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Monday, April 20, 2015

A word to Christians who support RFRA laws: Grow Up!

Are you as weary as I am in hearing all these well-to-do, materially prosperous and secure American Christians whining about being religiously persecuted because they cannot act on their exclusive theology in the market place and deny services to our LGBT sisters and brothers?

To all my financially secure, well-off persecuted Christian friends: Please, let it go! Give it up!

It doesn't matter what your worldview is or what your religious beliefs are, in the public arena you have to treat everyone equally. This is not rocket science. It’s the best of our democracy.

Everyone seems to know this except sexists, racists, and conservative Christians (and maybe a few Supreme Court judges).

Besides, even if you do think same-sex marriage or partnership is wrong, should you not welcome and accept everyone the way Jesus did. He didn't require prostitutes and tax collectors to stop doing what they were doing before he fed them and accepted them at the table.

“Come one and all,” said Jesus. Shouldn't Christians be saying, "Serve one and serve all"?

When the disciples argued with one another about who was the greatest, Jesus told them to stop acting like persons of power and prominence who liked to “lord” it over others; rather, they were to be servants of all (Mark 10:42-44).  

A contemporary application of Jesus’ teaching might be: “Certain persons in the world like to assert their power over those they do not like – denying them services and goods. But it is not to be so among you. Whoever wishes to assert such power must become the servant of all.”

Many, perhaps the majority of American Christians initially opposed the push to abolish slavery. Then they stood firm against women's rights, a battle that is still ongoing. Next, they refused to join the civil rights movement, many supporting segregation. Now they stand against LGBT equality and fairness laws.

This is NOT the way to be the salt of the earth and the light of the world.

It's a damn shame!

Letting Go - Moving On (The Metaphorical Meaning of an Easter Story)

In the story world of John’s Gospel Jesus tells the disciples that he is going away, but he would not leave them without his presence. How could that be? Most spiritual truth is paradoxical in nature. The Father, says Jesus, will send an Advocate, the Spirit of Truth, to be with them forever. The Advocate is currently “with” them, apparently in the person of Jesus, but will be “in” them (in a different nonvisible, nonphysical sense) after Jesus is gone. The Spirit of Truth, who will function in Jesus’ name will teach them “everything” they need to know and bear witness to Jesus (John 14:15-20, 25-26; 15:26).

The presence and activity of the Spirit of Truth will not be limited to the disciples however, but will be active in the world convincing and enlightening all people about spiritual reality (John 16:8-11). John declared in his beautiful prologue that the light and wisdom that became incarnate in Jesus is the light and wisdom that is in every person (1:9).

Here the distinction is made between the pre-Easter Jesus and the post-Easter Christ. Christ is a title attributed to Jesus, which includes Jesus, but means more than Jesus. Paul makes this same distinction when he speaks of Christ living in him and in the Messianic communities gathered in the name of Jesus.

And as John points out (attributing the words to Jesus in 16:8-11) the Spirit of Truth, the “Christ Spirit,” the “living Christ” is not restricted to the Christian community, but at loose in the world and in all people revealing, convincing, enlightening them to spiritual truth.  Harvey Cox points out in The Future of Faith that “one of the most devastating blunders made by the church . . . was to insist that the Spirit is present only in believers” (p. 53).

In one Easter story told by John, Mary Magdalene comes to the empty tomb and is distraught. She encounters someone who she thinks is the gardener. It is actually Jesus, but she does not recognize him. When he speaks her name, she is enlightened. Then she sees, knows, encounters, experiences Jesus. Jesus next says, “Do not hold on to me, because I have not yet ascended to the Father. But go to my brothers and say to them, ‘I am ascending to my Father and your Father, to my God and your God’” (John 20:17).

In light of the Johannine narrative the point here, I believe, is that Jesus could no longer be present as Jesus; he would be present as the Spirit of Truth/the Spirit of Christ. Mary must give up the physicality of the pre-Easter Jesus in order to experience the presence and power of the living Christ, who is “more” than Jesus. In the biblical tradition there is an obvious and clear continuity between Jesus and Christ, but Christ is a much larger reality than the historical Jesus. (Notice the clear distinction made in the Johannine text above – “my God and your God” – between Jesus and God.)

Brother David Steindl-Rast points out that the connections people make between Jesus and Christ are greatly impacted by upbringing, cultural conditioning, and the circumstances of one’s life. He notes,

“A Christian child may grow up with a continuous confusion between Jesus and God. A Jewish child might discover that even mentioning Jesus is asking for trouble. If we are lucky, we might meet Christian followers who are true followers of Jesus and bring the joy of God’s love to everyone they meet. But we may have the misfortune to meet people who claim a special closeness to Jesus and are obnoxious. The culture of our ancestors may have been destroyed in the name of Jesus by well-intentioned but misguided missionaries. Or we may have grown up in a culture in which the most admirable traits are somehow connected with Jesus, from Handel’s Messiah to 12-step programs. A fair-minded approach to Jesus demands a colossal effort for many people to overcome either negative prejudice or biased exclusiveness . . . In any event, we owe it to ourselves to get as clear as picture as we can of Jesus [the historical Jesus], whose impact on history set in motion a nonviolent revolution that is still in full swing: the struggle to overcome the love of power by the power of love” (Deeper than Words, p. 48).

