Archive for March, 2014

JOHN 20:19-31

19 When it was evening on that day, the first day of the week, and the doors of the house where the disciples had met were locked for fear of the Jews, Jesus came and stood among them and said, “Peace be with you.” 20 After he said this, he showed them his hands and his side. Then the disciples rejoiced when they saw the Lord. 21 Jesus said to them again, “Peace be with you. As the Father has sent me, so I send you.” 22 When he had said this, he breathed on them and said to them, “Receive the Holy Spirit. 23 If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven them; if you retain the sins of any, they are retained.”

24 But Thomas (who was called the Twin), one of the twelve, was not with them when Jesus came. 25 So the other disciples told him, “We have seen the Lord.” But he said to them, “Unless I see the mark of the nails in his hands, and put my finger in the mark of the nails and my hand in his side, I will not believe.”

26 A week later his disciples were again in the house, and Thomas was with them. Although the doors were shut, Jesus came and stood among them and said, “Peace be with you.”27 Then he said to Thomas, “Put your finger here and see my hands. Reach out your hand and put it in my side. Do not doubt but believe.” 28 Thomas answered him, “My Lord and my God!” 29 Jesus said to him, “Have you believed because you have seen me? Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have come to believe.”

30 Now Jesus did many other signs in the presence of his disciples, which are not written in this book. 31 But these are written so that you may come to believe that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God, and that through believing you may have life in his name.

One advantage the Gospel writers had over the apostle Paul was access to early collections of Jesus’ teachings. The earthly life and ministry of Jesus weren’t as important to Paul as were his death, resurrection and intercession on behalf of believers. Largely through the influence of Paul’s focus on the atonement of the cross, some of the first storied accounts of Jesus’ life to emerge were passion narratives, featuring his redemptive suffering for our salvation.

The author of Mark’s Gospel may have been the first to expand this narrative treatment into a fuller “life of Jesus.” By composing an action plot and sprinkling in available teaching material where he saw fit, Mark produced what could be the earliest hero myth of Christianity. Incorporating the oral tradition of anecdotes and remembrances concerning Jesus, as well as borrowing from the wider stage of world mythology, Mark built out the contextual scenes that interpreted this teaching and further developed the messianic identity of Jesus himself.

As time went on and more “biographies” of Jesus emerged (Matthew, Luke and John, but many others that didn’t get included in the scriptural canon of the early Church) this teaching material was expanded, embellished, supplemented and refined. In the end it becomes very difficult to distinguish the First Voice of Jesus from that of the authors who tell his story. And when you add in the layer upon layer of translations, word studies, commentaries, creeds, and Sunday sermons, really hearing what Jesus had to say requires some serious pick-and-shovel work.

The Gospel of John is the last-written of our canonical four, which also means that its presentation of the life and teaching of Jesus has had the most time to develop – both into obscurity and clarification. His Jesus is a long leap from the earthy messianic conspirator of Mark’s story. Now (but only 25 or so years after Mark) Jesus has become the incarnate Word and divine Son of God whose mission is to reveal his Father’s great love for the world.

In this passage we have what amounts to John’s reworking of the Pentecost scene in Acts 2, but focused down from a large festival gathering to the private company of Jesus’ disciples. The Pentecostal descent of the Holy Spirit as wind and fire becomes Jesus breathing the Holy Spirit upon his followers, and whereas the Spirit in Luke’s story inspires recipients to share the gospel in other languages (an evangelistic theme), the gift of the Spirit in John empowers the disciples with the authority to forgive sins (an emancipation theme).

This authority, by the way, had been the exclusive prerogative of God up to this point, so John is suggesting something remarkable here – and wildly controversial. “God’s power is yours now,” Jesus is saying. “Go out and set people free!”

 

1 PETER 1:3-9

Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ! By his great mercy he has given us a new birth into a living hope through the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead, and into an inheritance that is imperishable, undefiled, and unfading, kept in heaven for you,who are being protected by the power of God through faith for a salvation ready to be revealed in the last time. In this you rejoice, even if now for a little while you have had to suffer various trials, so that the genuineness of your faith—being more precious than gold that, though perishable, is tested by fire—may be found to result in praise and glory and honor when Jesus Christ is revealed. Although you have not seen him, you love him; and even though you do not see him now, you believe in him and rejoice with an indescribable and glorious joy, for you are receiving the outcome of your faith, the salvation of your souls.

