Archive for April, 2007

Doesn’t First Thessalonians seem kind of like Christianity on the fly?

Sunday, April 29th, 2007

We began a Bible Study on First Thessalonians this week. You can find out what we did on the web site.

There are lots of important matters and issues raised in First Thessalonians. But for me, what I like most about it is that it is the earliest of all the Apostle Paul’s letters, and the earliest document in the New Testament. It gives us insight into the early church days, before things were codified and doctrines established. First Thessalonians is a much different letter than, for example, the Letter to the Romans which is a theological treatise written several years after this letter. In Romans, Paul writes about things like grace, Adam, Abraham, and baptism. He lays forth very logical arguments. He goes through detailed points of ancient tradition and new understandings.

First Thessalonians is more personal and much shorter. It’s a letter where Paul’s thanksgiving, joy, and love are poured out. The members of that church in Thessalonica, though the church hadn’t been around for most likely, for more than year or so, were Paul’s pride and joy. He writes, “The word has gotten around. Your lives are echoing the Master’s Word…you’re the message.”

Though Paul became the most famous of the message writers in the New Testament, he realized the real message is not what gets put down on paper, but what gets put down in people’s lives. And he and lots of other people liked what they were seeing in Thessolanica. All these folk in Thessalonica were trying to do was piece together what it means to follow Jesus. They didn’t have much to go on, because this was all new.

What they did know is that they were caught up in a movement that was meant to change this world. When the risen Jesus, who had given them new life came back, then all things would be put right. They lived with that hope. In spite of all the persecution they had experienced, all the troubles that come along with daily living, they were hopeful because the future was in God’s hands. What Jesus had started would one day be finished. They were a part of it all. And they weren’t really sure what it all was. But they were figuring it out on the fly.

They began by turning from idols. We talked about this for a bit in the study the other night. It is probably hard for us to imagine how central idols were to life in the world in which they lived. As Tom Wright, John Dominic Crossan, and others have pointed out, idols were an integral part of day to day life in first century Greece and Rome. Tom Wright writes, “if you were going to plant a tree, you would pray to the relevant God. If you were going on a business trip, a quick trip to the appropriate shrine was in order. If a son or daughter was getting married, serious and costly worship of the relevant deity was expected.” Crossan in his book, In Search of Paul: How Jesus’s Apostle Opposed Rome’s Empire with God’s Kingdom, lays out the archeological evidence to show how pervasive idol worship was in a place like Thessalonica.

The even more crucial thing both authors point out is that the emperor of Rome and Rome itself were added to the pantheon of gods. Rome was seen not merely as a gift from the gods, but a god itself.

This quickly set up Christianity against the empire, Jesus against the emperor. To accept one was to reject the other. And the emperor got nasty when he was rejected. The emperor’s before Jesus’s time were the first to take on the title son of God.

When the Thessolonians chose Jesus they were doing exactly what had been foretold on that day when Jesus ascended to heaven. Jesus told his disciples they would be his witnesses to the ends of the earth, and now that witness was taking hold in places like northern Greece.

Paul’s joy and deep satisfaction was that the message had taken root in Thessalonica. They were imitating Jesus even though it has brought them great trouble with the empire. In Acts 17 we read that when Paul and the others were hounded by the mobs in Thessalonica, the accusation made against them was that “These people are out to destroy the world, and now they’ve shown up at our doorstep, attacking everything we hold dear. And Jason is hiding them, these traitors and turncoats who say Jesus is king and Caesar is nothing.”

What has happened in the life of the Church, the life of the world, since the church made accommodation with the empire in Constantine’s day? What does it mean when the Church blesses the wars and ways of the empire rather than standing in the stark opposition to the empire as Jesus and then Paul did? We can no more serve God and country than we can serve God and money. We have to make a choice like the Jesus followers in Thessalonica did.

They modeled their lives after Jesus. And how else did that show in addition to their willingness to stand with Jesus against the empire? Paul talks about their love for one another. He writes about their labor of love. He says in the fourth chapter “Just love one another! You’re already good at it; your friends all over the province of Macedonia are the evidence. Keep it up; get better and better at it.” He knows the power of love unleashed in them when he prays that Jesus would “pour on the love so it fills your lives and splashes over on everyone around you, just as it does from us to you.”

They didn’t have much to go on, but they were doing pretty well with what they had. They had turned from idols to Jesus, from the empire to the Kingdom of God. They weren’t sure what exactly this all was, but it was a part of their faith. They were trying to model their lives after Jesus and the best way they could do that was by excelling in love. They were building this marvelous church, this gathering of the faithful to offer something new to this world, to bear witness to Jesus.

So Paul just wants them to keep on keeping on. He was so worried about them, knowing they might be tempted to turn from the faith. But every report he got back was glowing. They were doing their best to follow Jesus, they were hanging in there, they were renown for their love.

And it wasn’t only the outside pressures he worried about. Persecution was one thing. But he also knew that issues like sexual promiscuity and getting in each other’s business could destroy their community of faith. But they were okay. They were figuring it out along the way. And everybody noticed.

Obviously, we could read thousands and thousands of books written to help us figure out Christianity. But Jesus didn’t leave us anything on paper. He let others write the story knowing, as Paul discovered, that what is written in our lives is what matters most. The story is still unfolding. It’s not been contained to the pages of holy scripture, or church tradition.

All these years later. All these books. All these sermons. All these hot debates and we are still where those folk in Thessalonica were. We are trying to figure out what it means to follow Jesus when you’re living in the empire. We’re trying to figure out how love can pour out of our lives and spill into the lives of others. We trying to figure out how to live the healthy and holy and whole lives Paul commends near the end of the letter.

We’re the message. That’s what it boils down to. We are witnesses of Jesus Christ, the one who broke loose from the grave. We’re not any closer or further away than the first folk hearing this letter were. We are in the same process. And it’s the same hope that propels us ahead. We are a part of the same movement bent on changing the world and remaking it along the lines of the Kingdom of God. That’s radical stuff that gets ignited when we turn from idols to the living God and decide we are going to try to love each other the way Jesus loves us.