On a personal and communal level, this Johannine Easter story compels us to ask ourselves what we are holding on to that is hindering us from experiencing the living presence and power of Christ. (By the way, this is true whether you take the story literally or metaphorically).

It could be some deep hurt or betrayal or grievance story that we replay in our minds over and over again. The more we replay it the more we are weighed down by resentment and bitterness and entangled by frustration and anger.

It might be some regret, a dashed dream or a missed opportunity that we will never get back. Or a past failure or failures that have us questioning any possibility of our doing something that might have value and significance.

Or it might even be the image of God or Jesus we grew up with that no longer, if we would admit it, works for us or makes good sense to us. But since we have lived with this image for so long, to relinquish it, to let it go feels like we are being disloyal or unfaithful to our parents or our past Christian heritage and the pastors/teachers who taught us and have meant so much to us. 

But there can be no significant growth, no movement forward, no development, no becoming “more” unless we can stop clinging to whatever it is that is keeping us from living right now in the spiritual presence and power of Christ.

In a kind of picture book for adults Trina Paulus tells about the life journey of two caterpillars who eventually become butterflies. The one named Yellow is the first to undergo the transformation. She stumbles across a caterpillar who is hanging upside down. He tells her that he has to do this to become a butterfly. When she inquires further he says, “You must want to fly so much that you are willing to give up being a caterpillar.”

That’s the issue isn’t it? Do we want to move on so much that we are willing to let go of whatever it is keeping us from changing? Yellow says, “You mean die.” The other caterpillar says, “Yes and No. What looks like you will die but what’s really you will still live. Life is changed, not taken away” (emphasis mine, Hope for the flowers, p. 75)

Think of all the stuff in our lives that feeds the false self, the ego self, the little self (the self that looks like us, but is not the real or true self) and keeps us from moving on to a higher level of spiritual enlightenment and growth.

I love the final line by the Tom Hanks character in Castaway. He finally makes it off the island and discovers upon his return home that the woman he loved, whose memory kept him going on the island, has remarried and has a child. He is, of course, heartbroken. He tells his friend that he has lost her all over again. But then he says, “I’m alive. I have ice in my glass . . . And tomorrow the sun will rise, and who knows what the tide will bring.”

Maybe it’s time we step outside of whatever tomb we have been buried in and let go of whatever it is that we have been clinging to, and look to the sun and take to the sea and let the waves of new life, hope, and faith wash over us. 

(This article was first published at Baptist News Global)

Thursday, April 2, 2015

Good Power/Bad Power (The nonviolent Jesus versus the apocalyptic Christ)

It is vital to our spiritual health to understand the difference between dominant power and spiritual power. Dominant power is the power to externally influence behavior by the use of force, coercion, threat or promise, reward or punishment. Spiritual power, on the other hand, is the capacity to influence and persuade based on the quality, integrity, authenticity, and authority of one’s own being, apart from any position or any external authority.

Dominant power is often bad, but not always. It is sometimes necessary. I think most of us would agree that some form of dominant power is necessary to stop a terrorist group like ISIS, with whom peaceful negotiations are impossible. Dominant power can force a child to comply, which is sometimes necessary, but dominant power cannot make that child love you. Love cannot be controlled or coerced or demanded.

Holy week begins with Jesus’ nonviolent, peaceful procession into Jerusalem on a donkey (Mark 11:1-10; par. Matt. 21:1-9; Luke 19:28-38)). This expression of spiritual power stands in direct contrast to another procession into Jerusalem led by Pilate, representing the imperial might of Rome. Departing from Caesarea Maritima, Pilot would have entered the city from the west with cavalry and foot soldiers to reinforce the Roman garrison on the Temple Mount, thus ensuring that during the Jewish high holy days any uprising would be met immediately with force.

Jesus’ peaceful entry into Jerusalem depicted in the Gospels also stands in direct contrast to the procession depicted in Revelation 19:11-21. John Dominic Crossan in his book, How to Read the Bible and Still Be a Christian points out that the radical, nonviolent, humble Christ of the Gospels who is committed to distributive justice is subverted by the apocalyptic, violent, warrior Christ of the Second Coming who pours out retributive justice. In other words, the spiritual power embodied by the Jesus of the Gospels is subverted and contradicted by the dominant power wielded by the apocalyptic Christ at the Second Coming.

