Archive for April, 2014

Cascade

Posted: April 30, 2014 in ContraVerse

Cascade

JOHN 17:1-11

After Jesus had spoken these words, he looked up to heaven and said, “Father, the hour has come; glorify your Son so that the Son may glorify you, since you have given him authority over all people, to give eternal life to all whom you have given him. And this is eternal life, that they may know you, the only true God, and Jesus Christ whom you have sent. I glorified you on earth by finishing the work that you gave me to do. So now, Father, glorify me in your own presence with the glory that I had in your presence before the world existed.

“I have made your name known to those whom you gave me from the world. They were yours, and you gave them to me, and they have kept your word. Now they know that everything you have given me is from you; for the words that you gave to me I have given to them, and they have received them and know in truth that I came from you; and they have believed that you sent me. I am asking on their behalf; I am not asking on behalf of the world, but on behalf of those whom you gave me, because they are yours. 10 All mine are yours, and yours are mine; and I have been glorified in them. 11 And now I am no longer in the world, but they are in the world, and I am coming to you. Holy Father, protect them in your name that you have given me, so that they may be one, as we are one.

We know from early Christian history that the emerging religion took root in different geographical locations and among communities very divergent in matters of worldview, morality, and politics. Jerusalem, Antioch, Ephesus and Rome were not only city centers in the spread of Christianity, but to some extent competing voices in the struggle toward orthodoxy.

Scholars believe that the Gospel of John grew out of a Greek-Christian community in the region of Asia Minor, likely centered in the coastal city of Ephesus. In view of his audience, John downplays the identity of Jesus as the Jewish messiah, in favor of the more philosophical and universally appealing title of God’s personified wisdom (the incarnate Word or logos) whose manifested work is the cosmos itself. (As a point of clarification, the author of the fourth Gospel and the Apocalypse of John (Revelation) were not the same person.)

John’s Jesus isn’t driven by the same urgency as the Son of Man of the synoptic Gospels (Mark, Matthew and Luke). Their apocalyptic expectation of a future judgment is entirely displaced by his more vertical (present-time) and mystical orientation. This alternation between end-time anticipation and present-time contemplation has defined Christianity through its adverse and stable periods, down to our day.

But with different traditions competing for the heritage of Jesus’ kingdom movement, the challenge facing the author of this Gospel is to give authority to his (John’s) particular angle. How did he do this? As in the other Gospels (and their background traditions) John scripted the authorization of his own tradition as coming directly out of the mouth of Jesus himself:

Now they know that everything you have given me is from you; for the words that you gave to me I have given to them, and they have received them and know in truth that I came from you; and they have believed that you sent me.

As we overhear Jesus speaking to God, he confirms the orthodoxy of John’s tradition/community over all others. God’s truth was given to Jesus, and Jesus gave it to us. To doubt our word is to deny Jesus, which is tantamount to rejecting God since Jesus came from God.

Once the scriptural canon was closed, Christian orthodoxy would use the same pressure-tactic in its doctrine of biblical inerrancy. Questioning church doctrine is disbelieving the Bible, and since the Bible is the infallible word of God, it’s the same as disobeying God himself – and THAT will get you in a lot of trouble!

1 PETER 4:12-14; 5:6-11

12 Beloved, do not be surprised at the fiery ordeal that is taking place among you to test you, as though something strange were happening to you. 13 But rejoice insofar as you are sharing Christ’s sufferings, so that you may also be glad and shout for joy when his glory is revealed. 14 If you are reviled for the name of Christ, you are blessed, because the spirit of glory, which is the Spirit of God, is resting on you.

Humble yourselves therefore under the mighty hand of God, so that he may exalt you in due time. Cast all your anxiety on him, because he cares for you. Discipline yourselves, keep alert. Like a roaring lion your adversary the devil prowls around, looking for someone to devour. Resist him, steadfast in your faith, for you know that your brothers and sisters in all the world are undergoing the same kinds of suffering. 10 And after you have suffered for a little while, the God of all grace, who has called you to his eternal glory in Christ, will himself restore, support, strengthen, and establish you. 11 To him be the power forever and ever. Amen.

