Posts Tagged Religion

The Bible on Earth Day; a poem by Jane Yolen; and the lessons for Sunday, April 29, 2018

See the source imageFIFTH SUNDAY OF EASTER

Acts 8:26-40
Psalm 22:25-31
1 John 4:7-21
John 15:1-8

PRAYER OF THE DAY: O God, you give us your Son as the vine apart from whom we cannot live. Nourish our life in his resurrection, that we may bear the fruit of love and know the fullness of your joy, through Jesus Christ, our Savior and Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and forever.

In addition to being the fourth Sunday of Easter, yesterday was Earth Day. This international observance began when I was in the 8th Grade. I recall vividly my science teacher, Mr. Freeze, writing the word “ecology” on the blackboard and asking us if we knew what it meant. None of us did. Of course, everybody now knows (or should) that ecology is the branch of biology that deals with the relations of organisms to one another and to their physical surroundings. The word is actually a combination of two very biblical words, οἶκος, meaning “house, household or sanctuary” and λογos which means “word or message.” If you go back to chapter 14 of John’s gospel, you discover that when Jesus promises his disciples that “In my father’s house are many rooms” (John 14:2), the Greek word οἶκος is used. Jesus uses the word to describe the temple in Jerusalem in John 2:16. Of course, λογos appears in John’s prologue as the “Word” which was in the beginning with God and…was God…and became flesh.” John 1:1-14. This week’s gospel further describes the οἶκος of God as a grape plant for which Jesus is the sustaining vine and God the Father is the tender of the vine and master of the household who prunes the branches in order that they may grow and produce fruit. The well-being of the branches depends on their connection to the vine and the care of the gardener.

Jesus frequently employs metaphors from agriculture and the natural world to speak about the mysteries of the kingdom. Such use presumes a solid understanding on the part of Jesus’ audience of the interrelatedness and interdependence of living things with their environment. The importance of this balance is reflected in Genesis where the first and only job given to the newly created earth creature, Adam, is that of tending God’s garden. Genesis 2:15. “The earth is the Lord’s,” declares the psalmist. Psalm 24:1. We are just the gardeners. Though the command given to the human race in Genesis to “fill the earth and subdue it” has been the source of much mischief, we need to recall that the Hebrew word “CABASH” translated in Genesis 1:28 as “subdue” is the same word employed in God’s command for Israel to subdue the land of Canaan. Numbers 32:22; Numbers 32:29; Joshua 18:1. The subjugation of the land meant more than merely driving out Israel’s enemies. Very specific commands were given to Israel directing the people to care for the land and its non-human inhabitants. For example, trees were to be spared from the ravages of war. Deuteronomy 20:19-20. Egg producing birds were to be spared from slaughter. Deuteronomy 22:6-7. The sabbath rest mandated for all human beings, from king to servant, extended also to animals. Exodus 23:12. Moreover, the land itself was to be given a year’s sabbath rest from cultivation every seven years. Exodus 23:10-11. God was worshiped not only as the provider for human beings, but for all living creatures. Psalm 104:10-23. The Bible is big on ecology. In fact, insofar as the New Testament declares that God’s goal for the universe is the reconciliation of the world in Christ (II Corinthians 5:19), you could say that the Bible is all about ecology.

Ironically, the 19th Century, which gave us Darwin’s theory of evolution and ought to have made us even more sensitive to our interrelatedness and interdependence with all living things, brought instead a promethean confidence in technology to overcome any such dependence. The industrial revolution led to communities increasingly distanced from agriculture and segregated from the rest of the natural world. The earth came to be viewed as a ball of limited resources pitched against our unlimited thirst for greater wealth, power and control. Animals came to fall into three categories: food, pets and pests. Forests were felled to make way for civilization. Christian hope consisted in the salvation of one’s immaterial soul from the unnatural ravages of aging and death. The consequences of this disconnect were first recognized by a few lone voices in the mid 20th Century like those of Rachel Carson:

“Only within the moment of time represented by the present century has one species-man-acquired significant power to alter the nature of his world.

During the past quarter century this power has not only increased to one of disturbing magnitude but it has changed in character. The most alarming of all man’s assaults upon the environment is the contamination of air, earth, rivers, and sea with dangerous and lethal materials. This pollution is for the most part irrecoverable; the chain of evil it initiates not only in the world that must support life but in living tissues is for the most part irreversible. In this now universal contamination of the environment, chemicals are the sinister and little recognized partners of radiation in changing the very nature of the world-the very nature of its life.” Carson, Rachel, Silent Spring, (c. 1962 by Houghton Mifflin Company) pp. 5-6.

Since the publication of Ms. Carson’s groundbreaking book, Silent Spring, the extent of environmental pollution has only increased across the face of our planet even as the danger it poses has become better understood. We find ourselves unable collectively to take the actions we know are necessary to avert future catastrophe. We are caught in a vortex of consumption driven by the profit motive of late stage capitalism. In the language of our liturgy, “We are in bondage to sin and cannot free ourselves.” More than ever before, the Bible’s message of ecological redemption needs to be proclaimed. As Saint Paul points out, the creation waits with eager longing for the “revealing of the children of God.” Only so can it be set free from its bondage to decay imposed by human rebellion. Romans 8:19-25. Salvation in Jesus Christ is cosmic and inclusive of all creation or it is not really salvation at all.

Here is an earth day poem by Jane Yolen:

Earth Day

I am the Earth
And the Earth is me.
Each blade of grass,
Each honey tree,
Each bit of mud,
And stick and stone
Is blood and muscle,
Skin and bone.

And just as I
Need every bit
Of me to make
My body fit,
So Earth needs
Grass and stone and tree
And things that grow here
Naturally.

That’s why we
Celebrate this day.
That’s why across
The world we say:
As long as life,
As dear, as free,
I am the Earth
And the Earth is me.

Source: The Three Bears Holiday Rhyme Book. (c. 1995 by Jane Yolen, pub. by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt). Jane Yolen (b. 1939) is a poet and writer of science fiction, fantasy and children’s literature. She was born in New York City. Yolen earned her bachelor’s degree at Smith College and a master’s in education at the University of Massachusetts-Amherst.  She has honorary doctorates from Smith College, Keene State College, and the College of Our Lady of the Elms. Her work has been translated into almost two dozen languages. You can find out more about Jane Yolen and sample more of her poetry at the Poetry Foundation website.

Acts 8:26-40

In our first lesson for this morning, Philip is instructed to “go toward the south…from Jerusalem to Gaza.” Vs. 26. This fits nicely with Luke’s overall story of the gospel’s spread from “Jerusalem, in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.” Acts 1:8. Having begun in Jerusalem and having spread north to Samaria, the good news of Jesus Christ now travels south to meet a representative from the southern “ends of the earth,” namely, Ethiopia. As is common throughout Luke-Acts, this instruction to Philip comes from an angel of the Lord. Vs. 26. (See also, Luke 1:11-28Luke 2:8-21Acts 5:17-21Acts 12:6-17).

The Ethiopian Eunuch poses a seemingly simple question to Philip: “What is to prevent my being baptized?” Vs. 36. But it’s not such a simple question at all. There are plenty of arguments to be made against baptism in this case. In the first place, this man is a eunuch. His testicles have been cut off, probably at birth, to make him fit for government office under the monarchy. That was a big problem for baptizing this Ethiopian into the renewed, Israel, the Body of Jesus. According to the scriptures, “He whose testicles are crushed or whose male member is cut off shall not enter the assembly of the LORD.” So says Deuteronomy 23:1. So there you have it. This Ethiopian fellow is a sexual deviant. He is an “abomination” and must be excluded. That the Ethiopian probably did not choose to be a eunuch is beside the point. The Bible says it; I believe it; that settles it.

Of course, the Bible has more to say about eunuchs. The Book of the Prophet Isaiah declares:

“Do not let the foreigner joined to the Lord say, ‘The Lord will surely separate me from his people’; and do not let the eunuch say, ‘I am just a dry tree.’ For thus says the Lord: To the eunuchs who keep my Sabbaths, who choose the things that please me and hold fast my covenant,  I will give, in my house and within my walls, a monument and a name better than sons and daughters; I will give them an everlasting name that shall not be cut off. And the foreigners who join themselves to the Lord, to minister to him, to love the name of the Lord, and to be his servants, all who keep the Sabbath, and do not profane it, and hold fast my covenant— these I will bring to my holy mountain, and make them joyful in my house of prayer; their burnt-offerings and their sacrifices will be accepted on my altar; for my house shall be called a house of prayer for all peoples. Thus says the Lord God, who gathers the outcasts of Israel, I will gather others to them besides those already gathered.”Isaiah 56:3-8.

Clearly, the Bible demonstrates changing views on “uncleanness,” “abomination” and who is included among God’s people. I cannot overemphasize that the Bible is a collection of many words, many voices and many perspectives. One cannot simply cherry pick the voice one fancies and ignore all the others. Moreover, the authoritative voice for disciples of Jesus is that of their master. Jesus Christ is the lens through which Scripture is read in order to hear properly God’s Word to us in the here and now.

The other obstacle to baptism is that this fellow is an outsider. Though he probably is of Jewish heritage (he wouldn’t be reading the Jewish scriptures if he weren’t), he was one of those “Diaspora” Jews, an ancestor of one of the thousands who fled Palestine after the Babylonian destruction of Jerusalem. His ancestors were not among those who left everything in order to return to Palestine when the opportunity arose following the conquest of Babylon by Cyrus the Great. His family was not among those who made the dangerous trek across what is now the Iraqi desert to resettle a land that was still in ruins and occupied by hostile, warring tribes. This Ethiopian’s lineage was not represented among those Jews who fought a fierce and bloody war for survival and independence against the armies of Antiochus Epiphanes in the 2nd Century B.C.E. He did not live in Jerusalem or pay the exorbitant taxes required to support the temple and its priesthood. He only came to worship on high feast days like Passover and Pentecost.

This Ethiopian is a lot like those members of your church that you only see on Christmas and Easter. They tell you all about how their parents were staunch members of this church, how they were baptized and confirmed in the church and how much their church means to them-and then they disappear for another year. And you want to say to them, “Where were you in November when the rest of us made a pledge of financial commitment to the mission and ministry of this church? Where were you when the council was meeting down in the undercroft until late into the night hammering out a budget for the coming year? Where were you when the basement flooded and we were all bailing like mad? By what right do you call yourself a member? By what right do you claim the cleansing waters of baptism?

I don’t know if questions like these were going through Philip’s mind when the Ethiopian asked him what was there to prevent his being baptized. But the Bible does tell us what Philip and the Ethiopian were talking about as that chariot made its way through the wilderness in Gaza. Philip was telling the Ethiopian the good news about Jesus. Jesus, we know, had no scruples about including among his disciples people on the margins of polite society. Jesus touched lepers. Jesus laid his hands upon unclean corpses. Jesus shared a table with tax collectors and outcasts. So whatever reservations Philip may have had about baptizing this Ethiopian Eunuch, they were overcome by the good news coming from his own lips. At the end of the day, Philip simply could not see any obstacle between Jesus’ love and this man who needed it. The Spirit of Jesus broke the logjam of objections, prejudices, traditions and deeply held beliefs that stood between this Ethiopian outsider and the good news he so much needed to hear.

Psalm 22:25-31

This is a psalm of lament that begins with the words familiar to us from Jesus’ cry of dereliction on the cross: “My God, my God, why hast thou forsaken me?” vs. 1; cf. Mark 15:34Matthew 27:46. You would never guess that from our reading, however, which begins at verse 25. Verse 22b marks a transition point in the psalm. Up to this point, the psalmist has been pouring out his or her complaint to God, describing the torment and ridicule s/he experiences at the hands of his or her enemies and crying out for deliverance. Though no such deliverance has yet occurred, the psalmist is confident that God will soon intervene to rescue him or her. So sure is the psalmist of God’s impending salvation that s/he is even now declaring thankfulness, praise and testimony to these saving acts. The psalmist takes delight in knowing that God’s intervention on his or her behalf will bring glory and praise to God from future generations who will learn from his or her experience that God is indeed faithful.

I should add that some commentators have argued that vss. 1-21 and vss. 22-31 constitute two separate psalms, the first being a lament and the second a hymn of thanksgiving. Perhaps that was on the minds of the lectionary makers when they divided the psalm as they did (assuming, of course, that they have minds-something I often question). I am not at all convinced by their arguments, however, which seem to hinge on the dissimilarities of lament versus thanksgiving between the two sections. Psalms of lament frequently contain a component of praise or promise of thanksgiving for anticipated salvation. See, e.g.Psalm 5Psalm 7Psalm 13. Artur Weiser, while maintaining the unity of the psalm, asserts that the psalm was, in whole or in part, composed after the psalmist’s prayer has been answered. Weiser, Artur The Psalms, a Commentary, The Old Testament Library, (c. 1962 SCM Press), p. 219. That interpretation does not fit the language of the psalm which speaks of salvation in the future tense. This salvation, though real, is nevertheless an anticipated act of God.

It has been suggested by some commentators that Jesus’ cry from the cross might not have been a cry of dereliction at all, but that the gospel writers meant to say that Jesus was praying this psalm from the cross. Clearly, the body of the psalm reflects at many points precisely what Jesus was experiencing at the hands of his enemies, so much so that New Testament scholars argue over the extent to which the psalm might have influenced the telling of the passion story. However these questions might be resolved, there is obviously a parallel between the psalmist praising God for deliverance s/he cannot yet see and Jesus’ faithful obedience to his heavenly Father even to death on the cross. In both cases, faith looks to salvation in God’s future even when there appears to be no future.

1 John 4:7-21

“God is Love.” John Wesley has noted that “[t]his little sentence brought St. John more sweetness, even in the time he was writing it, than the whole world can bring. God is often styled holy, righteous, wise; but not holiness, righteousness, or wisdom in the abstract, as he is said to be love; intimating that this is his darling, his reigning attribute, the attribute that sheds an amiable glory on all his other perfections.” Wesley’s Notes on the BibleChristian Classics Ethereal Library. Indeed, love is the heart of God’s being, the unifying force holding the church together and the power by which the world is overcome. But this love is no abstract principle. As noted by one commentator:

“It is important not to confuse this dynamic of love with the sentimentality that passes for love in our culture. What is affirmed here makes our customary talk of love sound thin and gaseous by comparison. The kind of love initially regarded as sacrificial love (as in John3:16) has assumed awesome dimensions here. For one thing, love is regarded as constitutive for the community of believers. If we do not love, we cannot know God—which is like saying that without oxygen we would not be able to breathe. Having initially drawn breath, though, we are obliged to continue breathing and acting in love. Loving one another is mentioned several times in this text. We recognize it as something we do because we have first been loved by God.” Brusic, Robert M., “A River Ride with 1 John: Texts of the Easter Season,” Word & World, (c. 1997 by Word & World, Luther Seminary, St. Paul, MN) pp. 217-218.

God’s love is expressed concretely in the sending of his Son to “abide” among us. Vss. 10, 15. That term “abide,” which is critical both for the letters and the gospel of Saint John, makes clear that the sending of the Son was not an event fixed in the past. God has been sending his Son for as long as God has been speaking through the prophets. But when that Word became “enfleshed,” and came to “tabernacle” among us, God’s desire from the foundation of the world became complete. John 1:14. It cannot be over-emphasized that the Incarnation was not a temporary state for God. When God became human, God remained human and henceforth will always be human. Only so can God abide among us such that God is our God and we are God’s people. See Revelation 21:5-8. Though perfected in the age to come, this “abiding” begins even now within the community of disciples whose love for one another reflects the love God has for the Son and the love God demonstrates toward God’s people.

The Gospel of John, and even more John’s letters, have been criticized for their concentration of love within the community of the faithful. The missionary emphasis is lacking, it is claimed. But such a conclusion can only flow from a very superficial reading of John. As we saw from last week’s gospel lesson, Jesus has sheep that do not yet belong to his fold and need to be brought in so that there will be “one flock, one shepherd.” John 10:16. The whole purpose of the oneness of the disciples in love is “so that the world may believe that you [God] have sent me [Jesus].” John 17:23. Disciples of Jesus are called to be a countercultural community that testifies to an alternative way of being human. A community that lives the Sermon on the Mount is far more transformative than one trying to preach it into legislation, social action and reform of the existing order. Saint Augustine also recognized the outward thrust of John’s letters in his homilies: “Extend thy love to them that are nearest, yet do not call this an extending: for it is almost loving thyself, to love them that are close to thee. Extend it to the unknown, who have done thee no ill. Pass even them: reach on to love thine enemies. This at least the Lord commands.” Homily 8, St. Augustine, Christian Classics Ethereal Library.

“Perfect love casts out all fear.” Vs. 18. I would be rich if I had a quarter for every time I heard a preacher say “I fear.” “I fear for our teenagers and the pressures they face…” “I fear for the future of our children…” “I fear for our church in the coming decades…” I am as cognizant as anyone of the dangers we encounter, the temptations in front of us and the challenges we face both as believers and simply as human beings. Prudence and caution are always warranted, but fear must never be part of the equation. Whenever we go into survival mode, we invariably make foolish, faithless and shortsighted decisions that bite us in the end. If the universe is the creation of a God whose determination to bring it to perfection is demonstrated by God’s “putting his own skin in the game,” sending his only begotten Son to abide with us at the cost of his crucifixion, then there is no room for fear. We cannot lose this game. We can only forfeit our opportunity to play on the winning team for fear of getting dirty, beat up and sore.