So, which version of the Christ are you going to trust and aspire to emulate? Since every viewpoint is a view from a point, what will be your point of reference? Where will you plant your feet? Where will you stand? What lens will you use to see God and your place in God’s world? Will you stand with the nonviolent Jesus of the Gospels or the violent Christ of the book of Revelation.

If your tendency is toward dominant power you will most likely side with the apocalyptic Christ of Revelation 19 (along with all who embrace the Left Behind worldview/Godview). If you are a believer in spiritual power then you will allow the nonviolent Jesus of the Gospels and Paul’s authentic letters to be the filter through which you read and apply the rest of Scripture and the Christian tradition.

If we read the Bible motivated by and filled with spiritual power, then we will read and appropriate the Bible so that the very best in the Bible brings out the best in us. The Bible will then be appropriated as an instrument of transformation that grows and expands our souls, empowering us to become more compassionate, loving, courageous, and self-giving.  

However, if we read the Bible motivated by and filled with dominant power, then we will read and appropriate the Bible so that the very worst in the Bible brings out the worst in us. When we rely on dominant power we use the Bible to justify our prejudices, our demand for retribution, and our control and dominance over others. 

The late Walter Wink tells about an experience he shared with a large crowd of both black and white activists during the turbulent weeks when Selma, Alabama was the focal point of the civil rights struggle in the South. The story vividly illustrates the difference between spiritual power and dominant power.

They had gathered singing to pass the time, when suddenly a funeral home operator from Montgomery took the microphone. He reported that a group of black students demonstrating near the capital just that afternoon had been surrounded by police on horseback. With all escape barred they were cynically commanded to disperse or take the consequences. The mounted police then waded into the students and beat them at will. Police prevented ambulances from reaching the injured for two hours. The one who reported this to the group in Selma was one the ambulance drivers. After the incident he had driven straight to Selma to tell them about it.

The crowd, which had gathered outside of Ebenezer Baptist Church was infuriated. Cries went up, “Let’s march!” Behind them, across the street, stood the Alabama state troopers and the local police forces of Sheriff Jim Clark. The situation was explosive. A young black minister stepped to the microphone and said, “It’s time we sang a song.” He opened with the line, “Do you love Martin King?” “Certainly, Lord!” the crowd responded. “Do you love Martin King?” “Certainly Lord!” “Do you love Martin King?” “Certainly, certainly, certainly, Lord!”

Right through the chain of command of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference he went, the crowd each time echoing, warming to the song. “Certainly, certainly, certainly, Lord” they sang. Then, without warning, he sang out, “Do you love Jim Clark, the sheriff?” “Certainly, Lord” came the somewhat stunned, halting reply. “Do you love Jim Clark?” “Certainly, Lord”—it was stronger this time. “Do you love, Jim Clark?” Now the point had sunk in. “Certainly, certainly, certainly, Lord,” they sang.

The Rev. James Bevel took the mike. We are not fighting for our rights, he said, we are fighting for the good of the whole society. He proclaimed, “It’s not enough to defeat Jim Clark—do you hear me, Jim?—we want you converted.” Then he said to the group, “We cannot win by hating our oppressors. We have to love them into changing [emphasis mine]. (The Powers That Be: Theology for a New Millennium, pp 176-77).  

This is a point that Martin Luther King, Jr. repeatedly emphasized to all activists in the civil rights movement. Their goal, he said, was not to defeat or destroy their enemies. Rather, their goal was to destroy the enmity, the prejudice and hate that fueled their enemies. They wanted to turn their enemies into their friends.

In that struggle two very different kinds of power were at work and visibly on graphic display. I suspect the racist Christians who supported Jim Clark and the police brutality took their cue from Revelation 19 where the apocalyptic Christ slaughters all opposition. How different is the nonviolent Christ of the Gospels who tells his disciples to love their enemies (Matt. 5:38-48; Luke 6:29-36).

Only persons who are filled with spiritual power can be trusted with external power, because they don’t crave it, seek it, need it, or even want it. They are secure in their own being and in God. Spiritual power gives us the courage to follow Jesus all the way to the cross where we see another vivid pictorial of the difference between dominant power that induces suffering, and the spiritual power of suffering love.

(This article was first published at Baptist News Global.)

Monday, March 30, 2015

What Easter Means (and why what literally happened on Easter morning is irrelevant)

What matters most is not what historically happened on Easter morning to the body of Jesus, but what the Easter story means.

The Easter stories in the Gospels are religious/spiritual/theological stories, not historical reports. That is not to say there are no historical echoes or reflections in the stories, but my contention is that whatever actual memories may be imbedded in them such historical recollections are irrelevant to the meaning and appropriation of these stories by people of faith.

