Sunday, April 24, 2016

Lessons from Jesus on how to apply scripture (part 2)

What was behind Jesus’s use of scripture? In my last blog, I noted that there were some scriptures Jesus let go of while others he held on to, some scriptures he ignored while others he emphasized, some scriptures he dismissed while others he applied to his own mission and ministry.
What guided his process of sorting through the inconsistencies, contradictions, different perspectives, and theological views in his Hebrew traditions and scriptures to discover and discern God’s will for his life and for the world? The scriptures themselves that pass on to us the Jesus traditions give us hints. The answer is not explicit, but it is implicit.
In the Synoptic Gospels, before Jesus begins his ministry, he encounters God at his baptism by John. Mark’s version says,
And just as he was coming up out of the water, he saw the heavens torn apart and the Spirit descending like a dove on him. And a voice came from heaven, “You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased.” (Mark 1:10-11)
I read this metaphorically, not literally, but the description above depicts a vivid, mystical encounter with God, which functions both as a revelation of God and a revelation to Jesus of his true self as a beloved son of God.
John’s Gospel describes Jesus’s baptismal encounter with God from the perspective of John the Baptist,
And John testified, “I saw the Spirit descending from heaven like a dove, and it remained on him. I myself did not know him, but the one who sent me to baptize with water said to me, ‘He on whom you see the Spirit descend and remain is the one who baptizes with the Holy Spirit.’” (John 1:32-33)
So, from the outset of Jesus’s ministry, Jesus is described as a Jewish mystic, a Spirit-endowed, Spirit-filled person who is capable of immersing others in the same Spirit. The Synoptics speak of Jesus being led and filled with the Spirit, and the Gospel of John (which is sometimes called the mystical Gospel) often speaks of Jesus’s intimate awareness and experience of God employing union language like: “The Father and I are one” (10:30); “the Father is in me and I am in the Father” (10:38), etc.
Joachim Jeremias was one of the first scholars to call attention to Jesus’s description of God as Abba, an intimate, personal term for Father that a Jewish child would use affectionately, sometimes paraphrased as “Daddy.” Jeremiah has been proven wrong in his assertion that this term was unique to Jesus. Other scholars have shown that it is a term that was used by other Jews to address God, and was not used exclusively by young children to speak intimately of their father (adult children used the term as well). Nevertheless, it was a term used quite often by Jesus to reflect his intimate experience of God. (Abba is, of course, Aramaic and the very fact that it occurs twice in the Greek New Testament transliterated, rather than translated, demonstrates how important this designation of God was to Jesus’s early followers).
While the Hebrew scriptures speak of God’s tender-loving care for the creation, they most often speak of God in transcendent and monarchical terms as “king,” “ruler,” “almighty,” or “holy.” The common Hebrew admonition is to “fear” God; not in the sense of “be afraid of God,” but rather, reverence or respect God. Some distance between God and the creation is implied.
Jesus never denied the transcendence of God — God as “other” or as “holy,” though he interpreted holiness as a holiness of compassion, rather than purity. (Jesus frequently violated purity laws, which the Hebrew scriptures attributed to God, in favor of compassion toward human need.) Jesus spoke frequently of the closeness and nearness of God. He spoke of the kingdom of God as being “within” or “among” human beings (Luke 17:21) and emphasized God’s intimate care over the creation, especially God’s human children (Matt. 6:25-33). Jesus didn’t learn this from his Hebrew traditions and scriptures as much as he did from his own personal experience of Abba.
Another hint that Jesus drew from his own personal experience of God as much as from his Hebrew traditions and scriptures is seen in his instruction to love enemies,
But I say to you that listen, Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you, pray for those who abuse you. . . . Your reward will be great, and you will be children of the Most High; for he is kind to the ungrateful and the wicked. Be merciful, just as your Father is merciful (Luke 6:27-36).
Certainly there are many passages in the Hebrew scriptures that speak of God’s steadfast love and compassion for God’s covenant people, Israel, but few texts that extend that same love and compassion toward Israel’s enemies and those outside the covenant relationship. There are exceptions, like the book of Jonah, that challenges the conventional and popular theology of Jewish exceptionalism, but they are clearly a minority voice. The covenant with Abraham contains a universal emphasis stating very clearly that God’s intent is to bless the nations, not just Israel, a blessing that is envisioned in several prophetic texts. Rarely, however, does the reader see this given much emphasis in the overall narrative.
Jesus’s depiction of God as a God who loves those set squarely against God and God’s covenant people was most likely drawn from his own personal experience of God, rather than his Hebrew traditions and scriptures. In other words, his own experience of God led him to side with the minority voice in the Hebrew scriptures rather than the conventional more popular voice that spoke of a God who takes vengeance on Israel’s enemies.
So if we let Jesus’s personal experience of God be the lens through which we read and apply scripture, then we will follow his example of ignoring, dismissing, and relinquishing those scriptures that depict a vengeful, war-mongering, exclusive God, and we will acknowledge, embrace, and cling to those scriptures that describe a compassionate, peace-seeking, inclusive God.
There is a story I love to tell, which I first heard from Richard Rohr, that beautifully illustrates the limitations of scripture for discovering God’s will in a particular context. A Jewish fugitive was fleeing the Nazis who had just overtaken his small village. He fled to the door of the pastor of the village church seeking refuge. The pastor had been warned that any person or family caught hiding a Jew would not only bring the wrath of the Nazis upon their house but upon the whole village. So the pastor had the young man step inside, while he went to pray for guidance and read the scriptures. As the pastor prayed and searched the scriptures, he came upon the verse that read, “It is better for one man to die, than the whole people perish.” Feeling confident that he had his answer, and though it was hard for him to do, he turned the young man out to an almost certain death. That night an angel appeared and confronted the pastor. “What have you done?” asked the angel. The pastor explained how he prayerfully sought guidance through the scriptures. The angel said, “If you would have looked into his eyes, you would have seen that that young man you turned away was the Christ.”
One could say that Jesus did the opposite of the pastor in the story. Jesus looked straight into the eyes of God and met a completely nonviolent, justice-loving, peace-seeking, forgiving, compassionate Abba. Out of that experience he knew what scriptures and traditions were harmful or helpful, life-diminishing or life-enhancing, oppressive or liberating.
I’m not suggesting we excise from our Bibles all the punitive and petty texts we come across. They still have instructive value. What they teach us, however, is not what God is like or what God’s will is for our lives, but how people of God who think they know God can get God so very wrong.
Perhaps the most important value of our sacred scriptures is that they invite us into the struggle to know God and to discern and appropriate God’s will for our lives. They keep God before us on center stage. The scriptures do not offer us easy, simple, or even correct answers, but they confront us with the questions that really matter. If we put our trust in the God of Jesus, then we too like Jesus will gravitate toward the truly enlightened, transformative texts that can help transform our personal lives, communities, and our world.
(This piece first appeared at the Unfundamentalist Christians blog.)