We have already been introduced to the idea that the kingdom movement inspired by the life and teachings of Jesus eventually changed direction into an institutional orthodoxy centered on the redemptive violence of his death, his literal resurrection, and the promise of heaven for true believers who await his end-time return.

The architect of this fateful redirection was the apostle Paul. In his writings (letters to churches) we can discern the “fork in the road” where the pressing concerns of managing a nascent religion steadily diverged from a more mystically grounded and peace-oriented spirituality.

The church in Corinth, for instance, was so unstable that Paul had to draw some pretty hard lines around Christian identity to keep the congregation from falling apart. As things go, his timely (situational) letters of encouragement and reproof were soon taken up as timeless (universal) holy scripture into the emerging institution of Christianity. Paul’s missionary career came to an end with his likely execution under the emperor Nero in the mid-sixties, a half-decade before the first narrative of Jesus’ life and ministry (Gospel of Mark) was written.

This Letter of Peter was certainly not written by the disciple and erstwhile fisherman of Jesus’ original company. The polish of its Greek vocabulary, the intellectual sophistication of thought, and the late-stage development of its doctrine all point away from him. At the very least, the references to a heavenly inheritance and the outcome of faith as salvation of the soul put it at odds with what we know as the authentic teachings of Jesus. If he was among Jesus’ first student-followers, this author has almost completely lost the social urgency and this-worldly concern of his teacher-master.

So let’s ask: How exactly did God give us a new birth into a living hope through the resurrection of Jesus? Is it just that we now have a way out of this damned world, to a heavenly security waiting for us on the other side? Is our “hope” that we will be better off  later? Is the task  now simply to believe rightly and win God’s protection of our faith until the final prize is gained? Is the writer assuring us of this destiny by the warrant of Jesus’ resurrection, whereby the savior got there first and unlocked the door for the rest of us?

Christian orthodoxy, then and now, answers ‘Yes’ all the way down that list of questions. Christianity soon promised a way out of this mess of a world, whereas Jesus showed us the path deeper into it tangles, with an aim of loosening the knots that bind our human spirit.

Each of us today stands at that same fork in the road.

Behold

Posted: March 26, 2014 in ContraVerse

Behold

PSALM 16

Protect me, O God, for in you I take refuge.
I say to the Lord, “You are my Lord;
    I have no good apart from you.”

As for the holy ones in the land, they are the noble,
    in whom is all my delight.

Those who choose another god multiply their sorrows;
    their drink offerings of blood I will not pour out
    or take their names upon my lips.

The Lord is my chosen portion and my cup;
    you hold my lot.
The boundary lines have fallen for me in pleasant places;
    I have a goodly heritage.

I bless the Lord who gives me counsel;
    in the night also my heart instructs me.
I keep the Lord always before me;
    because he is at my right hand, I shall not be moved.

Therefore my heart is glad, and my soul rejoices;
    my body also rests secure.
10 For you do not give me up to Sheol,
    or let your faithful one see the Pit.

11 You show me the path of life.
    In your presence there is fullness of joy;
    in your right hand are pleasures forevermore.

Today as in ancient times, we have to choose from among a pantheon of deities who demand our devotion. For many it is wealth, security, sex, or power. To the degree that these are the focus of investment, obsession, obedience and sacrifice, they serve to inspire our dreams and attract our worship. In other words, they are our gods.

What difference is there, really, between Baal, the fertility and harvest god in biblical times whose cult frequently competed with that of Yahweh of Israel, and Money, the god of prosperity and affluence in our day? The cult of Money – along with its attending saints Profit, Greed, and Conspicuous Consumption – drives social progress, big business, technical innovation, scientific research, class mobility, personal happiness, and even religion.

The poet believes that his deity, the Lord (Yahweh), is superior to the gods and goddesses of neighboring nations. While they might ensure a bountiful harvest or victory in war, his god provides something much more personal and, we should say, inwardly personal: inner peace, spiritual guidance, and fullness of joy. In other words, God isn’t merely an agency behind something that humans want or need, but the real presence and gracious mystery at the heart of life itself.

