John 15:1-17: Last Supper, Part 2

Reading: John 15:7-17

Thursday of Holy Week is commonly called “Maundy Thursday.”  “Maundy” is Latin for  “commandment,” or if we use the English cognate, it is a mandate.  We give the day a name because many feel that the most significant part of the Last Supper is when Jesus said: “This is my commandment, that you love one another as I have loved you.

A few days ago, I spoke of Jesus washing the disciples feet. He whom they called Teacher and Lord took the part of the servant and then worked to serve them.  The rule of love is different than rules of hierarchy. One way that we follow the rule of love is by serving each other instead of worrying about who is superior.  Jesus served the disciples out of love, and we are supposed to follow Christ’s example.

Jesus also goes on to say “You are my friends.”  He contrasts friends with servants by telling his disciples that masters do not share what they are doing with servants, just what they want the servants to do; but friends share what they are doing with one another.

One way to describe this is when I go to work it is because I hope to be paid.  As much as I like my supervisor, I would not be there a single day if I were not anticipating my salary.  No matter how likable, funny or friendly he is, I’m not likely to ask him over for dinner.  I certainly would not think of inconveniencing myself beyond what I am paid for; and I won’t endanger myself or others for merely my salary.

When Jesus is eating the last supper with his disciples, things are about to change. Later this night Jesus will be arrested. The future will be in the hand of the disciples. When hard times come, it is much better to have friends than to have servants.  We go above and beyond for our friends.  Friends often take risks and face danger together.  With friends we are motivated by something beyond our own good.

Christianity would not have gotten off the ground if the disciples were not friends of Jesus and of one another.  The first few centuries of Christianity were marked by persecution from the most powerful nation on the planet but Christians faced this together.

More importantly, Christianity would have ended during Holy Week if the disciples were not bound together in love and friendship.  Thomas acted in faith just before the disciples returned to Judea saying to his friends, “Lets go die with Jesus.”  By the time they were eating together in the upper room, it was abundantly clear that Jesus had powerful enemies. It would have been far safer to be somewhere else.

Yes, it is true that the disciples scattered, but if we look forward, we see that they did not flee the city or go into hiding.  Before Easter, before the disciples had any hope, they already had gathered into a community. They were together when it came time to hear about the Resurrection.

As we move forward through the story that leads up to Christ’s resurrection, we should consider those things that we do for one another because we are friends.  We need each other most of all when things are chaotic or dangerous.  We need to consider how we can be friends to each other, and we also should remember the good news that we are not alone — we have a community of Friends, and Jesus himself called us friends.

John 13:1-17 — Last Supper, Part 1

Reading: John 13:1-17

When we last met in person, our Adult Sunday School class discussed rituals.  We discussed both the danger of not doing rituals and neglecting to learn those things that the ritual was supposed to teach and we discussed the danger of focusing on the ritual and failing to learn from it at all.

In John 13:14 Jesus commands his disciples, going forward, to wash each other’s feet.  Many churches practice foot washing every year at Holy Week — it is a ritual practiced by Christians ranging from Anabaptists to the Pope; though, this year it is a ritual that will not be practiced.

Friends are known for focusing on what we are supposed to learn from the ritual rather than on doing the ritual itself.  Sometimes this is helpful; sometimes we forget that rituals are very human, and we all have our own practices.  This year, it is helpful because Christian rituals are mainly communal, and what we must do to protect ourselves and our neighbors from illness means that we cannot practice these rituals.

When Jesus told his disciples to wash each other’s feet, he pointed out that he did it even though  he was their master.  This was scandalous to them, because masters do not wash their underlings feet.  Servants wash feet.  This also was not yet a ritual; after walking down a dusty path in sandals one’s feet get dirty — washing those dirty feet is a necessity; instead of asking guests to wash their own feet someone of lower status would wash their feet.

When Jesus washed his disciples feet, he turned the social expectation on its head.  When he told equals to wash each other’s feet, he again changed to social expectation.  Jesus, the master served the servants.  When people practice foot washing, it might not be necessary anymore, but it does still symbolically break down the concept of a difference in class — nobody is left out, and nobody is too good to wash another person’s feet.  Even the Pope washes feet.