Did the original writers/editors of these Easter stories believe the actual body of Jesus was resurrected? Did they believe the body of Jesus was changed into a different kind of body? Were these appearances like apparitions or dreams or were they something more tangible? Did the authors/redactors of these stories intend them as metaphorical narratives (like parables) teaching spiritual truth?

There is no way to know from a historical perspective how much is actually history or legend or myth, nor does it matter. Historically, about the most that can be said is that some of the first disciples of Jesus became convinced that God raised Jesus to new life because they experienced Jesus alive after his death.

Their experience of Jesus alive (whatever this may have actually involved) brought them out of their great grief and despair igniting and fueling new faith, hope, love, and courage. It’s doubtful there would have been any sort of Jesus movement if not for the Easter experience. If the Lukan accounts in Acts reliably reflect the key elements in the early Messianic preaching, then the Easter experience was critical and central.

Luke attributes to Peter in his first sermon on the day of Pentecost the concluding point,

"This Jesus God raised up, and of that we are all witnesses. Being therefore exalted . . . and having received from the Father the promise of the Holy Spirit, he has poured out this that you both see and hear. . . . Therefore let the entire house of Israel know with certainty that God has made him [the man Jesus] both Lord and Messiah, this Jesus whom you crucified" (Acts 2:32-36).

Had there been no Easter experience, it is hard to imagine where the motivation and empowerment for the Messianic movement would have originated.

What actually happened is irrelevant. What matters is the Easter story! – its spiritual meaning and theological significance. The resurrection stories are spiritual stories imparting spiritual truth.  

In the Easter story (or stories) I see three big spiritual realities:

First, Easter was God’s vindication of Jesus and all that he valued and stood for. Jesus is affirmed as a unique embodiment of the divine (or paradoxically, what it means to be fully human) and God’s agent for accomplishing God’s will. Jesus – as boundary breaker, prophetic challenger of the status quo, radical reformer, teacher of nonconventional, counter-cultural wisdom, empathetic and compassionate healer, lover of the poor and outcast, host to all manner of sinners, liberator of the oppressed – this Jesus who died a violent death at the hands of the political and religious authorities without returning the violence or even harboring violence in his heart was vindicated by God. Easter was God’s “Yes” to Jesus’ life, teaching, and vision of a world healed, reconciled, and made whole.

Second, the Easter story affirms that death does not have the final word. I know that many conservative Christians have made the Christian faith all about the afterlife. For many such Christians the gospel is nothing more than a prize of heavenly glory for believing orthodox doctrines or practicing the right rituals. Salvation is mostly a legal, juridical transaction of sin/guilt remission that guarantees the “believer” a place in heaven.

Progressives, like myself, emphasize God’s dream for this world and the importance of our participation in its realization, and the need for personal and communal transformation right now. We emphasize Jesus’ prayer: “Your kingdom come, your will be done, on earth as it is in heaven.”

Still, I believe Easter signifies that not only will God never give up on this world, God will not allow our mortal lives to be all there is. How does love ultimately win and restorative justice prevail if there is not “more” to this life than this life? It was no doubt this sort of evolution of thought that spawned the development of Jewish belief in resurrection during the intertestamental period. Think of all the children of God who have died prematurely through disease, war, natural disaster, etc. and suffered immensely under the dominant power of oppressors. Without something “more” how would their suffering be vindicated?

While I do not agree with all of Paul’s teaching about resurrection in his letters, I think he makes a legitimate argument to the Corinthians who had collapsed the teaching of resurrection into a completely realized eschatology. They said that the resurrection is all now and this worldly. Paul argued, not so! It’s both/and. He argued that the good news cannot be all that good if our hope is confined to this world alone (see 1 Cor. 15:1-28).

Third, the Easter story evokes response. God’s “yes” to Jesus is God’s invitation to trust in, share in, and be faithful to all that Jesus lived and died for. Easter means that the work for a just, good, redeemed, and reconciled world continues through us as the Spirit of Jesus fills us and expands our capacity to love and give of ourselves for the good of others.

Albert Nolan in his classic, Jesus Before Christianity, says this beautifully,

“In the last analysis faith is not a way of speaking or a way of thinking, it is a way of living and can only be adequately articulated in a living praxis. To acknowledge Jesus as our Lord and Savior is only meaningful in so far as we try to live as he lived and to order our lives according to his values. We do not need to theorize about Jesus, we need to ‘re-produce’ him in our time and our circumstances.”

(This article was first published at Baptist News Global). 