A Good Revelation (a sermon from Acts 11:1-18 and John 13:31-35)

In Flannery O’Connor’s story titled “Revelation” Ruby Turpin has the habit of judging and classifying people based on how they look, how they talk, and the color of their skin. In the opening scene, Mrs Turpin is sitting in a doctor’s waiting room, forming judgments about all present. Among those in the room there is a mother in a sweat shirt and bedroom slippers whom she regards as “white trash.” Across from her is a teenage girl in Girl Scout shoes, reading the book Human Development. There is another young looking woman present that Mrs. Turpin judges as not white trash, but just common. And there is a well-dressed woman as well, with suede shoes whom she considers her peer. (Mrs Turpin always noticed people’s feet.)

The story’s narrator tells us that Mrs Turpin would sometimes occupy herself at night, when she couldn’t go to sleep, with the question of who she would have chosen to be if she couldn’t have been herself. She developed an entire “pecking order” of societal worth, with herself and her husband Claude positioned comfortably near the top.

In the conversation that ensues between Mrs Turpin and the well-dressed woman, there are many subtleties that reflect her classism and racism. She tells the woman that she is grateful for who she is. She says, “When I think who all I could have been besides myself and what all I got, a little of everything, and a good disposition besides, I just feel like shouting, “Thank you, Jesus, for making everything the way it is.”

The girl reading the book becomes more and more irritated as the conversation goes on. Finally, she loses control. She hurls the book across the room, hitting Mrs Turpin above her eye. Then she lunges at her, grasping her neck in a death grip. The doctor rushes in to separate them and sedate the girl. But before the girl becomes unconscious, she stares directly at Mrs Turpin, Mrs Turpin feeling as if the girl “knew her in some intense and personal way, beyond time and condition.”