As I said before, Friends try to focus more on the meaning of a ritual than on the ritual itself — often preferring to follow the lesson we learned an skip doing the ritual.  In this case, there is little choice; Covid-19 does not allow us to literally wash each other’s feet, but there are still ways we can serve each other and thus obey Jesus’ command.

By now, those of us who can work at home, or do not have essential positions have learned that we do not have enough food to last until this is all over.  We’ve all ventured out risking our health to go shopping — and we’ve quickly discovered that those who sell groceries are essential; they risk their health so we can all live.

One way we could serve our neighbor is to pick up groceries for them when we go out.  It is a small act of service, but it is something useful that could be done to replace the act of foot washing.  Some of our neighbors are high risk, and cannot afford to risk the trip to the grocery store, others fear they are infected and do not wish to risk infecting others.

Of course, we can all find ways of serving each other and thus following the example of our Lord and master.  The point is that this is not only a ritual many Christians practice on Holy Week, it is a command to live offering service to one another.

Pastoral letter concerning COVID-19

Then one of the twelve, who was called Judas Iscariot, went to the chief priests and said, “What will you give me if I betray him to you?” They paid him thirty pieces of silver. And from that moment he began to look for an opportunity to betray him. (Matthew 26:14-16 NRSV)

This week, while following Jesus’ path to the cross, I want to talk a little bit about Judas’ betrayal and how he sold Jesus to the authorities. Unfortunately we cannot meet in person to talk about this. Even more unfortunately, we cannot meet because something far more urgent has come up — something that is a matter of life and death. Allow me to share here instead.

I don’t know what Judas’ motivations were. I don’t know if he saw what was coming, and decided that he would make some coin while distancing himself from the Man that could lead His followers to their deaths. I don’t know if it was pure greed, and he was motivated by money. I don’t know if he had the same concerns as the chief priests and Pharisees who made a joint committee to see to Jesus’ death. I honestly don’t know if he was motivated by greed, fear, or a belief that he was doing the right thing for his people.

What I do know is that these days there has been much discussion of the value of a life. Everybody knows we are facing an epidemic right now. While the CDC has recommended a course of action, we also know that a number of people feel differently. Many are concerned that the choices made by our government have too great of an economic cost, and these individuals would rather face the risk of illness and death.

When I think of this hard choice, I believe that life is sacred, and money is not. I believe it is right to accept inconvenience so that others may live. Those who wish to keep making money and count the dead are planning on other people dying because they are not personally in one of the higher risk groups. I understand when people accept a risk. I do not understand when they assign a risk to somebody else without consent. I want to do everything I can to make sure we all make it through this. I know it will require sacrifice, but I believe that the path Jesus teaches us to walk is one of looking out for each other.

I have never known how to be part of a community that cannot meet and eat together. I am not a public health professional, and I know that if I second guess the CDC, I undermine their work to keep us safe. I have my opinions and fortunately my opinions match their goal. I want to do the best we can do. We are a Christian community. How do we live in community while distancing ourselves? How do we stay physically apart and remain in a caring community?

I don’t know how long these sacrifices will remain necessary, but I expect that they will be uncomfortably long. I expect people may need to risk their health to buy food. I also know that we need reassurance that we are not alone. We need to remain a community, but how? For a start, here are my recommendations:

  • Comply with health department recommendations for the health and safety of everybody.
  • If you are in a high risk group, or care for someone in a high risk group; let somebody else shop for you.
  • If you are sick, let somebody else shop for you.
  • If you are healthy, and able to shop, volunteer to shop for others
  • Be deliberate about calling or texting each other. We may be physically distant, but we cannot let each other become isolated.

We all need to look out for each other. You are always in my prayers.

Your Pastor

Michael Jay

Handling differences of opinion

Reading: Romans 14

Almost every week, I’ve mentioned that while Romans is a great book; often it is people’s favorite of Paul’s epistles, there are sections that cannot understand until we consider the church that this epistle is written to. Romans 14 talks about a group of people who are scandalized by other people’s consumption of meat, and he appears to recommend that people both: be less judgmental, and change their diets to something that is less scandalous to those who honestly care about it.

