Archive for February, 2014

COLOSSIANS 3:1-4

So if you have been raised with Christ, seek the things that are above, where Christ is, seated at the right hand of God. 2 Set your minds on things that are above, not on things that are on earth, 3 for you have died, and your life is hidden with Christ in God. 4 When Christ who is your life is revealed, then you also will be revealed with him in glory.

If you have been raised …  This requires us to shift our thinking about resurrection from an end-time event, or even a postmortem event, to something that Paul looked for in the here-and-now. It’s very likely that this letter to the congregations in the region of Colossae was not written directly by the apostle Paul, but instead by a successor in the Pauline tradition of early Christianity.

The letter amounts to a defense (called an apology) against the tendency toward Gnosticism in the Greek streams of Christian development. While much about Greek culture was a celebration of the body, physical beauty, and the sensual enjoyment of life, the influence of Greek philosophy – particularly under the guiding theory of Plato and the Orphic tradition – emphasized acetic discipline of the body, renunciation of animal passions, and eventual escape of the immortal soul from its mortal coil.

Some strains of Gnosticism advised early Christ-followers to deny the physical reality of Jesus, suggesting instead that he was truly a spirit-being in mortal disguise – that his body only seemed to be real but was only an illusion. He didn’t really die (since he wasn’t mortal), except to the minds of the ignorant who were spiritually blind to his essential truth. The career-path of Christ only appeared as Jesus in order to capture our devoted attention and carry it away from the material realm and ultimately out of this world.

                                                                                           

The reader will recognize that orthodoxy Christianity eventually went in a “gnostic” direction – emphasizing immortality over resurrection (more on that in a bit), soul over body, afterlife over this life, and, since woman’s body is so deeply entwined with the rhythms of earth, moon and natural time, also male over female, reason over passion, doctrine over experience, and meaning over mystery.

Even the apology of Colossians illustrates the challenge early Christianity had in preserving its Hebraic origins as it accommodated to the wider Greek culture (the future of its expanding empire). The contrast of “above” and “below” might suggest a logic of dualism, which can easily slip into Gnostic assumptions and convictions.

Jesus and his initial revolution had germinated in a different value-context, particularly when it came to the appraisal of creation, matter, body and time. For the Hebrews, these are not corrupt, evil or illusory. Instead they represent the manifestation of divine glory and the embodiment of God’s sacred purpose.

For the Hebrew, resurrection represented the sanctification of flesh, to the point where the expired physical reality of the body is renewed and becomes again an epiphany of the spirit. But it wasn’t about getting the departed soul back into its carnal container – which is how a Gnostic would see it, and with considerable disgust. The Greek problem was due to the fact that its worldview and anthropology (view of human nature) were dualistic; a “reunion” of soul and body would be going in the absolutely wrong direction.

The Hebraic view, however, saw body and soul as essential aspects of a single mystery – the living person. In this value system, resurrection is the symbol of healing, communion, wholeness and authentic life. As we contemplate the witness and example of Jesus, as we follow him to the cross where he died in solidarity with God’s love for the world, we can also step with him into New Life (what he called the Kingdom of God) as awakened, compassionate, and generous human beings.

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PSALM 118:1-2, 14-24

1 O give thanks to the Lord, for he is good;
    his steadfast love endures forever!

2 Let Israel say,
    “His steadfast love endures forever.”

14 The Lord is my strength and my might;
    he has become my salvation.

15 There are glad songs of victory in the tents of the righteous:
“The right hand of the Lord does valiantly;
16     the right hand of the Lord is exalted;
    the right hand of the Lord does valiantly.”
17 I shall not die, but I shall live,
    and recount the deeds of the Lord.
18 The Lord has punished me severely,
    but he did not give me over to death.

19 Open to me the gates of righteousness,
    that I may enter through them
    and give thanks to the Lord.

20 This is the gate of the Lord;
    the righteous shall enter through it.

21 I thank you that you have answered me
    and have become my salvation.
22 The stone that the builders rejected
    has become the chief cornerstone.
23 This is the Lord’s doing;
    it is marvelous in our eyes.
24 This is the day that the Lord has made;
    let us rejoice and be glad in it.