John 15:1-8

The Hebrew Scriptures frequently employ the “vine” metaphor in speaking about Israel. See Isaiah 5:1-7Isaiah 27:2-6Psalm 80:8-16Jeremiah 2:21Jeremiah 6:9Jeremiah 12:10-13Ezekiel 15:1-8Ezekiel 17:5-10Ezekiel 19:10-14Hosea 10:1-2Hosea 14:7. That being the case, one might expect Jesus to say that “we” or “you” are the vine inasmuch as the community of disciples represents the renewal of Israel. Instead, Jesus employs the “I am” construction seen throughout the gospel calling himself the vine. One might argue, as some commentators have, that the metaphor is problematic because its use is principally associated with judgment upon Israel’s failures. Carson, D.A., The Gospel According to John (c. 1991 by Eerdmans) p. 513. The image fits nicely into John’s incarnational thought, however. “[I]t is a feature of Johannine theology that Jesus applied to himself terms used in the OT for Israel and other parts of the NT for the Christian community.” Brown, Raymond, E., The Gospel According to John XIII –XXI, The Anchor Bible (c. 1970 by Doubleday) p. 670. The indwelling Spirit of the resurrected Christ will animate the community of faith through which the ministry of Jesus will continue. Like the vine to which all branches cling and from which they derive their sustenance, Jesus is the source of life and power to which the disciples must cling.

The disciples are branches whose life and fruit bearing capacity depend on their connection to the vine. Apart from the vine, the branches can do nothing. Vs. 4. Again, the key term “abide” is used to emphasize the indwelling of Jesus among his disciples. Vs. 4. Abiding in Christ is a life and death matter. Branches that do not “abide” in the vine wither, die and must be burned. By contrast, fruitful branches are pruned in order to make them more fruitful still. Vs. 2.

What does Jesus mean by saying that his Father is glorified as the disciples “bear much fruit” and so “prove” that they are his disciples? Clearly, the chief fruit is love among the disciples. Indeed, it is by their love for one another that the disciples will be known as followers of Jesus. John 13:35. This love, however, is not a passive emotion. Because the Spirit of Jesus is at work inspiring love among his disciples, they will do not only the works Jesus has done during his ministry, but even “greater works than these.” John 14:12. As God’s alternative humanity, the church will invariably collide with the old system of loveless domination and exploitation. This is a community that has been sent into the world just as Jesus was sent into the world. John 20:21. Because a servant is not above his master, the disciples can expect the same resistance and rejection Jesus receives. John 15:20. The cross is the shape love invariably takes in the midst of a sinful world.

Stanley Hauerwas has often said that the church is a people whose lives are incomprehensible apart from the resurrection of Jesus. Jesus says much the same thing later on in the chapter.

“If the world hates you, be aware that it hated me before it hated you. 19If you belonged to the world,* the world would love you as its own. Because you do not belong to the world, but I have chosen you out of the world—therefore the world hates you.” John 15:18-19.

Of course, the world has many good reasons for hating Christians that have nothing to do with faithfulness to Jesus. The degree to which we are not liked is a poor barometer by which to measure the effectiveness of our witness. Nonetheless, we ought to be somewhat concerned at the ease with which the church has been able to fit into the Americana landscape over the last couple of centuries. If the church’s life and ministry would look just as sensible if we were to dismiss Jesus altogether, something is clearly out of whack.

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Murder by closed border; a poem by Blas Manuel De Luna; and the lessons for Sunday, April 22, 2018

See the source imageFOURTH SUNDAY OF EASTER

Acts 4:5-12
Psalm 23
1 John 3:16-24
John 10:11-18

PRAYER OF THE DAY: O Lord Christ, good shepherd of the sheep, you seek the lost and guide us into your fold. Feed us, and we shall be satisfied; heal us, and we shall be whole. Make us one with you, for you live and reign with the Father and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and forever.

“If anyone has the world’s goods and sees his brother in need, yet closes his heart against him, how does God’s love abide in him?” I John 3:17.

This week witnessed an air strike against the Syrian government of Bashar al-Assad by American, British and French military forces. This action was taken in order to punish the al-Assad regime for its use of chemical weapons against the Syrian people and to ensure that no such attack occurs again. One can hope that the message will be received and that no similar atrocities involving lethal chemical agents will occur. Yet that alone will do little to alleviate the misery of the Syrian people who have been living in a state of civil war for the last several years. Arbitrary massacre of civilians has been al-Assad’s modus operandi from the beginning. The bodies of Syrian children washing up on the shores of the Mediterranean with grim regularity testify to the desperate, failed attempts by families to flee the bloodshed. One cannot help but wonder why murdering children with poison gas triggers a military response, whereas years of killing them with cluster bombs, land minds and chasing them into the sea with “conventional” weapons has evoked barely a whispered protest. I also wonder at the moral indignation of our president over violence against these same children that he so vehemently refuses to shelter within our borders. Evidently, killing Syrian children with starvation, disease and bullets does not warrant a response. Closing our borders and allowing them to languish in refugee camps is not at all morally repugnant. But using poison gas crosses the line. I cannot be the only one catching the odious scent of hypocrisy in such pretended outrage.

Saint John’s admonition makes clear that anyone following Jesus owes his neighbor whatever help s/he is able to provide. And just to be clear, there is no proviso that the neighbor be somehow deserving, worthy or even properly thankful for such help. Nor is there any exception to this command for national security. Martin Luther went so far as to say that withholding life preserving help that you might have provided to your neighbor in need is nothing short of murder-a violation of the Fifth Commandment:

“In the second place, this commandment is violated not only when a person actually does evil, but also when he fails to do good to his neighbor, or, though he has the opportunity, fails to prevent, protect, and save him from suffering bodily harm or injury. If you send a person away naked when you could clothe him, you have let him freeze to death. If you see anyone suffer hunger and do not feed him, you have let him starve. Likewise, if you see anyone condemned to death or in similar peril and do not save him although you know ways and means to do so, you have killed him. It will do you no good to plead that you did not contribute to his death by word or deed, for you have withheld your love from him and robbed him of a service by which his life might have been saved. Therefore, God rightly calls all persons murderers who do not offer counsel and aid to men in need and in peril of body and life.” Tappert, Theodore G., The Book of Concord, “Luther’s Large Catechism,” (c. 1959 by Fortress Press) pp. 390-391. In short, if you believe in Jesus, you believe in open borders. When someone comes to your doorstep, your neighborhood, your country fleeing violence, persecution or starvation, you welcome them. That’s the Bible. That’s Jesus. Deal with it.

I am never thrilled with military solutions. The best argument to be made for one is that it amounts to a belated effort at addressing an injustice that has gotten way out of hand by reason of prolonged recklessness, neglect and stupidity. I have often said that arguments for the necessity of military action are similar to those of the adulterous couple who claim that their attraction was “bigger than both of us.” At some critical point, that was probably true. It wasn’t true, however, when they first felt an attraction that they knew very well should not be pursued. It wasn’t true the first time they lingered together for longer than they both knew was necessary at the water cooler. It wasn’t true when, against their better judgment, they started taking lunch together at the gym. It wasn’t true when they arranged to be sent to the same training seminar sponsored by their employer. At any point along the way the fire could have been put out before it got out of control. So, too, western leaders had reason to know for nearly a century that their colonization, exploitation, domination and manipulation of middle eastern countries to ensure their supplies of petroleum would ultimately blow up in their faces. But the west did and still does little to reverse this pattern of exploitation. Their leaders should not be heard at this late hour to insist that their military strikes were necessary to extinguish a wild fire that has been smoldering for generations.

So, too, our president should not be heard to insist that the United States is the victim of illegal immigration. The victims are peoples of Africa, the middle east, Mexico and Latin America whose lives have been put in jeopardy in no small part by the pernicious effects of colonization and exploitation.  An “America First” policy that places our nation’s interests above those of our neighbors in other lands has contributed substantially to the global refugee crisis. Sealing our borders to all who come to us seeking freedom and safety is but to compound our sins.

The church is called to be a witness to God’s coming reign. Unlike nation states, we are to have no borders, nor must we recognize any border that threatens our oneness in Christ or interferes with our mandate to love our neighbors as ourselves. That is why we cannot remain silent or inactive as walls, both tangible and bureaucratic, are erected against our neighbor in desperate need. Doing so, quite frankly, equates with a violation of the Fifth Commandment against murder.

Here is a poem by Blas Manuel De Luna that exposes graphically the cruelty and human carnage lying behind political slogans like “secure borders,” “national security” and “deportation.” Read and ask yourself whether it reflects the kind of nation we Americans want to be. Ask yourself how a disciple of Jesus can acquiesce to such brutality.

Bent to the Earth

They had hit Ruben
with the high beams, had blinded
him so that the van
he was driving, full of Mexicans
going to pick tomatoes,
would have to stop. Ruben spun

the van into an irrigation ditch,
spun the five-year-old me awake
to immigration officers,
their batons already out,
already looking for the soft spots on the body,
to my mother being handcuffed
and dragged to a van, to my father
trying to show them our green cards.

They let us go. But Alvaro
was going back.
So was his brother Fernando.
So was their sister Sonia. Their mother
did not escape,
and so was going back. Their father
was somewhere in the field,
and was free. There were no great truths

revealed to me then. No wisdom
given to me by anyone. I was a child
who had seen what a piece of polished wood
could do to a face, who had seen his father
about to lose the one he loved, who had lost
some friends who would never return,
who, later that morning, bent
to the earth and went to work.

Source: De Luna, Blas Manuel, Bent to the Earth (c. 2006 by Blas Manuel De Luna, pub. by Carnegie Mellon University Press). Blas Manuel De Luna (b. 1969) grew up working alongside his parents and siblings in California’s agricultural fields in Madera, California. He holds a bachelor’s and a master’s degree from California State University-Fresno and has written prolifically in poetry and fiction. His writings frequently dwell on his and his family’s experience as immigrant laborers. You can find out more about Blas Manuel De Luna and sample more of his poetry at the Poetry Foundation website.

Acts 4:5-12.

Last week Peter and John managed to attract a great deal of attention in front of the temple when, in the name of Jesus, they brought healing to a known cripple. Seizing the opportunity, Peter uses the occasion to preach a powerful sermon proclaiming as Israel’s messiah and God’s Son Jesus, the crucified one raised from death. Not by the power of the apostles, says Peter, but through the name of Jesus the man they once knew as lame now walks and experiences perfect health.

But the apostles have also attracted the attention of the temple authorities chiefly responsible for handing Jesus over to Pilate. Annoyed that these men are teaching in the name of Jesus, they arrest Peter and John, holding them in prison overnight. Acts 4:1-4. On the following day, the apostles are brought out before the high priest and the high priestly family to answer for their actions. It is noteworthy that the first question out of the accusers’ mouth is: “By what power or by what name did you do this?” vs. 7. We can see immediately what is at stake here. The authorities seem to have no objection in principle to the disciples teaching the people or even with the fact that they performed a miracle of healing. Sects within Judaism abounded in the 1st Century. For the most part, they were of little concern to the temple authorities. But the name of Jesus obviously set off some alarm bells and raised red flags.

It is not surprising that the authorities should be concerned about this Jesus movement. Throughout his ministry Jesus upset the social and political norms by sharing table fellowship with outcasts. Parables such as that of Lazarus and the Rich Man foretold an upending of the existing order, the dissolution of boundaries, the disintegration of family and a radical reorientation of the Torah in the service of “the least” of all peoples. How much more disturbing was the growth of this movement into a community living out the kingdom Jesus proclaimed! The man they thought they had killed has risen up and come back to them in spades. The authorities know that they are face to face with the Spirit of the risen Christ and have not the slightest clue what to do about it. If you were to read further, you would learn that the leaders find themselves powerless. Their dear old friend and ally, violence, is of no use in suppressing the name of Jesus. Peter brazenly ignores the threats of the authorities and announces his intent to continue preaching Jesus and his kingdom regardless what they tell him. Acts 4:13-22.

It is the name of Jesus that gets the disciples into trouble. Like most governments, the Jerusalem establishment had no problem with religious people doing socially useful work. Jesus would probably not been put to death if he had been content merely to feed the poor and hungry. Our own government applauds such work on behalf of the less fortunate as long as the boundary between “helpers” and “helped” is maintained. We have no objection to helping the poverty stricken to strive for the American Dream. But Jesus did more than that. He gave the poor a better dream. Jesus did not merely feed the poor. He invited the poor to the messianic banquet. He told them they were blessed, that they were rightful heirs to the earth, the primary recipients of God’s richest blessing. Jesus invited the poor into a new way of being human, a new way of living together under God’s reign. He rejected the domination system of the Jerusalem establishment and its Roman overlords in favor of the gentle reign of God. That reign is now unfolding in the very precincts of the temple and the high priest with his cronies can only watch and be afraid-very afraid.

Again, the call of Luke-Acts is for disciples of Jesus to be a community that is a demonstration plot for the reign of God. The church is an alternative way of being human. One might well say it is the genuine way of being human as God intends. That is, of course, a tall order. Even the Book of Acts, frequently said (erroneously I think) to be an “idealized” portrait of the church, demonstrates that the disciples frequently fell short of their high calling. Nonetheless, in spite of its faults and shortcomings, through the power of the Spirit within it “the word of God increased.” Acts 6:7.

Psalm 23

I think that I have probably said about everything I have to say about the Twenty Third Psalm at my posts for Sunday, October 12, 2014Sunday, May 11, 2014Sunday, March 30, 2014Sunday, April 21, 2013 and Sunday, July 22, 2012. That, of course, does not mean that there is no more to be said. I encourage you to read the commentary by Joel LeMon, Associate Professor of Old Testament at Candler School of Theology, Emory University Atlanta, Georgia on workingpreacher.org. I would also recommend The Shepherd Who Feeds Us by Debra Dean Murphy at ekklesiaproject.orgThis article discusses the “shepherd” metaphor employed in the 23rdPsalm and elsewhere. Finally, Augustine’s profound reflections on this psalm in his commentary is well worth rereading.

1 John 3:16-24

This lesson needs to be read against the gospel. As does the shepherd, so should the sheep do. We know love through what Jesus has done for us. Jesus the Good Shepherd laid down his life for his sheep. This love shown toward us must be reflected among and between the sheep. The sheep must be prepared to lay down their lives for each other and, that being so, how much more their worldly possessions. “If anyone has the world’s goods and sees his brother in need, yet closes his heart against him, how does God’s love abide in him?” vs. 17.

All of this sounds simple enough. So why do we have in the same county believers in Jesus (like me) who have more than adequate housing, clothing, access to health care and employment alongside believers who are homeless? Yes, I know that we are advocating for legislation to change all of that. I hope it all comes to fruition. I really do. But in the meantime, our sisters and brothers continue to be in need and, instead of opening our homes, our hearts and our faith communities to them, we offer them social services. Instead of being the alternative to the old order, we produce reams of preachy screechy social statements lecturing the old order in hopes of making it a little less oppressive. Again, I can hear dear old Mark Twain reminding us with a twinkle in his eye, “To be good is noble; to teach someone else to be good is more noble still-and a lot less trouble.” As I have said elsewhere, I believe that the more vibrant and promising models of church in this 21st century are those seeking to embody Jesus rather than implement some politicized abstraction of his teachings. See, e.g. post of Sunday, November 23, 2014.

“God is greater than our hearts” vs. 20. While it is never wise to disregard one’s conscience, conscience does not reflect God’s judgment upon our lives and conduct. The voice of conscience is not the voice of God. Conscience can be misguided, misdirected and grounded in false standards. God’s verdict on our lives is dictated by God’s love for us expressed in Jesus. So, too, our conduct with respect to our neighbors is shaped by that same love. Therefore, John can boil Jesus’ commandments down to the two “great” commandments identified in the synoptic gospels: “This is his commandment, that we should believe in the name of his Son, Jesus Christ and love one another.” Vs. 23. This love is not an abstraction, as in “What the world needs now is love, sweet love.” (Good Lord, have I ever dated myself!). Nor is love an expression of my own personal sentiments. The love of which John speaks is quite unintelligible apart from the gospel narratives and the larger context of the Hebrew scriptural narrative about God’s covenant faithfulness to Israel. It is also unintelligible apart from the community living out of those narratives. Love, then, is the miracle the Spirit imparts to a people that understands itself as heir of the promises made to Israel in the Hebrew Scriptures and offered to the world through the gracious invitation of Jesus. It is forged in the furnace of a community that strives to follow its Lord.

John 10:11-18

In Chapter 9 of John’s gospel, Jesus gave sight to a man born blind which, in turn, brought on a confrontation with the religious authorities in Jerusalem. The blind man was finally excommunicated from the synagogue for his dogged insistence that Jesus was responsible for his newfound sight. In the end, the man healed of his blindness worshipped Jesus. This sets the stage for Sunday’s lesson in which the question is posed: Who is the true Shepherd and what is the true community to which the Shepherd grants/denies admission? Clearly, the religious leadership claims to wield such authority and did so with respect to the man born blind. Now these so-called shepherds and the flock they claim as their own are contrasted with the Good Shepherd who also lays claim to the flock.

In verses 7-15, Jesus lays down the acid test determining the genuineness of a true shepherd. When the wolf shows up, the fake shepherd flees. He is but a “hireling.” Vs. 13. Because the sheep do not actually belong to him, he has nothing to lose beyond a day’s wage by running away. The shepherd who owns the sheep actually has “skin” in the game. Unlike the hired hand, this shepherd will put himself between the sheep and the jaws of the wolf. The Greek word used for “good” is not the more common “agathos,” but the word “kalos,” meaning “fine,” “beautiful” or “precious.” Unlike the leaders in Jerusalem who, under threat of Roman violence, are prepared to throw Jesus to the wolves in order to save their own skins, Jesus willingly lays down his own life to save the people. There are several levels of irony here. Caiaphas insists that “it is expedient…that one man should die for the people, and that the whole nation should not perish.” John 11:50. What he means, of course, is that Jesus must be sacrificed to preserve the status quo which is treating Caiaphas and his cronies quite well. But Caiaphas has unwittingly articulated Jesus’ mission and all that makes him a “fine, beautiful and precious” Shepherd. The sheep given Jesus by his Father recognize his voice. Vs. 14. Such faithful recognition has already been illustrated in the prior chapter by the blind man who could not be persuaded by the authorities (false shepherds) to deny Jesus, but, when confronted with Jesus, worships him.