Lets think about reasons why somebody might be scandalized by meat. Likely, if I asked someone who abstains from meat, it would be a concern that meat takes the life of an animal  or there might be a more complex answer based on the production cycle, or it might be because abstaining is healthier than over-consumption and the person finds moderation too difficult. Whatever the reasons people have for abstaining from meat today is different from the reasons in the first century.

To understand the reasons, the first thing that we must remember is that there was a scriptural precedent. In the first chapter of Daniel four young men who are removed from Jerusalem to Babylon are selected to be servants to king Nebuchadnezzar. These men: Daniel, Hananiah, Mishael, and Azariah are given new Babylonian names, and are given Babylonian food to eat. They ask to be allowed to drink water and eat vegetables instead of eating the Babylonian palace food — and they are allowed to do so as a test to see if they can remain healthy without eating meat. These young men prove to be healthier and brighter than their peers.

Now, it is easy to know why Daniel and his friends would not want to eat Babylonian meat; when God gave the law to Moses and to all of the people of Israel, the law included some dietary instructions — and needless to say, the Babylonian cooks did not have any interest in following these instructions. Babylonian cooks would cook pork, blood sausages, and they would even cook a lamb in milk — all of which is forbidden by the law of Moses.

I can easily imagine first century Christians reading Daniel and imitating him; Daniel has been a hero the Christians for centuries because he never compromises but instead lives out his faith. I do think it is fairly safe to say that Paul was not talking about eating Kosher to avoid offending Jewish Christians — Paul’s ministry shows that even though he was personally a Pharisee, and likely kept Kosher, he was strongly opposed to those who pushed Gentile Christians to follow Jewish customs, so most likely this vegetarian diet was not about a shortage of kosher butchers in Rome.

Fortunately, Paul not only mentioned eating vegetables in his letter to the Romans, but he addresses this issue at length in 1 Corinthians 8-10. I think that most likely Paul is addressing the exact same issue in Romans.

In 1 Corinthians, Paul speaks specifically to a group of people who recognize that the Greek gods are nothing, therefore they have no problem eating the meat that was sacrificed to idols — he points out that while their reasoning is sound, that what they do damages the faith of those who have not so rationalized their diets; also, not everybody who sees them eat this meat knows or understands their rationalization, and might instead see them as pagans or irreverent.

Paul also writes, in 1 Corinthians to another group that avoids all meat in order to make sure that they do not accidentally consume meat that was sacrificed to idols. This behavior makes sense because a large portion of meat that was available to buy come from sacrifices — one might say that priests served the community not only in a religious sense, but as the community’s butchers. This made the choice to eat vegetarian make a whole lot of sense, because even the Jerusalem council advised people to abstain from food sacrificed to idols.

Paul’s advice in 1 Corinthians was to go ahead and eat meat as long as you don’t know that it was a sacrifice; but if the origin of the meat is disclosed, don’t eat it. He further advised that you not scandalize anyone who is more careful and avoids meat all together in order to avoid the close connection with the temple and the local meat industry.

In a way, this sounds like a story I was told by one of my teachers who did his PhD work in Jerusalem:

There was young man who worked in a butcher’s shop in New York City, and one day an Orthodox Jew came in, pointed at Pork Chops, and asked to buy the lamb chops. This young man, helpfully, corrected the obviously observant Jew telling him that it was pork, and the Jewish man left angry. He asked the butcher about this encounter and the butcher told him that this man knew perfectly well that he was pointing at pork chops, and he wanted to buy pork chops, but he had to call them lamb chops; he wanted the lamb chops that came from a pig.

Paul’s advice to the Roman community is that the two groups not antagonize nor judge each other for their diets; he then gives the same advice about the calendars people follow — there are far more important things to worry about than how holy your fellow Christian’s diet might or might not be and which days your fellow Christian might observe. To me, this is an example of being deeply convicted of your neighbor’s sin when your neighbor is not personally convicted — it is useless.