This passage from the Psalms would become one of those privileged texts that early Christians used as  “prophecies” of Jesus. “I shall not die, but I shall live” and mention of a rejected building stone becoming the chief cornerstone are references vague enough to be applied in any number of ways, which is a virtue that makes them readily adaptable to a variety of situations.

The theme of being punished by God was another feature with direct transfer value to early Christian theories of atonement – of how Jesus’ suffering and death was somehow instrumental in world salvation. An assumption that reality is moral in nature is deep in the cultural DNA of ethical monotheism, which is behind the Bible’s heavy accent on obedience, responsibility, justice and equality – but also our perennial struggle with guilt, forgiveness, retribution and punishment in Western society.

For the longest time, and still for a large majority of  believers, “steadfast love” and “punishing severity” were held in tension in the orthodox concept of God. It was not an overt contradiction to regard the same personality (divine or human) as compassionate and merciful one moment, vengeful and punitive the next. This bi-polar tension in theology worked its way out as alternating anxiety and despondency in the human psyche – or perhaps the conflicted human psyche projected this bipolarity into the nature of God.

Still, by the time of the Protestant Reformation (16th century CE) this internal conflict was driving denominational development. Martin Luther’s evident concern over the security of salvation was answered by John Calvin’s doctrines of predestination and the perseverance of the saved. And across all denominations the belief in God’s universal and irresistible grace has run up against the conviction that unrepentant sinners (that is, those able somehow to resist God’s grace) will suffer everlasting punishment.

Jesus would later proclaim a radical revision to this ethical concept of God, with his gospel of unconditional forgiveness. Sadly, Christian orthodoxy buried his teaching under layers of interpretation that effectively canceled out his message and reaffirmed God as a retributive deity who used redemptive violence (in Jesus’ death on the cross) to “save” the world.

 

JEREMIAH 31:1-6

At that time, says the Lord, I will be the God of all the families of Israel, and they shall be my people.

2 Thus says the Lord:
The people who survived the sword
    found grace in the wilderness;
when Israel sought for rest,
3     the Lord appeared to him from far away.
I have loved you with an everlasting love;
    therefore I have continued my faithfulness to you.
4 Again I will build you, and you shall be built,
    O virgin Israel!
Again you shall take your tambourines,
    and go forth in the dance of the merrymakers.
5 Again you shall plant vineyards
    on the mountains of Samaria;
the planters shall plant,
    and shall enjoy the fruit.
6 For there shall be a day when sentinels will call
    in the hill country of Ephraim:
“Come, let us go up to Zion,
    to the Lord our God.”

Jeremiah was the son of a priest and very likely had been one himself, when he felt God’s calling out of the religious establishment and into the streets as a prophet. Mounting tension in Judah’s international relations was causing concern for many, especially as the superpowers of Assyria, Babylonia, Egypt and Persia were becoming increasingly interested in its prime real estate.

The response from the religious establishment was effectively no response at all. Generally the belief was that God would protect his temple, the holy city, and its people from harm since they had been chosen for a long and bright destiny. God wouldn’t let his most important project fail, and since the Jews figured so centrally in that project, he wouldn’t let any harm come to them either.

But as we know, the city walls did come down and its temple was destroyed, an event that was not only a political catastrophe but an existential crisis of the first order. All at once, the fabric of meaning was ripped to shreds and the foundations of security were shattered into pieces. Jeremiah had sounded the warning, but no one listened. Now in the aftermath and amid the wreckage, he could only say, “I told you so.”

But he didn’t. Instead, he helped his generation through a process of serious self-examination. Their self-righteous complacency and sense of entitlement had made the nation vulnerable to collapse. It wasn’t the Babylonian army that overpowered them, and it wasn’t because God had abandoned them. Rather they had lost their vision, forgotten their divine appointment, and allowed their once-vibrant faith to recede from the edge of risk and fall asleep under the hedges of orthodoxy.