The Apostle Paul was overjoyed, his anxieties about the folk in Thessalonica were relieved because he knew they were building a community that would sustain them for whatever was ahead as they worked on following Jesus. They had convictions of steel, they were Sons of the Day and Daughters of the Light. They loved each other. They believed that the future included Jesus.

Paul wrote lots of other letters, only a few of which made it into the New Testament. And I doubt he ever imagined that the ones that did were destined to do so. He was just trying to help the folk in the churches become the living letters, become the message of Jesus Christ, be the witnesses of Jesus to the ends of the earth.

Paul was confident in the power of the Holy Spirit to keep this movement going, to build churches, to keep the message of Jesus alive in the lives of people in places like Thessolonica, Rome, Oberlin, and Elyria.

The folk at Thessalonica may have lived in a place and time far different than ours, but they are not too far away. We, like them, are still doing it on the fly. We’re wondering what it means to follow Jesus, to model our lives after him. We are trying to be his witnesses, trying to love each other. We’re still asking some of the questions they were asking in Thessalonica like what is this second coming stuff all about? But something of Jesus has grabbed hold of us. And to our delight, and the Apostle Paul’s I’m sure, we are doing this together, with each other we are the message.

We get to be the church with each other. We receive a lot in our lives from each other but, even more wondrous, we get to give something of ourselves to each other, just like it happened in Thessalonica. We get to build the church and we’ve all got something to bring. And it makes a difference in this world.

You might want to come by on Wednesday nights and get in touch with your inner Thessalonian. They really started something.

1 Thessalonians Bible Study–Session 1–We are the message.

Wednesday, April 25th, 2007

We began the study by reading the whole book aloud. You can do it in about ten minutes. Here were the comments I made before the reading:

Imagine what it was like hearing this letter when it was first read. What stands out to you? Remember that most people didn’t read and go over each word or phrase (or verse if there had been such a thing) for in depth study. This was also the first letter we have from Paul (around the year 50 or 51). So it’s not like they could compare it to what Paul wrote in Romans or 1 Corinthians or any of his other letters which are included in the New Testament even if they had been available to them. The people in Thessalonica were new converts to a new religion. This was also a mainly Gentile group of people so they wouldn’t be bringing any Jewish tradition or knowledge of the Hebrew Bible with them.

We imagined what the community might be like. We didn’t know if it was small or larger. But it seemed like they knew each other. It also seemed like Paul had great confidence in them, and was especially pleased by the love they had for each other.
We wondered if maybe one of the things they were listening for is if they were doing this Christianity thing ‘right.’ But we heard lots of good things said about them, so they must have felt pretty good about how they were doing as a church when the letter was finished.

Then I asked us to think about what we heard as a 21st century Christian living in the United States as we listened to this letter. Our minds were drawn to the idea of the second coming and how that topic has been dealt with over 2000 years of church history and tradition.

After that initial discussion I did an excursus on the letters written by Paul.

There is, for the most part, a general consensus amongst Biblical scholars that Paul wrote Romans, 1 & 2 Corinthians, Galatians, Philippians, Philemon, and 1 Thessalonians.

Colossians and Ephesians are regarded by many as authentic letters by Paul, but there is no consensus on this matter. Some argue they closely reflect Pauline theology and if not written by him, could have been written by someone close to Paul. Others suggest Colossians is an edited version of Ephesians, with the editing done by Paul or someone else, or they are a circular letter sent by Paul, or perhaps someone else, to various churches.

A good many scholars believe that 2 Thessalonians is not an authentic letter of Paul’s but some people continue to argue it is. Even fewer scholars believe that 1 & 2 Timothy and Titus are letters from Paul. But all of these were accepted as authentic letters of Paul by the early Church Fathers.

It would be hard to find any Biblical scholar who would argue that Hebrews was written by Paul. There is no indication in the letter who wrote it, i.e. Paul nor anyone else. For a long time it was assumed Paul had written it but there is scant evidence within the letter or from early sources that he did.

As you read First Thessalonians what are your impressions, from hearing and reading the letter, of the people Paul was writing this letter to? Here are a couple of passages to prime the pump.

1:5 When the Message we preached came to you, it wasn’t just words. Something happened in you. The Holy Spirit put steel in your conviction.
1:710 Do you know that all over the provinces of both Macedonia and Achaia believers look up to you? The word has gotten around…The news of your faith is out…You’re the message…you deserted the dead idols of your old life so you could embrace and serve God, the true God.

Something dramatic had happened with this church in Thessalonica. It was probably less than a year old when Paul wrote this letter to them. They had been through rough times. You get more of an idea of things if you read Acts 16 and particularly Acts 17.

1:6 Although great trouble accompanied the Word, you were able to take great joy from the Holy Spirit!–taking the trouble with the joy, the joy with the trouble.

It’s important to understand the role of idols in Greek and Roman culture in the first century, and their connection with the empire. In at least two of his books, God and Empire: Jesus Against Rome, Then and Now and In Search of Paul: How Jesus’s Apostle Apposed Rome’s Empire with God’s Kingdom John Dominic Crossan goes into great detail on this matter. Tom Wright in Paul for Everyone a commentary of Galatians and Thessalonians sums it up a bit more succinctly while capturing the same tone Crossan offers. (pp. 91-92)
“The remarkable thing was the instant effect the gospel had had. At the heart of it–and this is never far from Paul’s mind throughout the letter–was the call to worship the true God rather than idols.
“That was simply unheard of in Paul’s world. It would be like asking people in a modern city to give up using motor cars, computers, and telephones. The gods of Greek and Roman paganism were everywhere. If you were going to plant a tree, you would pray to the relevant god. If you were going on a business trip, a quick, visit to the appropriate shrine was in order. If you or your son or daughter was getting married, serious and costly worship of the relevant deity was expected. At every turn in the road the gods were there: unpredictable, possibly malevolent, sometimes at war among themselves, of that you could never do too much in the way of placating them, making sure you’d got them on your side.”

Wright goes on to say something about a new arrival among the gods or Greece and Rome that were highly relevant to Paul’s understanding of his mission, and something that I believe has relevance to our situation today.