As pointed out by Professor Raymond Brown, the Hebrew Scriptures are rich in shepherd imagery. God is frequently spoken of as the Shepherd of Israel. Brown, Raymond E., The Gospel According to John I-XII, The Anchor Bible (c. 1966 by Doubleday) p. 397. Genesis 49:2Psalm 23Psalm 78:52-53Psalm 80:1. Kings also, particularly David, were referred to as shepherds. Psalm 78:70-72. This title carries with it profound responsibilities for Israel’s rulers and withering judgment for kings failing in their role as “shepherds.” See I Kings 23:17Jeremiah 10:21Jeremiah 23:1-2; and Ezekiel 34. It is against the backdrop of these Hebrew texts that we must understand Jesus’ use of this powerful shepherd metaphor. John would have us understand that Jesus is the genuine Shepherd who alone puts the well-being of the sheep first and foremost.

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Living with the dead; a poem by William Matthews; and the lessons for Sunday, April 15th

See the source imageTHIRD SUNDAY OF EASTER

Acts 3:12-19
Psalm 4
1 John 3:1-7
Luke 24:36b-48

PRAYER OF THE DAY: Holy and righteous God, you are the author of life, and you adopt us to be your children. Fill us with your words of life, that we may live as witnesses to the resurrection of your Son, Jesus Christ, our Savior and Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and forever.

Every culture has its own way of living with the dead. As much as we might like to deny it, we are the products of past leaders whose decisions have shaped the world in which we have grown up, parents who, for better or worse, have shaped our character and peers whose unanticipated passing leaves holes in the fabric of our lives. Even if you don’t have a religious bone in your body, you can’t avoid reckoning with the dead. Welcome or not, they are a part of who you are and you ignore them at your peril.

Not long ago I had the opportunity to watch Coco, the animated film recently produced by Pixar Animation Studios and released by Walt Disney Pictures. The concept for Coco is based on the Mexican holiday, the Day of the Dead. This multi-day celebration focuses on gatherings of family and friends to pray for and remember friends and family members who have died. The dead are permitted to return to the land of the living in ghostly form on this special day as long as their loved ones remember to post their picture among the “ofrenda,” a collection of objects placed on a ritual altar for the dead. For the rest of the year, the dead continue their existence in their own separate realm for as long as they remain in living memory. When the day comes that no one remembers them, they expire and become truly dead. In the movie, twelve-year-old Miguel, who lives with his extended family headed by his grandmother, Coco, dreams of becoming a musician. His dream leads him on a journey into the land of the dead where he encounters his ancestors and struggles with his conflicting loyalties to his musical aspirations and his family. That’s as much as I dare say. I wouldn’t want to spoil the ending for you.

I thoroughly enjoyed the movie. In addition to being thoughtful, clever and visually stunning, the story provides a powerful image of what we confess as the “communion of saints.” The commemoration of the Day of the Dead is not so very far removed from our All Saints Day. Just as relatives of past generations live in the shared memories of their living families, so through our lessons, hymns and liturgy, Abraham and Sarah, Moses, Debera, David, Peter, Mary and Paul continue to visit us with their witness and teaching. Just as the celebrants in Coco are comforted with the conviction that their loved ones are present with them in their celebration, it is likewise comforting to know that our loved ones are in the company of the saints in light. Yet Coco leaves us with one troubling question: What about those who have no family? What about those no one remembers or cares about? What about the lost pregnancy? The still birth? The infant abandoned at birth and left to die? The unknown and nameless folk who parish from hunger and disease in the corner of some refugee camp?

The good news of Jesus’ resurrection takes us a step beyond Coco. Turns out that there is a life-giving memory far greater than our own. “God is not God of the dead, but of the living,” says Jesus. “For all live to him.” In fact, it is the forgotten, the neglected, the outcast and those with no one to remember them that are foremost in God’s mind and heart. The resurrection of the betrayed, abandoned and crucified Jesus is God’s pledge to bring to completion all lives that have been stunted by poverty and oppression or ruthlessly cut short by violence or illness. Just how that will occur is beyond comprehension. When the scriptural witnesses speak of that new heaven and earth in which the saints of all the ages participate, they must resort to parables, hymns, poems and graphic apocalyptic imagery. Though Jesus assures us that those we deem dead nonetheless live to God, he doesn’t give us any clues about what that life is like. As delightful as Coco’s fanciful depiction of existence beyond the grave surely is, like all human efforts at imagining the mysteries beyond death, it necessarily falls far short of the real thing.

I think Saint John says about as much as can be said in our second lesson for this Sunday: “Beloved, we are God’s children now; what we will be has not yet been revealed. What we do know is this: when [God] is revealed, we will be like him, for we will see him as he is.” I John 3:2. As I have often said before, this isn’t as much as we might like to know. But it is enough.

Here is a poem by William Matthews speaking of the way the dead continue to interact with the living.

Living Among the Dead

There is another world,
but it is in this one.

Paul Eluard

First there were those who died
before I was born.
It was as if they had just left
and their shadows would
slip out after them
under the door so recently closed
the air in its path was still
swirling to rest.
Some of the furniture came from them,
I was told, and one day
I opened two chests
of drawers to learn what the dead kept.

But it was when I learned to read
that I began always
to live among the dead.
I remember Rapunzel,
the improved animals
in the Just-So Stories, and a flock
of birds that saved themselves
from a hunter by flying in place
in the shape of a tree,
their wings imitating the whisk
of wind in the leaves.

My sons and I are like some wine
the dead have already bottled.
They wish us well, but there is nothing
they can do for us.
Sebastian cries in his sleep,
I bring him into my bed,
talk to him, rub his back.
To help his sons live easily
among the dead is a father’s great work.
Now Sebastian drifts, soon he’ll sleep.
We can almost hear the dead
breathing. They sound like water
under a ship at sea.

To love the dead is easy.
They are final, perfect.
But to love a child
is sometimes to fail at love
while the dead look on
with their abstract sorrow.

To love a child is to turn
away from the patient dead.
It is to sleep carefully
in case he cries.

Later, when my sons are grown
among their own dead, I can
dive easily into sleep and loll
among the coral of my dreams
growing on themselves
until at the end
I almost never dream of anyone,
except my sons,
who is still alive.

Source: Matthews, William, Rising and Falling (c. 1979 by William Matthews, pub. by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt). William Matthews (1942-1997)  was born in Cincinnati, Ohio.  He earned his BA from Yale University and an MA from the University of North Carolina. He published eleven books of poetry during his lifetime, one of which earned him the National Book Critics Circle Award. Matthews served as president of Associated Writing Programs and of the Poetry Society of America. He was also a member and chair of the Literature Panel of the National Endowment for the Arts. At the time of his death from a heart attack at age fifty-five, he was a professor of English and director of the creative writing program at New York’s City College. You can learn more about William Matthews and read more of his poems at the Poetry Foundation website.  You might also want to check out his profile on poets.org.

Acts 3:12-19

This passage is part of a larger narrative that begins with Peter and John going up to the temple in Jerusalem to pray. Acts 3:1. The indication here is that the temple and its worship was an important aspect of faith and piety in the infant Jesus movement. Though the composition of Acts took place long after the temple had been destroyed and its worship traditions lost, there is no reason to discount Luke’s account of the early church’s worshiping and gathering there. This anecdote from the Book of Acts testifies to a reality that is hard to grasp from our historical standpoint, namely, that the Jesus movement that ultimately became the church originated as a reform movement within Judaism. Though Luke’s interest throughout the latter chapters of Acts is on the mission to the gentiles, he makes the point that the church’s origin was in Jerusalem, the heart of Judaism.

On their way into the temple, the two disciples encounter a lame beggar asking for alms. Peter tells the man that he has no money, but what he does have he will give him. With that, Peter commands: “in the name of Jesus Christ of Nazareth, walk.” Acts 3:6. As the song we all learned in Sunday School goes, “He went walking and leaping and praising God.” Acts 3:8. This show of divine healing did not escape notice of the crowds in front of the temple, who were “filled with wonder and amazement.” Acts 3:10. At this point, Peter addresses the crowd in the words of our lesson.

“Why…do you stare at us, as though by our own power or piety we had made [this man] walk?” vs. 12. From beginning to end, Luke is determined not to attribute this or any other mighty work done among the apostles to the apostles. This miracle of healing has numerous parallels to healings Jesus performed in the gospels. The healing power of Jesus manifest throughout his ministry continues unbroken through the community of disciples. It is, in fact, Jesus who healed the man and Peter would have his audience know that.

“The God of Abraham and of Isaac and of Jacob, the God of our Fathers, glorified his servant Jesus…” vs. 13. Again, probably for the benefit of his gentile readers, Luke makes the point that the God proclaimed by the church is not “the god of our common understanding,” a sort of lowest divine common denominator to which everyone short of an atheist can own. The God and Father of Jesus Christ is the God of the patriarchs and matriarchs, the God of the Exodus, the God of David and the God of the prophets. We do not all believe in the same God and it is not a matter of indifference where God is sought. The God and Father of Jesus Christ is not the anemic, placid and featureless deity of American civil religion. Prayers written with such a high degree of cultural sensitivity as to offend nobody are addressed to nobody. “Nonsectarian prayer” is simply pious slop.

Having said that, Peter’s sermon here alludes to the appearance of God to Moses in the burning bush. There God reveals God’s self as “the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac and the God of Jacob.” Exodus 3:6. This affirms, as I said previously, that God is known exclusively through God’s word and covenant faithfulness to God’s chosen people. Moses, it seems, is not entirely satisfied with God’s self identification. “If I go to the people of Israel and say to them, ‘The God of your fathers has sent me to you,’ and they ask me, ‘What is his name?’ What shall I tell them? God said to Moses, ‘I am who I am.’” Exodus 3:13-14. Depending on the rendering of the Hebrew which is not altogether clear as to the tense of the verbs, this declaration might also be interpreted, “I will be who I will be.” In either case, God will not be limited by any divine name. Surely, God’s saving acts on behalf of Israel are definitive in themselves and in our understanding of the New Testament witness to Jesus. Yet there is a difference between “definitive” and “limited.” A definition is capable of deeper understanding, interpretation and explanation. Only so can the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob possibly be understood as the God of gentile believers in Jesus Christ.

Luke goes further to say that Jesus, the one rejected, handed over to the imperial authorities and put to death is “the Holy and Righteous One,” “the Author of life” attested by God’s raising him from death. Vs. 12. It is the church’s claim that the promises made to Israel and to the world find their fulfilment in Jesus. What does this mean for Jews that did not find in Jesus the fulfilment of the covenant promises? What does it mean for believers of other faiths that do not know or acknowledge Jesus as Lord?

When I was in college I became well acquainted with a Taiwanese Buddhist woman who regularly attended our campus chapel worship and even sang in our worship choir. We discussed our respective faith experiences often, but I was never sure we were understanding each other well. I now know that views of divinity and godhood in the Eastern religions are quite different from orthodox Christian thought. Consequently, I believe we were probably talking past each other much of the time. I do recall, however, that in one of our last conversations she told me that learning about Jesus had helped her become a better Buddhist.

So I was left to wonder about the simple equation we make between salvation and conversion to orthodox belief in Jesus. Is evangelization always about conversion? My friend was never (to my knowledge) converted, baptized and received into membership of any church. She was not a Christian in any proper sense of the word. Yet she seems to have had an encounter with Jesus that deepened and expanded her Buddhist faith and practice. Can Jesus enable Jews to become better Jews, Buddhists to become better Buddhists and Muslims to become better Muslims-just as he enables Christians to become better Christians? Seems to me that disciples of Jesus need not choose between an absolutist position that denigrates all other faiths to the status of false or second class religion on the one hand and sappy, mindless drivel about a “god of our common understanding” on the other. It is enough to do just as Peter does in his sermon: preach Jesus Christ boldly, persuasively and faithfully. Then let that Word of God “multipl[y] the number of disciples” or work in whatever way the Spirit in her wisdom sees fit. Acts 6:7.

Peter goes on to emphasize that he and his fellow apostles are witnesses to Jesus’ resurrection. This goes to my oft repeated quote from Rich Barger, President of Trinity Lutheran Seminary: “If the tomb wasn’t empty, we’ve got nothing to talk about.” Much of 19th and early 20th Century protestant theology and biblical scholarship has strained to explain the resurrection in terms that do not insult modernity’s creed of empiricism. Whether or not the tomb was empty, is irrelevant or so we are told. The church’s faith, we are assured, is based on the disciples’ encounter with the resurrected Christ. However that might be, it begs the question: was the resurrection an act by which God raised the crucified Jesus of Nazareth from death into life? Or was the resurrection a completely understandable response to the life and death of a person whose example and teachings proved greater than his mortal life?

As I pointed out five years ago in my Easter post of 2013, we need to be careful about asserting more than we know about the resurrection. Though Jesus appears to his disciples with a body that can be embraced, shares in meals and continues to bear the wounds of the cross, that body is clearly more than a resuscitated corpse. When Luke asserts that Jesus ascended to the right hand of God the Father, he does not mean to say that Jesus has gone away to some distant place. Rather, he is saying that Jesus is henceforth more intensely present than ever before. Jesus is God’s right hand at work in the world through his church. Saint Paul understands the church to be the resurrected Body of Christ. The empty tomb testifies that Jesus lives-not as a religious, theological or philosophical principle that outlasted him, but as God’s right hand bringing to completion Jesus’ work of salvation for all creation. Jesus was the face of God for humanity throughout his ministry and continues to be so with greater power and intensity as the resurrected Lord at God’s right hand.

Though Peter makes no citation to the prophets he claims foretold the suffering of the Messiah, his audience was well aware that God suffers along with the afflictions of Israel. See, e.g., Hosea 12:5-9Isaiah 1:4-6Isaiah 42:14-16. Whether a 1st Century Jewish audience would have recognized the Servant Songs (Isaiah 42:1–9Isaiah 49:1-6Isaiah 50:4-9a and Isaiah 52:13-53:12) from Second Isaiah as messianic is debatable. Nonetheless, they illustrate, as does the witness of the prophets generally, that prophetic faithfulness to the will of Israel’s God necessarily entails suffering, rejection and sometimes martyrdom. That the messiah should share in the suffering of both God’s prophets and God’s self is a legitimate interpretive step.

“Times of refreshing” in verse 19 may be an intentional allusion to Isaiah 32 in which the prophet foretells the coming of “a king who will reign in righteousness.” Isaiah 32:1. At this time, “the Spirit is poured upon us from on high, and the wilderness becomes a fruitful field, and the fruitful field is deemed a forest.” Isaiah 32:15. The “effect of righteousness will be peace, and the result of righteousness, quietness and trust forever.” Isaiah 32:17. Peter means to tie everything that Jesus has accomplished into the most far reaching and wonderful prophetic promises growing out of Israel’s covenant with her God. With what other than prophetic language can one speak of the mystery of resurrection?

Psalm 4

This is a psalm of lament, one of the most common types found in the Psalter. The essential elements of its type are:

  1. Initial Appeal to Yahweh, vs. 1.
  2. Portrayal of inward distress, vs. 2
  3. Expression of confidence, vss. 3.
  4. Witness of praise to the community, vss. 4-8.

See Anderson, Bernard W., Out of the Depths, The Psalms Speak for us Today, (c. 1983 by Bernard W. Anderson, pub. by The Westminster Press) p. 97. Using the categories employed by Professor Walter Brueggemann, this psalm falls under the collection of prayers characterized as psalms of “disorientation.” Such psalms insist “that the world must be experienced as it really is and not in some pretended way.” Nevertheless, they also insist that all “experiences of disorder are a proper subject for discourse with God.” Brueggemann, Walter, The Message of the Psalms, Augsburg Old Testament Studies (c. 1984 by Augsburg Publishing House) p. 52. “It is a curious fact,” Brueggemann notes, “that the church has, by and large, continued to sing songs of orientation in a world increasingly experienced as disoriented.” Ibid. at p. 51. He goes on to say that:

“It is in my judgment that this action of the church is less an evangelical defiance guided by faith, and much more a frightened, numb denial and deception that does not want to acknowledge or experience the disorientation of life. The reason for such relentless affirmation of orientation seems to come, not from faith, but from wishful optimism of our culture. Such a denial and cover up, which I take it to be, is an odd inclination for passionate Bible users, given the large number of psalms that are songs of lament, protest, and complaint about the incoherence that is experienced in the world. At least it is clear that a church that goes on singing ‘happy songs’ in the face of raw reality is doing something very different from what the Bible itself does.” Ibid. at pp. 51-52.

This Sunday’s psalm does not begin with a lengthy, pious invocation. The psalmist begins his/her prayer with a demand for an answer! Vs. 1. In that respect, s/he is not unlike my son when he was just a toddler. Occasionally I was distracted with one thing or another when he needed my full attention. At those times, he would literally grasp my head and turn my face in his direction to make it clear where he thought my priorities should be. It is with that kind of forcefulness that the psalmist demands the attention of God.

The dilemma of the psalmist appears to be false accusation. “How long shall my honor suffer shame?” vs. 2. That was a very real question faced by the spouse of a friend, a teacher accused of molesting one of his students. During investigation of the allegations, which took several months, he was suspended from his job. Though the law presumes one innocent until proven guilty, the court of public opinion presumes guilt, often even after a court has declared quite the opposite. This is particularly so when the offense is one we view as the vilest of crimes. Turns out that my friend’s spouse was cleared of any wrongdoing and reinstated, but that could hardly compensate for the toll taken by living for months under such damning allegations. That may reflect what the psalmist is experiencing here.

“But know that the Lord has set apart the godly for himself; the Lord hears when I call to him.” vs. 2. The psalmist is confident that God, the final court of appeal, sees all ends and will render a just verdict. However heavily the deck may be stacked against him, no human judgment founded on injustice can stand.

“Be angry, but sin not; commune with your own hearts on your beds, and be silent.” Vs. 4. The psalmist began with a call to God for an answer to his/her predicament. S/he then turns to address his/her accusers with the assurance that God will judge his/her case justly. Now the psalmist addresses his/her fellow worshipers with words of advice. “Be angry, but sin not.” The greatest temptation faced by persons undergoing false accusation is to become cynical and hateful. The question is whether one will be shaped by the conduct of one’s persecutors or by faith in the God upon whom one depends.