Interestingly in other parts of the ancient world as well, a searching intelligence was opening to the depths of existence. The Upanishads in India and Philosophy in Greece were simultaneously directing their meditations underneath and behind the phenomenal realm of everyday distractions. What were they looking for? In a word, reality.

We use this word glibly these days, but what is reality? Very literally, it’s the realness of something, its res or present being. Reality isn’t something else, on the other side of the world we sense and know. Rather it’s the depths of being itself, the really real, the real presence of mystery deep within all things. As the psalmist understood, this also means deep within ourselves.

As a causal agency behind the things that make the world go round, a god is nothing more than a personification of something we need but can’t explain. With this mystical (inward) turn, devotional focus was effectively detached from the conventional representation of this or that deity and plunged into the depths of a contemplative experience where God is present.

Not a personality but a present mystery. Not an agency behind things, but divine reality – not just a being but the very ground of being itself. God is not here to serve your needs. And – if you’re ready to hear this – God does not need your worship or devotion.

God is the heart of reality, the really real, even now rising from your depths with the invitation to an authentic and fully awakened life.

ACTS 2:14a, 22-32

14 But Peter, standing with the eleven, raised his voice and addressed them, “Men of Judea and all who live in Jerusalem, let this be known to you, and listen to what I say.

22 “You that are Israelites, listen to what I have to say: Jesus of Nazareth, a man attested to you by God with deeds of power, wonders, and signs that God did through him among you, as you yourselves know— 23 this man, handed over to you according to the definite plan and foreknowledge of God, you crucified and killed by the hands of those outside the law. 24 But God raised him up, having freed him from death, because it was impossible for him to be held in its power. 25 For David says concerning him,

‘I saw the Lord always before me,
    for he is at my right hand so that I will not be shaken;
26 therefore my heart was glad, and my tongue rejoiced;
    moreover my flesh will live in hope.
27 For you will not abandon my soul to Hades,
    or let your Holy One experience corruption.
28 You have made known to me the ways of life;
    you will make me full of gladness with your presence.’

29 “Fellow Israelites, I may say to you confidently of our ancestor David that he both died and was buried, and his tomb is with us to this day. 30 Since he was a prophet, he knew that God had sworn with an oath to him that he would put one of his descendants on his throne. 31 Foreseeing this, David spoke of the resurrection of the Messiah, saying,

‘He was not abandoned to Hades,
    nor did his flesh experience corruption.’

32 This Jesus God raised up, and of that all of us are witnesses.

“David … both died and was buried, and his tomb is with us to this day.” Jesus, on the other hand, was “raised up” by God and is alive now. Should we imagine a ‘CSI Jerusalem’ team going out in search of proof either way?

It is obvious that empty tombs are not really proof of anything – except maybe emptiness. Christianity – as distinct but not separate from the kingdom movement centered around the life and teachings of Jesus – did not explode on the scene because some of his early followers found his tomb empty.

His body could have been misplaced or stolen. Or, going on the theory that the garden tomb tradition was a fictional embellishment on a biblical text taken as prophecy, it might have been thrown into a shallow grave and later scavenged by vultures and wild dogs.

It appears that this claim of resurrection grew harder and harder to defend as a factual statement about a once-dead body and a now-empty tomb. By increasingly desperate measures, the evolving stories started to include white-robed men, an Easter earthquake, a descending angel rolling away the stone, and then various encounters with Jesus and his personal appearances at larger gatherings of believers.

The apostle Paul would later testify on behalf of his own one-on-one with the risen Christ – which really makes it the first claim to a live encounter, since Paul wrote about his experience almost 20 years prior to our earliest Gospel account (Mark). In fact, Paul may have been the first to employ this metaphor of resurrection, perhaps as a way of making a connection between his transforming experience on the way to Damascus and the founder of the messianic movement he was working hard to extinguish. The very one he was persecuting suddenly spoke or appeared to him with forgiveness and a missionary calling.

We are obviously chasing down a rabbit here, but let’s go one step farther.

What if all the later stories of post-resurrection appearances and encounters, earthquakes, angels and the empty tomb itself were narrative representations of an essentially mystical experience of death-and-rebirth, of “dying” (letting go and falling) into grace and “coming to life” in freedom, joy, and gratitude? This experience in itself is profoundly interior and beyond words, yet everything changes as a result.