Thursday, March 26, 2015

Reconsidering John 3:16 (A Progressive Baptist's Interpretation)

In The Lord of the Rings there was one ring to rule them all. In the Bible if there is one verse to rule them all it is John 3:16. If one learned just one Bible verse in Sunday School or Vacation Bible School it was most likely this verse. We see it posted on billboards and held up at sporting events. The one time I could be a Bible thumper is when the camera view picks up the guy or gal in the stands behind home plate waving a sign with John 3:16. I would like to pound them over the head with it. There is no reason to give this verse exclusively to the conservatives. Progressives need to reclaim it, perhaps though in less dramatic style.

“For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son . . .” 

God so loved the world, says John, that God sent Jesus “not to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him” (3:17). For the world to be saved is for the world to be healed of its many wounds and made whole. For the world to be saved is for the world to be liberated from all its injustices, inequities, and oppressions. For the world to be saved is for the world to be reconciled to God and one another from all its alienations, divisions, and polarizations. For the world to be saved is for the world to be regenerated and renewed, so that life emerges out of death. The image of new life (new wine, new birth, living water, bread from heaven, etc.) is the one the writer/community of John’s Gospel employed most often.

When this Gospel says that God gave his “only” Son there is no good reason to limit this to mean that Jesus is the only way one can encounter God and step into the flow of eternal life. The Greek word means something like “unique, one-of-a-kind” and speaks of the unique relationship Jesus had with God.  John has already pointed out in his prologue that God has other children (1:12). In like manner, there is no need to conclude that Jesus is the only way one can encounter God, especially sense the true light that is incarnate in Jesus is the light that enlightens every person (1:9).

The revelation that has been made known in Jesus has certainly been the primary means through which I have discovered God’s power and presence, but not exclusively so. I have also encountered and discovered God’s power for life through my interaction with others – through words, actions, expressions, writings, and conversations. I have discovered God’s presence in the wonder and mystery of creation, and in common, ordinary everyday experiences. As a Jesus follower I filter all my experiences through the sacred story of Jesus, because Jesus is my primary source and medium for encountering God. But Jesus is not my only source or medium for experiencing God.

So we should not be surprised or skeptical of other people’s experience of God and participation in the life of God who live in other cultures or come out of other religious traditions and do not know the tradition of Jesus. God can speak through other mediators and means and we must learn to respect their experience and not reject their experience or claim that our experience is superior to theirs.

“so that everyone who believes in him . . .”  

To believe in Jesus is first and foremost “to trust in Jesus.” There are different levels and degrees of trust. There is the trust students have in their teachers, patients have in their physicians, and children have in their parents. There is the trust between friends and between life partners. When John invites his readers to trust in Jesus he is calling for a complete, holistic, even radical kind of trust and surrender to Jesus and what he lived for and stood for.

The Johannine community experienced Jesus as the great breakthrough of the Divine into humanity. What he stood for was what God stood for. The values he embodied and taught were God’s values. To trust in Jesus was to trust in and be faithful to all that Jesus revealed to be of God. And the supreme value was love – which is why Jesus says in John’s Gospel: “By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another” (13:35). 

To believe in Jesus then is to make Jesus and what he stood for what we stand for. It is to make the values he lived by our values. This is what it means to confess that Jesus is Lord. When the first disciples confessed Jesus to be their Lord they were not professing belief in some metaphysical doctrine about Jesus’ divinity, they were professing that their first allegiance was to the God Jesus revealed and no longer to the empire and to the emperor who claimed to be lord (“son of God” and “God manifest” were titles claimed by the Roman emperor). No longer was their first allegiance to the values of the empire, but rather to the values of God’s kingdom (God’s will and way in the world). This is why the first disciples all embraced nonviolence as a way of life; they were convinced this was critical to who Jesus was and what he stood for.

Everyone has a god or gods – something they put their trust in and live for. It might be money or power or prestige or career or country or family – but everyone’s life centers on something. To trust in Jesus and make him Lord is to trust in what Jesus trusted and to make what he stood for and died for, what he valued and lived for central in our lives.  

I think some Christians like to argue over doctrine about Jesus in order to avoid actually following Jesus and making his values their values. I think for some church-goers doctrine is a means of distraction, a kind of ploy to avoid having to take Jesus’ life, values, and teaching seriously.

“may not perish, but have eternal life.”

Eternal life is God’s kind of life. Those who share in eternal life share in God’s struggle with the death-dealing, violent, destructive, life-diminishing powers at work in the world by mediating and expressing  life-giving powers like love, peace, faith, and hope. 