                                                                                                 

Only after coming to terms with their own responsibility in this tragedy could the survivors really find healing. This has always been true. When your circumstances close in around you, when it feels like God isn’t hearing your prayers and other people don’t care, it is tempting – almost irresistible – to look outside yourself for both the culprit to blame for your troubles and the savior who will rescue you from them. In either case, the locus of creative control is deferred somewhere other than where it really belongs, which is inside yourself.

That’s not to say that you must take the blame, or conversely pull yourself up by your own bootstraps. Taking responsibility is importantly different from taking blame. Blame is really a story you tell yourself for the purpose of assigning a cause to your pain and anger. Beyond pinning your troubles on someone or something else, blame has the additional benefit of letting you do nothing but stand there and point. Or if you are blaming yourself, it can leech like a paralyzing anesthetic into your soul. As a consequence, your personal challenges can slowly evolve into chronic problems – not going away but instead getting worse.

To take responsibility you need to stop looking behind, around, or even up ahead for the solution you seek. While it is certainly true that these dimensions of your situation can contain insight, resources, and guidance, your salvation starts as you find your center and place both hands on your pain. However it got here, it is yours. Insisting that someone else did this to you doesn’t take away the responsibility of dealing with it.

The way of healing and freedom begins at the point where you realize that you have control over whether and to what extent you allow this ordeal (loss, hardship, betrayal, or abuse) to define you and determine the rest of your life.

Jeremiah grieved with his people as they stood in the rubble of their beloved homeland. He helped them take responsibility by accepting the reality of their experience. But then he challenged them to hold a different frame around their pain, one that could let them see that this experience was not just an ending but the start of something new.

MATTHEW 27:11-54

11 Now Jesus stood before the governor; and the governor asked him, “Are you the King of the Jews?” Jesus said, “You say so.” 12 But when he was accused by the chief priests and elders, he did not answer. 13 Then Pilate said to him, “Do you not hear how many accusations they make against you?” 14 But he gave him no answer, not even to a single charge, so that the governor was greatly amazed.

15 Now at the festival the governor was accustomed to release a prisoner for the crowd, anyone whom they wanted. 16 At that time they had a notorious prisoner, called Jesus Barabbas. 17 So after they had gathered, Pilate said to them, “Whom do you want me to release for you, Jesus Barabbas or Jesus who is called the Messiah?” 18 For he realized that it was out of jealousy that they had handed him over. 19 While he was sitting on the judgment seat, his wife sent word to him, “Have nothing to do with that innocent man, for today I have suffered a great deal because of a dream about him.” 20 Now the chief priests and the elders persuaded the crowds to ask for Barabbas and to have Jesus killed. 21 The governor again said to them, “Which of the two do you want me to release for you?” And they said, “Barabbas.” 22 Pilate said to them, “Then what should I do with Jesus who is called the Messiah?” All of them said, “Let him be crucified!” 23 Then he asked, “Why, what evil has he done?” But they shouted all the more, “Let him be crucified!”

24 So when Pilate saw that he could do nothing, but rather that a riot was beginning, he took some water and washed his hands before the crowd, saying, “I am innocent of this man’s blood; see to it yourselves.” 25 Then the people as a whole answered, “His blood be on us and on our children!” 26 So he released Barabbas for them; and after flogging Jesus, he handed him over to be crucified.

27 Then the soldiers of the governor took Jesus into the governor’s headquarters, and they gathered the whole cohort around him. 28 They stripped him and put a scarlet robe on him,29 and after twisting some thorns into a crown, they put it on his head. They put a reed in his right hand and knelt before him and mocked him, saying, “Hail, King of the Jews!”30 They spat on him, and took the reed and struck him on the head. 31 After mocking him, they stripped him of the robe and put his own clothes on him. Then they led him away to crucify him.

