Three Powers, Ukraine, and Refusing the Easy Road

Есть три силы, единственные три силы на земле, могущие навеки победить и пленить совесть этих слабосильных бунтовщиков, для их счастия, — эти силы: чудо, тайна и авторитет.

“There are three powers,” wrote our dancing saint Dostoyevsky. “Three unique Forces upon earth, capable of conquering forever by charming the conscience of these weak rebels—human beings—for their own good; and these Forces are: Miracle, Mystery and Authority.”

Dostoyevsky wrote these words coming from the lips of the Grand Inquisitor, a character in The Brothers Karamazov who speaks to none other than Christ himself, come back to earth in 15th century Spain, during the Spanish Inquisition. And the Inquisitor, an agent of the Church, describes these three powers as part of his argument that Jesus was wrong, and that he should have said yes to the Devil’s temptations; that Christ could have used these three temptations, and the power held within them, to rule all of humanity for the sake of their own good and well-being. 

To the inquisitor, the choice to not turn stones into bread was to refuse to miraculously fill the stomachs of all hungry people, which would immediately win their allegiance; the choice to not cast himself off the heights of the temple was to refuse to use his mysterious divine powers to gain fame and worldly power; and the choice to turn away from serving the Devil was to refuse to have himself be put in authority over all the nations of the earth. 

But in refusing to follow through with the Devil’s temptations, Jesus offers us something else: the gift of freedom. He refuses to use his power to set up a kingdom here on this earth, that would take away our freedom to decide for ourselves how to live, even at the enormous cost that that freedom comes with. It is this freedom that Christ gives to us, and that we who would follow him are called to give to others. This remains true even when it becomes clear how costly this freedom truly is; even when the cost of this freedom is death and destruction. It is this freedom that Ukrainians are paying for dearly, right now. 

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Reclaiming our Saltiness

Christianity in the United States is in a time of stripping away. Like the two kingdoms of Israel and Judah in the time of the Prophet Isaiah, Christianity is having parts of it taken away that it thought was essential to who it was. While Isaiah looked out upon the world and saw the encroaching armies of Assyria taking more and more of their kingdoms’ lands, today’s prophets and wise ones can look at the numbers, and see fewer and fewer church attendees each week, fewer and fewer church communities that are growing, fewer and fewer parents, clergy, and community members who are committed to passing on the faith to the next generation. 

Like Isaiah, we might be drawn to ask, “Until when, Lord?” And perhaps God’s answer might be not unlike what They sad to Isaiah, saying, “Until church buildings are in ruins and deserted, parish halls untenanted and a great spiritual apathy reigns in the land, and the Holy One of Old has driven the people away from the faith, and the country is totally without religion. And suppose one-tenth of the faithful are left in it, that will be stripped again, like the terebinth, like the oak, cut back to the stock; their stock is a holy seed.”

Living here in California means that we are on the forefront of this trend that is continuing across the United States. As a kid growing up in this state, it was far cooler to be an atheist or an aspiring Buddhist than it was to be Christian. While Christianity has been the dominant religious flavor of our Western culture for the past 1500 or so years, that dominance is now in sharp decline. And our modern-day prophets and sages expect that trend of declining numbers to continue for years to come, until Christianity is no longer the dominant religion of our country, but truly one among many. 

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The Opposite of Solipsism is Faith

“No one has ever seen God. It is God the only Son, who is close to the Father’s heart, who has made him known.”

The Gospel of John is perhaps one of the most philosophical of books of the Bible. And we see that most of all in the prologue to the entire Gospel, which we heard read to us just now.

“In the beginning was the Word,” John says, “and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was in the beginning with God. All things came into being through him, and without him not one thing came into being. What has come into being in him was life, and the life was the light of all people. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it.”

So much of this famous opening is imbued with Greek philosophy, so I think it may be fitting to do a bit of a deeper dive into philosophy in today’s sermon than I normally would. So if philosophy isn’t your thing, you’ll have to forgive me; and if philosophy is your thing, then you’ll have to forgive me anyway for the things I get wrong, and tell me later on what I missed. Just do me a favor and wait until after sermon sharing.

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A Crisis of Wealth

John the Baptist is probably one of the most favorite, and yet most terrifying, prophets in the Bible. It’s fascinating to me that someone who is so incredibly unapproachable nevertheless has such a profoundly important place in all four of the gospels. While Luke gives him the most airtime, elevating him in Jesus’ personal story to the point of being his cousin, what we have in today’s reading is the part shared by the narratives found in Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John: that he rebuked people, called them to repentance, and baptized them with water, proclaiming the coming of one greater than himself.

This man, reportedly dressed in camel fur and living off a diet of locusts and wild honey, was the epitome of a wilderness hermit, and yet somehow he amassed a great following. And it’s not by being kind to those who listen to him that he became so popular; clearly, he has no intention of playing nice. While the things he said aren’t all that different from some of the things Jesus said to his own followers, especially in the stories of Lazarus and the Rich Man, or when he sends his disciples out to preach the good news without taking anything more than what they need, the fact that these harsher words are essentially all we have from John make it harder to see why this prophet would be so beloved among Christians throughout the ages, or how his ministry of calling people to repentance in baptism related to the rest of Jesus’ grace-filled, invitational approach to the Gospel. 

In fact, baptism itself is a funny thing, because the origin of this now-Christian ritual, and what it’s all about, is seemingly murky. Though Christianity is nowadays the only major religion to practice this ritual, it didn’t originate there; John the Baptist, after all, wasn’t a Christian, but a Jew. And he didn’t invent it, either; historians and archeologists have studied this ritual, and found that there were quite a few Jewish communities during this time that practiced what we would call baptism as a form of ritual cleansing of sins. The term “baptism,” in fact, comes from the Greek word meaning “to wash.” So in the Gospels, John the Baptist is taking this practice, and engaging his followers in a sacramental act of cleansing and purification of their skin on the outside, just as he is calling them to cleanse and purify themselves spiritually on the inside, as well. 

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A Royal Authority

Jesus replied to Pilate, “Mine is not a kingdom of this world.” I don’t know about you, but I find it’s one of those many times in the Gospel of John, when I just want to look Jesus in the eye, grab him by the shoulders, and give him a good shake. 

“Don’t tell us what it’s not,” I want to say to him. “Tell us what it is!”

But Jesus offers no easy answer. Over and over in the Gospel of John, he has conversations with those of us who are mere mortals, and each time it eventually becomes clear that Jesus is speaking on an entirely different level than the person he’s in conversation with. And when he does say anything about what the thing he’s talking about is, it’s usually by slant and metaphor and tricky language that eludes simple understanding. 

Early on in the Gospel of John, he has that conversation with Nicodemus about being born again of water and the spirit. Then there’s the Samaritan woman at the well, with whom he talks about the living water that will cause her to never be thirsty again. Then he talks to his disciples about the bread of life, and they don’t realize he’s not talking about something that will fill their physical stomachs. 

By the time we get to this late passage in the Gospel narrative, where Jesus stands trial before Pilate, the reader knows that anything Jesus says is not to be taken just as being about what it appears to be on the surface level. And here, Jesus is talking about his kingdom.

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