“There are many who say, ‘Oh that we might see some good! Lift up the light of thy countenance upon us, O Lord!’” vs. 6. It is, of course, easier to live thankfully when life is blessed and times are peaceful. But the psalmist recognizes that the true measure of a person’s soul is taken in times of trial. Thus, s/he can pray, “Thou has put more joy in my heart than they have when their grain and wine abound.” Vs. 7. These fair weather worshipers have no understanding of the joy that comes from confidence in God wrought through bitter experience where such confidence is sorely needed. Thus, as uncertain and ambiguous as the psalmist’s situation is, s/he can nevertheless “lie down and sleep” in peace. Vs. 8.

1 John 3:1-7

For my comments on the First Letter of John generally, see my post for Sunday, April 8, 2018. You might also want to check out the Summary Article by Alan Padgett, Professor of Systematic Theology at Luther Seminary, St. Paul M.N.

The chapter begins with an affirmation of God’s love and promise that we are God’s children even now. Vs. 1. This relationship to God our heavenly Father is not something into which we grow. It is a relationship into which we are born through the waters of baptism. Yet, in a sense, it is something into which we grow. Verses 3-7 read in isolation from the rest of the epistle might suggest that believers in Jesus no longer sin. John already told us quite the contrary in last week’s reading. I John 1:8. The focus here is on the process described in verse 3 where John says, “everyone who thus hopes in him purifies himself as he is pure.” Hope and trust in Jesus re-orientates life away from sin and toward a life of love for the sisters and brothers in Christ’s church. This new orientation is a process by which believers and the church as a whole are transformed into the image of Jesus. Sin is still a reality in the life of a disciple, but its power to enslave is broken by God’s promise of forgiveness.

The verse I find most meaningful among the many meaningful sentences tightly packed into this section is verse 2. “Beloved, we are God’s children now; it does not yet appear what we shall be, but we know that when he appears we shall be like him, for we shall see him as he is.” We know from last week’s lesson that Jesus is the face of God that can be touched, looked upon and seen. So while much remains mysterious about resurrected life, we know that at Jesus’ appearing, we will be like Jesus. We will be the sort of creatures capable of living joyfully, thankfully and obediently under the gentle reign of God Incarnate. This is what needs to happen in order for us to receive the advent of God’s reign as good news. A kingdom in which all have enough might not look very attractive to those of us who have grown used to having far more than we need. A kingdom in which all are welcome might seem unwelcome to those of us accustomed to flying first class or living in gated communities. To those of us accustomed to being the center of attention, having all attention directed to the Lamb on the throne might prove an unbearable slight. Unless we finally become like Jesus, the kingdom of heaven isn’t going to be much fun.

Of course, the overall message of these verses and of the epistle generally is that God in Christ Jesus is even now working that transformation in us. We may not be aware of it. We might be tempted to doubt it when we try to measure our progress toward the goal of becoming like Christ. The best advice is not to try and measure. Like a tightrope walker, our eyes need to be fixed on the goal, on Christ who beckons us forward. The minute we take our gaze off him and fixate on the abyss beneath us and the distance we have yet to go, we are toast.

Luke 24:36b-48

This is a scene at the tail end of Luke’s series of resurrection encounters throughout this chapter. By this time, Jesus has appeared to the women at the tomb, to the two disciples on the road to Emmaus and apparently to Simon Peter as well. This resurrection appearance marks the climax in which Jesus appears to all the disciples, shares a meal with them and commissions them to be his witnesses to all nations beginning from Jerusalem. Vs. 47. If we were permitted to read a bit further to the end of the gospel, we would learn that Luke’s story concludes where it began, in the Jerusalem Temple. As I mentioned in my discussion of our lesson from Acts, Luke is concerned to anchor the good news about Jesus firmly within the covenant life of Israel while expanding its reach to all peoples.

Luke takes special pains to emphasize that Jesus is not a “spirit,” but a resurrected human being. It is important that the tomb was found empty (Luke 24:1-3); that Jesus was recognized in the breaking of bread (Luke 24:30-31); and that Jesus could be handled by his disciples. Vs. 39. Perhaps, knowing his gentile audience, Luke means to emphasize the physicality of the resurrection to counter other near eastern beliefs such as re-incarnation, the immortality of the soul and transmigration to some eternal “spiritual” world. See Schweizer, Eduard, The Good News According to Luke, (c. 1984 by John Knox Press) p. 376. Not mere survival of death, but a new heaven and a new earth is what the prophets proclaimed and what is inaugurated in Jesus’ resurrection.

Verse 44 makes reference to the tripartite “cannon” of Hebrew Scriptures as Law, Prophets and Writings (which included the Psalms). It should be noted that, at Jesus time and thereafter, these writings were not given equal weight of authority. The first and most significant was the Law of Moses consisting of the first five books of the Bible (Genesis to Deuteronomy). The second was the Prophets broadly consisting of Joshua, Judges, I & II Samuel, I & II Kings, Jeremiah, Ezekiel, Isaiah and the Twelve (the Minor Prophets). Third, there were the “Writings,” the largest of which is the Psalms. Also included are Proverbs, Job, Ecclesiastes, Song of Solomon, Lamentations, Daniel, Esther, Ezra-Nehemiah, I & II Chronicles, Ruth, Song of Solomon and Esther.

Luke tells us that Jesus “opened the minds” of the disciples to understand the Hebrew Scriptures. Our minds are not blank slates when we approach the scriptures. It makes a difference how you read the scriptures and how you read the scriptures depends on what you bring to them. You can find support for incest, rape, genocide, slavery and all manner of beastly conduct in the Bible. Sadly, the Bible has been used in just that manner throughout history. The church’s hermeneutical principle, our way of making sense of the scriptures, is Jesus. Jesus opens up the scriptures to our understanding just as the scriptures testify to Jesus. When we depart from this hermeneutic, we wander into a morass of ethics devoid of compassion, doctrine devoid of faith and slavish bondage to the letter devoid of Spirit.

 

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Do church-touch Jesus; a poem by Marya Zaturenska; and the lessons for Sunday, April 8, 2018

See the source imageSECOND SUNDAY OF EASTER

Acts 4:32-35
Psalm 133
1 John 1:1—2:2
John 20:19-31

PRAYER OF THE DAY: Almighty God, with joy we celebrate the day of our Lord’s resurrection. By the grace of Christ among us, enable us to show the power of the resurrection in all that we say and do, through Jesus Christ, our Savior and Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and forever.

“We declare to you what was from the beginning, what we have heard, what we have seen with our eyes, what we have looked at and touched with our hands, concerning the word of life—” I John 1:1-1.

The scandal of our faith is simply this: that God has a body. More specifically, a human body. Let us be clear: the miracle of the Incarnation was not a disguise. The Word not only became flesh but remains so. The resurrected Christ can be seen, touched and held. He does not discard his suffering humanity in ascending to the right hand of the Father, but carries with him the wounds of the cross which the world continues to inflict upon him. That accounts for why Jesus was so insistent that Thomas pace his finger into the wounds in his hands and side. It explains why Saint John says so emphatically that the word that is God’s self is tangible and open to our physical senses. It also explains the communal behavior of the early believers described in the Book of Acts. Because the word has assumed human flesh, all human flesh is sacred. Just as no healthy body deprives any of its parts hydration, nourishment and oxygen, it is unthinkable that anyone in the church should be without what s/he needs.

According to John the Evangelist, the church is the place where the humanity of God is showcased to the end that the world may come to know the divine intent for all creation to be permeated by the same love that is the glue holding together the Trinity. For that reason, there is no churchless Christianity. God has a bodily existence. The only God there is, we confess, is the weak God that must be fed, sheltered, comforted and cared for. This “weakness” and vulnerability of God, Paul tells us, is God’s strength. God’s power lies in God’s resisting the temptation to employ coercive force which we typically confuse with genuine power. God does not ordain and justify nation states, but stands in solidarity with the victims of such nation states. Jesus, the Word made flesh, is the antithesis of everything we thought we knew about God. This is the good news of Jesus Christ. It cannot be lived or communicated to the world apart from embodiment visible community of faith.

All of this high sounding theological freight boils down to a very mundane point. You need to be church on Sunday morning. And no, that was not a typo. I did not mean to say that you need to be “in” church on Sunday. I said very intentionally that you need to be church. Church is more a verb than it is a noun. The Greek word employed by the New Testament “Ekklesia, means “a coming together” or “assembly.” Church isn’t a place we go, but something we become together. When we are brought together by the preaching of the gospel and joined at the Lord’s Table, we become more than any one of us individually. All of us, I suppose, find that hard to believe at least some of the time. That is precisely why our worship consists of hearing, speaking, touching and tasting. It is why we gather, not in online chat rooms or as part of a television audience, but in sanctuaries where children squirm and fuss, old men sneeze and the choir is sometimes off key. Sometimes, you need to see and touch something real before you can believe. You need to shake a hand, you need to dip your finger into some plain old water, you need to take hold of a piece of bread or swallow a little wine. Church might be boring, irrelevant and downright unattractive at times. But whatever else it might be, church is real. It is the wounded Body of the God who is irrevocably committed to uniting all things, not through conquest but through patient and persistent love. Do church and you’ll touch Jesus. That’s a promise.

Here is a poem by Marya Zaturenska about the manifestation of the risen Christ in the worship of a faith community.

A Russian Easter

In the great cathedral with blue windows,
In the great cathedral of Moscow,
They will kneel before the ikcons.

The mother is dressed in blue and gold,
And the child’s eyes are of blue jewels;
And golden and blue are the robes of the high priest.

Nataska will be there in a scarlet cloak,
And Irena’s gown will be embroidered in crimson.
Sergi will be there, and Igor
Will gaze with mystic Slav-eyes at the golden altar.

They will weep before the altar for their sins;
They will beat their breasts and pray for pardon;
They will arise shrived and forgiven!

When the priest unlooses the tiny white doves-
They will weep for joy.

All will arise and embrace one another,
Crying, “Hail brother, Hail!”-
Crying, “Hail sister, Hail!”

Christ is arisen, Christ is arisen! Christ
Is arisen from his grave!

Source: Poetry Magazine, April, 1920. Marya Zaturenska (1902-1922) was born in Kiev. She emigrated to the United States with her family around the turn of the century and settled in New York. Like many immigrant children, she worked days in a clothing factory and attended night courses. Zaturenska earned a scholarship to Valparaiso University in Indiana, but ultimately transferred to the University of Wisconsin where she earned a bachelors degree in library science. She wrote eight volumes of poetry, including the Pulitzer Prize-winning Cold Morning Sky. You can find out more about Marya Zaturenska and sample more of her poetry at the Poetry Foundation website.

Acts 4:32-35

For once I have to commend the lectionary people for including this reading in the Easter pericopies. I have gotten into the habit of asking myself after completing my sermon for Sunday: “OK. So what?” Nowhere is that question more pertinent than during the season of Easter when we celebrate and proclaim Jesus’ resurrection. What does life look like for a people that have put death behind them? How do you live when you know that the one God raised from death is neither Caesar, General Patten nor the American sniper, but the crucified friend of sinners? What does one see looking at a community governed by Jesus’ “new” commandment to love? Luke answers these questions by showing us a community “of one heart and soul;” a community in which “no one said that any of the things which he possessed was his own, but they had everything in common.” Vs. 32.

We mainline protestants, committed as we are to the creed of capitalism, find this passage extraordinarily problematic. For the most part, we dismiss the text as Luke’s effort to portray an “idealized” picture of the early church that had little or no basis in reality. This convenient use of historical-critical exegesis excuses us from interpreting the text “literally” (read “seriously”) and permits us to write it off as literary license or as an early but failed experiment in communal living that the church left behind as it matured. To be sure, it is highly anachronistic to read the Book of Acts (or any other biblical book) as “history” in the modern sense. But it is equally improper to employ modern historical-critical analysis to such texts in order to extract from them interpretations more palatable to our 21st Century sensibilities (and prejudices). As noted earlier, Luke challenges our modern notions of property ownership, wealth, consumption and individual rights. It is disingenuous at best to employ clever (not wise or competent) scholarship to dismiss him.

What does it mean to be “of one heart and soul”? It cannot mean that everyone always gets along. The subsequent chapters of Acts demonstrate that there was in the early church plenty of disagreement, debate, misunderstanding and need for compromise. Yet for all of that, the church managed to hold together. One might argue that Luke’s portrayal is not entirely historically accurate and that the life of the early church was in fact a good deal messier. But again, modern notions of historicity are not a proper tool of measurement when it comes to reading biblical texts. Luke’s story is a testimony to his belief that the Holy Spirit was at work in the midst of the church’s messiness forging a community of faith bearing witness to Jesus. It is much the same as when we confess in our creeds that we believe in “one, holy, catholic and apostolic church.” From a purely historical perspective, one can argue persuasively that the church is not any of those things and never has been. Yet history can neither verify nor disprove the presence of the Holy Spirit at work in the diverse and often seemingly adverse communities claiming to be church, forming a unity that transcends our divisions. That is an assertion of faith.

That said, we get fleeting glimpses of the unity, holiness, catholicity and apostolicity of the church every so often. The explosive growth of the church in Asia and Sub Saharan Africa across barriers of tribal and national hostility is surely a testimony to the vitality of the Spirit’s unifying power. As I have observed before, intentional communities such as Church of the SojournersReba Place Fellowship and Koinonia Farm point to new and exciting ways of being a “holy” community. A day does not go by in the life of my own congregation where I do not witness acts of compassion born of the sharing of heart and soul. None of this “proves” anything. Nevertheless, it testifies to the difference Jesus’ resurrection is making in the lives of people who believe it.

Psalm 133

The literary formula “Behold, how good and pleasant it is” has parallels in Egyptian literature of the “wisdom” genre. Weiser, Artur, The Psalms, The Old Testament Library (c. 1962 by S.C.M. Press, Ltd.) p. 783. Professor Walter Brueggemann treats this psalm as one of “orientation,” expressing “a confident, serene, settlement of faith issues.” Brueggemann, Walter The Message of the Psalms, Augsburg Old Testament Studies (c. 1984 Augsburg Publishing Co.) pp. 25, 47. It celebrates the blessedness of family, tribal and national unity using two metaphors. The first is that of anointing with oil. In addition to the cultic function of such anointing, the practice was also an expression of honor and hospitality, “a measure of extravagance and well being.” Ibid. 48. See Amos 6:6Mark 14:3-9Luke 7:46. The second metaphor employed by the psalmist is “dew.” In the often parched landscape of Palestine, the appearance of dew was a rare and welcome weather phenomenon. The poem, says Brueggeman, anticipates the solidarity and harmony of all humanity as it lives without defensiveness in a creation benevolent enough to care for all.” Ibid.

The declaration of the goodness of unity in the psalm complements the practice of that unity to which Luke testifies in our lesson from Acts. Though far from a universal reality, such unity is not merely a utopian ideal. It was experienced at times among the patriarchs and matriarchs, by Israel, by the church in the New Testament and throughout the church’s subsequent history in the monastic movement and through various other intentional Christian communities. These manifestations of life lived among a people of “one heart and soul” give us fleeting glimpses of God’s reign.

1 John 1:1—2:2

Though traditionally ascribed to John, the disciple of Jesus, this letter and the two short epistles following it do not purport to come from anyone by that name. I John does not even appear to be a letter. It lacks both an opening salutation and a closing benediction common to other New Testament epistles. It resembles more a theological treatise or sermon. Though the First Letter of John has close theological and linguistic similarities to John’s gospel, most New Testament scholars believe that the letter was composed by a different author at some point after the gospel was composed. It is possible that I John was composed by “the elder” identified as the author of John 2 and John 3, though this too is disputed. However the authorship question might be resolved, it is evident that the Gospel of John and the three letters of John share a common perspective suggesting that they originated from the same early Christian community.

One cannot help but be impressed with the intense physicality of these opening sentences of John’s letter. What is proclaimed is that which has been “seen,” “looked upon” and “touched.” Vss. 1-3. There is a strong emphasis on the connection of the proclamation to the person of Jesus. This letter is addressed, in part, to counter claims of some persons who “went out from us” and who are evidently denying that Jesus is the messiah. I John 2:18-25. We can only speculate concerning exactly what members of this schismatic group might actually have believed. According to the author of this letter, these folks deny that Jesus has come as messiah “in the flesh” and fail to practice the “new” commandment of love for fellow disciples. I John 4:2-3I John 3:11-24. For John, orthopraxy goes hand in hand with orthodoxy. Failure to exercise Jesus’ commandment to love fellow members of the church renders one an “antichrist” just as surely as does the denial of Jesus as Christ come in the flesh.

John urges his fellow believers to “walk in the light.” Vs. 7. Again, believing in Jesus is not mere passive reflection or assent to correct teaching. It involves not merely seeing the light, but “walking” in it. Recognition of one’s own sin is a byproduct of walking in the light. To continue justifying, rationalizing or denying sin means only that one remains in the dark about the truth. Vs. 8. The light exposes us as we truly are, compelling us to confess our sinfulness and need for forgiveness. But that is only half the story and not even the better half. The light also exposes God as “faithful and just,” eager to “forgive our sins and cleanse us from all unrighteousness.” Vs. 9. This is reminiscent of the text from John’s gospel where Jesus declares: “this is the judgment, that the light has come into the world, and men preferred darkness rather than light, because their deeds were evil.” John 3:19. But Jesus goes on to say that “he who does what is true comes to the light, that it may be clearly seen that his deeds have been wrought in God.” John 3:21. The light is essential both for seeing ourselves for what we are and for recognizing God for who God is.

John 20:19-31

For my more specific comments on this gospel text, I refer you to my post for April 7, 2014. This year I was struck most by the physicality of the resurrected Christ portrayed in John’s gospel. In that respect, my reading is probably influenced by our lesson from I John just discussed. Jesus can be touched and handled. Moreover, he still bears the wounds of the crucifixion on his resurrected body. I think it is incredibly important to recognize that Jesus’ resurrection is not a “happily ever after” ending. The cross reflects Jesus’ determination to “go the distance” for creation. The resurrection is God’s eternal “yes’ to that commitment. Thus, I was more than a little dismayed to discover when the Lutheran Book of Worship came out in print that a critical line to one of my favorite hymns had been sabotaged. The original went:

In every insult, rift, and war
Where color, scorn, or wealth divide
Christ suffers still yet loves the more,
And lives though ever crucified.