Eternal life involves an endless cycle of giving and receiving. Brother David Steindl-Rast illustrates the life of blessing (eternal life) by observing the flow of the Jordan River. The Jordan flows down from Mount Hermon pouring out its blessings as if flows – life giving water for parched soil. Nowhere is the richness of life it brings more evident than by the Sea of Galilee. Its shores are a paradise of fields, orchards, and gardens. The water in the lake is clear, teeming with fish. From there the Jordan meanders down to another body of water, the Dead Sea. What a contrast! The water is so dense with salt, one floats in it. Its shores are barren. The water in the Dead Sea is not even fit for irrigation. It’s the same water that feeds the Sea of Galilee, but the Dead Sea has no outflow like the lake of Galilee. It just gathers in one place and stagnates. Brother David Steindl-Rast says that life and blessing that stops flowing becomes a curse. (Essential Writings, p. 54)

I was affiliated with a church once where the largest group was a Bible study group that met as a Sunday School class and usually through the week for some kind of special Bible study. The leaders of the church kept going to this group for help. We had some new, young families with children visiting, but not enough workers to help teach and care for them. The leaders went to this class and asked for help several times, but no response. They preferred to remain in their group. Most of the group were mostly dull, boring, and contrary. They wouldn’t hesitate to call the preacher out if he happened to say something or teach something that they thought was contrary to sound doctrine. They took in, but they didn’t give out. There was inflow, but no outflow.

Whenever we bless someone, whenever we offer encouragement or give of our time, presence, provision, or resources to enhance life, to make life better for someone – we are simply returning what has been given to us as a gift. Life hasn’t been bought or earned, it’s been given. It’s all grace and gift. I love the way Brother David Steindl-Rast says it in a prayer:

Giver of all good gifts, you give us space and time
This new day, in this place, is your gift.
Make me live gratefully.
This day is opportunity
To receive your blessing in a thousand forms
And to bless.
To listen to your word in all that I hear,
And to respond in obedience of heart.
To drink deeply from your life,
And to make others come alive.
By radiant smile, by cheerful answer,
And by a secret blessing.
(Essential Writings, p. 54)

This is the eternal life that John talks about in his Gospel. It’s the life of love, compassion, goodness, truth, and grace that we are invited to step into and participate in right now. It’s constantly evolving, expanding, and flowing into new places. Scientists tell that the universe is still expanding. When one part of the universe dies, another part is just beginning. The life that God is, that fills everything, “in whom we live, move, and have our being” (as Paul says in Acts 17) cannot be contained, it’s still emerging, growing, becoming. When we step into the flow of this divine life our souls become more, we grow, we expand in our capacity for love and kindness and goodness, we become more courageous and active in the pursuit of justice and peace, our vision for the planet widens and deepens.

(This post was originally published at Baptist News Global). 

Friday, March 6, 2015

Going Deeper (A sermon on John 2:13-22)

Before I read this text, I think it is important to point out that in the Synoptic Gospels, this incident that we are about to read about, of Jesus turning over the money tables in the temple, takes place in the last week of Jesus’ life, and is, particularly in Mark, the incident that seals Jesus’ fate. John places it at the beginning of Jesus’ ministry and adds to it the saying about destroying the temple, which John interprets as a reference to Jesus’ body.

Obviously, the Gospel writers were not simply interested in reporting history. They were much more interested in the meaning and significance of Jesus for their communities – for their individual and communal lives. So they had no problem tweaking, adapting, revising, and combining the historical with the theological (and by theological I mean the symbolical or metaphorical) in order to convey and explore the meaning of Jesus for their faith communities.

And that is the most important question. What does Jesus mean to and for this community? What does Jesus mean to you personally? And what does Jesus mean for our church? These are the important questions right? We should not require these ancient sacred texts to conform to our modern requirements for historical reporting. The most important question for us to ask is not: Did this actually happen this way? The most important question we need to ask as women and men of faith is the same question these early disciples wrestled with: What is the meaning of Jesus for us today who aspire to be his followers?  Let’s read the text . . .

* * * * * * * *
I think that the placement of this story just after the celebration at the wedding banquet in Cana where Jesus turned the water into wine (which again is probably more symbolical than historical) is very significant. Jesus’ practice of open, inclusive table fellowship and the image of banquet celebrations in both the stories Jesus told and the stories about Jesus, were key symbols of the kingdom of God – of God’s will and way in the world. 

The water jars that contained the water Jesus changed into wine were used for Jewish purification rituals. The significance of that seems to be that Jesus offered, not the water of contemporary Judaism, but the new wine of the kingdom of God. The protest Jesus stages in the temple is followed in chapter 4 by a conversation with a woman of Samaria, where Jesus says, “the hour is coming when you will worship the Father neither on this mountain nor in Jerusalem [The Samaritans once had a temple on Mount Gerizim where they said God dwelt.] . . . But the hour is coming, and is now here, when the true worshipers will worship the Father in spirit and truth, for the Father seeks such as these to worship him. God is spirit, and those who worship him must worship in spirit and truth” (John 4:23-24).     

