus and he isn’t dead, they rejoice.

               But that’s not the end of the story.  Jesus again says, “Peace be with you.”  But then he adds something.  In essence he’s telling them that the story isn’t finished.  Indeed, it’s only beginning.  For Jesus says, “As the Heavenly Parent has sent me, so I send you.”  And he breathes upon them.

               They aren’t just followers anymore, not they are sent.  They shift from being disciples to also being apostles.  They are given a mission from God to go forth into the scary world and carry on Jesus’ work.  As Cameron Murchison writes in his commentary on the passage, “It becomes evident that the peace Jesus announces is not one that can allow the disciples to remain behind locked doors.”  Now they’ve got to overcome their fear and get out and do the work.

               And what is that work?  Jesus tells them they are forgive sins.  Murchison interprets this as follows, “The commission to contend with sin as it afflicts and affects the world.”  That’s their mission—to contend with all the ways that sin afflicts the world by living as agents of God’s forgiveness, grace, and mercy.

               You see, that’s what Jesus has already done in his death and resurrection.  The powers that be have killed him, violently and horribly, hoping that that would be the end of the Jesus movement.  But it isn’t the end.  He rose again.  Revealing that the powers of death do not have the final word.  There is new life.  Life is greater than death.  Life, truth, beauty, goodness, love, freedom—these are the great powers of the universe.  Jesus has revealed all the ways that powers-that-be are opposed to the life-giving purposes of God.

               And, so, he sends forth these once frightened disciples to carry on the work of challenging sin and evil and bringing about redemption and the forgiveness of sins.

               How are these frightened people who don’t understand all of this supposed to do that? 

               Well, Jesus has breathed upon them.  He’s given them the gift of the Holy Spirit, which will bring them the power and the courage that they need to carry out the work.

               Just as the Passover context of this story hearkens back to the story in the Book of Exodus of the freedom of slaves from Egypt and the formation of a new people, this story also hearkens back even further to the story of the Creation in the Book of Genesis. 

               In Genesis chapter 2, God breathes upon the human bodies God has formed, breathing into them the spirit, the life-force.  And here Jesus breathes upon the frightened disciples again, breathing into them the spirit, the life-force.  Here is a sign that this story is a new creation story.  Cameron Murchison states that Jesus is “recreating” the disciples.  From frightened followers to powerful apostles.

               Seeing this connection to the Genesis story, I looked at my favorite Jewish commentator on Genesis, Avivah Gottlieb Zornberg, and she writes that even at the Creation “To make the world is the charge that God left [humanity].”  God left the world “open-ended, open to the doing, the making of [humanity].”  What continues the creation of the world is humankind facing the challenges before us and rising to the occasion to create new and good things.

               And it is that same task that falls to the disciples in this resurrection appearance of Jesus.  They are part of a new creation, a recreation, as God empowers a new generation of God’s people with the task of continuing the creation of the world, of making the world, of healing and repairing the world.  Of confronting all the ways that sin afflicts the world, of challenging the forces of death with the life-giving work of Jesus.

               Warren Carter summarizes:

The good news according to John is that Jesus is the definitive revealer of God’s life-giving purposes and that his mission continues in and through the alternative community, the church, an antisociety that is sustained by the Spirit in a hostile world until God’s purposes are established in full.

               So we too are followers of Jesus who don’t always understand what’s happening, who are sometimes uncertain, confused, and afraid. 

               And Jesus comes to us and says “Peace be upon you.”  Do not fear.  And don’t stay here behind the safety and security of these closed doors.  It’s time to venture forth.

               You must be go out into a hurting and needy world, where the forces of sin and death are afflicting pain and destruction, and you’ve got to challenge them with the powers of love and forgiveness, freedom and redemption, and new life. 

               And, don’t worry, Jesus says, the Spirit that created the universe is going to fill you with courage and power and hope and joy.

               And don’t worry, because life has already defeated death.  You’ve already won, no matter what happens.

Good Christian Sex

Good Christian Sex: Why Chastity Isn't the Only Option-And Other Things the Bible Says About SexGood Christian Sex: Why Chastity Isn't the Only Option-And Other Things the Bible Says About Sex by Bromleigh McCleneghan
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

This is a good book. A helpful book. Even a fun book.