“When Augustus defeated his rivals and became emperor of Rome and its enormous subject lands, he declared that his adopted father, Julius Caesar, had become a god. When Augustus himself died in 14ace, his successor, Tiberius did the same for him. Augustus during his life time and Tiberius during his, were thus styled ‘son of the god.’ Before too long, however, especially in the eastern Mediterranean areas where people were quite used to worshipping rulers, folk had got the message and had begun to worship the present emperor, not just the previous one….The city of Rome itself was deified; shrines to ‘Rome and the Emperor’ sprang up as local magistrates and rulers were keen to demonstrate their political loyalty. Cities tumbled over themselves to build temples to for these new divinities.
“Into this world came three unknown Jews, [Paul, Silas, and Timothy] telling pagans that there was one true God (other Jews had done that) and this God had a true son, and had demonstrated this fact by raising him from the dead (nobody had ever said that before). And people in Thessalonica, knowing from the start the risk they would be taking, turned away from their idols to this living God, and discovered, at the same moment, suffering and joy (verse 6).”

I personally believe that this matter of deifying the empire is still something we have to contend with today. I think Crossan sets up the dichotomy correctly in the subtitle of his book God & Empire: Jesus Against Rome, Then and Now. And, of course, today’s Rome is the United States of America. We face the same issue Christians have faced since the early church. How do we follow Jesus in the empire?

When I hear and read this letter three words keep coming up, faith, hope, and love. Have you heard that combination from Paul somewhere else? (1 Corinthians 13)

1:2 we call to mind your work of faith, your labor of love, and your patience of hope in following our Master, Jesus Christ, before God our Father.
1:7 The news of your faith in God is out.
3:1 He’s [Timothy] a brother and companion in the faith, God’s man in spreading the Message, preaching Christ.
3:3 That’s why I couldn’t quit worrying; I had to know for myself how you were doing in the faith.
3:6 But now that Timothy is back, bringing this terrific report on your faith and love, we feel a lot better…Knowing that your faith is alive keeps us alive.
3:9 We do what we can, praying away, night and day, asking for the bonus of seeing your faces again and doing what we can to help when your faith falters.
3:11 And may the Master pour on the love so it fills your lives and splashes over on everyone around you, just as it does from us to you.
4:9 Just love one another! You’re already good at it; your friends all over the province of Macedonia are the evidence. Keep it up; get better and better at it.
5:4 Walk out in to the daylight sober, dressed up in faith, love, and the hope of salvation.
5:9 So speak encouraging words to one another. Build up hope so you’ll all be together in this, no one left out, no one left behind. I know you’re already doing this; just keep on doing it.
5:12 Overwhelm them [leaders] with appreciation and love!

What do you think faith, love, and hope meant to the folk at Thessalonica? To us? You? Faith comes up a lot in this letter. But, again, this was early in the church. There had been no counsels, no New Testament, no creeds.

We talked in the study of the central place loving each other played in Paul’s early understanding of what the church was about. One person commented that is what attracted her and her husband to PCC. It seems like our theology begins with loving each other. Paul highlights how the folk in Thessalonica modeled their lives after Jesus. Love is a key to understanding Jesus.

One of the things Paul bases hope on is the coming of Jesus.

1:10 They marvel at how expectantly you await the arrival of his Son, whom he raised from the dead–Jesus who rescued us from certain doom.
4:13 (and following) And regarding the question, friends, that has come up about what happens to those already dead and buried, we don’t want you in the dark any longer. First off, you must not carry on over them like people who have nothing to look forward to, as if the grave were the last word. Since Jesus died and broke loose from the grave, God will most certainly bring back to life those who died in Jesus.

In his introduction to his translation of 1 and 2 Thessalonians Eugen Peterson writes “the way we conceive the future sculpts the present, gives contour and tone to nearly every action and thought through the day…The Christian faith has always been characterized by a strong and focused sense of future, with belief in the Second Coming of Jesus as the most distinctive detail….
The practical effect of this belief is to charge each moment of the present with hope. For if the future is dominated by the coming again of Jesus, there is little room left on the screen for projecting our anzieties and fantasies. It takes the clutter out of our lives. We’re far more free to respond spontaneously to the freedom of God.
All the same, the belief can be misconceived so that it results in paralyzing fear for some, shiftless indolence for others. Paul’s two letters to Christians in Thessalonica, among much else, correct such debilitating misconceptions, prodding us to continue to live forward in taut and joyful expectancy for what God will do next in Jesus.”

What do you imagine the second coming of Jesus meant to the folk at Thessalonica? What does it mean to us? Have some of us lost a sense of its immediacy? Have some of us gotten too taken up by it? Do others of us find it hard to believe? Why?

In answering those questions people commented on how the overemphasis of the second coming has maybe done more harm than good. One person commented that for her the topic is something she can quite willingly leave up to God.
We talked about how pertinent of a topic it would have been to the people the letter was written to because some had speculated that Jesus would soon return. What happened, they wondered, to those who had already died, or would die before Jesus returned?

As we prepare for next week I suggested a couple of things to notice as you continue to read 1 Thessalonians: the references to prayer and thanksgiving in this letter. What does Paul pray for? What is he thankful about?

Are there any volunteers to read through Galatians and report to us next week the differences they see between Galatians and 1 Thessalonians? There weren’t any at the study who volunteered. Anybody out there willing to do that?

Beginning Again with the Story of Beginnings

Sunday, April 22nd, 2007

The skirmishes between poetry and prose in our house while our girls were growing up were not unlike the contemporary battles between creationism and evolution, although they surely were less heated. Rachel, the middle child, was sandwiched between Sarah, the historian, and Grace, the creative writer. Rachel was always pointing her sisters either to the present or to the practical, away from the historical or metaphorical. “Just give it to me straight!” was always Rachel’s rallying cry, as Grace would launch into some deep, reflective poem she had just read that spoke directly to her heart or Sarah would be enthralled by some remote historical fact she had just discovered.

What exactly does the first story of Beginnings, found in the first chapter of Genesis, tell us? Does the text “give it to us straight,” as in history and science, or is it more like the language of poetry and song? The Hebrew language and its many English translations make it easy for us to note the rhythmic sequences of the text. God acts, and then God declares that it is good. The cosmos, the waters, the land, the plants, the animals, the humans…then the divine rest. There is motion not only in God’s creating, but also in the very words and images of the text. We can almost feel creation burst forth again and again and again.