The new improved version goes:

In every insult, rift, and war
Where color, scorn, or wealth divide
Christ suffers still yet loves the more,
And lives wherever hope has died.

See ELW # 389. The former version is the stronger and, in my opinion, to be preferred. While Jesus’ crucifixion and resurrection are a one time, unrepeatable event that fundamentally changed everything, that change is God’s eternal and unalterable identification with humanity. You might call it the seal on the miracle of the Incarnation. God became flesh, remained flesh to the point of death on the cross and now lives eternally in the flesh for us. That is why we see in child refugees coming across our border, victims of genocide in the Middle East and persons caught in the grip of poverty the face of Jesus. That is why the resurrection makes a difference. We cannot engage in behavior that harms our neighbor, directly or indirectly, without wounding Jesus. Jesus remains human, vulnerable and subject to the terrible consequences of our evil. Yet, as even the “new improved” version of the hymn affirms, “he loves the more.”

The witness of Thomas is interesting. Though he did not believe the testimony of his fellow disciples to Jesus’ resurrection, we nevertheless find him in the company of those disciples eight days later. Vs. 26. It appears that Thomas wants to believe even if he can’t quite manage it yet. So he does what any person should do in that circumstance. He hangs out with the folks who do believe, that is, the church. There he finally has the faith producing encounter with Jesus he was looking for. In a sense, then, he believed even before he saw Jesus. Or perhaps it would be more accurate to say that he had the desire to believe. Does that “count” as faith of some kind? If so, it would give an entirely different twist to Jesus’ word to Thomas, “blessed are those who have not seen and yet believe.” Vs. 29. Could it be that we have been reading this verse all wrong? Could it be that Jesus is not chiding “doubting” Thomas for his lack of faith, but was actually commending Thomas for the faith required to stick with the disciples even though he had not seen the resurrected Christ as they had? I must confess that I have never seen any commentator interpret the text in that way. Nonetheless, I think it is a plausible reading.

Finally, I cannot resist talking a little about verses 30-31 in which John informs us that the whole point of his gospel is “that you may believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God, and that believing you may have life in his name.” vs. 31. I don’t think it is carrying things too far to say that the same could be said of the entire Bible at least as far as disciples of Jesus are concerned. Whatever else the Bible might be, for disciples it is the portal into the heart of our Master. Its purpose is to draw us closer to Jesus, not provide ammunition for culture warriors seeking to keep guns in the hands of true believers and pizza out of the hands of gay and lesbian people.

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Easter doesn’t come easy; a poem by Christina Rossetti; and the lessons for Sunday, April 1, 2018

See the source imageRESURRECTION OF OUR LORD

Acts 10:34-43
Psalm 118:1-2, 14-24
1 Corinthians 15:1-11
Mark 16:1-8

PRAYER OF THE DAY: O God, you gave your only Son to suffer death on the cross for our redemption, and by his glorious resurrection you delivered us from the power of death. Make us die every day to sin, that we may live with him forever in the joy of the resurrection, through your Son, Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and forever.

Mark the Evangelist’s Easter story is dark and terrifying. It begins and ends in a graveyard with three women racing from the scene of a violated tomb in stark terror. It appears to end that way too. The women, we are told, said nothing to anyone about what they had experienced. Of course, we know that cannot possibly have been the case. If it had, there would be no church and I would not be writing these lines. At some point, the women must have shared the good news about the empty tomb and Jesus’ resurrection. But we don’t learn anything about that from Mark. Mark would surely have been familiar with accounts of the resurrection and appearances of the resurrected Christ to his disciples found in the other gospels. These stories were floating around the church a good two decades at least before he wrote his gospel. Yet for reasons concerning which we can only speculate, Mark did not see fit to include them in his Easter story. Mark will not let us slide so easily from the shock of the empty tomb to the joy of reconciliation with the risen Christ. He leaves us instead with an unfinished story. If we want an ending, we will have to make it.

As unsettling as it is, Mark’s account of Easter Sunday resonates best with my instincts of how things likely went down. I expect the women were going to the tomb of Jesus for the same reason I might visit the tomb of a lost loved one. They wanted a measure of closure and to get on with their lives. Finding the tomb violated and the remains removed could only have added to the already traumatic loss they had experienced. I doubt that resurrection topped the list of possible explanations the women were entertaining for the empty tomb. Most likely, they concluded that the grave had been ransacked by some of Jesus’ many enemies. Seeing a man at the scene of the crime could only have made the experience more terrifying for the women. The fact that he happened to be wearing a white robe would not necessarily lead them to conclude that he was an angel, nor do I think they would have been inclined to trust much of anything he had to say to them. The women’s response-terror and silence-strike me as entirely understandable.

Those of us who have experienced the traumatic loss of a loved one know that the way back from total devastation to healing is a long, slow journey. There is a part of us that simply does not accept the terrible thing that has happened and believes we will wake up to discover that it was all a very bad dream. There is another part of us designed to protect us from entertaining such irrational hopes that will only be dashed in the end, thereby adding to our pain. I understand why the women who came to the tomb were terrified by the good news of Jesus’ resurrection. It was too good to be true and it would hurt them just too much if they dared to believe it.

Perhaps many of us have reached the point where we can no longer hear the good news of Easter. Perhaps we have been lied to, betrayed, taken advantage of so many times that we have lost the capacity for trust and hope. Maybe Mark’s audience was at that very point. Could this be a church that had seen so many set-backs, so many dashed hopes and so many failures it no longer dared to believe that Jesus was alive and leading it? Perhaps the troubling ending for Mark’s gospel was the shock therapy required to jolt an anesthetized church out of its spiritual coma and back into action. Yes, Jesus is risen. No, you can’t see him now. But if you go after him, if you return to Galilee, you might just catch a glimpse of him. You might finally overcome your fear and find your voice again. If you want Easter, you will have to work for it this year. Mark isn’t handing it to you on a silver platter!

Here is a poem by Christina Rossetti about Resurrection the hard way.

A Better Resurrection

I have no wit, no words, no tears;
My heart within me like a stone
Is numb’d too much for hopes or fears;
Look right, look left, I dwell alone;
I lift mine eyes, but dimm’d with grief
No everlasting hills I see;
My life is in the falling leaf:
O Jesus, quicken me.

My life is like a faded leaf,
My harvest dwindled to a husk:
Truly my life is void and brief
And tedious in the barren dusk;
My life is like a frozen thing,
No bud nor greenness can I see:
Yet rise it shall—the sap of Spring;
O Jesus, rise in me.

My life is like a broken bowl,
A broken bowl that cannot hold
One drop of water for my soul
Or cordial in the searching cold;
Cast in the fire the perish’d thing;
Melt and remould it, till it be
A royal cup for Him, my King:
O Jesus, drink of me.

Source: This poem is in the public domain. Christina Rossetti (1830-1894) was the daughter of an Italian poet and exile who emigrated to England in 1884. There he established himself as a scholar and teacher of Dante’s works at Kings College. He married an English woman in 1826 and they had four children together, one of which was Christina. Christina Rossetti’s childhood appears to have been happy, characterized by affectionate parental care and the creative inspiration from her older siblings. A devout Christian, her many poems, short stories and devotional works are rich in biblical imagery. You can find out more about Christina Rossetti and sample more of her poetry at the Poetry Foundation website.

Acts 10:34-43

This passage is part and parcel of a larger narrative beginning with Peter’s vision in which the Lord speaks to him and commands him to slaughter and eat a host of animals deemed ritually unclean in the Hebrew Scriptures. See Acts 10:1-16. The meaning of this strange vision is not revealed to Peter until he finds himself in the midst of a gentile family, that of the Roman Centurion, Cornelius. There he witnesses the Spirit of God filling them all with faith and inspiring them to confess Jesus as Lord. The story as a whole reflects the inner struggle of a deeply Jewish church with the positive response of gentiles to the good news about Jesus. Most Jewish disciples, like Peter, harbored serious reservations about receiving gentiles into the church. How could these outsiders possibly have an informed and sincere faith in the Jewish messiah when they knew next to nothing about the Jewish scriptures and practices? What would be the consequences of an influx of these new comers? What conditions, if any, should be placed upon admission of a gentile believer? Must he be circumcised? Should he be required to learn the Hebrew Scriptures? Peter was on solid scriptural grounds with his scruples about eating ritually unclean food and sharing meal fellowship with non-Jews. Jewish believers under the Greek tyrant, Antiochus Epiphanes chose to endure torture and to die horrible deaths rather than eat food deemed unclean as demanded of them. I Maccabees 1:62-64. How could Peter go into the home of a Roman oppressor of Israel and eat unclean food at his unclean table? Would this not dishonor the memory of the brave martyrs under Antiochus?

Peter’s declaration “that God shows no partiality, but in every nation anyone who fears him…is acceptable to him” came only after much difficult soul searching. Vss. 34-35. Peter had to give up long held interpretations of the scriptures and religious practices that had been part of his life since infancy. That did not come easily. I suspect it was not until Peter witnessed the Holy Spirit breathing life giving faith into the Roman Cornelius and his family that he became fully convinced that these folks should be baptized. He simply decided that any interpretation of the scriptures that stands between Jesus and a believing heart cannot possibly be right no matter how clear, convincing and well established it may be. As I have said many times before, this story of Peter and Cornelius, along with my having met many gay and lesbian people of faith over the years, is what ultimately convinced me that the church must be fully inclusive and welcoming to these folks. When all is said and done; when all the scriptural arguments have been made; there remains the fact that the Holy Spirit has moved a person to faith in Jesus. I find myself asking, as did Peter, “Can anyone forbid water for baptizing these people who have received the Holy Spirit just as we have?” Acts 10:47

While the context of this passage is important, the Easter emphasis is on Peter’s witness to Jesus. Note well how Peter makes clear that his witness goes not merely to Jesus’ resurrection, but also to Jesus’ anointing with the Holy Spirit, his works of healing and casting out demons and his execution-the natural outcome of his faithful life. Without this narrative, the resurrection is empty of any real meaning for us. Unlike us, the ancient world had no doubt that God (or the gods) could resurrect a dead person. The gods might bestow such a favor on anyone to whom they took a shine. But in the realm of Greco-Roman literature, such persons tended to be heroes. The notion that Israel’s God (or any other deity) would raise up a crucified criminal was absurd. Under all objective standards, Jesus had been a colossal failure. He was misunderstood, betrayed and deserted by his closest disciples. He was rejected by his people and put to death in the most shameful way possible. But God’s judgment on Jesus’ life is entirely different than our own. God raised Jesus from death to say, “Yes, this is what my heart desires of human beings. This is my very self and is also everything I ever wanted humans to be. This is the measure by which I judge; this is the depth of my love for all so judged.”

Psalm 118:1-2, 14-24

“O give thanks unto the Lord, for he is good.” Vs. 1 Saint Augustine remarks, “I see not what can be more solemn than this brevity, since goodness is so peculiarly the quality of God…” On the Psalms, Augustine of Hippo, The Nicene Fathers, First Series, Vol. VIII, (c. 1979 WM. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co.) p. 557. “Goodness,” however, is not an abstract principle. Verse 14, “The Lord is my strength and my song, and he has become my salvation,” is nearly identical to Exodus 15:2 which, in turn, is taken from the Song of Moses celebrating Israel’s salvation from Egypt’s armies at the Red Sea. Exodus 15:1-18. God’s goodness is both defined and illustrated through the salvation narrative of the Pentateuch. The Exodus stands at the heart of Israel’s worship and history. It is the paradigm for God’s saving acts. As we have seen throughout Second Isaiah (Isaiah 40-55), God’s victory for Israel at the Red Sea and God’s guidance and protection as Israel made her way through the wilderness to the promised land provided a rich supply of images for prophets seeking to illuminate saving acts of God occurring in Israel’s present context and to encourage the people in their darkest hours. Thus, whether this psalm commemorates the victory of one of Judah’s kings in battle or a procession bearing the Ark of the Covenant into the temple and regardless of when it reached its final form, it echoes God’s glorious victory over Egypt at the Red Sea and Israel’s liberation from bondage.

The “glad songs of victory in the tents of the righteous” in verse 16 might refer to encampments on the battlefield and therefore indicate the celebration of a military victory. Alternatively, the tents might refer to pilgrim encampments about Jerusalem for the Feast of Tabernacles. Rogerson, J.W. and McKay, J.W. Psalms 101-150, The Cambridge Bible Commentary (c. 1977 Cambridge University Press) p. 86. Again, given Israel’s practice of adapting her ancient liturgical traditions to new circumstances, these two interpretations are not necessarily mutually exclusive.

The psalmist switches from singular to plural, addressing God at one point, the assembled worshipers at another. Some passages seem to be addressed by God to the psalmist. This switching of voices has led many Old Testament scholars to v this view this hymn as a compilation of several different works. Rogerson and McKay, supra, p. 85. Professor Bernhard Anderson sees this as a “royal psalm,” a liturgy in which the king of Judah approaches the temple gates and seeks admission that he may give thanks. In so doing, he serves as a priestly figure representing the whole congregation of Israel. Anderson, Bernhard, W., Out of the Depths: The Psalms Speak for Us Today (c. 1983 by Bernhard W. Anderson, pub. by The Westminster Press) p. 113.

The words from this psalm most commonly cited in the New Testament are at vss. 22-23. Jesus quotes these words at the conclusion of his parable of the tenants in the vineyard. Matthew 21:42Mark 12:10Luke 20:17. They are also cited at Acts 4:11 and I Peter 2:7. The “chief corner stone” is probably the chief stone supporting an arch, without which the structure collapses. Rogerson and McKay, supra, p. 88. The meaning of this ancient proverb is open to interpretation. It could well refer back to the confessional acknowledgement required of Israel that she was descended from “a wandering Aramean” and delivered from slavery in Egypt by the God who alone is responsible for her existence as his people. Deuteronomy 26:5-11. This seemingly insignificant people is in fact God’s people of blessing to all the earth. Naturally, the proverb provided assurance and hope during the period of Babylonian Exile when it seemed that Israel had been “rejected” by the builders of history. Not surprisingly, then, the Apostles recognized a parallel between the enslaved and exiled people of God exalted by God’s saving acts and the crucified messiah exalted through his resurrection.

1 Corinthians 15:1-11

These verses form the introduction to Paul’s extended discussion of the resurrection throughout the whole of I Corinthians 15. I encourage you to read it in its entirety. Here Paul makes the very important point that Jesus’ resurrection is not simply his own, but the beginning of a general resurrection of the dead in which all believers participate even now. Jesus is the “first fruits” of the dead whose resurrection follows. The end comes when Christ “delivers up the kingdom to God the Father after destroying every rule and every authority and every power.” I Corinthians 15:24. This is precisely the claim that ultimately got disciples of Jesus into big trouble with the Roman Empire. As far as Caesar was concerned, there was only one kingdom and that was Rome. Suggesting that there might be another kingdom to which allegiance was owed could get you nailed to a cross. Asserting that all other kingdoms, including Rome, must finally be brought under the reign of such other kingdom was a direct shot across the imperial bow. These letters of Paul were considered subversive material in the 1stCentury and would be equally so in the 21st Century-if we really paid attention to what Paul is saying.

“Now I remind you, brethren, in what terms I preached to you the gospel…” vs. 1. These “terms” involve specifically the resurrection of the body. Paul’s non-Jewish audience would have been quite receptive to any number of concepts for life after death. What confounded them was the very Jewish notion of the resurrection of the body. Rosner, B.S., “With What Kind of Body Do they Come?” printed in The New Testament in Its First-Century Setting: Essays on Context and Background in Honor of B.W. Winter on his 65th Birthday, Edited by P.J. Williams (c. 2004 by Eerdmans); Wright, N.T., The Resurrection of the Son of God (c. Fortress Press 2003). The canonical Hebrew Scriptures generally speak of resurrection in terms of national restoration following exile rather than personal resurrection from death. Ezekiel’s vision of the valley filled with dry bones is an obvious example. Ezekiel 37:1-14. In the 26th chapter of Isaiah the prophet declares that “your dead shall live” and says explicitly that “their corpses shall rise.” Isaiah 26:19. Yet even so, these words in their context appear to function more as hyperbolic metaphors than literal promises of individual or corporate bodily resurrection from death. Only in the Book of Daniel do we find an explicit promise of resurrection from death:

“At that time Michael, the great prince, the protector of your people, shall arise. There shall be a time of anguish, such as has never occurred since nations first came into existence. But at that time your people shall be delivered, everyone who is found written in the book. Many of those who sleep in the dust of the earth shall awake, some to everlasting life, and some to shame and everlasting contempt. Those who are wise shall shine like the brightness of the sky, and those who lead many to righteousness, like the stars for ever and ever.” Daniel 12:1-3.

Notwithstanding the lack of any fully developed doctrine of resurrection from death, the Hebrew Scriptures nonetheless lay the foundation for such a hope in their witness to God as Creator, righteous Judge and merciful Savior See, e.g., Bauckham, R., The Fate of the Dead: Studies on the Jewish and Christian Apocalypses, Supplements to Novum Testamentum (c. 1998 by Leiden: Brill). Moreover, the resurrection of the dead is firmly attested by later Jewish apocalyptic literature. See I Enoch 51:1; I Enoch 62:14-16; 4 Ezra 7:32-33. In Paul’s unique take on the subject, the resurrection of the dead is preceded and made possible by the resurrection of Jesus. Jesus is the “first fruits” of the resurrected people of God. I Corinthians 15:20-23. Hays, H.B. First Corinthians (c. 1997 by John Knox Press) p. 263.