McCleneghan states that her goal is to "lay out some of the theological and ethical questions that arise in your average, everyday experience of adult sexuality, and to walk readers through those discussions in a clear and engaging way." I think she achieves her goal.

Her authorial voice is funny and relatable, as she uses her own stories and experiences to explore pleasure, intimacy, being single, dealing with exes, being married, etc.

I highly recommend this book and know that I'm going to use it in my pastoral care for years to come.

View all my reviews

The Books of Jacob

The Books of JacobThe Books of Jacob by Olga Tokarczuk
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Yes, it is long. Yes, it took me a long time to read (I took breaks and read other things). Yes, there were times, particularly in the long middle, where it was less engaging and I sometimes felt lost in the thicket of characters.

But the book was enchanting in the beginning and held my attention for quick reading in the final two hundred plus pages. And I love Tokarczuk's style of using multiple voices to narrate a story.

And what the book seems to do is reveal how modern Europe also contained strange, mystical strands that also contributed to its growing cosmopolitanism. Clearly Tokarczuk's novel was a challenge to the current dominant narrative in Polish nationalism.

View all my reviews

Far Down Stream

Far Down StreamFar Down Stream by Philip W. Smith
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Phil's career was as an infectious disease physician. He founded and ran the biopreparedness unit at the University of Nebraska Medical Center which distinguished itself during the Ebola epidemic and has expanded its leadership during Covid. As he pastor, he shared with me the spirituality of being a doctor. Much of that feeling and reflection appears here in a lifetime of poetry.

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The Shepherd's Life

The Shepherd's Life: Modern Dispatches from an Ancient LandscapeThe Shepherd's Life: Modern Dispatches from an Ancient Landscape by James Rebanks
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

"This is an ancient, hard-earned, local kind of freedom, that was stolen from people elsewhere."

I highly recommend this book. It is "bloody marvelous" as the cover says. And read it slowly. I've taken my time with it over months, reading a few pages most mornings, almost like a devotional.

Rebanks describes a hyper-local way of life. Which reveals the deep ethical and spiritual connections of such good, hard work. Here is an example of a life lived in intimate knowledge of all that is difficult and struggle and, yet, how to find enjoyment, meaning, and reward in life.

View all my reviews


            We have a bunch of kids in this congregation who love to run.  And here, on the most sacred day of the year, we’ve got a story about running.  Mary running.  Peter and the other disciple racing.  The action moves with speed.

            This story and the others that follow it in the Gospel of John have a cinematic quality, they are like watching a movie of the reactions and responses of the various followers of Jesus to the news of the empty tomb and Jesus’ resurrection.

            But we don’t just watch the action—we can feel it.  There’s a physical immediacy and urgency to the stories, starting here with running disciples.  Later we’ll have Mary’s weeping and Thomas’s touching and Peter walking on the sand and John eating beside the fire.

            These stories are vivid and powerful and intimate.  They are stories that reveal the deep relationships Jesus had with his friends and those he loved.  Ted Jennings, one of Katie’s seminary profs and who spoke and preached here a few years ago, describes these stories as depicting love through “physical closeness and bodily intimacy.”

            He elaborates, “This love is expressed in intimate fellowship, mutual service, friendship, shared understanding, a common fate, and destiny, which together characterize Jesus’ relationships to all these disciples.”

            And it is this intimacy that draws us in.

            Eugene Peterson, the New Testament scholar, points out that these stories describe action that even a five year old can comprehend.  These stories aren’t alien, abstract, intellectual—they are exciting and vivid and resonate.

            Peterson, too, indicates that intimacy is a key aspect of the stories.  He writes, “Jesus by means of John’s story, invites us into his life, God’s life, in terms and in circumstances that are immediately accessible.”

            And, so, we get Mary running from the empty tomb, and Peter and the other disciple running back to see what’s up.  Running is something we understand.  Running in fear, running in worry, running in joy, running for exercise, running to play, running just because we can.