Thinking about the whole of both related passages, I don’t think that Paul was telling people to find loopholes and seek to eat meat sacrificed to idols while being able to say: “I don’t know”. I think he is reminding people of what Jesus said in Matthew 15:11: “It is not what goes into the mouth that defiles a person, but it is what comes out of the mouth that defiles.” It isn’t what you eat that is important — it is what you say and your intentions.

While it makes sense that you don’t want to participate in evil in any way, worrying about it so much that you can’t live makes no sense at all.

An example of this can be found among our ancestors arguing about the correct way of ending slavery in the United States. Some people thought that the right way to approach it was to avoid owning slaves and to say that slavery was wrong hoping that some day others would realize the truth and society would change. Others tried to live without products produced by slavery, either giving up sugar and cotton or importing these items from places that did not use slaves, there were still others who actively broke the law and worked to smuggle slaves to freedom.

If you recall, even though Friends were unified that slavery should end, Friends split organizationally over the methods of achieving this goal. One of the reasons for the split was a minister named Charles Osborne; Osborne was deeply convicted that slavery was wrong, and he saw that many Friends would trade goods produced by slaves without blinking an eye; he was most offended by those who owned textile mills and would buy cotton produced by slave owners — these mill owners were profiting from the labor of slaves, and they were supporting the slave economy, so he condemned the Quaker textile mill owners as being ‘pro-slavery Friends.’ There were a number of people who agreed with his argument — when I look at history, I’m one of those people — but, I also understand the reason he was kicked out; he was abrasive, and his message was intended to damage the reputations of certain Friends, which was and still is condemned in the Faith and Practice.

If I were to apply Paul’s principles to our ancestors, some compromise is possible: Knowingly supporting the slave economy was wrong — the Discipline said it was wrong. Working to build an alternative economy made sense, and the people who Osborne publicly condemned were the same people who would have been the best partners for building such an economy: they controlled cloth production, therefore if they found another source for cotton the economy would change. On the other hand, Osborne may have publicly advocated for the free produce movement by encouraging participation rather than naming and shaming suppliers; and, when it came to addressing Osborne’s over the top methods, perhaps Indiana Yearly Meeting should not have responded by punishing every known free produce advocate, even those who did not engage in extreme rhetoric.

The point is that well meaning people who wanted justice and the end of slavery in the world argued about the best way to get to that point, in the same way that well meaning people who were completely aware that meat sacrificed to idols was being sold in the meat market wanted to figure out the best way to live in society while being faithful to God. Paul wanted his readers to know that there was room for disagreement on the best way forward — and what people need to do is spend less effort sniping each other and more effort moving forward.

So often is is confusing to know how to best live as a Christian, so when people are doing the best they know how to do there is nothing to do but encourage each other and know they are going the right direction. I know that sometimes people try to justify what they know is wrong — we’re not talking about that; we are talking about the good news that sometimes people who are trying to do the right thing in a complex world have disagreements on what that right thing is — and that is okay, we just need to be graceful with each other and trust that Jesus will bring all of us where we need to be.

Romans 7: Freedom and obligation

Reading:  Romans 7

Paul continues talking about the difference between being under the law and being free from the law. Last week, we spoke of this in the sense of there being a difference between somebody doing the right thing because there is a rule, and a person doing the right thing because the person wanted to do that. In both cases, the same thing is done — but in the later case, the person who wants to do the right thing is free; that person does not need to rule.

One of the examples of that I know of this is Penn Jillette, half of the magician team “Penn and Teller”. Penn pointed out that the argument that we need God to keep us from raping all that we want is a terrible argument for belief in God, and also a terrible argument for Christian morality because he rapes all he wants, which is not at all.

While I do not often agree with atheists on matters of religion; I am complete agreement here. If we need a law, and a higher power to enforce that law in order not to deliberately harm our neighbor — not only are we not free of the law, but we cannot brag that following the law makes us moral. If the only thing keeping me from theft is a law against theft; I’m going to get as close to theft as the law allows. Staying within the law does not in any way make me moral. If I have no desire to steal however, laws against theft would make no difference to me.