Vigen Guroian, an Orthodox priest and author of The Fragrance of God, suggests in an interview on public radio that God serves as both Liturgist and Respondent in the first chapter of Genesis (see speakingoffaith.org). “God sings creation into being,” he says. If we read the text over and over, we notice that it bears a marvelous rhythm and meter of poetry and song.

This is one of the many reasons I have never engaged in the 20th or 21st century conflicts between evolution and creationism. I just don’t think the “how” of creation is the point of Genesis 1, or Genesis 2–the second creation story. The first three chapters of Genesis set up the major themes of the Bible: relationship, exile, and redemption. They help us understand the “what” and “wherefore” of the story of our lives. That is infinitely more valuable to me than exactly how old the earth or the cosmos may be.

A native American preacher, Kim Mammedaty, once pointed out at Baptist Peace Camp that the vast majority of the creation story found in Genesis 1 was not about humankind. I had honestly never thought about that before. How was I able to completely miss something so obvious for several decades of my life, having grown up in the church and gone to seminary?

The key to my lack of awareness, I believe, was growing up in the Christian tradition of the western church. While it is important to constantly reinterpret our understanding of scripture when we realize it is deficient or has been deficient for centuries, it is also important to acknowledge the actual function of the text in society. To be truthful, in many places the Genesis 1 story has functioned to reinforce human dominance over creation, rather than illuminate our small place as humans in a much vaster picture.

When the battle lines are drawn around the ages of rocks or whether humans are descended from apes, or whether seven days are 24-hour periods, we completely miss the bigger picture of the first story of Beginnings.

The primary question that confronts us today is whether creation is here to serve our personal interests as human beings, or whether we are called to live compassionately amid creation. With alarming warnings about global warming and its potential effects on the entire planet and future generations, this question of Beginnings is front and center in the very survival of the planet.

There are five simple points that we can take from the litany, poetry, and song of the first chapter of Genesis that can help us in our journey toward reconciliation with the creation around us. The first is this: “In the beginning, when God created…” (Gen. 1:1, GNB). God is author and actor in creation. God is beneath, behind, beyond, and within creation. God breathes creation into being.

Secondly, in the first chapter of Genesis, God speaks in the plural: “And now we will make human beings,” the text declares (Gen. 1:26, GNB). God exists in plurality. God dwells in community. The God who creates enjoys plurality in unity. Eternal community exists in the godhead. If humans are created in God’s image (which we are), then this is a profound witness concerning who we are, whose we are, and how we are to live within the created order–in community, in plurality in oneness.

Thirdly, “God saw that it was good.” (Gen. 1:18, RSV) Vigen Guroian points out that the Septuagint, the ancient Greek manuscript of the bible, translates this word “good” as “beautiful.” God saw that it was beautiful. There is an inherent goodness to creation, and we dare not destroy it. That goodness extends to all creation, including ourselves. Traditional western theology has often focused on “original sin,” but it is clear in Genesis 1 that sin was never original. Blessing and goodness were original. That is what our hearts yearn for; that is what our lives seek.

Fourthly, it is erroneous and arrogant to assume that humans are the pinnacle of creation because we are made in God’s image. While God gives humanity responsibility to tend the creation and care for it, there is no sign of a wounded relationship between humankind and nature until Genesis 3 when sin enters the world. In the Beginning, there is no hierarchy–God never proclaims human beings better than animals or trees. Instead, there is unity within all creation; humans are given responsibility as part of that unity.

Finally, the need for rest is grounded in the whole drama of creation. God rested! What an amazing statement! Could rest, indeed, be part of the yearning and nature of God? Our culture functions on a continual dearth of rest. Young people get out of school and work themselves to the bone, juggling enormous loads of work, debt, and more schooling. As people age, their employers often demand more and more. “Don’t like it? Then quit, and a whole bunch of people will be in line to replace you!” is the litany of bosses who field complaints about crazy work schedules and unpaid overtime.

This is not God’s way. This is so far away from the story of creation. In the beginning, there is a rhythm of work and rest, even for God. Rest is holy. Rest is necessary. Rest is meant to be. In the Ten Commandments, delivered to Moses, rest is even mandated in the commandment about sabbath-keeping (Deuteronomy 5:12).

As we celebrate Earth Day today, it is good to look back at the Beginning of beginnings, at the litany or song of creation. There we find God-in-community as author and keeper of creation. We discover the original goodness and blessing found in all creation. We note human responsibility for careful stewardship, but no human dominance and estrangement from creation. We learn that work and rest co-exist in rhythms that nourish and sustain. These rhythms find their essence in the very heart of God and have been implanted in creation’s very nature.

I can’t help thinking again about Jesus, God-made-flesh, who came in the form of a servant. If we are made in God’s image, if we bear the stamp of divinity, what does that image look like? It looks like Jesus, who came not to be served but to serve.

What might it mean for humanity to serve the very creation that provides us with food, air, and water–all the physical sustenance needed for life? For a long time, we in the West have used far more than our share of the world’s energy supplies. We have emitted far more than our share of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere. Corporations have raped the forests of our global neighbors to provide goods and food for Americans.

God is calling the Church to environmentally faithful discipleship–to ask ourselves what it means to live in this society as people committed to global equity in the use of energy resources. How shall we examine own lives and make changes for the common good?

These are critical times, but they are also exciting times. These are moments of opportunity for us as followers of Jesus, that we might fulfill the call of discipleship and the cry of this earth and its creatures which bless us and gives us life. Amen.

“The Resurrection is an infection? I’ve never heard it put that way before.”

Sunday, April 15th, 2007

Predictions in the Bible do come true. Or, at least, a couple of them have. We just read the story of Thomas who wouldn’t believe that Jesus had been raised from the dead until he placed his hands in the Risen Jesus’ wounds? What Jesus says to Thomas is “So, you believe because you’ve seen with your own eyes. Even better blessings are in store for those who believe without seeing.”

In the first chapter of Acts, we read about the last words Jesus had with his disciples before he ascended into heaven. They were asking him if the Kingdom of Israel was about to be restored. This is what Jesus told them, “You don’t get to know the time. Timing is the God’s business. What you’ll get is the Holy Spirit. And when the Holy Spirit comes on you, you will be able to be my witnesses in Jerusalem, all over Judea and Samaria, even to the ends of the world.”