Verses 3-8 contain the earliest testimony to the resurrection of Jesus we have in the New Testament. It begins with the assertion that “Christ died for our sins in accordance with the scriptures, that he was buried, that he was raised on the third day in accordance with the scriptures.” Vss. 3-4. Echoes of these verses are heard in the second articles of the Apostles’ and Nicene Creeds. But what does Paul mean by “scriptures?” Clearly, he can only mean the Hebrew Scriptures as these were the only Bible the church had during his lifetime. We mistake Paul’s meaning if we understand him to be saying that the Hebrew Scriptures “prove” that Jesus’ life, death and resurrection fulfill the covenant promises to Israel. It is actually quite the other way around. The life, death and resurrection of Jesus are attested by the witness of the apostles as we will soon see. But these events can be properly understood and appreciated only through the lens of the Hebrew Scriptures. It is to these scriptures we must turn in order to interpret Jesus. Without them, he is readily misunderstood as has been demonstrated by numerous heretical teachings that have attempted to sever the Hebrew Scriptures from the New Testament. According to Paul, “the message of the cross must be understood through the OT categories of sacrifice, atonement, suffering, vindication and so forth.” Ciampa, Roy, E. and Rosner, Brian S., I Corinthians, pub. in Commentary on the New Testament Use of the Old Testament, edit. Beal, G.K. and Carson, D.A. (c. 2007 by G.K. Beal and D.A. Carson, pub. by Baker Academic) p. 744.

Paul’s recitation of the resurrection appearances to the apostles is interesting in that it implies Cephas (Peter) was the first to meet the resurrected Christ, followed by the Twelve, the five hundred and then James (the brother of the Lord?). He makes no mention of the appearance of Jesus to the women attested in Matthew, Mark and Luke or the appearance to Mary Magdalene in John’s gospel. Since Paul is arguing the resurrection of Jesus to some in Corinth who appear to deny it, his purpose in citing these witnesses seems to be that of bolstering his position. As women were not generally deemed to be competent witnesses in Jewish culture and in some other near eastern societies, he might have intentionally avoided mentioning them in this letter to avoid weakening his case. In any event, the point here is to illustrate that Jesus both died and was raised from death and that there remain eye witnesses to this saving work of God.

Paul includes himself among the apostolic witnesses to the resurrected Christ. Vs. 8. Indeed, he appears to ground his apostleship in part on his having seen Jesus. I Corinthians 9:1. Most likely, this is a reference to his conversion experience on the Road to Damascus. This story is related by Paul himself in Galatians 1:13-17 and throughout the Book of Acts. Acts 9:1-9Acts 22:6-16Acts 26:12-18. Paul’s encounter with the risen Christ is removed not only in time but in quality from that of the other apostles. Mary Magdalene, the other women at the tomb and the twelve all encountered the same One they had known and followed throughout his ministry (though they were not always quick to recognize him). There is no indication that Paul ever knew Jesus during his mortal lifetime and thus could only have known him through his self-identification. Paul seems aware of this difference, referring to his encounter with Jesus as an “untimely birth.” Vs. 8. Nonetheless, untimely though it may have been and unworthy as he may have been, Paul had an encounter during which he “saw” the resurrected Christ. His witness further substantiates the claim that God has indeed begun to raise the dead and the proof in the pudding is Jesus.

A word or two further should be said about resurrection from death. This is not a distant hope to be fulfilled only in the indefinite future. Death is destroyed even now-if we understand that it is not the last word. I must say that one of the greatest disappointments I have experienced throughout my life in the church is our inordinate fear death. I cannot honestly say that I have found in the church any less denial of death, inability to discuss death or acceptance of death than in the public at large. Now I am not suggesting that death should be treated lightly or that anxiety about dying is unnatural or suggests a lack of faith. But I do believe that disciples of Jesus ought to know how to die. Like all other disciplines, the art of dying well is learned and practiced in a community of faith. The church should be a place where a person can discuss the deterioration of health, life threatening sickness and the effects of chronic pain in comfort and without awkwardness. We should all be assured that no one of us has to die alone. People in hospice should be comforted by visitors who read psalms to them, pray over them or simply sit at their bedside. A disciple’s funeral should be in the sanctuary where s/he worshipped. The casket should stand in the presence of the baptismal font and be surrounded by the symbols of faith. The Lord’s Supper should be celebrated as a testament both to our resurrection hope and the communion of saints that even now transcends the grave. The church should then accompany the casket to the cemetery where the body is placed in the earth like a seed awaiting the life giving Spring of the resurrection. None of this makes death pleasant. But, as Paul tells us, it can take the sting out of it. I Corinthians 15:54-58.

Mark 16:1-8

As I have mentioned before, Mark’s resurrection is the Transfiguration story at the center of his gospel. At least that is how I see it. See my post of February 15, 2015. There Jesus is revealed as God’s beloved Son transcending both the law and the prophets. At the end of the book we have only an empty tomb, a cryptic messenger and some women running away in terror. It is hardly surprising that subsequent editors sought to supplement the gospel with some other resurrection traditions. See Mark 16:9-20. I suspect they were uncomfortable with the loose ends left hanging at verse 8. But Mark excels at loose ends, unfinished stories and unanswered questions. He seems to delight in denying us “closure.”

Though scholarship is virtually unanimous in viewing the resurrection accounts following verse 8 as non Marcan accretions, not all New Testament scholars are convinced that verse 8 is or was intended to be the end of Mark’s gospel. Vincent Taylor, for example, argues that “it is incredible that Mark intended such a conclusion.” Taylor, Vincent, The Gospel According to St. Mark, (Second Ed.) Thornapple Commentaries (c. 1966 by Vincent Taylor, pub. by Baker Book House Co.) p. 609. The argument is based largely on the fact that the concluding sentence, “the [women] said nothing to anyone, for they were afraid,” ends with the Greek word “gar,” meaning “for.” Such a construction is admittedly clumsy and hardly an appropriate conclusion for any literary work. Cranfield likewise rejects the conclusion that Mark intended to end his gospel at verse 8. “Since the fact of the Resurrection appearances was clearly an element of the church’s primitive preaching, it is highly improbable that Mark intended to conclude his gospel without at least one account of a Resurrection appearance.” Cranfield, C.E.B., The Gospel According to St. Mark, The Cambridge Greek Testament Commentary (c. 1959 by Cambridge University Press). The supposition is that the original ending was either lost, deliberately suppressed or never completed.

I don’t find any of these objections to ending Mark’s gospel at vs. 8 persuasive. As I noted earlier, Mark delights in leaving us with more questions than answers. Awkward grammar in the final verse fits nicely into the messy, jerky and twisted manner in which the gospel is told from beginning to end. As Morna Hooker points out, there is a fine irony in the closing scene. Whereas up until now Jesus has been urging his followers and the benefactors of his miracles to remain silent about what they have experienced, here the young man at the tomb orders the women to tell the disciples and Peter that Jesus has risen and will meet them in Galilee. But the women now manage to do exactly what no one else had been able to do throughout the entire narrative, namely, keep quite. The women run from the tomb in terror and say nothing to anyone. Hooker, Morna D., The Gospel According to Saint Mark, Black’s New Testament Commentaries, (c. 1991 by Morna D. Hooker, pub. by Hendrickson Publishers, Inc.) p. 587. In sum, Mark has given us a splendid (if deeply troubling) literary ending to his work. The church’s attempts to improve upon it only blunt its impact.

In the Gospel of Luke, the women disciples are identified in the midst of the text at Luke 8:1-3 where we learn that they played a pivotal role in financing the ministry of Jesus. In Mark the women make their appearance only after the crucifixion of Jesus where we learn that they were watching this event and Jesus’ subsequent burial from a distance. Mark 15:40-41. They were, it seems, the only witnesses to Jesus’ crucifixion as the other disciples had fled. Their presence at the crucifixion, albeit “at a distance,” explains how they knew where to find Jesus’ body on Easter Sunday. As noted above, when confronted by the (angelic?) messenger, told that Jesus has been raised and commanded to bring this news to the disciples, they flee and say nothing to anyone.

Here, too, Matthew and Luke tell a different story. According to Luke, the women carry out their commission and bring the good news of Jesus’ resurrection to the rest of the disciples. Their tidings, however, are discounted as an “idle tale.” Luke 24:1-12. In Matthew, as in Mark, the women are directed to tell the rest of the disciples that Jesus has risen and to instruct them to go to meet him in Galilee. But in Matthew’s telling, the women carry out their commission and the disciples evidently believe them and meet Jesus in Galilee. Matthew 28:1-10; 16-20.

I do not know how to reconcile these seeming inconsistencies. Nor am I fully convinced that I understand why Mark chose not to include any resurrection appearances of Jesus although it is clear from Paul’s First Letter to the Corinthians that such accounts were circulating within the church decades before Mark’s gospel was composed. But it seems to me that Mark has deliberately written an open ended Gospel, challenging us to tie up the loose ends and fill in the blanks. How and when will we find the courage to speak the good news of Jesus’ resurrection? When will we overcome our fear and break the silence? How and when will the news of Jesus’ resurrection draw his terrified disciples (then and now) out of hiding to follow him once again? Perhaps we should read the gospels of Matthew and Luke, who rely heavily on Mark’s gospel, as faithful responses to Mark’s challenge.

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Taking the Bible back from the masses; a poem by Jacqueline Woodson; and the lessons for Sunday, March 25, 2018

See the source imageSUNDAY OF THE PASSION / PALM SUNDAY

Mark 11:1-11
Isaiah 50:4-9a
Psalm 31:9-16
Philippians 2:5-11
Mark 14:1—15:47

PRAYER OF THE DAYEverlasting God, in your endless love for the human race you sent our Lord Jesus Christ to take on our nature and to suffer death on the cross. In your mercy enable us to share in his obedience to your will and in the glorious victory of his resurrection, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and forever.

Palm Sunday marks the beginning of Holy Week, the journey from Jesus’ triumphant entry into Jerusalem, through his betrayal, suffering and death and into the sunrise of the Resurrection. Holy Week, like the church year generally, was designed for a people familiar with and formed by the larger biblical narrative. The parallels between Jesus’ entry into Jerusalem, the messianic prophecies of Zechariah and the triumphal entry of David with the ark of the covenant into Jerusalem should not be lost on such a people. Nor should the strong overtones of the Exodus and Passover at the Last Supper escape their notice. The refrains of the suffering servant songs and the tortured cries of the lamenting psalmists should frame the context for the cross, and the Resurrection should be grounded in the liberation of Israel at the Red Sea and informed by all of the ancient promises made to Israel from Genesis to Malachi. The problem, however, is that practicing Christians are increasingly deaf to these interrelated themes. They are like beginning piano students who, at best, can manage to pick out only the melody line of a complex musical score.

I think this problem goes far beyond mere biblical illiteracy. It is rooted in our protestant insistence that the Bible is a book for general consumption and that any fair-minded person can pick it up, read it and readily arrive at its meaning and significance. Witness the tireless work of the Gideons in assuring that every motel, hotel and resort suite throughout the United States is stocked with a King James Bible. It is as though evangelism were only a matter of getting the book into the hands of the unbeliever. In truth, however, the Bible is a complex, layered and nuanced collection of writings speaking in many voices. It is as much the testimony of Israel and the church as it is the testament of God. Its open-ended narrative is rich in frolics and detours. There are numerous rabbit holes down which one might venture, texts that confuse, terrify and serve as springboards for some of the most abhorrent forms of religious expression ever to appear on the world stage. I sometimes wonder whether placing the Bible into the hands of the common people was not one of Martin Luther’s biggest blunders.

This is not to say that the Bible belongs solely to the educated elite. I am convinced that many scholars armed with the tools of historical criticism are as inept as unlearned literalists when it comes to interpreting the Bible. As Professor Stanley Hauerwas has observed, “literalist fundamentalism and the critical approaches to the Bible are but two sides of the same coin, insofar as each assumes that the text should be accessible to anyone without mediation by the church.” Hauerwas, Stanley, Unleashing the Scriptures: Freeing the Bible from Captivity to America, (c. 1993 by Abingdon Press) p. 17. That is to say, the Bible cannot rightly be interpreted apart from the communities that gave birth to it and have been formed by it. Without Israel and the church, the Bible would have no more significance than the Egyptian Book of the Dead. It would be a fascinating literary relic, of interest perhaps to students of ancient religion, archaeology and art-but of no relevance to most 21st Century people. The Bible continues to speak to the world today only because it speaks directly to these two communities, Israel and the church, telling them who they are, why they are and how they are to live.

Unlike our sisters and brothers in the Roman Catholic and Orthodox traditions, we protestants have nothing like a “teaching magisterium” to guide us in our interpretation of the Scriptures. Indeed, given our fiercely individualistic impulses, the very thought of such an institution makes us see red. We bristle at the notion that anyone should have the right to “tell us what to think.” Yet I believe the fragmented protestant experience has taught us that reliance upon the faculties of reason possessed by the common person (or the highly educated one for that matter) to arrive at the objectively correct reading of a biblical text is misplaced. We need the guidance of the Holy Spirit which comes when we read the Bible together as a community of disciples following Jesus. Even when one reads the Bible alone, s/he does not read it in isolation, but in the company of St. Augustine, St. Aquinas, Martin Luther, Soren Kierkegaard, Karl Barth, Paul Tillich, Reinhold Niebuhr, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Martin Luther King, Jr., contemporary theologians, pastors, teachers, friends and mentors. Interpreting the Bible is a job far too important to be left in the hands of any one individual. It requires the shared wisdom of a community of disciples in communion with the whole church and grounded in that church’s rich and diverse historical traditions.

Holy Week should be a shared exercise in Biblical interpretation integrated with the disciplines of Lent and careful listening to the passion and resurrection narrative. Just as we cannot hope to follow Jesus apart from the communion of saints, so too, we cannot expect to understand the Scriptures apart from participation in that holy communion wherein the mind of Christ is formed.

Here is a poem by Jacqueline Woodson with a fleeting picture of what formation looks like within a community of faith.

Church

On Sundays, the preacher gives everyone a chance
to repent their sins. Miss Edna makes me go

to church. She wears a bright hat
I wear my suit. Babies dress in lace.

Girls my age, some pretty, some not so
pretty. Old ladies and men nodding.

Miss Edna every now and then throwing her hand
in the air. Saying Yes, Lord and Preach!

I sneak a pen from my back pocket,
bend down low like I dropped something.

The chorus marches up behind the preacher
clapping and humming and getting ready to sing.

I write the word HOPE on my hand.

Source: Jacqueline Woodson, “Church” from Locomotion, (c. 2003 by Jacqueline Woodson, pub. by Puffin Books). Jacqueline Woodson was born in Columbus, Ohio, but grew up in Greenville, South Carolina and Brooklyn, New York. She is the author of over thirty books for children and young adults. Her honors include the Jane Addams Children’s Book Award, the Coretta Scott King Award, the Los Angeles Times Book Prize and the Newbery Honor. She received the Margaret A. Edwards Award for lifetime achievement, the St. Katharine Drexel Award and the Anne V. Zarrow Award for Young Readers’ Literature. You can find out more about Jacqueline Woodson and sample more of her poetry at the Poetry Foundation website.

Mark 11:1-11

Mark’s account of Jesus’ triumphal entry into Jerusalem is a good deal more subdued than the accounts of Matthew, Luke and John. It is not clear whether those accompanying Jesus with palms and praise included anyone other than his disciples. Moreover, when Jesus arrives at Jerusalem, he is not swept into the temple on a tsunami of praise to cleanse it. Instead, he merely inspects it and retires to Bethany with his disciples. The parade ends with a whimper instead of a bang.

Unlike the other gospels, Mark does not cite Zechariah 9:9 in his telling of the story. Nevertheless, he is most probably influenced by the whole of Chapter 9 from the Book of the Prophet Zechariah. Taylor, Vincent, The Gospel According to St. Mark, Second Ed., Thornapple Commentaries (c. 1966 by Vincent Taylor, pub. by Baker Book House Co.) p. 353-354; Cranfield, C.E.B., The Gospel According to St. Mark, The Cambridge Greek Testament Commentary (c. 1959 Cambridge University Press) p. 352. For a more dubious view, see Hooker, Morna D., The Gospel According to St. Mark, Black’s New Testament Commentary (c. 1991 by Morna D. Hooker, pub. by Henderson Publishers, Inc.) p. 257. The oracle of Zechariah 9:1-8 foretells the destruction of Israel’s enemies at the dawn of the messianic age. Zechariah 9:9 announces that Israel’s messiah is coming, not as a military conqueror on a war horse, but “humble and riding on an ass.” The chariot and the warhorse shall be “cut off” and the new king will “command peace to the nations,” not armed attacks. There may also be echoes in this account of the entry of Simon Maccabeus into Jerusalem “with praise and palm branches…and with hymns and songs.” I Maccabees 13:51. Taylor, supra at 546. This triumphal entry also was associated with a cleansing of the temple. Maccabees 13:50. I find the association doubtful, however.

The term “Hosanna” is a Greek transliteration of the Hebrew imperative, “Save now” found in Psalm 118:25. Vs. 9. This is a cry for salvation similar to other such cries found throughout the Psalms of lament, though used here in a Psalm of thanksgiving. It is also used in other parts of the Hebrew Scriptures to address kings with petitions for relief. II Samuel 14:4II Kings 6:26Psalm 118:25 is perhaps antiphonally juxtaposed to Psalm 118:26 cited by Mark immediately thereafter: “Blessed is he who enters in the name of the Lord.” Vs.10. This was possibly a blessing pronounced by the priest to pilgrims coming to worship at the temple on high holy days and would certainly fit the occasion of Passover in Jerusalem. Mark, of course, expands this exclamation to cover Jesus’ coming to Jerusalem as messiah/king. The words “blessed is the kingdom of our father David that is coming!” stop short of “full throated Messianic homage.” Vs. 10. Taylor, supra at 452. Clearly, however, Mark himself fully intended for the reader to draw this conclusion. Cranfield, supra at 352.

The meaning both of Jesus’ entry into Jerusalem and of Zechariah’s prophecy are sharpened by the occurrence of another parade that would have taken place a week earlier when through a gate at the opposite end of the city Pontius Pilate entered Jerusalem at the head of a column of imperial cavalry and soldiers to keep the peace during the potentially turbulent time of Passover. See Borg, Marcus and Crossan, John Dominic, The Last Week: A Day-by-Day Account of Jesus Final Week in Jerusalem (c. 2006 Harper) pp. 2-5. Pilate represented another kind of peace: the Pax Romana. To an extent never before seen in history, the Roman Empire was able to enforce its reign over the Mediterranean basin establishing law and order. While Rome’s governance kept a lid on local hostilities and allowed the expansion of trade and commerce, these benefits came at a terrible human cost. The cross was the ultimate instrument of terror by which Rome kept the peace.