            The very best recess of my childhood was one afternoon in sixth grade.  I had been reading, for the first time, C. S. Lewis’s final novel in the Chronicles of Narnia, The Last Battle.  I’d read the chapter “Farther Up, and Farther In.”  The characters in the story have survived the final battle and have watched the ending of the world, and now they are in Aslan’s world where they will experience the full abundance and fecundity of God’s goodness.  They start by traveling through this new landscape in sorrow and bewilderment until they begin to recognize what is around them, but seeing familiar places in new, richer ways, seeing a deeper and truer reality.  And so they become joyful and, then, they start running and running.  And those who couldn’t run before can run now and they run fast and they don’t get tired.  And they begin to call to one another, “farther up, and farther in” as they run to explore this new world and its goodness.

            And I read that chapter, and went out to recess, and I ran and ran and ran.  With abandon and enthusiasm and joy.   And I’d never quite realized until that moment that running could be a spiritual practice, a way to connect to God, through playfulness.  And I’m grateful to C. S. Lewis for revealing that to me, but his source was probably here in the Gospel of John, where on the most sacred and holy of days, we are met first with running.

            And it’s somewhat of a funny scene too, this race between Peter and the one whom Jesus loved.  It is traditional to identify the other disciple as John, the author of the story, though that’s only tradition and not actually in the Gospel itself.  In fact, some scholars think there’s a lot better evidence for it to be Andrew or some other follower of Jesus.  But the who isn’t too relevant to us today, and I’ll probably just say John on occasion just because that’s familiar and easy.

            Peter and John run to see what Mary saw first. 

            Ted Jennings points out why these two might have been hanging out together.  Peter had denied Jesus the night before and was full of shame and guilt and might have needed to unburden himself of his failures.  And the one whom Jesus loved had been there are the crucifixion, watching the horrible, violent death of the one he had loved.  Maybe he was seeking comfort too?  Were they consoling one another in their grief?

            And so they run to see what happened and the one whom Jesus loved gets there first and stops and looks and can’t go in.  I like what Ted Jennings writes, “One may suppose that the loved one hesitates also because he is still traumatized by the sight of the mangled bleeding corpse of his lover only some hours before.”

            But Peter rushes in, as impetuous Peter is wont to do.  And is then followed by the other,  beloved disciple.  And we are told that the beloved immediately believes. 

            Maybe what the beloved immediately believes is that life has defeated death?  Warren Carter points out that life versus death has been one of the dominant themes of Jesus’ teaching in the Gospel of John.  “I am come that you may have life and have it more abundantly,” he tells them.  Jesus is repeatedly inviting people into new life.  Inviting them to engage in activities that are life-giving and life-affirming.  And a kind of life that is eternal—that transcends time and all the constraints of our human lives.

            “Eternal livingness” is how the great German theologian Jurgen Moltmann describes the teaching of Jesus.  Which he points out is not about length of life but is, instead, “depth of experience in the moment.”  He writes beautifully,

But it is at the same time a life that begins every moment, and an awakening vitality, provided that we look to the future and welcome the possibilities of the new morning.

            The kind of life Jesus offers us is also “infectious livingness,” which, Moltmann points out, results in a “new courage for living.”  This is power that kindles within us the sense of life beyond death, that every moment of every day is ripe with possibilities for new beginnings. 

            Warren Carter then says “Those who believe in [or] entrust themselves to Jesus already have eternal life.  Already now they participate in a life free from what is contrary to and opposes God’s purposes.”

            To believe, in this case, isn’t to affirm a proposition, but is to embrace the fullness of life offered by Jesus.  Is to entrust oneself to what Jesus has taught and witnessed to.  To live with courage and hope in the possibilities of a new and better future that transcends all human constraints and defeats the forces of death.

            That’s why the characters in C. S. Lewis’s The Last Battle ran with joy and abandon at the end of one world and the beginning of a new and better one.

            Our response to the empty tomb of Easter ought to also be one of joy and courage and hope.  This is our reminder that we too can be a part of God’s great and good work in the world.  Our takeaway should be—to look every day for the ways we can participate in God’s life-giving work.

            Warren Carter summarizes our task this way, whatever “manifests God’s life-giving, loving, and liberating purposes should guide our thinking and shape our practices.”

            And when we see and embrace God’s life-giving work, then we experience that infectious livingness, we get our moment of eternal life.  That is when we find ourselves in intimate union with God.

            These stories invite us to participate in God’s life, they are invitations to intimacy.

            And, so, this Easter Sunday I invite you to find some way this afternoon to experience the joy of living fully.  If that’s playing or listening to music, taking a walk on this beautiful day, laughing with friends and family, or maybe, for you, it is running. 