Both of those predictions come true in the story we heard this morning from the fifth chapter of Acts. The disciples had become witnesses of Jesus in Jerusalem. This was no mean feat. Remember who these people were. They ran for the hills when Jesus was arrested. They spent most of the days following his resurrection in hiding, even though they had seen and talked with the Risen Jesus. But here they were out in the streets of Jerusalem risking life and limb to be his witnesses.

And people were responding. The response was so great that the religious authorities did arrest and beat the disciples. But unlike Thomas, who had to see the wounds of Jesus to believe, the thousands who were being converted believed without seeing. It was all just like Jesus had predicted. For Thomas it was ‘seeing is believing.’ But for these new followers of the Way of Jesus ‘believing is seeing.’

What had happened in those couple of months? Well another prediction by Jesus had come to pass. The Holy Spirit had come to them. They were empowered. And the first thing the disciples did was not run to their hiding place, but away from it right into the streets of Jerusalem. There they were the witnesses of Jesus, and willing to take substantial risk being his witnesses. They were practicing civil disobedience by refusing to obey the leaders commands they stop preaching about Jesus. When they got out of jail, they went right back to the Temple where they faced arrest, again, or worse.

They talked to the crowds about how Jesus was a good man who had done good things. But he was a threat to the religious establishment so they had him killed. That was nothing unusual. But here is where the witness got interesting. They said Jesus was alive again and it was proof that he was the long promised Messiah.

What’s great about their witness, I think, is that they didn’t try to explain the resurrection. Probably, because they couldn’t. It’s not something they were expecting to happen. That is clear from what we read in the Gospels. When Jesus would talk about it, they would change the subject. And all the rest of them weren’t any different than the one we call the Doubter, Thomas. If I remember the story correctly, when the women returned from the empty tomb to tell the menfolk that Jesus was alive, again, the men didn’t believe it. They dismissed it as foolish women’s talk. They, like Thomas, had to see the evidence themselves.

But even the evidence of an empty tomb, even Jesus appearing to them in a locked room doesn’t explain it. It’s a mystery that the disciples just started living with, instead of trying to figure it out.

It’s lesson we still need to learn today. The disciples proclaimed the wonder of the risen Jesus, instead of the physics of it, as some preachers are attempting on a listserv I frequent. Some of them want to explain how the resurrection of Jesus worked, physically. Others want to explain how the resurrection is symbolic or metaphor. But when I read the stories in the book of Acts, I see the resurrection is mystery that propels the disciples into the streets. Even though the religious authorities arrested them and beat them and eventually killed them, the disciples couldn’t stop bearing witness to Jesus and his resurrection. It’s like they had this infection there was no cure for. They never tried to explain it, they just kept preaching it. And they began in Jerusalem, just like Jesus said they would.

I am struck by the fact that when the Holy Spirit fills the disciples and they really become witnesses of Jesus and his resurrection, they begin in Jerusalem and then Judea, Samaria, and the ends of the earth.

It seems to me that it should have been the opposite. Jerusalem was the center of religious life in Israel. There weren’t many more religious places than that. It was places like Samaria and the ends of the earth that most need the gospel.

There is a lesson here, though. The folk that most need to hear the gospel sometimes aren’t the pagans but the religious folk, particularly the religious leaders. Don’t forget who had Jesus strung up. The religious leaders.

Here’s where it is important to not confuse what happened to Jesus with the anti-Semitic strain you find in our world. It wasn’t ‘the Jews’ who killed Jesus, it was the religious establishment whose power rested in their control of religious doctrine and dogma. And they were the same ones who tried to stomp out the witness being made to Jesus by the disciples. Jesus was Jewish. His first followers were Jewish. And those first followers thought, at first, that they were just a Jewish reform movement. That’s why Peter talked about Jesus being Israel’s gift. But the people in power are never appreciative of reform. And it’s not something limited to Jewish religious power structures. We’ve seen more than a bit of that in Christian power structures over the centuries, and it is still happening.

Some of you may be aware of the letter some of the self-acknowledged or proclaimed leaders of American Protestantism wrote recently to the leadership of the National Association of Evangelicals. They are upset because the National Association of Evangelicals won’t fire, or at least, rein in Richard Sizik, the association’s director of governmental relations. People like Jerry Falwell, Pat Roberston, James Dobson, James Kennedy, and Lois Meyer are outraged that the NAE would allow Sizik to be talking about issues like Christians combating global warming and poverty rather than sticking to the two topics of pro life and anti gay rights.

These guys have been the ones in power. They have controlled the agenda. And now they are being challenged. It makes me wonder if it is not like the disciples showing up in the streets of Jerusalem and blaming the High Council for the crucifixion of Jesus.

Robertson, Falwell, Dobson, and all the rest… could it be that they are as scared of the Risen Jesus as the the religious rulers were back in Jerusalem? Sure they have a doctrine of the resurrection. They would probably love to explain the physics of the resurrection to us. But maybe it’s the mystery of the resurrection that has thrown them off, because they can’t control that. We ran into some unpleasantness ourselves with the religious establishment in our disagreements with the American Baptist Churches of Ohio.

But we are witnesses of the Risen Jesus. We have the same infection that the first disciples had. We can’t help but bear witness to his life. A writer of the Education for Justice web site talks about resurrection in a way that moves if from doctrine to mystery. “The experience of Resurrection results not simply in a good feeling but in the transformation or renewal of our life and action. Resurrection is not just about some future day after we die. It is also about the world today–the world of objects, people, creation, and beauty; the world that experiences both sin and evil as well as justice and peace; the world with all its struggles and its possibilities. If we believe in Resurrection then we should expect to see some signs of it. Community is formed. Fear is dispelled. Reconciliation becomes real. The work of justice and peace takes place. Society is transformed. There is a new heaven and a new earth.” I’m wondering if the conservative religious establishment is able to comprehend the idea of a new earth, one we can build in the power of the risen Jesus.

It’s not that the first disciples always got things right. The mystery of the resurrection doesn’t change people instantly. They struggled with inclusiveness. They struggled with sexism and patriarchy. But they made progress in spite of themselves.