Mrs’ Turpin says to the girl hoarsely, “What you got to say to me?” The girl raised her head and locked her eyes onto Mrs Turpin’s. She whispered, “Go back to hell where you came from, you old wart hog.” Her voice was low but clear. And her eyes burned for a moment as if she saw with pleasure that her message had struck its target. Mrs Turpin senses that she has been singled out for the message. Of all people, she thinks, why me? She was a respectable, hard-working, church-going woman. And she couldn’t let go of it.
Back home she decides to go out and hose down the hogs. As she aggressively squirts the hogs she begins to argue and rave against God. “Why do you send me a message like that for?” she says. She raises a fist with one hand and grips the water hose tightly with other and as she blasts the poor old hogs she says to God, “How am I a hog and me both? How am I saved and from hell too?” “Why me?” There was plenty of trash there. It didn’t have to be me. If you like trash better, go get yourself some trash then,” she rails. “It’s no trash around here, black or white that I haven’t given to. And break my back to the bone every day working. And do for the church.” “Go on,” she yells, “call me a hog! Call me a hog again. From hell. Call me a wart hog from hell. . . Who do you think you are?”

Then it came. In the midst of her raving the revelation came. (Perhaps like Saul on the road to Damascus). She saw the streak as a vast swinging bridge extending upward from the earth through a field of living fire. Upon it a vast horde of souls were rumbling toward heaven. And out in front were all the folks that Mrs. Turpin had relegated to the bottom of the social ladder. Flannery O’Conner writes: “And bringing up the end of the procession was a tribe of people whom she recognized at once as those who, like herself and Claud, had always had a little of everything and the God-given wit to use it right. She leaned forward to observe them closer. They were marching behind the others with great dignity, accountable as they had always been for good order and common sense and respectable behavior. They alone were on key. Yet she could see by their shocked and altered faces that even their virtues were being burned away. She lowered her hands and gripped the rail of the hog pen, her eyes small but fixed unblinkingly on what lay ahead. In a moment the vision faded but she remained where she was, immobile.” As she makes her way back to her house in the woods O’Conner writes “around her the invisible cricket choruses had struck up, but what she heard were the voices of the souls climbing upward into the starry field and shouting hallelujah.”

O’Conner doesn’t tell us what happens next, what she does with the “revelation.” We are left to wonder what impact, if any, it makes. Would she deny it? Repress it? Ignore it? Rave against it? Or would she learn and grow from it, would she become more? We don’t know. But it completely altered her world.

Talk about reversal. In the Synoptic Gospels and the Gospel of Luke in particular a major feature of the kingdom of God embodied and proclaimed by Jesus is reversal. This could have been a vision in the Gospel of Luke who preaches reversal – the first shall be last and the last shall be first – from beginning to end. Mary sings in her Magnificat that in God’s new world God scatters the proud, but gives strength to the weak. God brings down the powerful, but lifts up the lowly. God sends the rich away empty, but fills the hungry with good things. In the parable of the great banquet in Luke 14 the house is filled with “the poor, the crippled, the blind, and the lame.” In God’s household everything is turned upside down. 

The woman in O’Conner’s story must face the truth that her elistist world where she carefully distinguishes between the blessed and the passed over, between who is “in” and who is “out” is a social construct that is false and erroneous. This proud woman is made to face the reality that her foundation for life is based on lies, prejudices, and deceptions. That’s hard to face – confronting the reality that your life has not been based on the truth at all, but on lies and illusions. Most of us are too afraid too even entertain the thought, so we never ask the hard questions.

Will she ever be able to settle back down into the same arrogant, respectable, self-righteous worldview again? Will she be able to go back to hiding behind her self-delusions? Will she be able to continue to shamelessly and self-confidently judge others based on her comparisons and classifications and categories of worth and value? I don’t see how. The message from the girl and the vision in the field turned her world upside down. The question now is: Will she allow the revelation to crack open her blind and deluded and hardened heart, so that the light of God’s grace can get in and transform the darkness? And that’s a question we all should ask.  

In our passage from Acts today Peter tells the apostles and disciples in Jerusalem about a revelation he received. How important was this vision? Well, Luke narrates it twice. Luke tells the story in chapter 10 and then has Peter repeat it in chapter 11. In his vision a large sheet descends from above with all sorts of unclean animals. Peter is told to prepare the meat of the animals and eat, in direct violation of the laws of purity that Peter’s Bible said came straight from God. This rocks his boat. And apparently Peter needed some persuading because this scene with the sheet dropping and Peter being told to eat occurs three times in the vision. Slow of heart we all are.  