Theism is generally the belief in a god (or gods) who exists in some higher (supernatural) or hidden (metaphysical) location, supervising human affairs. A god may be more or less directly involved with these humans (commonly called believers or devotees). There is typically a reciprocal relationship between believers and their god, where worship, offerings, and obedience are directed toward the deity in exchange for protection, blessing, and perhaps beatitude in the next life.

Early polytheism entertained a variety of deities – and devils, who were mischievous or malevolent deities – representing the forces of nature and concerns of cultural life. When the Mosaic revolution in Judaism rejected the existence of any god but Yahweh, something had to be done with them besides simply dismissing them out of hand, along with their diabolical counterparts.

One solution was to preserve the existence of these other deities and devils, but demote them to subordinate status as angels and demons. A variant of this was employed later, in the idea of a divine council assisting Yahweh in his administrative duties. As a member of this heavenly committee, Satan was depicted as “the adversary” who tested the faith and loyalty of Yahweh’s human subjects (as in the literary example of Job).

At about this same time (sixth century BCE), a prophet known as the Second Isaiah suggested the more radical idea that Yahweh is the only one behind the “weal and woe” that humans experience. For this writer, having one supreme cause behind everything that happens was a way of giving meaning to the universe and all possible events. This was his way of answering the national tragedy of exile by the Babylonians (587-538 BCE).

Eventually, however, the generally accepted solution to the problem of good and evil was a dualistic one. God was put in charge of the good (blessing, prosperity, salvation) and Satan was moved out of the heavenly boardroom and into his own nether region, where he orchestrates the cause of evil (iniquity, calamity, and damnation).  As a messianic movement within Judaism in the first century, Christianity carried forward this dualism, joining it to an apocalyptic expectation of a fast-approaching end of the world.

Wherever we may stand on the issue – one god with several angelic and demonic ministers, a single supreme will behind everything, or a polarity of agencies in the war of good and evil – the key to remember is that all solutions are efforts to make meaning of what human beings sense, suffer, care about and hope for. Truth is not really a question of accuracy, but therapy in helping people work through the challenges and opportunities of life.

PSALM 68:1-10,

Let God rise up, let his enemies be scattered;
    let those who hate him flee before him.
As smoke is driven away, so drive them away;
    as wax melts before the fire,
    let the wicked perish before God.
But let the righteous be joyful;
    let them exult before God;
    let them be jubilant with joy.

Sing to God, sing praises to his name;
    lift up a song to him who rides upon the clouds—
his name is the Lord
    be exultant before him.

Father of orphans and protector of widows
    is God in his holy habitation.
God gives the desolate a home to live in;
    he leads out the prisoners to prosperity,
    but the rebellious live in a parched land.

O God, when you went out before your people,
    when you marched through the wilderness,
the earth quaked, the heavens poured down rain
    at the presence of God, the God of Sinai,
    at the presence of God, the God of Israel.
Rain in abundance, O God, you showered abroad;
    you restored your heritage when it languished;
10 your flock found a dwelling in it;
    in your goodness, O God, you provided for the needy.

32 Sing to God, O kingdoms of the earth;
    sing praises to the Lord,
33 O rider in the heavens, the ancient heavens;
    listen, he sends out his voice, his mighty voice.
34 Ascribe power to God,
    whose majesty is over Israel;
    and whose power is in the skies.
35 Awesome is God in his sanctuary,
    the God of Israel;
    he gives power and strength to his people.

Blessed be God!

If you were to spread the writings of the Bible along a line according to the chronological sequence in which they were likely produced, you would come to see how the concept and representation of God evolved through the centuries. A strict biblical literalism would then be forced to conclude that God has changed over time, which obviously conflicts with the Bible’s own claim that with God there is “no variation or shadow due to change” (James 1:17).

A better explanation is that something has indeed changed (or evolved); however it’s not the reality of God but the mythological imagination of humans contemplating that reality. As human beings have evolved – from hominids to homo sapiens, and through the numerous stages of cultural development – the notion of a hidden agency and supreme intelligence behind things has steadily advanced. What becomes evident to us, then, is the fascinating way in which a regional population of human beings became increasingly rational, ethical, and inclusive in their orientation and behavior.