Even Luke, in the passage we read today, remarks about how many women were becoming followers of Jesus, how many women were being infected by the resurrection. And some of those women became leaders in the early church, even though it was something those male disciples would have never imagined happening. But that’s one of the mysteries of the resurrection. You never know where this life in Jesus Christ is going to lead you. It’s mystery all. But if that mystery is leading us toward life, then we are headed in the right direction.

The only predictions we need are that the Holy Spirit is going to be with us and make us witnesses of Jesus Christ. We don’t get the times and dates of anything. But we do get the Holy Spirit. We are the keepers of the greatest mystery of all, the life that is in Jesus Christ. This infection is loose in our bodies and in this body we call the Church. And it turns out it is an infection that heals.

Jesus and the Future of Compassion or, “Hate to trouble you on Sunday morning, Herod. It’s me, Pilate. Something has gone terribly wrong.”

Sunday, April 8th, 2007

It was one of those thousands of awful stories you could read about in the paper or on the internet or hear on the radio or TV. I was waking up and had the radio on, and there was a story about this family that the British government was sending back to Malawi.

There was the mother, father, and their seven year old son. All three had AIDS and all three are doing quite well with the treatments they are receiving in England. But they aren’t legal. And their claims for asylum due to their medical conditions were rejected by the Immigration Board because of the very slim chance they could receive treatment in Malawi.

The people on the Immigration Board acknowledged that chances were slim to none that they would receive treatment when they were sent back. But the regulations state that if there is any conceivable chance they would receive treatment in their home country they have to be returned.

And though it is the overwhelming probability that the seven year old, upon the family’s return to Malawi, will watch one parent die, than the other, and then die himself, there is nothing the Immigration Board can do because regulations are regulations.

It was another of those awful stories, what happened to Jesus. He was tortured and killed. And like with most tragedies that people face, the pain did not stop with him. There were people who loved him. They watched as it all unfolded. They watched him die, and they couldn’t do a thing about it. And the government who killed him said it was a good thing to do.

There was this most interesting twist in the story, though. Some of the women who went to the tomb to finish the burial preparations found the tomb empty and Jesus very much alive.

The menfolk, the big brave apostles, thought the women were talking nonsense. But they started running into Jesus themselves. What gives? How can this be?

It was a lot to try to figure out, but Peter was starting to get it. One day he got the fire in his belly and started preaching to a bunch of Gentiles, no less. He had figured out that the only thing Jesus had done to get himself killed was going around Israel and doing good. “You know the story of what happened in Judea,” he said. “Then Jesus arrived from Nazareth, anointed by God with the Holy Spirit, ready for action. He went through the country helping people and healing everyone who was beaten down by the Devil. He was able to do all this because God was with him.”

There are many ways to think about the good Jesus did when he walked this earth. This morning, I’m thinking about how he helped us with our compassion deficit.
It’s obvious from the stories about Jesus that he was a person of great compassion. He loved all kinds of people and he took their needs seriously. The woman at the well. Tax collectors like Matthew and Zachaeus. The Roman soldier whose daughter had died. The rich young man who couldn’t let God become more important than his money. The woman who had been a bleeding outcast for 18 years. The woman who was dragged before the crowd because she had been caught in the act of adultery. The blind beggar. The lepers. The demon possessed. The paralyzed man who came to Jesus through the roof. These, and so many others, were people with all kinds of needs and Jesus’ response to all of them was all kinds of compassion.

Jesus even had compassion for the people who regarded him as the enemy. But Jesus regarded no one as the enemy. Even the most hard hearted of the religious rulers were people Jesus pitied not hated.

Those three years that Peter, James, Mary, Martha, and all the rest spent with Jesus were days of compassion. Jesus refused to see anyone as anything other than a human being loved by God, who was worthy of nothing less that love and compassion.

That’s why Jesus didn’t get hung up by nationality, race, gender, economic status, religious practice, or lack thereof. All those walls, Jesus showed us, wall us off from each other. They are walls erected to keep compassion at bay. But Jesus busted down the walls, he was always rolling away stones of death.

Peter saw this, he was there when Jesus would love the most unexpected people, when Jesus would let compassion rule the situation. Compassionate was what Jesus knew to be.

Compassion is about life. It’s getting in touch with the life that God puts in everyone, seeing God’s image in every human being. And Peter realized you can’t kill that. Jesus was compassion in human form. It’s no wonder he was raised from the dead. If all compassion does it get you killed, then it’s not much use. If compassion is the way of life, then nothing can stop it, not even death itself. Jesus went around Israel, doing good. He was compassionate. And God raised him from the dead.

Peter was learning this lesson on the spot that morning. Until that moment when he stood before Cornelius and all those other Gentiles and, to his own surprise, acknowledged them as sisters and brothers in Christ Jesus, Peter had believed that all Gentiles were less than human. There was nothing of God in them. They were rejected by God, unloved and ignored by the creator of the universe. But he realized right there that was not the way of Jesus. These were people who shared something of God with Peter. He understood they were human beings with all the joy and heartache that means. Peter understood they were in this together. The walls had been blown away by the Risen Jesus. The future of compassion was unfurling in a Gentile’s home.

So here we are on Easter morning, and there are still a thousand awful stories to tell about the compassion deficit. But we are the witnesses of Jesus, witnesses to the Risen One. Witnesses to his compassion.

If resurrection means anything, if there is any reason for Jesus to have been raised from the grave it is so we can live more compassionate lives. In 1 Corinthians 15, the Apostle Paul writes a treatise on the meaning of the resurrection. He makes an interesting point, when he begins to compare Jesus to Adam. He writes, “There is a nice symmetry in this:” (by the way, I am a big fan of symmetry) “Death initially came by a man, and resurrection from death came by a man. Everybody dies in Adam; everybody comes alive in Christ.”

Paul and Peter and the others began to realize that the resurrection of Jesus marked a new possibility for humanity. It was kind of like a do over. We don’t have to keep on living these Adam like lives that lead us to death. We can live in Jesus, and nothing brings that life more to this world than compassion.

When you talk about compassion, though, it becomes a burden. As Kathryn Ray has pointed out the problem is not just compassion fatigue, but compassion psychosis. There are so many needs, so many ways to help that it begins to drive you crazy.