Cornelius, a Roman centurion, who would have been regarded by many Jews as an enemy of the Jewish people also had a vision, and was led by the Spirit to request that Peter come to his house. Under normal circumstances Peter would not have dared associate himself with an unclean Roman military leader who had a hand in the oppression of his people. But these are not normal circumstances are they? So Peter goes with them to Cornelius’ house and shares with Cornelius and all present the good news. As Peter speaks the Spirit comes upon all of them. Then Peter draws this conclusion from his revelation: “I truly understand that God shows no partiality, but in every nation anyone who fears him (respects him, reverences him – one does that by respecting and reverencing all human life) and does what is right (that is, what is merciful and just) is acceptable to him” (10:35). That’s what Peter learns from the revelation. The revelation turned Peter’s world upside down and broke down deeply entrenched longstanding prejudices and boundaries.

I believe that God is always trying to prod us along, to get us to evolve, to move us  forward, and that inevitably involves letting go of some belief, some idea, some practice, some attitude, or some behavior that has become deeply embedded in our souls. The story of Peter’s evolution from exclusion of non-Jews to inclusion based on the universal Lordship of Christ does not come without struggle. For Peter it took a revelation, it took a vision. But let’s give Peter some credit. Peter was open to the vision. He trusted the vision. He followed the vision. And he arrived at a new place. The Spirit is continually coaxing us, enticing us, luring us to new places. But of course, the Spirit can only prompt, not force; the Spirit can only invite, not coerce. We must be willing to go where the Spirit is leading us, even if it means we have to leave what is comfortable and familiar behind.

Often what is needed is a new revelation, a new vision that enables us to see our world - our relationships, our work, our understanding of God, our connection to all creation, our calling and vocation, our gifts, our community – in a whole new way, from a new perspective. This revelation can come to us in a multitude of ways and through diverse means. The revelation can come through the reading or proclamation of scripture, through the lyrics of a song or a passage in a book (you know, so much of my evolution/growth over the years has come through reading, I often wonder how preachers who don’t read have anything helpful to say). A revelation can come through a conversation with a friend, or through a scene in a movie or a novel, or through a dream, like Jacob had in the night about a stairway to heaven.

I guess for you and me the question is: Are we ready to receive it? Are we open to new insights, fresh perspectives, new revelations? Or are we stuck? Are we too afraid to move on? Have we dug our trenches so deep we can’t see a way up and over them? Have we become too defensive and too proud to admit we could be wrong? (I’m sure I am wrong about a whole bunch of stuff) Can we admit that we have a lot to learn and a lot more evolving/growing to do? Are we willing to pursue truth wherever truth can be found, and not automatically assume that we have some special corner on the truth?

Peter Enns, who teaches at Eastern University has a new book out titled, “The Sin of Certainty.” I love that title. I haven’t read the book yet, though I have read a couple of reviews. Here is a quote, “All Christians I’ve ever met who take their faith seriously sooner or later get caught up in thinking that God really is what we think God is, that there is little more worth learning about the Creator of the cosmos. God becomes the face in the mirror. By his mercy, God doesn’t leave us there.”

God doesn’t leave us there – that should be good news. God gives us new revelations. The Apostle Paul called his encounter with the living Christ a revelation of grace. We all need such revelations because we all have blind spots. We may not think we have blind spots,  but of course, if we knew where our  blind spots were, then we wouldn’t be blind would we? We don’t know, and that’s why we need grace, we need help, we need new visions and revelations that will enable us to see what we haven’t been able to see up untill now.

Maybe our Gospel reading today could function as a revelation of the essential nature and activity of God in the world and in our lives. This passage in John 13 gets to the heart of what authentic religion is about: “I give you a new commandment, that you love one another. Just as I have loved you, you also should love one another.” By the way it’s not really new. This has always been basic to who God is and what God wants. It’s new in the sense that we have a human teacher who beautifully embodied and incarnated this love. Jesus says, “By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.” How did this basic, foundational reality of authentic discipleship ever get pushed out to the edge of Christendom, which is what has exactly happened in institutional Christianity? If more Christians would awaken to the primacy of this reality we could make a huge difference for good in our world.

Our Good God, sometimes we become so entrenched in negative attitudes and hurtful beliefs and destructive behaviors that it takes a revelation to get us on a more positive, constructive path. Let us be open to such revelations. Let us be teachable, moldable, formable. Give us the courage and capacity to trust that you will provide the grace we need to leave old, familiar ways and find a new way that is more centered in and expressive of your love. 