In one of his authenticated early letters, Paul professes: “I have been crucified with Christ. Now I [ego] no longer live, but Christ lives in me” (Galatians 2:20). For Paul, the resurrection wasn’t something that happened to Jesus. It really has nothing to do with an empty tomb somewhere, and it wouldn’t be nullified with the chance discovery of Jesus’ remains.

As you identify with Jesus – that is to say, you understand and inwardly accept the gift of unconditional love and forgiveness that came through him – you cannot help but drop your agenda, surrender your will, and live fearlessly in the moment.

Resurrection is an experience; the myth is commentary. Here, once again, we have the dichotomy of mysticism and orthodoxy that is a paradox inherent in every living religion.

Whether it’s true or not is up to you.

LUKE 24:13-49

13 Now on that same day two of them were going to a village called Emmaus, about seven miles from Jerusalem, 14 and talking with each other about all these things that had happened. 15 While they were talking and discussing, Jesus himself came near and went with them, 16 but their eyes were kept from recognizing him. 17 And he said to them, “What are you discussing with each other while you walk along?” They stood still, looking sad.18 Then one of them, whose name was Cleopas, answered him, “Are you the only stranger in Jerusalem who does not know the things that have taken place there in these days?” 19 He asked them, “What things?” They replied, “The things about Jesus of Nazareth, who was a prophet mighty in deed and word before God and all the people, 20 and how our chief priests and leaders handed him over to be condemned to death and crucified him. 21 But we had hoped that he was the one to redeem Israel. Yes, and besides all this, it is now the third day since these things took place. 22 Moreover, some women of our group astounded us. They were at the tomb early this morning, 23 and when they did not find his body there, they came back and told us that they had indeed seen a vision of angels who said that he was alive. 24 Some of those who were with us went to the tomb and found it just as the women had said; but they did not see him.” 25 Then he said to them, “Oh, how foolish you are, and how slow of heart to believe all that the prophets have declared! 26 Was it not necessary that the Messiah should suffer these things and then enter into his glory?” 27 Then beginning with Moses and all the prophets, he interpreted to them the things about himself in all the scriptures.

28 As they came near the village to which they were going, he walked ahead as if he were going on. 29 But they urged him strongly, saying, “Stay with us, because it is almost evening and the day is now nearly over.” So he went in to stay with them. 30 When he was at the table with them, he took bread, blessed and broke it, and gave it to them. 31 Then their eyes were opened, and they recognized him; and he vanished from their sight. 32 They said to each other, “Were not our hearts burning within us while he was talking to us on the road, while he was opening the scriptures to us?” 33 That same hour they got up and returned to Jerusalem; and they found the eleven and their companions gathered together.34 They were saying, “The Lord has risen indeed, and he has appeared to Simon!” 35 Then they told what had happened on the road, and how he had been made known to them in the breaking of the bread.

36 While they were talking about this, Jesus himself stood among them and said to them, “Peace be with you.” 37 They were startled and terrified, and thought that they were seeing a ghost. 38 He said to them, “Why are you frightened, and why do doubts arise in your hearts? 39 Look at my hands and my feet; see that it is I myself. Touch me and see; for a ghost does not have flesh and bones as you see that I have.” 40 And when he had said this, he showed them his hands and his feet. 41 While in their joy they were disbelieving and still wondering, he said to them, “Have you anything here to eat?” 42 They gave him a piece of broiled fish, 43 and he took it and ate in their presence.

44 Then he said to them, “These are my words that I spoke to you while I was still with you—that everything written about me in the law of Moses, the prophets, and the psalms must be fulfilled.” 45 Then he opened their minds to understand the scriptures, 46 and he said to them, “Thus it is written, that the Messiah is to suffer and to rise from the dead on the third day, 47 and that repentance and forgiveness of sins is to be proclaimed in his name to all nations, beginning from Jerusalem. 48 You are witnesses of these things. 49 And see, I am sending upon you what my Father promised; so stay here in the city until you have been clothed with power from on high.”

“On that same day …”  Which day was it again? As Luke sets his story, it is the day of resurrection. Or more accurately, it’s later in the day, on the early morning of which a few women reported an encounter with angels who told them that Jesus, whose body they had come to embalm, was not dead but alive. Up to this point, according to Luke, no one has seen the risen Jesus.