You see, the meaning of Jesus says John, is that Jesus offers new life, new hope, a new experience of God. John is not telling us that Jesus rejected the Judaism he was brought up with, but he did indeed critique it and advance it. Jesus was presenting an up-date to the faith. And so what John is arguing for in his Gospel is a kind of spirituality that is a considerable improvement over what they were used to.

Perhaps this should be a warning to us about the temptation to get stuck in the past. Lisa read earlier the text about the giving of the ten commandments (Exodus 20:1-17). Why is it that churches want to post these commandments in and outside their facilities? Some Christians want them posted in our nation’s courtrooms. These commandments are good laws (unlike some others that are described in the Pentateuch). They offer some necessary boundaries for living together as a religious community. But think about how Jesus improved on these laws in his teachings, and I’m thinking especially here about the Sermon on the Mount in Matthew 5-7. If a community of Jesus followers were to post any teachings in or around their facilities shouldn’t it be the teachings of Jesus?

In his conversation with the Samaritan woman at Jacob’s well Jesus offers her “living water,” which he says becomes “a spring of water gushing to eternal life” (John 4:10, 14). Eternal life in John’s Gospel is the spiritual energy, power, vitality, and renewal that flows from a dynamic, interactive, personal and communal relationship with God. Living water is an appropriate symbol of this kind of life because it is flowing and growing and evolving, always becoming something more and new, never static or stationary.

This is what gives religion life and makes it something worthwhile that is capable of forming those who practice it into more loving and gracious persons.

Philip Gulley says that he likes Facebook, not just because it’s a place where you can make new friends, you can also unfriend people. Gulley says that before Facebook, if someone irritated him, he just smiled and put up with it. But with Facebook he’s unfriending people right and left and never has to hear from them again.

There was a guy he knew since he was in first grade. Gulley was in school with him for 12 years. He was a bully. Recently, he asked to be Gulley’s facebook friend. Gulley says he agreed just so he could unfriend him, something he wanted to do since 1967. A few years ago he got religion, says Gulley. (I am assuming that means that he became a Christian.) Gulley hoped it would make him nicer, but it didn’t. It only made things worse. Now he is a bully for God.

If religion (in our case, our Christianity) remains on the level of belief or doctrine or religious ritual and never goes any deeper, religion can easily do more harm than good. At that level, not only do we remain a bully, now we get to use God as justification for bullying people. What we believe is not nearly as important as how we live. Hopefully, our beliefs will contribute to making us better persons – more caring and compassionate, but if they don’t, then we may need to reconsider what it is that we believe.

John Philip Newell tells about being on a study leave doing some writing on the Greek Island of Patmos in the Aegean Sea. There he met Peter France, who had been a television presenter for the BBC series Everyman. Peter told Newell about the time he arrived on Patmos years earlier to do a series on Eastern Orthodoxy. His own background was secular. He had been reared in a British family of strong socialist principles with no formal religious belief. Halfway through the filming of the documentary he had a spiritual experience that changed his vision of reality. You could say he drank from the living water. He then decided to become a Greek Orthodox Christian.

Peter was assigned a monk from the monastery to guide him toward baptism. They met on a regular basis to explore the history and practices of Greek Orthodoxy. As they approached Easter and the time of baptism, the monk explained to him what would happen in the liturgy and what he would be expected to say and do during the baptismal service. At that point, Peter realized he was going to be asked to give intellectual assent to the fourth-century propositional statements about God in the Nicene Creed. He explained to the monk that he did not feel it would be authentic for him to declare his belief in these statements. He didn’t feel the creedal statements about God reflected his actual experience of God, and he had some real intellectual problems with the creedal statements.

So in the following weeks they wrestled together with the meaning of this ancient text of inherited belief. In the end Peter said he could not proceed. At this point the monk said, “Peter, don’t worry. I will say the words of the Creed for you.”

This monk had clearly seen the genuineness of Peter’s heart. He saw the beauty of Peter’s experience of the Sacred, his experience of God that had led to Peter’s desire to practice Orthodox spirituality, even though he couldn’t intellectually accept the propositional statements of the creed. This monk wisely saw that a statement of doctrine or belief about God should not stand in the way of Peter’s journey of faith.

John Philip Newell says: “There is a place for attempting to articulate what we believe about God and to do this together in a context of past articulations and Christianity’s unfolding history of beliefs. But these definitions of faith should be kept on the back shelves of the Christian family’s library and not by the front door as a requirement for entry.” I couldn’t agree more.

The kind of spirituality presented by John in his Gospel is not primarily one of belief. In fact, to elevate belief to the highest level is to misread John. And many readers of John misinterpret belief to refer to intellectual thoughts or ideas about God or Jesus. To believe in John’s Gospel is to trust Jesus as a mediator of eternal life, it is to drink from the living water. Belief in John’s Gospel has hardly anything to do with beliefs about Jesus, and has almost everything to do with accepting the gift of spiritual life Jesus offers. Jesus tells the woman of Samaria, “If you knew the gift of God, and who it is that is saying to you, ‘Give me a drink’ [Jesus had asked her for a drink from Jacob’s well], you would have asked him, and he would have given you living water" (John 4:10).