Christianity and the New Spirit of Capitalism

Christianity and the New Spirit of CapitalismChristianity and the New Spirit of Capitalism by Kathryn Tanner
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Tanner brings a profound Christian critique to current finance-based capitalism. And it's not at the points where such a critique would be most obvious (such as exploitation of workers or the Earth). Rather, she takes issue with fundamental ideas that underpin contemporary capitalism--how it marks time, how it views the past and the future, how it views individuals and their relationships to the whole--and in each case demonstrates how contemporary capitalism runs counter to what Christianity believes on each of these points. A worthy read that will prompt deep thought.

View all my reviews



Ecclesiastes 4:1-12

by the Rev. Dr. E. Scott Jones

First Central Congregational Church

19 March 2023

Today we conclude our Lenten worship series Words of Wisdom.  Each week we’ve drawn from a different Wisdom Book in the Bible.  Looking in each for what theologian Amy Plantinga Pauw describes as rhythms of the spiritual life. 

Today finds us in the Book of Ecclesiastes, which is one of the strangest books in the Bible.  The author takes an often negative, even cynical view, counter to the testimony recorded in many other books. 

First, a note about the title of the book.  “Ecclesiastes” is a strange English translation of the Hebrew title, which is the word Qohelet.  That word is sometimes translated “teacher” or “preacher.”  But if we were to use the most literal translation it would be “She who assembles.”  Yes, it is, in fact, a feminine word in the Hebrew.  Creating the tantalizing possibility that this book just might be written by a female sage.

Today I will be reading from the magisterial translation of the book by the great Hebrew scholar Robert Alter:

Back in the now faraway summer of 1980, the workers in the Gdansk, Poland shipyard had had enough.  Enough of forty years of political oppression.  Enough of a stalled economy.  Enough of the boredom of life under the Communist regime.  The workers were inspired by the visit the year before of John Paul II, the new Polish pope. The Pope's ability to move the people demonstrated the irrelevance of the government.  And so the Gdansk shipyard strike began.

The strike spread to other workers in Gdansk and then all over Poland.  A national strike was building.  One electrician, a devout Catholic named Lech Walesa, scaled the shipyard walls in order to become part of the strike.

The Communist regime responded.  It first tried to end the original strike by offering conditions to the workers that the workers might accept.  But the government was caught off guard when the local strikers rejected the offer.  Even if their original demands were met, now the strike had expanded and was bigger than them.  Now those shipyard workers were standing in solidarity with those on strike around the nation.  All the workers’s needs should be met.

So, a movement was born -- an independent trade union with a long official name but the nickname of “Solidarity.”  The new movement claimed that the people should "carry each other's burdens."  Altars and crosses were erected.  Father Jerzy Popieluszko became chaplain for the union, holding masses in the shipyard.  [some information from Secrets of Solidarity by Patricia B. Bozell, National Review, 19 February 1988 and Wikipedia].  

On December 13, 1981 at 2 a.m. the secret police arrested thousands of Solidarity activists.  The military secured the borders, declared martial law, and proceeded to invade their own country.  The regime took over the media and declared a "state of war" in which the government was acting for "national salvation." [David Remnick, Lenin's Tomb].

In the years that followed the crackdown, Solidarity went underground with its own press, universities, and plays.  Many of the leaders were jailed.  Father Popieluszko, who continued to preach against the human rights abuses of the government, was kidnapped and brutally murdered.

Finally, in 1989, the government began to negotiate again with Solidarity.  By August a power-sharing deal was in place.  And you might know what happened from there.  The winds of change blew from Warsaw throughout Eastern Europe.  By November of that year the Berlin Wall came down.  In December, Lech Walesa, the electrician and former political prisoner, became President of a democratic Poland, and within two more years the Soviet Union would cease to exist.

This world-changing movement for liberty and democracy was deeply rooted in a theological notion of solidarity.  A central Christian idea that God has invited us to share in the very life of God and along with that, to live in solidarity with all creation.

The laborers of the Gdansk shipyard succeeded in a world-wide revolution because of their faith and their commitment to one another.  Their insistence on sharing burdens and seeking the good of the larger movement of the people.  Father Popieluszko may have been martyred, but his death was part of something far larger.  He proved that solidarity is more powerful than death itself.