I cannot help repeating what I have said many times before, namely, that while pacifism has been at the fringes of Christian theology since the beginning of the 4th Century, it is at the heart of the New Testament witness to Jesus. Palm Sunday is as strong a repudiation of the Armed Forces parade as any you will ever find. Pilate at one end of the city with his armed columns, their sabers rattling and their boots tramping over the stones with military precision inspiring terror. At the other end, the humble king riding unarmed and peacefully into town on his donkey greeted with joy and hope. The “Just War Tradition,” “The Two Kingdom Doctrine” and “Christian Realism” amount to little more than Christendom’s lame effort to march in both parades at once.

Isaiah 50:4-9a

This reading is taken from the second section of the Book of Isaiah (Isaiah 40-55) authored in the main by an anonymous prophet speaking a message of salvation to the Jewish exiles living in Babylon during the 6thCentury B.C.E. His was the task of alerting his fellow exiles to the new opportunity created for them to return home to Palestine opened up by Persia’s conquest of Babylon. On the one hand, the prophet makes a joyous declaration of salvation for Israel and announces the potential for a new start. On the other hand, the prophet makes clear that God is doing with Israel something entirely new. This will not be a return to “the good old days” when Israel was a powerful and independent people under the descendants of David. That, according to the prophet, “is too light a thing” for the people of God. Israel and the servant prophet are to be given “as a light to the nations, that my salvation may reach to the end of the earth.” Isaiah 49:6. For more specifics on the Book of Isaiah generally, See Summary Article by Fred Gaiser, Professor of Old Testament, Luther Seminary, St. Paul, MN.

Sunday’s reading is a passage from the third of Isaiah’s four “servant songs.” The other three are found at Isaiah 42:1–9Isaiah 49:1-6 and Isaiah 52:13-53:12. According to biblical commentator Claus Westermann, these songs represent a special strand within section two of Isaiah. Westermann, Claus, Isaiah 40-66, The Old Testament Library (c. SCM Press, Ltd. 1969) p.  92. Scholars hold differing views on the identity of the “servant” in these songs. Some view the servant as an individual, perhaps the prophet him/herself. Others maintain that the servant is the people of Israel whose covenant life in the restored Jerusalem will enlighten the nations. Christians from very early on have seen reflected in these verses the ministry of Jesus. It seems to me that all of these interpretations are valid in some measure. Clearly, the prophet himself/herself understood that s/he was announcing an act of God that would be revelatory for all peoples. So too Israel always had an awareness that her existence was in part a demonstration of God’s glory to the world though, like the church, she tended to forget that aspect of her calling at times. The church likewise confessed from the outset that Jesus’ lordship was defined in terms of the hopes and expectations set forth in the Hebrew Scriptures. Just as the faithful service of the prophet was a model for Israel’s servant role among the nations, so the church is a continuation of Jesus’ faithful ministry. In sum, these differing interpretations enrich rather than contradict one another.

Though tidings of a new beginning might at first blush sound like good news, it is likely that many of the exiles did not hear it that way. Life in cosmopolitan Babylon may not have seemed much like captivity to the second generation of Jews who had purchased land, begun businesses or secured important posts in the Babylonian government. Giving up the security of a settled existence for a dangerous trip back to a ruined land must have seemed like madness to them. No doubt they resented and perhaps feared this prophet whose preaching enticed members of the community away from their homes and families to embark on such a misguided adventure. Not surprisingly, the prophet met with resistance that included violence (smiting, spitting and pulling out the beard). Vs. 6. The prophet is undismayed by this abuse, confident that his commission is from the God of Israel. Vss. 7-9.

Westermann notes that “[t]he special characteristic of the prophetic office is the very fact that the prophet wakens his ear ‘morning by morning,’ and must continually allow it to be opened by God, in order to have ‘an answer to give to the weary.’” Ibid. p. 229. Perhaps this is what John the evangelist had in mind when he quotes Jesus as saying: “My teaching is not mine, but his who sent me.” John 7:16. The incarnation, then, fuses the prophet and the Word as one. Not surprisingly, then, the rejection of that Word by a sinful world, as occurred most definitively in the passion narrative, takes the form of lethal violence.

Westermann believes these passages from Isaiah to be “truly revolutionary in their importance” because they express the servant’s acceptance of his/her persecution as an affliction intended by God as the fulfillment of his/her prophetic mission. Ibid. p. 231. Though the psalmists and the prophets, most notably Jeremiah, struggle with seemingly unmerited persecution which they hope to see redressed through retribution of some kind, the servant seeks not retribution but vindication. Israel’s final salvation, not her just punishment, will demonstrate that the servant’s suffering is not evidence of God’s rejection, but of the prophet’s faithfulness.

I agree with Westermann’s reading of this text, though I am not convinced that it is quite as revolutionary as he supposes. While the prophets could be caustic in their prayers for retribution against their enemies and unsparing in their proclamations of judgment, they never lost sight of their solidarity with Israel. Even the socially ostracized Jeremiah could weep bitterly over the fate of his people-however justly deserved it might be. Jeremiah 9:1. Isaiah recognizes that he is “a man of unclean lips, and dwells in the midst of a people of unclean lips.” Isaiah 6:5. As withering as Amos’ judgments against Israel were, he prayed fervently that the people might be spared the worst of God’s wrath. Amos 7:1-6. In sum, the prophets always understood God’s judgment as an instrument of healing and salvation. Similarly, they must have understood at some level that their persecutions were part and parcel of their callings.

These observations tie naturally into the passion narrative that will occupy center stage this coming Sunday. The persecuted and rejected prophetic word, now become flesh, is vindicated and triumphs not through an act of counter-violence, but through God’s patient determination to keep on speaking the gracious invitation to forgiveness, reconciliation and peace in the face of that rejection. God’s power is God’s patience.

Psalm 31:9-16

This is a psalm of lament, one of the most common types found in the Psalter. As noted in last week’s post, the essential elements of its type are:

  1. Initial Appeal to Yahweh, vss. 1-2.
  2. Portrayal of inward distress, vss. 3-4
  3. Expression of confidence, vss. 5-6
  4. Witness of praise to the community, vss. 7-8.

See Anderson, Bernard W., Out of the Depths, The Psalms Speak for us Today, (c. 1983 by Bernard W. Anderson, pub. by The Westminster Press) p. 97. If some elements are missing in this week’s reading, it is because the lectionary has truncated the psalm, probably in the interest of fitting the readings onto the commercially prescribed bulletin inserts. Moreover, the psalms are prayers formed in the furnace of human experience. As such, they do not always fit neatly into the scholarly categories of literary forms floating about like Platonic prototypes in the scholastic ether. In any event, it is puzzling to me that the lectionary did not begin the reading early enough at least to incorporate verse 5, “Into thy hand I commit my spirit.” Psalm 31:5. That would have been a good tie in to the passion narrative, albeit John’s rather than Mark’s.

Verses 9-13 are particularly striking. The psalmist complains that he is surrounded by enemies, people who whisper behind his back and seek his destruction. We might wonder about the mental health of someone who makes such complaints. Folks who imagine that the world is conspiring against them generally overrate their importance and exaggerate the hostility of those around them. I was recently asked by a traveling companion who noticed my Ezee Pass, “Doesn’t it bother you that the government knows where you are going and when?” I don’t remember what my precise response was, but the truth is I would be flattered to learn that the government or anyone else deemed my little life important enough to merit observation.

That being said, we all tend to be a little paranoid when we are feeling sick, weak and vulnerable. The aged and infirm naturally fear well-meaning relatives and friends who take it upon themselves to make important decisions for them without their input. When rumors of layoffs begin to make their way through the workplace it is natural to look for indications in the way people talk to you and act around you suggesting that you might be on the “to go” list. When something deeply hurtful, deeply personal and deeply embarrassing occurs in your life, it is not unusual to begin wondering whether the person you are speaking with knows all about it and what he or she might be thinking. Whether real or imagined, human malice is an experienced reality and one that the psalmist rightly lays before the Lord.

In addition to the affronts of his enemies, the psalmist is clearly disappointed in the friends s/he feels have deserted him or her. Vs. 12. Again, this desertion may or may not actually be real or malicious. When we are hurting, human companionship alone seldom fulfills all of our needs. We are all aware that there are some people who feel neglected and slighted no matter how often you visit or call. As important as friendship is and as valuable as it can be in difficult times, it is no substitute for faith in God’s promises. Perhaps it is because we lean too heavily on our human relationships, looking to them for the healing only God can offer, that they fail us. Marriages, friendships and family simply collapse under the weight of our unrealistic expectations. Again, the psalmist quite properly turns his or her hope toward God, the one companion whose promises never fail. When that adjustment is made, a return to healthy human companionship is again possible.

Philippians 2:5-11

There is near scholarly consensus that Paul is citing in this passage an ancient Christian hymn of Palestinian origins possibly alluding to the “servant” figure form Second Isaiah discussed under the heading of our first lesson. It fits perfectly Paul’s articulation of his theology of the cross in I Corinthians 1:18-4:20 and his discussion of the church as the Body of Christ in I Corinthians 12:1-14:40. As the “Body of Christ,” the church must have the “mind of Christ.” Vs. 5. So far from aspiring to godhood (the sin of Adam and Eve), Jesus willingly took the form of a servant, living joyfully, trustingly and obediently within the limits of his humanity. Vss. 6-9. The Greek word for “servant” (doulos) is literally translated “slave.” It is the word Jesus used when he told his disciples that the greatest among them must be the servant/slave of all. Mark 10:44.

In a sinful world, a life so lived draws hostility and hatred. Jesus’ death on the cross was therefore the expected outcome of his obedient life. It is in precisely this sense that Jesus’ death was necessary. To put it in the most cynical way, “that’s what happens to nice guys.” But such cynicism is silenced by God’s resurrection of Jesus from death. Vs. 9. The upside down kingdom for which Jesus lived and died is real. The powers that put him to death are transitory and doomed to pass away. It is to Jesus, not to Caesar or any other nation or flag that all the universe will one day kneel. Vss 10-11. Disciples are called to live in the certain knowledge of that reality now.

Mark 14:1—15:47

I don’t preach on the Passion. The Passion text preaches itself. Whatever I might add can only detract. Yet, if you are foolhardy enough to try and improve on the gospel narrative, there are several points of interest. First, the story begins with Jesus in the home of Simon the leper. Mark 14:3. This individual was likely well known to Mark’s audience as nothing more is said to identify him. Nineham, D.E., Saint Mark, The Pelican New Testament Commentaries (c. 1963 by D.E. Nineham, pub. by Penguin Books) p. 371. It is worth noting that, up to the very end, Jesus maintains table fellowship with those deemed unclean.

Second, the story of the woman who anoints Jesus with the alabaster flask of ointment is worth telling. Mark 14:3-9. It is ironic that this story has been saved, according to Jesus, to preserve the woman’s memory though we do not even know her name! We might use this opportunity to memorialize all the unknown, nameless persons whose acts of extravagant generosity go unrecognized. It strikes me that this would be a good opportunity for recognizing social workers, school teachers and other members of the helping professions seldom mentioned without a condescending sneer on the lips of politicians from a certain political party of the American two-party system which is not Democratic and will otherwise remain appropriately anonymous. These folks work long hours, are disgracefully underpaid and typically handle oversize classes and/or caseloads with decreased funding. On top of all that, they must endure the constant refrain that their sacrifices are pointless and a waste of taxpayer money.

Third, I have always found interesting that, at the close of chapter 13, Jesus admonishes his disciples three times to “watch.” Mark 13:32-37. In the Garden of Gethsemane they must be jarred out of sleep exactly three times and reminded to watch. Mark 14:32-42. Recall that the disciples are preoccupied with the timing of the temple’s destruction and the signs accompanying the close of the age. Evidently, they do not know what to watch for. The darkening of the sun (Mark 15:33), the acclimation of Jesus as “King” (Mark 15:26) and the confession of Jesus as God’s son by the gentiles (Mark 15:39) all occur within the Passion narrative. Jesus came in his glory, but the disciples missed it because they failed to keep watch! Makes you wonder what signs should we look for? How does Jesus rule? What is glory anyway? Nothing of what we expect.

Then, of course, there is my favorite: the streaker in the garden. Mark 14:51-52. This little aside about the young man wearing a linen cloth has always fascinated me. Where did he come from? Why was he naked except for the linen? Why, out of all the disciples, did the temple authorities grab him? Whatever happened to him? Why does Mark (and only Mark) bother to relate such a seemingly inconsequential detail of such an important story? I can’t answer any of these questions, much less figure out how to get a sermon out of them.

In summary, I recommend not preaching the Passion. But if you must, these are just a few things you might talk about.

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Living toward death; a poem by W.S. Merwin; and the lessons for Sunday, March 18, 2018

FIFTH SUNDAY IN LENT

Jeremiah 31:31-34
Psalm 119:9-16
Hebrews 5:5-10
John 12:20-33

PRAYER OF THE DAY: O God, with steadfast love you draw us to yourself, and in mercy you receive our prayers. Strengthen us to bring forth the fruits of the Spirit, that through life and death we may live in your Son, Jesus Christ, our Savior and Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and forever.

“Truly, Truly I say to you, unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains alone; but if it dies, it bears much fruit.” John 12:24.

Technically, I suppose, that is not entirely correct. The seed remains “alive” even when it falls into the earth, however lifeless it might appear-or does it? In his recent book, Sex and the Origins of Death, Professor of Immunology William R. Clark makes the following observation concerning bacterial spores:

“Apparently, then, a spore is not dead-but why not? If it shows absolutely no evidence of life, can it truly be considered a living thing? What property does it retain that allows us to define it as alive? Reversibility of the deathlike state is an intuitively attractive way out of the dilemma, but what exactly does that mean? We know that gradually, over time, spores fail to respond to the conditions favorable to growth by reviving. Did such spores “die” during the spore period? If so, what was different about them before and after they died? What thin line did they cross? If we cannot answer such questions, we really cannot understand what death is. These questions are as difficult for biologists as they are for philosophers.” Clark, William R., Sex and the Origins of Death, (c. 1996 by Oxford University Press)  p. 142.

Evidently, the line between life and death is not as clear cut as we like to think. But in any event, until a seed hits the soil where it meets “the conditions favorable to growth,” it is, like the spore, for all intents and purposes “dead.” A seed can remain in a state of dormancy similar to death for centuries only to revive again when planted. Yet the likelihood of that outcome decreases the longer a seed remains “alone” without being planted. For the good of the seed, for the good of all who may benefit from its fruit, the seed must “fall into the ground.”

This is not a welcome word for a death denying culture like our own. It strikes me as odd that even institutions created to assist us in death avoid using this dreaded word. The funeral industry, hospice providers and even a lot of religious organizations pile up euphemisms thick and fast to cover up the stench of that stark reality. Yet that is precisely where we need to make clear that belief in Jesus’ resurrection and our own is not all about avoiding the unpleasant reality of death or somehow escaping its reach. In this the biblical authors part company with a lot of religious dogma positing the survival of the soul or some other part of us following death of the body. The Bible is clear about one thing: Nothing survives death. If there is anything for us beyond death, it is only because God makes of what is dead something new. That something new is as qualitatively different from what has died as the blooming plant is from the sown seed. If there is continuity between the two, it is only because the resurrected Christ is even now fashioning within us the “the pattern in the seed” someday to be seen “with new eyes.” “Behold the Host Arrayed in White,” Evangelical Lutheran Worship, # 425 (c. 1978, Augsburg Fortress).

It seems to me that disciples of Jesus are required to live with a greater awareness and anticipation of death. That is not to say that they are to be morbidly preoccupied with death. Rather, they are mindful that life is a freely given yet limited and precious commodity. They understand, too, that life’s purpose and meaning outlasts it. Precisely because God promises to raise up the dead and weave them into the fabric of a new creation, it is critical to give God as much to work with as possible in whatever time one has. Jesus invites us to throw every minute of our lives into the things that matter eternally, reconciliation, peace, justice and compassion-the stuff of which God’s reign is made. For some, as for Jesus, that means a premature death. But disciples of Jesus know that living long is not nearly as important as living well.

None of this is to say that death is good or that it is merely an illusion or that it is just a “door into a better place” as a friend once inartfully put it. Death is an ordeal both for the dying and for those they leave behind. There is nothing good about it. That said, death is not the worst thing that can happen to a person. The worst thing that can happen is that you will “remain alone,” that you will never pour out your lifegiving baptismal potential into the world for which Christ died, that you will live your whole life without ever learning what it is for, that you will die long before you stop breathing. Death is a tiger. It will never be your friend, but if you run from it, it will take you down all the faster.  For people who make a habit of facing down the tiger, of dying daily to sin, dying daily to yesterday’s losses, dying daily to the cycle of tit for tat, the ever-elusive promise of material security and the lure of power, wealth and fame, the tiger loses its power to terrify and paralyze. The day of death turns out to be just another day.

Here is a poem by W.S. Merwin speaking to the awareness and anticipation of death in the midst of life.

For the Anniversary of My Death

Every year without knowing it I have passed the day   
When the last fires will wave to me
And the silence will set out
Tireless traveler
Like the beam of a lightless star

Then I will no longer
Find myself in life as in a strange garment
Surprised at the earth
And the love of one woman
And the shamelessness of men
As today writing after three days of rain
Hearing the wren sing and the falling cease
And bowing not knowing to what

Source: The Second Four Books of Poems (c. 1992 by W.S. Merwin, pub. by Copper Canyon Press).  W.S. Merwin, born in 1927 in New York City, spent his formative years growing up in New Jersey and Pennsylvania. He was the son of a Presbyterian minister and began writing hymns for his father when he was only a child. He graduated from Princeton University in 1948. In addition to writing his own poetry and prose, Merwin is also a prolific translator of poems. His awards include fellowships from The Academy of American Poets, the Guggenheim Foundation, the National Endowment for the Arts, and the Rockefeller Foundation. You can read more about W.S. Merwin and sample more of his poetry at the Poetry Foundation website.