As you might know, I have spent most of my time this month thinking about insurance. I just passed the New York adjuster licensing exam, and am now preparing for the California exam. Now, a month ago, all I knew about insurance was those few times insurance makes the news. I knew about executives breaking the rules and getting in trouble. I knew about companies trying to get out of paying claims related to the Hurricane damage, even though a reasonable person would believe the losses were covered.

In my classes I learned a number of things; but there are a couple that are relevant today. First thing that I want to point out that I learned is how necessary insurance is. I learned that without insurance, no contractor would be able to begin construction. Factories would not dare produce their products. Banks would not dare write a mortgage. We would be unable to buy and sell houses, build, or expand or do business. I learned that insurance is a method of risk management — and it greatly reduces the everyday risks that people face to the point that we are able to move forward in our lives. The knowledge that a single misfortune could destroy a family or a small business is enough to shut everything down — sharing risks makes things work better.

The other thing that I learned, though I already knew this, is that Insurance companies are not benevolent. They do not care about getting people what they need; they care about fulfilling contracts. If your home is destroyed by an excluded peril, you lose your home and get nothing for owning insurance. If you go to the hospital, the hospital is in the network, but the doctor on duty that night is not you pay the doctor’s bill in full whether it is one thousand or twenty thousand dollars. Our instructor gave the example of the poor woman living paycheck to paycheck who is found at fault for an accident. She of course only has state minimum, because that is all she can afford — but her liability ends up being over $100,000; what happens? The other driver’s insurance will write a check for under-insured driver, for collision, for personal injury, et c. but then will go to the courts, and get this poor woman’s paychecks garnished until they get the remaining money from her. Everything is about the law and contracts; there is no mercy, and no question on how well you can afford the loss.

Most unfortunately, while I’m learning how insurance works, a unspeakable loss  affected a fellow pastor. His teenage daughter died in an auto accident; she was in the back seat of a driving school car. The car was rear ended, killing her and injuring the driver and the driving instructor. I know the insurance companies will argue fault, assign liability, and the other driver’s insurance will pay for final medical expenses and “reasonable funeral costs,” up to the limits of the policy; I am sure the driving school has no fault personal injury and death coverage as well, but the loss is more than financial, it is more than tangible. Indemnity isn’t really possible, because what is lost is not replaceable.

What I did see right away is that a friend of the family responded by setting up a `gofundme‘ account to help the family with their final expenses. While insurance will, once they figure out exactly what they are legally and contractually obliged to pay will write a check, friends who saw need immediately gave because they are compassionate.

The difference between the insurance check and the gofundme page is the difference between being a slave to the law and being free from the law. Both will end up cutting a check; both will be extremely helpful in paying hospital bills, funeral expenses, and a number of other final expenses. One check is written because it fulfills a contract; the other is written because the community shares in this loss and reaches out to support their friends. The result might be the same — but one check is written without any obligation, and the other is written only because of obligation.

Now, I’m going to admit I am not ready to give up the law. The law makes me feel safe. As I can better afford insurance, I’ll buy more, not less — I have no desire to have my name on a gofundme page. I know a lot of kind and generous people; but, I also see no shortage of people who are desperate, homeless, or completely alone. Our generosity is not great enough to meet the shortfall of obligation. As a society, we are not free from the law, and we are not ready to be.

The good news is that we can become free. Jesus told us that God’s kingdom is at hand — it is close enough to reach out and grab. Jesus taught us to pray that we will obey God’s will on Earth just as we would in Heaven. The world may not be for the freedom Paul speaks of — but Christ came to work on my heart until I can be.

The devil quotes scripture

Reading:  Matthew 4:1-11, Luke 4:1-13

This is not a sermon, simply some thoughts that I have had the past few days.  I have preached on the temptation of Christ, but, my thoughts lead me to something that did not make it into my sermon.

The devil is a liar; as Jesus said, lying is the devil’s native language.  When Satan tempts Jesus, he quotes scripture freely.  One lesson that we should take from this is that a Bible verse next to a lie does nothing to make that lie true.  As my brother says:  “the Truth cannot be served by lies.”