Thursday, April 14, 2016

Lessons from Jesus on how to apply scripture (part 1)

What can Jesus teach us about appropriating scripture for the purpose of discovering and fulfilling God’s will today?
The passage in Luke 4:16-30, which sets forth Jesus’s program, is very instructive in this regard. It’s difficult to know how much of this passage, if any, is historical and how much is purely theological, since the passage is unique to Luke. Luke is setting forth the mission and agenda of Jesus as he understands it. What I find fascinating is how Luke presents Jesus’s use of scripture and what we can learn from it.
First, we learn from Jesus that there are scriptures we need to let go of because they simply do not apply to us and they have nothing to do with God’s will for us today. Luke says,
When Jesus came to Nazareth, where he had been brought up, he went to the synagogue on the Sabbath day, as was his custom. He stood up to read, and the scroll of the prophet Isaiah was given to him. He unrolled the scroll and found the place where it was written: “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to bring good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.” And he rolled up the scroll, gave it back to the attendant, and sat down. The eyes of all in the synagogue were fixed on him. Then he began to say to them, “Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing” (Luke 4:14-21).
Actually the reading from Isaiah above combines both Isaiah 61:1-2 and 58:6 (here we clearly see Luke’s hand). In the Isaiah 61 passage Jesus stops mid-sentence. Jesus ends his application of the scripture to himself with the phrase, “to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor,” which some scholars think is a kind of veiled reference to the year of Jubilee. On the year of Jubilee, which was to take place every fiftieth year, debts were forgiven and the land reverted back to the original owners. It was designed to prevent a wealthy class from emerging and to keep some equity in the economic system.
Jesus completely eliminates the next phrase in Isaiah 61 which reads, “and the day of vengeance of our God.” Jesus doesn’t cut it out of his Bible, but he does indeed dismiss it when speaking of his mission. Why? Very simply because Jesus (and Luke) did not believe that his mission was to execute the vengeance of God. That was not on his agenda. Jesus was all about forgiving sins and debts, bringing good news to the poor, healing the hurting, and liberating the oppressed, not executing vengeance.
I do not mean to imply, however, that Jesus never spoke of judgment. In fact, his language could be quite shockingly harsh when speaking about those who neglect and abuse the “little ones.” However, judgment was a sub-theme. A good case can be made that Jesus viewed God’s judgment as corrective, restorative, and redemptive, never simply as retributive or punitive.
The late brilliant Jewish scholar and mystic Abraham Joshua Heschel said this of the classical prophetic understanding of God’s anger, which could be applied to Jesus,
The anger of the Lord [in the prophets] is instrumental, hypothetical, conditional, and subject to His will. Let the people modify their line of conduct, and anger will disappear. . . . The call of anger is a call to cancer anger. . . . There is no divine anger for anger’s sake. Its meaning is, as already said, instrumental: to bring about repentance; its purpose and consummation is its own disappearance.
The Prophets, 66
In addition to learning from Jesus that there are scriptures that do not apply to us and we can simply let go of, we learn second, that there are scriptures that do apply to us which we need to lay hold of.
In addition to claiming the two texts in Isaiah as central to his agenda it’s also fascinating to observe how Jesus makes use of scripture as his talk unfolds to challenge his own people’s religious and national exceptionalism (Luke 4:25-27). Drawing from 1 Kings 17:8-16, Jesus first points out that Elijah was sent to bless a Gentile woman in Sidon outside the bounds of God’s covenant with Israel.
Next, referencing the story in 2 Kings 5:1-14, Jesus emphasizes that Elisha healed the Syrian Naaman of his leprosy. To drive the point home Jesus points out that there were many widows in Israel God could have blessed and many lepers in Israel God could have healed, but instead God sent Elijah and Elisha to two non-Jews.
The people of Jesus’s hometown who heard him at first thought his words “gracious” when they thought that his mission exclusively focused on them. But when Jesus employed their own scriptures to confront their exceptionalism they were outraged and Luke says would have killed him if they could.
So what do we learn from Jesus about applying scripture to our lives today?
We learn first that all scriptures that relate to retribution, vengeance, and exclusion can be disregarded and dismissed when it comes to discovering God’s will for our personal lives and for the church. That was not Jesus’s agenda and should not be ours.
Second, we learn that we should give our utmost attention and devotion to those scriptures that highlight what Jesus was about, namely, care for the poor, liberation for the oppressed, enlightenment for the blind, freedom for the downtrodden, inclusion of the outcasts and marginalized, forgiveness for sins and debts, and compassion for all people.
Clearly for Jesus not all scripture carried equal authority and weight. Some scriptures could be intentionally neglected and dismissed, while other scriptures needed to be appropriated. If Jesus is our guide for applying scripture today, then it is clear what our focus should be and what we need to give our attention to.
(This post was originally published at the Unfundamenalists Christians blog)