Before we file our exceptions to this statement, let’s quickly review how the Bible’s representation of God progressed over time. In the earliest traditions, god* is the jealous warrior deity of nomadic tribes that originally settled the region of Sinai. Yahweh’s idol may have been a war box that announced his arrival to towns and villages under invasion. At this stage, god’s love was a subordinate quality to his aggression, violence, and conquest.

A while later we find Yahweh inviting select individuals and their families into a formal ritual of agreement called a covenant. By obeying his will and worshiping no other god but him, the people are given assurance of Yahweh’s protection, blessing, and future prosperity. This use of the covenant metaphor is a strong indication that humans were progressing into a more stable, rational, and cooperative way of life. God’s love is coming more to the forefront of his personality, as one who cares for his people.

                                                                                                      

In the time of the prophets, the complexities of urban life advanced new concerns for marginalized members (orphans, widows, and other poor). Even outsiders coming to the gates as strangers were to be looked after and offered hospitality. In the prophetic consciousness, this ethical concern of god’s for those who suffer forced frequent confrontations with kings and political administrations that oppressed or neglected them. The love of god was opening out into a wide compassion, not only for insiders but outsiders as well.

Finally, with Jesus – who stood in the tradition of the prophets but took their challenge to another level – we hear that god’s love extends all the way to his “enemies.” These may be outsiders or insiders; their defining characteristic is an utter disregard for god’s will, even an outright antagonism to his way. In short, they are “sinners.” Jesus declared that all sinners are forgiven, that humanity’s debt to god has been released. His message of unconditional forgiveness was so revolutionary in its implications and so radical in its reach, that Christianity itself was unable (or unwilling) to carry it forward for long.

In all these various evolutionary frames, the representation of God is just out in front of human development. The depiction of god’s love in art, story and theology is an idealized projection at first, praised and glorified as an exceptional virtue of the deity. And because worship of god is also the aspiration of devotees to be like god – to love as god loves – this virtue is increasingly activated and gradually takes its place in the human moral repertoire.

*In order to distinguish a representation of God from the reality of God, we use the convention of a lowercase ‘g’ when speaking of the concept of God in art, story and theology. The reality of God is a mystery beyond words.

Fool’s Dream

Posted: April 25, 2014 in ContraVerse

Fools Dream

LUKE 24:44-53

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.”

50 Then he led them out as far as Bethany, and, lifting up his hands, he blessed them.51 While he was blessing them, he withdrew from them and was carried up into heaven.52 And they worshiped him, and returned to Jerusalem with great joy; 53 and they were continually in the temple blessing God.

The transition from the kingdom movement of Jesus to the religion of Christianity required some major shifts in accent.

  • From Jesus as messenger, spiritual travel guide and teacher, to Christ as the object of stationary worship.
  • From an accent on faith as full release to the present power of God, to beliefs as truth-statements necessary for salvation.
  • From promoting human liberation above every system, to a system of control ordained by god.
  • From an ethic of love and full inclusion, to a morality of judgment and separation.
  • From a revolution in human consciousness, to an institution of traditions and regulations.

The list could go on, but the point is made. Jesus’ gospel (good news) was simple and straightforward: You are already forgiven, and now the liberated life waits on you to let go of your neighbor’s guilt. Repentance for Jesus was not about confessing your sins, crawling shamefully back to God, and satisfying the conditions against his love and acceptance. God has no interest in punishing you, but only to be reconciled again. To that end, he has dropped the charges and is inviting you back. Repentance is the “turn-around” of surprise, joy, gratitude and love.

For obvious reasons, this is something that cannot be regulated. If the debt has been forgiven, the guilt released, and the past left in the past, then whatever leverage we might have had on each other is gone as well. How can we continue to segregate the sinners from the saints, if God’s preference for one over the other is no longer in play? What’s to become of the mechanism of retribution (payback) that informs so much of religion? How can we motivate contrition and obedience in new believers if the “wild card” of hell is off the table?

