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 . . .

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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)