32 As they went out, they came upon a man from Cyrene named Simon; they compelled this man to carry his cross. 33 And when they came to a place called Golgotha (which means Place of a Skull), 34 they offered him wine to drink, mixed with gall; but when he tasted it, he would not drink it. 35 And when they had crucified him, they divided his clothes among themselves by casting lots; 36 then they sat down there and kept watch over him. 37 Over his head they put the charge against him, which read, “This is Jesus, the King of the Jews.”

38 Then two bandits were crucified with him, one on his right and one on his left. 39 Those who passed by derided him, shaking their heads 40 and saying, “You who would destroy the temple and build it in three days, save yourself! If you are the Son of God, come down from the cross.” 41 In the same way the chief priests also, along with the scribes and elders, were mocking him, saying, 42 “He saved others; he cannot save himself. He is the King of Israel; let him come down from the cross now, and we will believe in him. 43 He trusts in God; let God deliver him now, if he wants to; for he said, ‘I am God’s Son.’” 44 The bandits who were crucified with him also taunted him in the same way.

45 From noon on, darkness came over the whole land until three in the afternoon. 46 And about three o’clock Jesus cried with a loud voice, “Eli, Eli, lema sabachthani?” that is, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” 47 When some of the bystanders heard it, they said, “This man is calling for Elijah.” 48 At once one of them ran and got a sponge, filled it with sour wine, put it on a stick, and gave it to him to drink. 49 But the others said, “Wait, let us see whether Elijah will come to save him.” 50 Then Jesus cried again with a loud voice and breathed his last. 51 At that moment the curtain of the temple was torn in two, from top to bottom. The earth shook, and the rocks were split. 52 The tombs also were opened, and many bodies of the saints who had fallen asleep were raised. 53 After his resurrection they came out of the tombs and entered the holy city and appeared to many.54 Now when the centurion and those with him, who were keeping watch over Jesus, saw the earthquake and what took place, they were terrified and said, “Truly this man was God’s Son!”

“Truly this man was a son of God” is the more literal translation of Matthew’s Greek text. While “God’s Son” provides a handy scriptural foothold for the later orthodox doctrine of Jesus’ exclusive identity as “God the Son,” in the mytho-religious context of Matthew’s day (circa 80-85 CE), “son of God” was a common designation for kings, saviors, saints, and wonder-workers. It was used as a way of acknowledging the special proximity to God (or the gods) that such individuals were believed to enjoy.

This declaration by the army commander is positioned in the story as an ironic counterpart to the earlier episode involving the “notorious prisoner” named Jesus Barabbas. Now the purported practice of releasing a dangerous prisoner on a festival day has no basis in actual history, but that is not where the real meaning of this episode is found anyway. We are painted the picture of two notorious troublemakers under Roman guard: Jesus Barabbas (literally Jesus son of the father) and our Jesus – the central figure of Matthew’s Gospel.

The irony, of course, is that our Jesus really is son of the father. There is interesting textual evidence to suggest that Jesus (of Nazareth) may have used the designation “father” (Abba) as a proper name in reference to God, similar to Zeus or Yahweh in that regard. His own self-understanding may have been inspired out of an experience of such intimacy that he came to see himself – and all people, for that was the scope of his vision – as directly descended from God.

This metaphorical model of family relationships – I am a son of God, you are a daughter of God; we are siblings and children of the same God – has far-reaching implications. Suddenly there are no outsiders; all are included. Jesus’ message of compassion for those who suffer, justice on behalf of the poor, and unconditional forgiveness for the enemy makes better sense when interpreted in the context of this familial model.

So there we see them, the two Jesuses, both truly sons of God (in the sense just explained) but only one – our Jesus – in trouble for living out its truth in faith and courage. The other, Barabbas, was likely a zealot or what might today be classified a militant fundamentalist.

Pilate calls out to the assembled mob, “Which one shall I release to you?”

“Barabbas!” they cry.

“And what about this other Jesus, the messiah?” Pilate inquires.

“Crucify him!” 

In a sense, the mob made the right choice. Between the one who provokes violence and the one who professes a boundless and unfailing love, the terrorist can be managed. Love – a radical love such as Jesus taught and demonstrated – changes things. It doesn’t advance by violence and murder, but transforms the heart from deep within.