It is interesting to consider Luke’s story in the historical and evolutionary sequence of New Testament Gospels. The most authentic version of Mark, written earliest, leaves the reader at an empty tomb, with the disciples of Jesus bewildered and afraid. Matthew, coming next in the sequence, gives us an earthquake and a descending angel who rolls the stone away from Jesus’ grave. In their hurry to give report to the other disciples, the women encounter Jesus himself. Then we have Luke, likely composed shortly after Matthew. Following this, the Gospel of John will feature the personal meeting of the risen Jesus and Mary Magdalene, right there as she weeps near the garden tomb.

Luke’s story, in other words, stands between Matthew’s dramatic special effects and John’s intimate encounter with Mary, who by this time has taken on significance as the very embodiment of human liberation by the power of Jesus and his gospel. (According to reports, Jesus had thrown no fewer than seven demons out of Mary, which must mean at the very least that prior to knowing Jesus her life had not been her own. Jesus, as it were, gave Mary back to herself.)

Even if the writer of John was unfamiliar with Luke’s account (which seems to have been the case), the progression across the sequence of Gospels is suggestive of an evolving realization through the ensuing decades following Jesus’ death. From an empty tomb (Mark) to the very moment of resurrection (Matthew), and from there to a walking conversation leading to a dawning awareness as the “stranger” breaks bread (Luke), and finally to a deeply personal encounter between a disciple who had been set free by the love and truth of Jesus (John).

If you put these different frames side-by-side and then play the video, you have a progression from shock to insight, from something that seems to have happened to Jesus, to The Something that was grasped as having happened through him for our sake.

This gradual (as Luke sees it) or sudden (according to John) in-breaking realization, that neither death nor the fear of death, neither orthodoxy nor empire, can hold back the revolutionary power of love, is the real meaning of Easter.

 

Believe

Posted: March 24, 2014 in ContraVerse
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Believe

1 CORINTHIANS 5:6b-8

Do you not know that a little yeast leavens the whole batch of dough? 7 Clean out the old yeast so that you may be a new batch, as you really are unleavened. For our paschal lamb, Christ, has been sacrificed. 8 Therefore, let us celebrate the festival, not with the old yeast, the yeast of malice and evil, but with the unleavened bread of sincerity and truth.

The Christian congregation in the Greek city of Corinth was a church-start that Paul struggled to keep together. This was the group that fell into tribal factions, with some claiming the authority of Paul, others Apollos, others Cephas (Peter), and still others Christ.

Each faction defined Christian identity in elitist terms. As Paul was the missionary, the subgroup that identified with him could be called in today’s terms “evangelicals.” Apollos was a respected Bible scholar and teacher, and so his faction were the “intellectuals.” The reputation around Peter had to do with institutional leadership, which made his supporters the “traditionalists.” Finally, the Christ party were most likely those who identified themselves – and by extension the true believer – with various ecstatic expressions of spirituality, making them the “charismatics.”

As church planter and manager of the Corinthian experiment, Paul put a good deal of energy into the effort of maintaining unity in this bunch.

If that wasn’t enough, they also tended to let their sacred meals (Communion) degenerate into drinking parties, which only made the conditions more favorable for the loosening of their already liberal sexual ethics as sophisticated Greeks. One guy, for instance, was in a relationship with his step-mother while everyone else simply looked on.

This matter of sexuality was a bugaboo for Paul, and some scholars speculate that he may have had hang-ups of his own, perhaps as a closet homosexual or a less restrained misogynist. The fact of the matter was that Greek were more liberal than the folks back in the holy land – much more liberal when it came to matters of sexual orientation, gender roles, familial obligations, and marital fidelity.

                                                                                            

Hopefully this is sufficient information to put some context around the above passage. The specific concern of Paul’s has to do with the lackadaisical attitude among the Corinthian Christians over a case of reported “sexual immorality” – that this man was “living with” his father’s wife. He regarded this as a pinch of bad yeast that could spoil the entire recipe.

Without getting involved in a discussion of the divergences between Hellenic (Greek) and Hebraic (Jewish) morality, the point can be made that every society requires a set of moral guidelines to define the roles and rules of acceptable behavior. We can’t ignore the fact that Christianity began as a moral revolution in Judaism, inspired by the life and teachings of Jesus (a Jew).