Compassion doesn’t mean, though, that it is up to each one of us to solve everything. Even Jesus didn’t do that. What compassion does mean it that we start looking at people in a different way. When we elevate the needs of human beings created in the image of God, you never know what we might come up with.

A program has been launched to reduce world poverty by one half by the year 2015. It turns out that won’t be as hard to accomplish as we might imagine. It would take the developed nations of this world only one half of a percent of their annual budgets to accopmlish it. But things are behind schedule because we have been unwilling to make such a commitment. It’s not a lack of money, it’s a lack of compassion that is the problem.

That family from Malawi, they don’t have to be subject to regulations if we start living in this world in a way that people come before regulations. One of the arguments of the people on the Immigration Board was if this family was granted a waiver, or compassion as I would say it, then there would be thousands of others who could rightfully ask for similar compassion.

My response to that is, “that’s great.” Jesus was simply telling us we can find a way to take care of each other if we start regarding each other with compassion, as human beings just like us who need help.

That’s why Jesus was able to forgive the people who hung him on the cross. He realized they were caught up in something that they didn’t understand. He couldn’t reject their humanity, even in the midst of their inhumanity. They were just doing their job. Jesus came back to life to show us that people can do other jobs.

Compassion is not something that the leaders of this world appreciate. The whole system gets turned upside down when we start regarding each other as human beings just like us. And the system tries to keep us from doing that. Divide and conquer is a principle that leaders have relied us since long before Jesus’ day. They want us to fight their wars. Protect their boarders. Defend their way of life. Keep to our own. They want us to always see the enemy, but Jesus said we are all neighbors. That’s why they had to kill him. Compassion, like we hear about in the story Jesus told about the Samaritan who took care of the wounded Jew, ruins everything.

But the life in Jesus was too strong. The power of the compassionate God too real for death and its agents to have the final say. So Jesus busted out of that tomb those rulers had put him in, as I like to say at this time of the year, in the first act of Christian civil disobedience. The empire kills, but God is the author of life.

There will always be those awful stories we wake up to. But we woke up to a different story this morning. Jesus is alive. Rome hit him with its hardest shot and he is still standing. The power of death has been unmasked. The future belongs to the compassionate. You can bet your Easter sunrise on it.

Branches of Justice

Sunday, April 1st, 2007

When they were approaching Jerusalem at Bethphage and Bethany, near the Mount of Olives, he sent two of his disciples and said to them, “go into the village ahead of you, and immediately as you enter it, you will find tied there a colt that has never been ridden; untie it and bring it. If anyone says to you, “Why are you doing this?” just say this, “The Lord needs it and will send it back here immediately.” They went away and found a colt tied near a door, outside in the street. As they were untying it, some of the bystanders said to them, “What are you doing, untying the colt?” They told them what Jesus had said; and they allowed them to take it. Then they brought the colt to Jesus and threw their cloaks on it; and he sat on it. Many people spread their cloaks on the road, and others spread leafy branches that they had cut in the fields. Then those who went ahead and those who followed were shouting,

“Hosanna! Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord!

Blessed is the coming kingdom of our ancestor David!

Hosanna in the highest heaven!”

Then he entered Jerusalem and went into the temple; and when he had looked around at everything, as it was already late, he went out to Bethany with the twelve. Mark 11:1-11

 

We traveled as a group from the countryside. Some were still talking about the healing of the blind beggar Bartimaeus just outside of Jericho. (Mark 10:46-52) This blind man had heard Jesus was passing by him and so shouted at him, “Jesus, Son of David, have mercy on me!” I had been talking quietly with Jesus when the shouts interrupted us. Some of the disciples tried to get the man to be quiet, but it only caused the man to shout more loudly, “Son of David, have mercy on me!” Jesus stopped and called the man to him, and asked him simply, “What do you want me to do for you?” The blind man asked only to see. Jesus told him, “Go; your faith has made you well.” And Bartimaeus’ sight was restored. Jesus sent him on his way; we continued on ours.

And so it was that we were approaching Jerusalem for the Passover Festival when Jesus stopped us again. He sent James and John for a colt in the village ahead. He told them exactly where to find it. How did he know one would be there? One that had never been ridden? What did he need it for? I was curious, and so, I confess I accompanied James and John to the village. They were used to my presence; I traveled with Jesus as much as they did. And they knew that it was in my brother Lazarus’ house that we would stay at in Bethany. So they let me come with them, although I was probably no better than a tag-along younger sister to them.

When we entered the city we found a colt tied to a post. James and John looked at each other, their expressions asking the same question. “Is this the one?” “Should we really take it without asking anyone?” But knowing what Jesus had commanded, they shrugged their shoulders and began to untie the young beast. Bystanders watched in disbelief but before they could ask what we were doing, a young boy pushed through the crowd. “Why are you untying my colt?” he asked, not so much accusingly as inquisitively. He stepped towards the animal and placed a protective arm around it. “Uhm, the Lord needs it and will send it back here immediately,” John stammered, nervously. “Oh,” the boy said. He looked down at his colt and I saw a slow smile creep into his face. “Then I will go with you, too.” He looked up at James and John with resolute eyes. 

James and John looked at each other, confused. I crossed my arms bemusedly and waited for the two of them to respond. James tried first. “Well, the Lord didn’t say anything about needing a little boy.” “No,” said the boy. “But the colt has need of me, therefore, the Lord needs me, too.” John tried to dissuade him. “I’m sure we can handle the colt for you. We’ll make sure he is returned safely to you.” The boy shook his head no. I smiled to myself; I could tell the boy needed to come with his colt. Besides hadn’t Jesus just taught the disciples about the importance of children? James and John, along with the others were trying to keep the children away from Jesus, but when Jesus saw it he nipped their actions in the bud. I decided I better remind them of his words. I whispered into John’s ear: “Let the children come to me; do not stop them; for it is to such as these that the kingdom of God belongs.” (Mk 10:14) John looked at me, “Are you sure?” I nodded firmly. John nodded at the boy. “You may come.” 