Jeremiah 31:31-34

Israel understood God and her relationship to God not on the basis of theological assertions about God or philosophical ideas about God, but through a series of historical covenants with God. God’s heart, mind and will for Israel were discerned through the living out of those covenants in obedience to Torah, a body of law that shaped Israel’s worship, commerce, community life and her relationship with other nations. According to the Deuteronomist, the glory of Israel was the wisdom and understanding gained through her obedience to Torah. Deuteronomy 4:6. Jeremiah was on the same page with the Deuteronomist on this score. He was probably a young man when, under King Josiah, Judah undertook significant reforms, purging the land of idolatry, restoring the temple in Jerusalem that had fallen into disrepair and strengthening the institutions of worship. See II Kings 23.

While Jeremiah likely approved of these reforms, he learned through bitter experience that, in themselves, they were insufficient for restoring Israel’s heartfelt obedience to her God. “The heart” he observed, “is deceitful above all things, and desperately corrupt; who can understand it?” Jeremiah 17:9. In the hands of a perverse and godless people, even the Torah becomes an instrument of injustice. “How can you say, ‘We are wise and the [Torah] of the Lord is with us?’” Jeremiah asks. “[b]ehold, the false pen of the scribes has made it into a lie.” Jeremiah 8:8. For this reason, Jeremiah believed that a new covenant was required. Understand, however, that a new covenant is not synonymous with a new law. The Ten Commandments and the rest of the body of law given through Moses needs neither replacement nor supplementation. It is the heart of Israel, not the Torah that must be changed.

A covenant is not a legal contract, though it does stipulate terms for living within it. It is best to think of a covenant as a relationship. Jeremiah compares it to a marriage. Vs. 32. The core of every marriage is fidelity. Whatever rules and statutes govern that marriage, they are not the essence of the marriage. They exist to protect, strengthen and enhance the marriage. If there exists no bond of fidelity, there is nothing for the laws to protect. When God enacts a covenant, it never begins with rules. First comes the promise. In the case of Abraham and Sarah, it was the promise of a land, a people and a blessing. In the case of Sinai, the giving of the law was preceded by God’s rescue of Israel from slavery in Egypt. The law was given to protect Israel’s new gift of freedom and to keep her from becoming another Egypt. Thus, Jeremiah looked forward to some new saving act of God that, like the two aforementioned covenants, would melt Israel’s stubborn unbelief. Through this new saving event, God would once more give Torah to the people of Israel, not on tablets of stone, but engraved upon their hearts.

It is important to appreciate both the continuity and discontinuity between this anticipated “new” covenant and the “old” covenants of Sinai and the patriarchs/matriarchs. As in the past, this new covenant would be initiated by the free act of Israel’s God. Some saving intervention of God in the human story would prove to be as compelling as was the call to Abraham and the deliverance from Egypt. The only conceivable response to such gracious acts of salvation is thankfulness from which genuine obedience flows. Torah will no longer be a means of establishing obedience. Its role will be to channel that outpouring of newfound thankfulness inspired by what God will shortly do. Rather than being an objective authority imposed from outside, Torah will be internalized and written upon the heart. Vs. 33. This covenant is consistent with God’s merciful intent for Israel expressed throughout the Hebrew Scriptures. It will be “new” in the sense that Israel will have another wonderful experience of that merciful intent renewing her ancient faith and enriching her narrative.

A new covenant was sorely needed. The promised land, the temple, the line of David and many other hallmarks of the prior covenants would soon be lost with the Babylonian destruction of Jerusalem and subsequent exile. What would it mean to be Israel without all of these things? Was such an existence even possible? Jeremiah’s answer is a resounding “yes.” God is far from finished with Israel. The exile, to be sure, was God’s just punishment for Israel’s unfaithfulness. But it is not only that. God is laying the groundwork for a new salvific act through which God’s faithfulness will be manifested and Israel’s faith restored. This is a good word for individual believers and churches experiencing loss and facing an uncertain future. God never makes an end of things except to make a new beginning.

Psalm 119:9-16

For my general observations on the form and content of Psalm 119, see my Post for September 7, 2014.  This psalm is the longest of eight acrostic poems found within the Book of Psalms. The others are Psalm 9Psalm 10Psalm 25Psalm 34Psalm 37Psalm 111; and Psalm 112. Instead of each line beginning with a successive letter of the Hebrew alphabet, however, Psalm 119 is made up of twenty-two 8 verse sections in which each line begins with the same letter of the alphabet. Sunday’s reading consists of the second section in which each of the 8 verses begin with the second letter of the Hebrew alphabet, “Bath.” Thus, if the composition sometimes appears a bit strained, remember that the psalmist is working within the confines of a stringent poetic form. Anyone who has ever attempted to compose a sonnet in the form utilized by Shakespeare will understand.

If the psalm has a theme, it is the centrality and supremacy of God’s Torah in every sphere of human life. The psalmist does not merely learn, memorize and conceptually understand the Torah. His/her heart, mind and daily practices are shaped by the Torah. Torah regulates the psalmist’s daily routine, inspires his/her praise and forms the perspective from which the psalmist views the rest of the world. One might object that such an obsession with Torah amounts to “brain washing.” But the fact of the matter is, we are all “brain washed” in the sense that how we perceive everything from the daily news to the mood of our spouses is shaped by preconceived notions about reality. Nobody is capable of viewing anything purely “objectively.” The psalmist is well aware of this. S/he wants his/her perspective on everything to be shaped by his/her reflections upon Torah-rather than say, MSNBC or Fox News. That isn’t to say that the psalmist might not have watched either of these networks had television been available in the 6th Century. But the psalmist would have evaluated what s/he saw under the lens of Torah rather than the other way around.

Our section of the psalm begins with a question: “How can a young person keep his/her way pure?” The answer comes in the very next sentence: “by guarding it according to thy word.” Vs. 9. This is precisely what the prophet Jeremiah told us must happen and it is significant that this psalm was composed long after the prophet’s time. We might see this psalm as something of a fulfilment of Jeremiah’s prophecy. “I have laid up thy word in my heart,” says the psalmist. Vs. 11. The people of Judah not only survived the Babylonian conquest and exile, but learned through that and subsequent experience to internalize Torah.

The psalmist understands, as did Jeremiah, that Torah cannot be learned. It must be taught and taught chiefly by the God who gives it. Thus, s/he prays, “teach me thy statutes!” vs. 12. Because the psalmist trusts God to teach, s/he is diligent in “declaring,” “meditating” and “fixing [his/her] eyes” on Torah. This is no burdensome and onerous task. To the contrary, the psalmist “delights” in Torah and vows not to “forget thy word.” Vss. 13-16. The psalm is a testimony both to the transformative power of Torah and the blessedness of the life by which it is shaped.

In order to make sense out of this psalm (the entire Bible for that matter), we need to see the covenant community that formed the prayer and which, in turn, is formed by it. The statutes about which the psalmist sings are those given by the God who promises an aged, barren, childless nomadic couple a land, a people and a blessing. They are given to slaves, a people that was no people, but who have now been liberated and called to freedom. They are laws given by the God who sets rulers over his people, not to reign as gods, but to be God’s representatives of justice for the widow and the orphan. Psalm 119 is the payer of individuals, families and communities struggling to live as the people of this marvelous God. Seen in that light, the study of Torah is an invitation to enter into the marvelous narrative of Israel’s history with her God, not the dry and onerous study of mind numbing rules we might otherwise imagine it to be.

Hebrews 5:5-10

To recap what I have written before, I do not view the anonymous Letter to the Hebrews as an assertion of Christianity’s superiority over Judaism as some commentators do. Instead, I believe that the letter was written to explain the destruction of the Jerusalem Temple in 70 C.E. and to deal with the disappointment of some disciples who might have been expecting that event to usher in the consummation of the kingdom Jesus proclaimed. The destruction of the Temple was a severe blow to both Jews and Jewish disciples of Jesus who, according to the Book of Acts, worshiped there. For Jews it meant the end of the sacrificial cult that came to define much of what it meant to be a Jew. For disciples of Jesus it meant the loss of an institution Jesus attempted to purify and the failure of a prophetic understanding of its destruction as a sign of the inbreaking of God’s reign. In short, the destruction of the Temple was a traumatic event for Jews, both those who accepted Jesus as messiah and those who did not. For the most part, the Jews dealt with this catastrophe by turning to the Torah and the synagogue as their center of faith and life. Disciples of Jesus saw in Christ “a new temple not built with hands” (John 2:19-22) and in the community of faith called church Christ’s bodily presence. I Corinthians 12:27. So the writer’s objective is not to discredit Judaism with Christianity, but rather to illustrate how the mission of Jesus and his continuing presence with the church fulfills the functions of the temple cult and supersedes it.

Our lesson for Sunday speaks of Jesus as the new “High Priest.” Vs. 5. “The essential concept underlying priesthood in the ancient world, among both Jews and Gentiles, was that of mediatorship between the divine and human, by virtue of the priest’s superior knowledge of, or power of communication with, the supernatural.” Shepherd, M.H., Jr., “Priests in the New Testament,” The Interpreter’s Dictionary of the Bible, Vol. 3 (c. 1962 by Abingdon Press) p. 889. Though likely in existence in some form from ancient times, the office of high priest came into prominence following the return from exile in Babylon and the reconstruction of the second temple around 520 B.C.E. In the writings of the prophets Haggai and Zechariah the high priest, Joshua, appears to hold power comparable to Zerubbabel the Persian appointed Jewish governor of Judah. Haggai 1:1Haggai 1:12-14Haggai 2:2Zechariah 6:9-13Zechariah 3-4. “With the disappearance of the Davidic line, it was inevitable that the postexilic high priest should acquire much of the power and prestige which formerly belonged to the king.” Abba, R., “Priests and Levites,” The Interpreter’s Dictionary of the Bible, Vol. 3 (c. 1962 by Abingdon Press) p. 887. The priesthood was hereditary, being tied exclusively to the tribe of Levi and the family of Aaron. As the writer of Hebrews points out, “one does not take the honor [of priesthood] upon himself, but he is called by God just as Aaron was.” Hebrews 5:4. With the destruction of the temple in Jerusalem in 70 C.E., the decimation of the priesthood and the termination of sacrificial worship, the question becomes: How does one properly worship the God of Israel?

As noted previously, the answer lay in Torah and the synagogue for most Jews. The Pharisaic tradition, which had championed this perspective all along, became the definitive shape of Judaism going forward. The priesthood had no further relevance. For disciples of Jesus, the priesthood was understood to have been assumed by Jesus whose offering of his life atoned for sin and created a new and better avenue of approach to God. Jesus was understood among his disciples as God’s true high priest from an entirely different lineage than that of Aaron, namely, the line of Melchizedek.  Melchizedek is an obscure figure who makes only a fleeting appearance in the scriptures. Genesis 14 tells the story of how a confederation of kingdoms defeated the infamous city states of Sodom and Gomorrah. Abram’s (later Abraham) cousin Lot and his family got caught in the cross-fire and were kidnapped and enslaved by the victorious confederation. Abram formed his servants into an army and pursued the confederation forces, ambushed them during the night, scattered their troops and rescued Lot. The king of Sodom was naturally grateful to Abram as this victory benefited his kingdom. He came out to greet Abram and with him was Melchizedek, king of Salem (another name for Jerusalem). Melchizedek, identified as “priest of God Most High,” brought with him bread and wine. He also blessed Abram with the words:

“Blessed be Abram by God Most High,
maker of heaven and earth;
and blessed be God Most High,
who has delivered your enemies into your hand!”

And Abram gave [Melchizedek] one-tenth of all the spoils of his victory.” Genesis 14:19-20. The only other mention of Melchizedek is in Psalm 110, a coronation hymn, in which the newly crowned king of Judah is named “a priest for ever after the order of Melchizedek.” Psalm 110:4. It is this very mysteriousness of Melchizedek and his lack of genealogy or history that makes his priestly office such an appealing analogy to the ministry of Jesus. Jesus’ priestly authority is not grounded in the corrupt lineage of the Jerusalem establishment of his time, nor is it even rooted in any human genealogy. Jesus’ appointment and priestly office are grounded in God’s sovereign choice.

In my former life as an attorney, I knew a judge who, when confronted with a trial adjournment request for a case that had already been sitting on the docket for years would blurt out, “and when did the accident take place? Back when Christ was a corporal in the Marine Corps?” What interests me about this profane remark is its rather poor theology. It implies that Jesus started out at the lower echelons of human existence and worked his way up through the ranks to become God’s Son-a sort of spiritual Horatio Alger myth. Actually, one could get that impression from an over hasty reading of verses 7-10 in our lesson. It is important to note, however, that Jesus was at all times God’s Son. “Although he was a Son, he learned obedience through what he suffered.” Vs. 8. What he “became” was not God’s Son (which he already was) but “the source of eternal salvation.” Vs. 9. His “perfection” was the life he lived in the “flesh,” the only life that ever was genuinely human. And being human in the way God desires and in the way that God is human when God is incarnated in human flesh entails an obedience which, in a sinful world, leads inevitably to suffering.

The other psalm citation by the writer of Hebrews is found in Psalm 2. Like Psalm 110, this is also a coronation hymn likely used for the crowning of a Judean king in the Davidic line. “You are my son, today I have begotten you.” Psalm 2:7. Like the priesthood, so also the royal line of Judah came through God’s anointing. In the case of the psalm, the term “begotten” is clearly figurative. For the New Testament writers, the term took on a more profound meaning in the description of Jesus’ person and ministry. One might wonder why the writer chose a coronation hymn like this when his/her focus was clearly on Jesus’ priestly function. As Psalm 110:4 and the duel offices of Melchizedek illustrate, however, the royal and priestly functions were blurred from ancient times. The objective is to show that the priestly functions of the temple ministry and priesthood have passed to Jesus and his active presence in the life of the church. Like the lesson from Jeremiah dealing with the destruction of the first temple, so this reading from Hebrews helping disciples of Jesus to come to terms with the destruction of the second temple speaks words of comfort and hope to a church that has come to believe its best days are behind it.

John 12:20-33

Sunday’s lesson is taken from the closing chapter of Jesus’ ministry in John’s gospel. We are in the midst of John’s Palm Sunday narrative. Philip, whose name is Greek and who came from a predominantly Greek speaking region is approached by “Greeks” who wish to see Jesus. Scholars wishing to delve into the so called historical basis for this encounter suggest that these Greeks were actually Greek speaking Jews from the diaspora coming to celebrate Passover in Jerusalem. However that might be, John wishes to emphasize their “Greekness” and identify them with gentiles. These are “the other sheep that are not of this fold” who must be brought in so as to heed Jesus’ voice. John 10:16.

This episode marks a significant turning point. Jesus has said repeatedly throughout the prior chapters that his “hour had not yet come.” John 2:4John 7:30John 8:20. But the coming of the Greeks signals that now “the hour has come for the Son of Man to be glorified.” Vs. 23. How is the glorification of the Son of Man to take place? Jesus leaves little doubt: “unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains alone; but if it dies, it bears much fruit.” Vs. 24. Jesus’ death will be his glorification. We must not lose sight of the fact that Jesus’ death glorifies Jesus precisely because it is the natural, legally anticipated consequence of his life of perfect obedience to the Father. Jesus is what genuine humanity looks like. He is also what the heart of the Father looks like. For this incarnate life there can be only one end in a world that shuns the light and chooses darkness.

“He who loves his life loses it, and he who hates his life in this world will keep it for eternal life.” Vs. 25. These are difficult words for a culture that values enjoyment of life, that believes the pursuit of happiness to be a fundamental human right and that strives for comfort above all. But the truth from which we hide is that our comfort in this society comes at a terrible cost to the rest of humanity, to the earth’s biosphere and to our capacity for empathy and compassion. It seems to me that there is much to hate about the way we live. As noted last week, the term “eternal life” as used by John refers not chiefly to life’s duration but to its orientation. Life that is lived in relationship to Jesus is shaped by the love binding the Trinity as illustrated in Jesus’ prayer at John 17. Such love is directed toward the world to which the Son was sent to give life. John 3:16. We are compelled to ask how much of our living is “eternal,” that is, grounded in the love of the Father for the Son, love of God for the world and love for one another. If we cannot take a look at our lives in the light of truth and hate what we see, how can we ever arrive at life that is eternal? “If anyone serves me, he must follow me; and where I am, there shall my servant be also.” Vs. 26. These words should dispel once and for all the notion that “Jesus bore the cross so that we would not have to.” In reality, bearing the cross is a privilege. It is our opportunity to escape from a selfish, consumer driven and destructive existence that we should have learned by now to hate. It is sheer grace for those who have eyes to see it.

John’s gospel does not have a Transfiguration story as do Matthew, Mark and Luke. Verses 27-33 serve many of the same literary purposes, however. The voice from heaven both glorifies Jesus and declares that his name will be further glorified. The voice is directed to the disciples and, in John’s gospel, to the Palm Sunday crowd as well. There are echoes also of Jesus’ agony in the Garden of Gethsemane in vs. 27 where Jesus resists the temptation to ask the Father to save him from the hour of suffering. As in the three other gospels, so also in the gospel of John, Jesus is a fully human person no more eager to suffer and die than anyone else.

“Now is the judgment of this world.” Vs. 31. This will in fact be a double judgment. The world will judge Jesus and Jesus’ condemnation and death will be God’s judgment on the world. The cross will bring to full light the world’s hostility toward the Father in all of its ugliness. More importantly, though, it will bring to light the Father’s love for his fallen world. The world will be exposed for what it is and God will be exposed for who God is. In this the “ruler of this world” is cast out. In the cross, the devil had his best shot at rupturing the love that holds the Trinity in unity and the love of the Triune God for creation. He took it and scored a bull’s eye. But the devil’s strongest punch could not take Jesus out. It could not induce Jesus to abandon his mission. It could not induce God to retaliate for the murder of his Son. The love of the Father for the Son remains intact as does the obedience of the Son to the Father. God’s love for the world is still as strong as ever despite the cross. The devil couldn’t crack the Trinity.

 

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