Despite his radical message of unconditional forgiveness and loving one’s enemy, most of the moral regulations in family management and daily life remained unchallenged and unchanged. Jewish family relations were much more conservative and patriarchal, carefully defining the lines of submission and respect between husbands and wives, parents and children, and across the birth order among male and female siblings.

Whether or not a man living with his father’s wife was considered wrong in the larger (Greek) society of Corinth, the fact that the Christian movement was still Jewish in its basic moral values put this man’s behavior under judgment.

Was it wrong in some universal sense? Maybe not, but that wasn’t really the point. The ethical vision of Judaism, centered on the providence of God, his covenant with the Jewish people, and his redemptive purpose through them for the rest of the world – in which Paul understood his calling as “apostle to the Gentiles” – rested (or fell apart) on the day-to-day integrity of the family.

We may not agree with Paul’s tactic for dealing with this problem, which was to have the “wicked person” (verse 13) thrown out of the community. Nevertheless his deep concern over the issue is understandable given the context, along with the fact that Christianity was still a messianic sect within Judaism and not a separate “religion” at the time of his writing.

Paul was worried that compromises in the basic unit of family relations would cause everything else around and higher up to lose its moral tether. Condoning this individual case was de facto weakening the moral foundations of the community and larger culture.

If we’re going to change things, then let’s proceed in a way that honors life, protects human dignity, safeguards the family, and supports the greater welfare of all.

This might have been some of what was going on in Paul’s mind.

PSALM 114

1 When Israel went out from Egypt,
    the house of Jacob from a people of strange language,
2 Judah became God’s sanctuary,
    Israel his dominion.

3 The sea looked and fled;
    Jordan turned back.
4 The mountains skipped like rams,
    the hills like lambs.

5 Why is it, O sea, that you flee?
    O Jordan, that you turn back?
6 O mountains, that you skip like rams?
    O hills, like lambs?

7 Tremble, O earth, at the presence of the Lord,
    at the presence of the God of Jacob,
8 who turns the rock into a pool of water,
    the flint into a spring of water.

Parting the Red Sea and Jordan River are mythological references to the story of when the Hebrews were delivered from Egypt and later given possession of the Promised Land. These images resonate with our universal human condition, delivered as we are in our birth, wandering through the wilderness of this world, and hoping for passage to a better place on the other side – either the other side of what we are currently up against, or on the other side of the Dark Gate.

The mountains skipping like rams and the hills like lambs are obvious metaphors (technically similes). Water from rock is another link into the national myth of the Hebrews, recalling the time when a whack from the staff of Moses brought forth refreshment for the mutinous assembly at Mount Horeb (Exodus 17:1-7).

But let’s not stop there.

“The Lord” is also a metaphorical reference to a supreme power and intention behind all things, personified on the model of a high magistrate or land owner. Is God literally a sovereign ruler sitting on a throne somewhere, or the deed owner of the universe? No, not literally. These titles and associations are being used elliptically, as it were, to speak of something that cannot be directly named or known.

Those who seek after an unmediated experience of the supreme reality are known as mystics, and they are unanimous in cautioning the rest of us against taking our names and concepts of God too seriously. Is the deepest mystery a skipping ram? No, not literally. A sovereign lord? Again, not in the literal sense. What about a being “up there” or “out there” in some straightforward way? Not even that.

Orthodoxy is in perpetual tension with mysticism in every religion. The dogmatists want to define and legislate our representations of God, while the mystics are trying to penetrate past our need for concepts altogether. One defends explanations while the other cultivates an experience. Together they embody the dynamic poles of a creative rhythm: control/release, certainty/openness, verbosity/silence, belief/faith, and meaning/presence.

Dogmatists push religion outward into greater divergence, as all religions differ in the way they make sense of God. Mystics, on the other hand, pull religion inward toward a deeper convergence, where holy books are respectfully set aside and words are finally surrendered to ineffable communion with the divine mystery.

Somewhere in this rhythm the rest of us work out our salvation, on the way from Egypt to the Promised Land.

Nothing Less

Posted: March 19, 2014 in ContraVerse

Nothing Less