The boy smiled a jubilant smile, untied his colt and proudly led it through the crowd. “The Lord has need of my colt,” he told the crowds as he pushed his way out the village. With his free hand, he took my hand and looked up at me and smiled. “I’m going to see the Lord,” he said joyfully. James and John followed mutely behind. We came back to where Jesus was resting with the others. Jesus welcomed the young boy into his arms, laid his hand on his head, and blessed him. “Thank you,” he said to the boy, looking deeply into his eyes. A tear welled up in the boy’s eye. “Thank you.” And he handed the colt over to Jesus.

Jesus looked around at us, as if to take in our presence with him one more time. He began to mount the colt, but John stepped in and threw his coat on it first. Several of the others did as well and then Jesus sat on the colt. We began to process towards Jerusalem.

The crowds must have followed us from the village, for there were many people along the road. Some spread their cloaks for Jesus to pass over. Others spread leafy branches that they had just cut in the fields. They joined the procession with enthusiasm, and began to shout. “Hosanna! Hosanna!” Save us, save us now! They repeated their cry and added, “Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord! Blessed is the coming kingdom of our ancestor David.” Those who had been closest to Jesus on this journey looked at each other in bewilderment. How did they know? But our bewilderment soon abated and we were quickly caught up in the crowd’s fervor. We, too, began to shout, “Hosanna! Hosanna in the highest heaven!” 

The crowd surged forward and Jesus with them. I was pushed towards the back and as I caught the image of Jesus on the colt from a distance it conjured up the words of the prophet Zechariah. “Lo, your king comes to you; triumphant and victorious is he, humble and riding on a donkey, on a colt, the foal of a donkey.” (Zech 9:9b) But the context of Zechariah’s words were one of war and destruction of other nations in order to restore Israel. ) I wondered if the others remembered these prophetic words. Did they think that Jesus would “save” them by destroying the Romans? Were they looking for a warrior Messiah? Were they looking for life to be fair and things put to right through violence? Because that is certainly what we had been taught to believe about the Messiah. Yet nothing in this man’s teaching led me to believe that he was offering a way of violence. I believed Jesus was the Messiah. But . . . .it’s just . . . I think that the words of the prophet Isaiah more closely describe what Jesus was offering. “He will faithfully bring forth justice. He will not grow faint or be crushed until he has established justice in the earth.” (Isaiah 42:3b-4) And the prophet even tells us what God sees as justice: “to open the eyes that are blind, to bring out the prisoners from the dungeon, from the prison those who sit in darkness.” (Isaiah 42:7) 

As we walked towards the city I looked from the crowds to Jesus. He was looking at the people as the colt lumbered onward. I saw such compassion in his eyes. It’s as if he knew that he was going to disappoint them, that he couldn’t be the savior, the warrior they were expecting. And suddenly, a cold chill passed through me and I was afraid. Afraid for him. For us. For me. Because I knew the fervor of this crowd could just as easily turn against Jesus as for him. These people didn’t want justice; they wanted to be right. They wanted revenge against the Romans and all who were in cahoots with them. And if Jesus couldn’t or wouldn’t give it to them, I knew they would look for someone more radical. Someone like Barabbas who had recently been arrested for insurrection. Someone who was willing to use violence to set things right. 

My footsteps slowed, and I dropped back further from the shouting crowds. I looked back at the branches that had been laid on the path, branches now trampled by the feet of the many who accompanied Jesus. Branches that the people thought waved in a new order – a Messiah who would save them from ever having to experience pain again. But I knew that these were branches of justice that would be trampled again and again by well meaning followers who refused Jesus’ upside-down way. And Jesus would pay the price for their fickleness.

I looked back toward Jesus. The crowd was thinning . . . it was late in the day. I ran to catch up to him and soon it was just Jesus and those of us who were his closest followers who entered Jerusalem. We went to the temple – Jesus looked around at everything as if he wanted to make sure everything was ready. I followed his gaze, but I saw nothing out of place. He looked around at us and I thought that he was going to speak. He tried to say something but his voice caught in this throat. He tried again, “The Human One is to be betrayed,” but his voice faltered and he simply looked down and shook his head. We stood with him, looking down at our feet, not knowing what to say. I remembered him saying those very words earlier, that the Human One would be betrayed into human hands, “and they will kill him, and three days after being killed, he will rise again.” (Mark 9:31) I didn’t understand his words then; I didn’t understand them now. But I didn’t’ like them. I felt death in the air and the fear I felt earlier grabbed me.

Jesus didn’t try to speak again. Instead, he said “Come,” and together we went to Bethany where my brother and sister, Lazarus and Martha, had prepared for our arrival. A simple meal was in place – bread and hummus with grapes to quench our thirst. Jesus’ hands trembled as he took the bread in his hands. He lifted it to God and gave thanks and then broke the bread to share. He served each of us in turn, and as he did he shared these words, “Whenever you eat of this bread, or taste the sweetness of this fruit, do so remembering me.” 

And as I bit into the bread, as I tasted its solidness, I remembered all that had made Jesus solid in our lives. How he had calmed storms and cast out demons. How he healed, even touched, those who were deemed untouchables. How he welcomed all to share food at his table. 

And as I bit into the grape and felt the sweet juice trickle down my throat I remembered the sweetness he had shared with us. How he had loved the children. How he had fed the 5000 on the hillside. How he had changed water into wine. The memories flooded my heart. And as we continued to share around the table, one of the men began to sing, tentatively at first. 

(Weave, Weave, Weave us Together begins)

The group quieted as we listened. And then, one by one we began to join in singing with him.

(Singing continues while communion shared)

During that happy hour the events of the day began to slip from my mind and I almost believed we would remain happy together. One look at Jesus’ face shattered my illusions: his face was twisted in a mixture of sorrow and anger as he watched the scene around him. As he caught my eye and saw the alarm in my face, he tried to smile, but the smile didn’t erase the pain I saw in his eyes. And I knew then that the justice he proclaimed was not going to come cheaply. I moved to sit beside him, if only to assure him I would be with him on his journey. He nodded gratefully, and he no longer tried to hide his distress. One by one the others felt the mood change, and the laughter was soon replaced with more solemn tones and then silence. Though we could not know what would happen, together we waited for the dawn and the journey back to the Jerusalem temple for the Passover Festival. It was a journey we would never forget.