The Judaism that prevailed in Jesus’ day said that the temple was the place where God dwelt. But the spirituality that John is preaching says that the temple where God dwells is the world and the Jerusalem temple (which, by the way, was destroyed by the Romans some three decades before John wrote his Gospel) was just a place where God could be experienced. John tells us that Jesus’ body was a temple of God. Jesus encountered God in the carpenter shop, by the lakeside, in the village, along the roadway, in the synagogue and outside the synagogue – and we can too!

We, too, are temples of God. Paul picked up on this theme long before (several decades) before John, and speaks about it in his letters. In his correspondence with the Corinthians Paul speaks of the individual disciple as a temple of God and he speaks of the church, the faith community as the temple of God.

John’s Gospel says in the prologue (1:4, 9) that the life and light that became incarnate in Jesus enlightens every person. This divine life and light is available to us all, right now, in our souls and hearts and in these flesh and blood bodies.

Jesus, I believe, was indeed unique in the way he experienced and mediated this Divine Presence, but this Presence is in all of us – in you and me, in this church, in our life together as a faith community and the body of Christ. And the more we live in fellowship and communion with this Presence, the more we abide in the Presence and the Presence abides in us, the more loving, compassionate, grateful, hopeful, and fully alive we become.

* * * * * * * * *
Our good God, as we enter now into a time of communion, may we truly experience your Presence in us and with us as we eat the bread and drink the cup. We are so grateful for the life we have come to know in you – mediated to us through Christ Jesus, our Lord. May we drink from this living water every day, every hour, and let our lives be channels through which it flows to others. May the realness of the bread we are about to eat and the juice we are about to drink impress upon us the realness of your presence that abides in these bodies of flesh and blood. In Jesus’ name. Amen. 

Tuesday, March 3, 2015

What Made Jesus Angry?

In the healing of the leper in Mark 1:40-45 the text reads in the NRSV, “Moved with pity, Jesus stretched out his hand and touched him.” There is a footnote that says, “Other ancient authorities read anger.” There are some manuscripts that read that Jesus was moved with anger rather than pity or compassion. In fact, many interpreters believe the reading, “moved with anger” is the original reading. The reason being that a scribe copying the manuscript would have more likely changed the original “anger” to “pity” than vice versa. The more difficult reading is more likely to be the original reading. One can make sense of why a scribe might change “anger” to “compassion” much easier than why a scribe would change “compassion” to “anger.”

So let’s suppose that “moved to anger” is the original reading. Who or what is Jesus angry at? Surely, he is not angry with the leper for asking him to heal him. He might be angry at the disease itself and the suffering it caused, the same way we might be angry at cancer and the suffering it causes. But he might also be angry at his religious system that treated some of God’s precious children as “lesser” human beings meriting condemnation.

Lepers were not just sick or diseased, they were judged spiritually and morally “unclean.” The word “unclean” is a telling phrase isn’t it? The leper became something of a scapegoat who was made to bear the community’s fears, prejudices, anxieties, insecurities, and animosity. There are those who do the same today with undocumented immigrants, LGBT persons, and people of other nationalities and religions.

This feature of Judaism that angered Jesus can be found in all religions. In the Gospels Judaism functions as a kind of archetypal religion. The patterns we see in the Gospels with respect to Judaism are patterns that are present in Christianity and all religious faiths. So when Jesus challenges the unhealthy religious beliefs and practices of Judaism, he is also challenging the same thing in Christianity. Immature, unhealthy religion emphasizes degrees of worthiness that are rooted in a “holiness of separation.”

Jesus, on the other hand, was characterized by a holiness of compassion and inclusion, though he challenged the system from within and never separated from Judaism. Jesus was a marginal Jew for sure, who lived out on the edge, but he was clearly a Jew who functioned within Judaism. For after he made the leper whole, he instructed him to show himself to the priest and offer the appropriate sacrifice; in other words, comply with the requirements for reentrance into the community.

What we see in Jesus as the Son of Man, the quintessential human being, is a development and growth in spiritual and moral consciousness from exclusion to inclusion, from either/or, in or out, right or wrong, dualistic thinking to both/and, big picture, large story thinking that brings everything together and holds everything together. Unfortunately, the rest of us have not evolved much in two millennium. Look what we have done with Jesus through most of Christian history. We have used Jesus to create in and out groups, and we have turned the great boundary breaker into just another boundary maker.

(This blog was first posted at Baptist News Global Perspectives)