When I was a teenager, I felt a strong calling to ministry, and I made it a point to attend business meetings — both at the local level, and the denominational level.  Unfortunately, my introduction to the human failings of the church was far from gentle — the first thing I saw was scandal.

Many churches and the regional leadership in my denomination fell victim to a scam artist; she knew how to talk like a devout sanctified Christian, and she was able to sell an ‘investment’ in something that nobody understood — but they were convinced that she understood, and they trusted her because when somebody lies and then quotes scripture it is too easy to to believe the lie because you believe the scripture.  The first time I attended yearly meeting sessions, the leadership and the trustees had to tell the body that a large amount of money was now gone due to fraud, and there were many resignations.

This week, I have observed something far more dangerous than a temporary cash flow problem — I observed outright lying and slander intended to destroy the reputation of a minister who has served the church faithfully for decades, and the reputation of an institution that has ministered, with consistency, to the Evangelical branch of the church for over 60 years.

For most of my life, I had been a member, though my local denominational body, of the National Association of Evangelicals — where I am currently a pastor is not a member of this group, but I maintain an interest in their ministry and institutions.  I have read the Evangelical publication Christianity Today since my teenage years, and I have followed the public statements of the National Association of Evangelicals with interest.  Ambiguity is not one of their faults.

When somebody says what he knows to be false with the intention of deceiving people that is a lie.  When a person tells lies about a person, or an institution in order to damage the reputation of that person or institution that is slander.  These lies and slander can never help the Church.  It does not matter how many verses are quoted next to the lies — the lies remain lies.  It does not matter how good a man the liar’s father is, he is still doing Satan’s work by slandering and bringing shame to the Church.

We must be wise; we must reject lies or the lies will destroy and discredit us.  We must no longer spread these things that we should know are lies, because if we continue, not only are we slandering the good name of the Church — but we risk making it impossible for people to believe the Truth because they only hear the lie.

Psalm 146

Reading: Psalm 146

Today in our Sunday School class we finished our study of Galatians. We specifically went over the passage that talked about replacing rules and customs based in a single culture with a more universal system of ethics — ultimately something that cares more about attitudes than about how well one follows rules that might or might make sense when the context changes.

Galatians, as I mentioned before, is believed to be one of the first books written in the New Testament — it was written at a formational time of Christianity — at a time when there were no written gospels, and the Christians were still trying to figure out what it meant to follow Jesus. Christians just decided in Jerusalem that the good news of Jesus is for the whole world — and that there is nothing about Christianity that excludes Greeks and Romans. Paul was told to share this decision with the Greeks and Romans — which was a good choice, because he already felt this way before that meeting was called.

Now that we have the New Testament, it is easy for us to ask how the primitive Church could have argued about things that are so clearly taught in scripture; but, we stop and consider that the New Testament did not exist — and we consider how much Christians who have the New Testament argue about what it means — we should realize that the argument makes sense.

I want to observe that while Galatians was really the first book to talk about how we are all the same in Jesus, and how there is a place in the church for everybody, and how Christianity is not about rules written on paper, but living with right motives and doing your best to walk in God’s light. When people read Galatians, there were no gospels available beyond those stores and quotes one might hear from the disciples. This was all new and exciting; in a real way, Christians were discovering that the story of Jesus was Good News bringing light into the whole world.

What Christians found in Jesus we find when we read in Old Testament while thinking about Jesus. There is a reason you find Isaiah and Psalms quoted throughout the New Testament — and it is not only because it is the world Jesus grew up in; Christians traditionally believe that Jesus was part of the divine plan from the start, and thus you see the promise of Jesus in the Old Testament.