Early Christian mythographers rose to the challenge by reconstructing the backstory of salvation. Soon biographies of Jesus were showing up everywhere – not only our four canonical Gospels, but accounts that fit Jesus into a messianic, apocalyptic, gnostic, monastic, or charismatic framework of values and beliefs. He was made to say things and do things that “fulfilled” prophetic texts or popular expectations. The “thus it is written” in the above passage was put in the mouth of Jesus himself so as to remove any question of its authority.

Eventually (and it didn’t take long) his death was interpreted as the turning-point in human salvation, where the penalty for sin was paid and God’s need for vengeance satisfied. Or maybe God’s love was behind it, as the Gospel of John claims (Jn 3:16), though the prospect of perishing for doubt or disbelief still keeps control comfortably in the hands of church managers.

The purpose here is not to bash Christianity, but rather to suggest where it got off the path of the original Jesus – and why. Nothing is served by the exposé if the only reasonable outcome is total abandonment. The First Voice of Jesus is down there – somewhere. We need to dig beneath the accretions of church doctrine and sweep aside the corruptions of inferior motives, in order to hear again the good news.

 

EPHESIANS 1:15-23

15 I have heard of your faith in the Lord Jesus and your love toward all the saints, and for this reason 16 I do not cease to give thanks for you as I remember you in my prayers. 17 I pray that the God of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of glory, may give you a spirit of wisdom and revelation as you come to know him, 18 so that, with the eyes of your heart enlightened, you may know what is the hope to which he has called you, what are the riches of his glorious inheritance among the saints, 19 and what is the immeasurable greatness of his power for us who believe, according to the working of his great power. 20 God put this power to work in Christ when he raised him from the dead and seated him at his right hand in the heavenly places, 21 far above all rule and authority and power and dominion, and above every name that is named, not only in this age but also in the age to come. 22 And he has put all things under his feet and has made him the head over all things for the church, 23 which is his body, the fullness of him who fills all in all.

To say that “God put this power to work in Christ when he raised him from the dead” (and so forth) might lead us to think that the resurrection was the decisive moment when Jesus became Lord and Son of God. Christian orthodoxy insists that he was Son of God since before the beginning, tending to blur even this distinction in its doctrine of Jesus as God. But this wasn’t Paul’s view. Jesus – Christ, Lord, and Savior to use some of Paul’s favorite designations – was not himself God, but rather was “declared” Son of God by the power of his resurrection (see Romans 1:4).

For Paul, everything changed at the resurrection – which wasn’t a mere miracle, but the transforming moment when Jesus was set free, raised up, and granted authority over the nations. Whereas the cross had been the world’s “No” to Jesus, the resurrection was God’s “Yes.” By declaring (which is more than just making an announcement, but making it so) Jesus his Son, God gave warrant to what Jesus had been all about.

The contrast between the crucifixion and resurrection of Jesus was even more significant to Paul, however, for it wasn’t simply “the world” that rejected Jesus, but the Law that had put him away. The accusation, rationale, and judgment that had sentenced him to die was based on and justified by the Mosaic Law at the heart of Paul’s own religion. Jesus’ kingdom movement had promoted the values of human dignity, liberty and neighborly love over the authority of Tradition, Temple and Torah (Jewish orthodoxy).

The Law wasn’t against these values, we should be clear. But in defending itself – as orthodoxy and empire are wont to do – it forced the condemnation of Jesus, an innocent and truly righteous man of God. For that reason, the merit system of purity and obedience informed by and organized around the Law was nullified, undermined and rendered invalid by its own self-contradiction.

                                                                                                     

It doesn’t appear that Paul was personally familiar with the early history of Jesus and his kingdom movement. Nowhere in his letters does he refer to Jesus’ teachings or notorious way of life. He started out as a “bounty hunter” for Christians, taking them into custody for prosecution. As a Pharisee, Paul (as Saul) was deeply devoted to his religion and upholding its Law. The followers of Jesus broke the Law, or at least didn’t observe it to the extent Paul knew they should, and so they needed to be brought to justice – just as Jesus himself had been.

Tradition has it that the young Pharisee was looking after the cloaks of those who started stoning a Jesus follower named Stephen. As he looked on (with approval, we presume), Paul heard Stephen call to God in his last breath, to forgive those who were taking his life. It may well be that this (admittedly reconstructed) encounter with the kingdom movement in the martyrdom of Stephen impressed Paul in a way he wasn’t yet ready to acknowledge or fully understand. But the seed of revolution was sown.