According to theologian Amy Plantinga Pauw, the Book of Ecclesiastes reflects a time when traditional institutions are breaking down, when people are skeptical of government and society.  It was also a period of economic insecurity, when people felt like even if they worked hard, they could never get ahead. It was a time of uncertainty and disillusionment.  Sounds timely, right?

I just happened to be teaching Ecclesiastes in our Wednesday night class back in the spring of 2020.  We completed the study over Zoom.  It was pretty much the perfect book to be reading and discussing at that time.

Last year, during Omaha’s Fringe Festival, I attended a performance of Ecclesiastes at the Blackstone Theatre, just a couple of blocks from here.  It was a one man show, in which he acted out the entire book.  It was marvelous, thought-provoking theatre.  At times hilarious.  Watching it performed live made me think that’s probably the best way to encounter this book.

Ecclesiastes is the most cynical and skeptical book in the Bible, as if it was written by an existentialist philosopher.  And one with an absurdist, comic streak.

The main point of the entire book is that pretty much everything we humans try to do is vanity.  Not vanity as in an over-confident sense of how pretty we are, but vanity as in futile.  The Hebrew word is hevel and conveys a cluster of English concepts, among them absurdity, insubstantiality, ephemerality, and elusiveness.  The great translator Robert Alter translates the word “mere breath” and clarifies that this isn’t the life-breath identified with the spirit, but the “waste-product of breathing.”  He describes it as “the flimsy vapor that is exhaled in breathing, invisible except on a cold winter day.”

Alter uses the phrase “herding the wind” to convey the futility of the notion “everything is vanity.”  The Book of Ecclesiastes marches through most human pursuits—riches, fame, power, education, work—and finds each of them meaningless, futile, like trying to herd the wind.

So, what do we do?  If pretty much everything is futile, what wisdom does Ecclesiastes offer us for how to live?

Elsewhere in the book she emphasizes enjoying life the best we can, particularly the little and everyday things like a good meal and a good drink.  But in this passage we’ve read today, Ecclesiastes offers “modest forms of creaturely solidarity.”  Theologian Amy Plantinga Pauw writes, Ecclesiastes’ “response to oppression, envy, and selfishness is to commend concrete forms of human solidarity: working together, lifting one another up, keeping one another warm, defending one another.”  We are called to comfort people, to advocate on their behalf, to relieve suffering. 

Whereas the Hebrew prophets loudly and publicly denounced the social, political, and economic injustices of their day, Ecclesiastes offers instead what Pauw calls “quiet resilience.”  She suggests that Ecclesiastes might be the perfect book for contemporary Christian communities who find themselves dealing with broken political institutions and threatening laws.  Ecclesiastes shows how we continue to resist, by fostering solidarity.

This is Holy Week.  We begin with children singing and palms waving and then move through a challenge to the political powers that be, their violent reaction, betrayal, through pain to death, then darkness and silence, all before we rise again in glory on Easter morning.

The movements of this week, and our emotional responses to them, parallel experiences in our own lives.  The yearly activity of moving through these stories is part of our formation as faithful followers of Jesus, so that we can learn how to respond to the parallel moments in our own lives with faith.

And another thing we learn as we worship together over these days is that we support one another through the darkness and celebrate with one another through the joys.  That we make this journey by joining together.

And so the sixth and final rhythm of life attuned to the Spirit is joining, in particular how we join hands with one another in solidarity and support.  As Pauw writes, “Life in the Spirit is life that is opened toward the other.”

One way to view the entire Biblical story is that it is about joining—about bringing people together, about creating community, about bridging human divisions. 

And so the six rhythms of the wise life we’ve explored—making do and making new, giving, longing, suffering, rejoicing, and joining are all practices that attune us to God and help us to lead rich and full human lives.

Amy Plantinga Pauw summarizes what we’ve learned this Lent:

As creator, God gives human creatures a lifelong vocation to pursue wisdom.  Human wisdom is patient, attentive discernment of the character and quality of life as God has given it.  Human beings flourish not by evading or overcoming the ambiguities of their finite and contingent life as creatures, but by recognizing and coming to terms with them and by seeing the opportunities of this creaturely life as God’s gracious gift.