If Empire can’t shut it down early, love will become an unstoppable force.

 

Philippians 2:5-11

5 Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus,

6 who, though he was in the form of God,
    did not regard equality with God
    as something to be exploited,
7 but emptied himself,
    taking the form of a slave,
    being born in human likeness.
And being found in human form,
8     he humbled himself
    and became obedient to the point of death—
    even death on a cross.

9 Therefore God also highly exalted him
    and gave him the name
    that is above every name,
10 so that at the name of Jesus
    every knee should bend,
    in heaven and on earth and under the earth,
11 and every tongue should confess
    that Jesus Christ is Lord,
    to the glory of God the Father.

This passage is frequently used as a “proof text” for the orthodox doctrine of Jesus as God – even though the passage itself makes a very clear distinction between God (“the Father”) and Jesus (“Christ the Lord”). But isn’t being “in the form of God” equivalent to saying that Jesus was God? No, and here’s why.

We already know that New Testament authors made quick work of anchoring the identity of Jesus in a deep heritage of scriptural prophecies and mythic metaphors. The Suffering Servant, Son of Man, Son of David, Son of God, the New Moses, the Cosmic Christ, Lady Wisdom, and the Second Adam (or New Man) were titles with rich histories of their own. They covered the continuum of time from creation, through Israel’s national history, up to the Day of Judgment and beyond.

In this poem, which Paul may have taken from an existing tradition, Jesus is compared with Adam – the archetypal First Man and “son of God” (as we read in Luke 3:38). According to the Genesis myth, Adam (along with his consort, Eve) was made in the “image” of God, which is another way of saying that he was in the form of God. God placed the couple in a grove of fruit trees and flowing streams. Among the different types of trees in the garden was the Tree of Immortality (at the center) and the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil.

According to the myth, one virtue that distinguished God from his son and daughter was his “knowledge of good and evil” – that is to say, his rightful authority to judge the difference and make the rules. God warned his children that partaking of this tree would result in their death; it was forbidden.

The children, however, were stirred in their ambition for this exceptional power by a crafty serpent, who encouraged them with the promise that its fruit would make them “equal to God” in that way. They took the fruit and ate it, whereupon they were suddenly aware of their “nakedness” (a metaphor of the self-conscious guilty conscience). Shortly thereafter the couple was evicted from the garden, and a sword-wielding angel (Death) was posted as guardian to its entrance. Without access any longer to the Tree of Immortality, the pair was condemned to live out a finite number of days “east of Eden.”

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The First Adam, then, was in the form of God but tried to make himself equal to God. As a consequence, he and his descendants (the entire human race) are subject to suffering, toil, time and mortality. Because of the First Adam’s disobedience, we all share the fate of death.

But Jesus was the Second Adam. He was in the form of God but did not regard equality with God as something to be exploited. Whereas (the First) Adam was defiant, Jesus (the Second Adam) was obedient. Instead of ambition for glory, he demonstrated humility in suffering. In that way, not only was Jesus our example of faith and devotion, but in staying true to God’s will even unto death he has made salvation (immortal life) available to the rest of us. How so?

As a reward for his humble obedience, God granted Jesus entrance to Eden and access once again to the Tree of Immortality. Thus we have here a mythic representation of the central metaphor of early Christianity, resurrection. Now, with the Second Adam alive and inside of paradise, we who commit our lives to him and follow his example can look forward to our own future resurrection and safe transit to life everlasting.

So through this archetypal comparison of the Two Adams, Paul is making the point that egoism, the unbridled ambition for glory, is what excludes the individual – every last one of us – from sharing in the higher life of God. The more tightly we twist our desires around “me” and “mine,” the deeper we sink into mortality and its complications: attachment and loss, pain and suffering, futility and despair. The ego’s arrogant presumption to decide between good and evil is what spins us out and away from God’s will for our lives.

Salvation, then, involves “putting on the mind of Christ Jesus” instead, living for God and giving our lives for his sake.