On his way to find more Christians, the inner tension caused by the polarity of his fanatical devotion to God’s Law and the unconditional forgiveness of Stephen finally “broke” (resolved itself) in the realization that the spirit of Jesus was still alive and active, even after his crucifixion. Although Paul recounts this experience as more like a mystical illumination than a supernatural encounter, the distillation of its significance was symbolized as resurrection.

Perhaps we can state Paul’s transforming experience as simply as this: in a moment that would become the turning-point of his life, Paul understood that God’s love is freely given (grace) and unconditional (forgiveness) – not in some abstract sense, but personally, for him (Paul), the one who had been fighting against this love with all his religious conviction.

Resurrection, then, marked the threshold into a new age. The cross had canceled out the validity of the Law as a way of salvation; now grace, and the trusting response of full acceptance called faith, is the path for everyone – Jews and Gentiles, male and female, saints and sinners alike.

The resurrection is not some miraculous event locked in the past, and it’s not merely something that happened to Jesus. Rather it is that decisive and life-changing moment when a person fully accepts his or her acceptance by God. Love wins.

PSALM 47

Clap your hands, all you peoples;
    shout to God with loud songs of joy.
For the Lord, the Most High, is awesome,
    a great king over all the earth.
He subdued peoples under us,
    and nations under our feet.
He chose our heritage for us,
    the pride of Jacob whom he loves.Selah

God has gone up with a shout,
    the Lord with the sound of a trumpet.
Sing praises to God, sing praises;
    sing praises to our King, sing praises.
For God is the king of all the earth;
    sing praises with a psalm.

God is king over the nations;
    God sits on his holy throne.
The princes of the peoples gather
    as the people of the God of Abraham.
For the shields of the earth belong to God;
    he is highly exalted.

It is a real effort for native citizens of a liberal democracy to relate to metaphors of God oriented on monarchy. Kings, thrones, and shields, trumpet processions and coronation events – these don’t ring rich with meaning as they must have once upon a time. Indeed, “once upon a time” in storybooks and Hollywood movies is about the only places we encounter this way of organizing life in the world.

It’s not that the words don’t make sense, mind you, but that their meaning isn’t very relevant to our daily experience. For many of us, kings and queens are odd anachronisms and exotic (maybe less advanced) symbols of government from another time and place.

Where we live, the aggregate effect of individual wills participating in dialogue and voting their preferences is how politics is done. In fact, breaking free from the tyranny of monarchical dynasties and taking a risk on the sovereign will of individuals electing their own leaders is how “the West was won,” as they say.

So isn’t it strange how we have struggled, sacrificed, and built our way of life on the rights and responsibilities of liberal democracy, and yet in our religion – particularly in our church sanctuaries on Sunday morning – we glorify God as a king on his throne, ruling over the nations? We fight for our freedom across the seas and defend our rights to property and protection against “big government” (the republican equivalent of the royal despot), while our mythology, theology, hymnody and worship exhort us to obeisance, submission, and obedience!

But what choice do we have? It’s there in the Bible, and the Bible is our ultimate authority on God-talk. Right?

However unacceptable it may sound at first, it is possible to see the Bible as both a timeless revelation and a very time-bound expression of the human quest for security, meaning, and destiny. It is timeless in the way it might bring us close to (but without containing!) the divine mystery, and it is time-bound because its metaphors, stories, and teachings were produced out of specific historical contexts.

It just so happened that the artistic and literary production of certain periods in the past was preserved, collected, and later canonized as sacred scripture. As subsequent generations progressively lost confidence in their own ability to seek and know God for themselves, they relied increasingly on these earlier efforts and agreements. We may be encouraged to pursue and cultivate our own experience of the divine mystery, but then we are expected to talk about it using a vocabulary more than two thousand years old!

Does God have to be a king sitting on his throne up there in heaven? Does God have to rule over the nations, or sponsor our nation over others? Does God have to be a male authority, a lord of all? Does God have to be personified at all?