Whether or not we find Jesus in Psalm 146, the passage I chose to read today, we do see a theme that is familiar to what we find in Galatians:

[The Lord] who keeps faith forever;
who executes justice for the oppressed;
who gives food to the hungry.
The Lord sets the prisoners free;
the Lord opens the eyes of the blind.
The Lord lifts up those who are bowed down;
the Lord loves the righteous.
The Lord watches over the strangers;
he upholds the orphan and the widow,
but the way of the wicked he brings to ruin.
The Lord will reign forever. (Psalm 146:5-10 NRSV)

The good news Paul had to give to the Galatians is that there is no slave, nor free, nor Jew, nor Greek, nor male nor female. Paul told the Galatians that God does not look at people the same way that we do — and in doing so, he told them basically what we see in Psalm 146 — that God executes justice for the oppressed, that God opens the eyes of the blind, that God watches over strangers and takes care of the orphan and the widow.

When we read the gospels, all four gospels tell the story of John the Baptist before they tell the story of Jesus. John’s story prefigured this, because John called on even those who were generally seen as acceptable to repent and be baptized, and when people who were not acceptable like tax collectors and occupying soldiers asked him what they needed to do to become right with God — John simply told them to do their job justly; don’t embezzle the taxes, don’t extort money, don’t falsely accuse people, and be content with your pay instead of seeking bribes.

It might seem strange that a man calling on government workers to be honest and on people in general to be nicer to repent and be generally nicer to everybody would fall out of favor with the law — such advice makes communities stronger; but, for some reason almost every prophet in scripture up did find trouble for this message. John the Baptist was arrested because he said something that offended Herod, and eventually was arrested then later executed.

According to Matthew 11, John sends his disciples to Jesus to ask if Jesus really is the One — we know that John believed this enough to say it to the crowds, sometimes it really is good to know — and when you are in Herod’s prison because Herod has a personal grudge against you; it is good to know that you are going to die for something worthwhile.

Jesus sent a message back to John: “The blind receive sight, the lame walk, those who have leprosy are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, and the good news is proclaimed to the poor.” If you notice, there is a significant overlap between what Christ brought and what the Psalm we read says that God does for those who’s Help is the Lord.

Though many people were looking for a prince to put their trust in — a new king who would offer political freedom, Jesus offers something brand new. Our world is full of princes and changing princes is no help to anyone. Even the best kings die, and for the most part, in this world, different people get different sorts of justice. We don’t have a world where all are treated the same and there is justice for everyone — some try, but we have not achieved it.

When I imagine John getting this message, it must have been a relief. John preached to all who came to him; when a Roman wanted to get right with God, John had a message for the Roman soldier that was doable: to act justly and honestly. When I read Galatians it is gospel to me; I am free from all the structures that favor those who already have everything — Jesus sees, hears, and accepts me for who I am.

Ultimately this is the message of Christmas; Christ came to be light in the world. We might not all have the same rules and customs, but Christ did call us to the same Spirit, and we should produce the same fruit: “love, joy, peace, forbearance, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control.” We should look out for each other, and “as we have opportunity, let us do good to all people.”

Advent is a time when we look for Christ to come into the world. In one very real sense, advent is purely a period of history and we live in a time after Easter. In another, very real, sense this waiting for Christ to come and make things right is something that we feel. When John felt despair in prison and asked Jesus if he was still waiting — Jesus was already there, and eyes were already being opened and the lame were already walking. Sometimes our feelings can be a bit behind the times. Just because Jesus is already here does not mean that we are not looking for Jesus or waiting for Jesus.

I also am encouraged when I remember that the early church struggled to understand how to live in their world and do what is right. When I’m confused and seeking answers — I remember the way that Peter, Paul, and James struggled to understand how the gospel applied and how to bring the gospel to my ancestors. Like them, I struggle to know how God would have us live in the world we are in. I believe Christ walks with us, and I also wait for Christ to come, set things right, and teach me what I need to know. When I am discouraged, I remember Peter struggled as much as any of us.

Most of all, I see that I have something to aspire to. No matter what time or culture I live in, I can tell the difference between the works of the flesh and the fruit of the Spirit. I know what it means to do good to other people. Even if I can’t figure out the rules, I can check my motives. When nothing else makes, everything is simplified so to the point that I can understand. I don’t have to worry so much about rules I never learned — I am free from that, and instead I must work on my motives and attitudes — and Christ is with me as I grow into a better person. For me, this is good news.