How can we, today, express the present mystery of God in a meaningful and relevant way?

ACTS 1:1-11

In the first book, Theophilus, I wrote about all that Jesus did and taught from the beginning until the day when he was taken up to heaven, after giving instructions through the Holy Spirit to the apostles whom he had chosen. After his suffering he presented himself alive to them by many convincing proofs, appearing to them during forty days and speaking about the kingdom of God. While staying with them, he ordered them not to leave Jerusalem, but to wait there for the promise of the Father. “This,” he said, “is what you have heard from me; for John baptized with water, but you will be baptized with the Holy Spirit not many days from now.”

So when they had come together, they asked him, “Lord, is this the time when you will restore the kingdom to Israel?” He replied, “It is not for you to know the times or periods that the Father has set by his own authority. But you will receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you; and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.” When he had said this, as they were watching, he was lifted up, and a cloud took him out of their sight. 10 While he was going and they were gazing up toward heaven, suddenly two men in white robes stood by them. 11 They said, “Men of Galilee, why do you stand looking up toward heaven? This Jesus, who has been taken up from you into heaven, will come in the same way as you saw him go into heaven.”

The author of the Acts of the Apostles (or Acts) is the same person who wrote the Gospel according to Luke, comprising a two-volume account of the Christian movement. Tradition attributes authorship to an attending physician who traveled briefly with the apostle Paul (which might explain the “we” references in Acts). Whoever he was, the author was Christianity’s first “court mythographer” – the one who composes the empire’s official history.

Because of his reported association with Paul, who was the Church’s key strategist for outreach and expansion, Luke’s story of Jesus and his movement were likely influenced by the apostle himself – even heavily influenced. Nevertheless it is important to keep in mind that Luke was written at least thirty years after Paul, which leaves a lot of time for sifting, spinning, and further development.

Luke is to be thanked for the dramatic plot design that introduces Jesus through the divine portal of a virgin’s womb, tracks him through the miracles and teachings of his ministry, relates with omniscience his anguished prayer in the Garden and his private audience with Pilate and Herod, bears witness to the quiet conversation between Jesus and the rebels hanging with him, observes the risen Jesus on Sunday and eavesdrops on two disciples on their way to Emmaus …

And finally this: Jesus rising vertically into the air and disappearing on a magic carpet of clouds. “What are you looking for?” ask two angels suddenly appearing. “He’ll be coming back, just as you watched him leave.”

There you have it – the Great Story we all know and love.

                                                                                                

We are fairly certain that Luke was written not long after Matthew. Both of them used the plot of Mark’s Gospel (up to the empty tomb) and laced it with teaching material likely taken from a hypothetical source named “Q” for Quelle (meaning “source”). For this reason, the three Gospels of Mark (70 CE), Matthew (80 CE) and Luke (90 CE) are called the Synoptic Gospels, since they share (or “see”) so much in common.

A close comparison of Luke to Matthew strongly suggests that our author had Matthew’s account in front of him as he wrote. Having a better grasp of Hebrew (or maybe he was just more educated), Luke corrects some mistranslations in Matthew that almost border on the ridiculous.

For instance, where Mark’s original introduces us to a blind beggar by the name of “Bartimaeus, son of Timaeus,” Matthew, not realizing that “Bartimaeus” translates as “son of Timaeus” in Hebrew, turns Mark’s single beggar into two blind men. Luke later caught the error and restored the original in his retelling.

And again, when Jesus is preparing to enter Jerusalem during the Feast of Tabernacles, Mark tells us that he rode in on a colt to the cheers of his fans. As Matthew picks up the story, he finds an Old Testament passage (Zechariah 9:9) to use as prophecy of the event:

Rejoice greatly, O daughter Zion!
    Shout aloud, O daughter Jerusalem!
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.

Matthew misreads (or inserts) an “and” before the reference to a colt, now making it necessary for Jesus to ride on two animals at once! Luke corrects the problem and reverts the story from a veritable circus act to a paradoxical victory parade on the back of a donkey.

But this might be the most fateful change that Luke made to Matthew’s text. At the end of Matthew’s Gospel, Jesus is standing on a mountain with his disciples. He confirms his supreme authority and then commissions his followers to spread the word and make more disciples. “And remember,” he says to them, “I am with you always, to the end of the age.”

Close curtain. In other words, Matthew leaves us with the intriguing assurance that Jesus is still somehow present with the disciple community as it carries on in the world.

And what does Luke do? By making Jesus ascend into heaven – presumably so he can come back again – he leaves the disciple community spiritually bereft, as it were. Jesus is not “with you always,” but is rather absent from the scene until his return. Even if Luke fervently believed that the Second Coming was about to happen, this modification of the Christian myth would take Christianity still farther from the original gospel of Jesus – about as far away as one can get!

In transferring Jesus to heaven and later on, Luke thereby initiated the Age of the Church. Now, while Jesus is away and the priests are in charge, you’d better fall in line.

JOHN 14:15-21

15 “If you love me, you will keep my commandments. 16 And I will ask the Father, and he will give you another Advocate, to be with you forever. 17 This is the Spirit of truth, whom the world cannot receive, because it neither sees him nor knows him. You know him, because he abides with you, and he will be in you.

18 “I will not leave you orphaned; I am coming to you. 19 In a little while the world will no longer see me, but you will see me; because I live, you also will live. 20 On that day you will know that I am in my Father, and you in me, and I in you. 21 They who have my commandments and keep them are those who love me; and those who love me will be loved by my Father, and I will love them and reveal myself to them.”
He abides with you, and he will be in you. This simple shift from “with” to “in” marks the transforming moment of what we can call mystical experience. In fact, it’s helpful to put these two positions together with a third for a more complete picture of spiritual awakening and faith development.

So let’s begin with a third position, really first in the sequence, which corresponds to the popular view of God or Spirit as “outside” you – up there in heaven or over there in the temple sanctuary; in short, somewhere else. The category of supernatural intervention is also part of this cluster of ideas, where God is regarded as “over nature,” managing the cosmos and human history from behind the curtain, as it were.

Religion can become completely preoccupied here: coordinating the rituals, defending an orthodoxy, managing a budget, and maintaining its membership roster. In a sense, because God is outside the system, religion takes on the responsibility of carrying on in his absence. It determines who’s in and who’s out, and in many Christian traditions an emphasis on the (future) Second Coming of Jesus serves to reinforce the church’s authority in the meantime. Until the Boss gets back, we’re in charge.

So that’s the position of the divine as “outside.”

At some point faith deepens and God is encountered in a more personal way. The one who, according to the myths, made the world, stepped into history a long time ago, supervises everything from above, and will eventually wrap it all up, is also right here with me. God cares for me and maybe has a plan for my life. God wants me to reach out and get involved, to help my neighbor and do what is right.

True enough, religion can also exploit believers at this level of spirituality. How do you know what God wants? We are called, charged, and ordained to speak God’s Word into your life. You want to cultivate a personal relationship with God? Very well. Here are all the materials to help you do that – sermons, fellowships, lesson plans, retreats, mission trips, daily devotions, etc.

Pretty soon and I’m safely folded into “the program.”

Jesus guided his disciples through this descent of faith, from orthodox doctrines to a more personal quest for God. He talked about God in third person in order to make a connection with their current beliefs. But then he began to translate the divine mystery into second-person references, of you and your neighbor. Yes, God loves the world; but we need to cooperate with God’s love and help it reach those in need.

That’s as far as most religions get, if we’re lucky. As we said, they frequently fall short, getting caught up in the power trip of mind-control, expanding its facilities, and telling people what to do. Even if it does its job well, however, religion can only approach the threshold of the fully awakened spiritual life. There it must wait for the individual to emerge again from communion with God and step back into the practical concerns of daily life.

Jesus invited those who were ready for it, into a position with God where distinctions start to fall away. “The Spirit will be in you.”  Not outside of you or even with you, but deep within – deeper even than your own sense of self, as the very ground of your being. This experience of mystical communion is too deep for words to reach and express.

The thirteenth-century German mystic Eckhart von Hochheim (Meister Eckhart) declared: “The eye through which I see God is the same eye through which God sees me; my eye and God’s eye are one eye, one seeing, one knowing, one love.”