Archive for June, 2014

ISAIAH 49:8-16a

Thus says the Lord:
In a time of favor I have answered you,
    on a day of salvation I have helped you;
I have kept you and given you
    as a covenant to the people,
to establish the land,
    to apportion the desolate heritages;
saying to the prisoners, “Come out,”
    to those who are in darkness, “Show yourselves.”
They shall feed along the ways,
    on all the bare heights shall be their pasture;
10 they shall not hunger or thirst,
    neither scorching wind nor sun shall strike them down,
for he who has pity on them will lead them,
    and by springs of water will guide them.
11 And I will turn all my mountains into a road,
    and my highways shall be raised up.
12 Lo, these shall come from far away,
    and lo, these from the north and from the west,
    and these from the land of Syene.

13 Sing for joy, O heavens, and exult, O earth;
    break forth, O mountains, into singing!
For the Lord has comforted his people,
    and will have compassion on his suffering ones.

14 But Zion said, “The Lord has forsaken me,
    my Lord has forgotten me.”
15 Can a woman forget her nursing child,
    or show no compassion for the child of her womb?
Even these may forget,
    yet I will not forget you.
16 See, I have inscribed you on the palms of my hands;
    your walls are continually before me.

The writer known as Second (Deutero-) Isaiah flourished in ministry during the Babylonian exile (587-538 BCE) and lived among the community of those who had been taken from their homes in Jerusalem. Defeat by the Babylonian army and deportation to a foreign land induced an identity crisis of the first order. When your monotheistic beliefs trace the causality of what befalls you to the will of God, every upset and loss begs the question: Why?

Especially when a respectable reputation and your honest efforts at living right still land you in a dark and painful place, this question of the relation of your suffering to God’s will can cut deep into your faith. There were many contemporaries left behind in Jerusalem (Zion, the mount on which the temple was built had become a synonym for Jerusalem itself) who felt compelled to conclude that God had simply forgotten his covenant with Israel. Divine amnesia was at least more theologically sustainable than the idea that God had deliberately abandoned them.

Away in Babylon, Isaiah was hearing similar cries among the exiles. God had promised a long and prosperous future to his people. What happened? Were they being punished for some unbeknownst sin – perhaps for the sins of their ancestors? This was one answer. But Second Isaiah (along with a fellow exile who adapted the story of Job) insisted on the innocence of his generation, and outright rejected the popular idea that God punishes children for the sins of their parents.

Following an insight that would later have revolutionary implications in the Christian era, Isaiah turned the crisis of exile into redemptive suffering on behalf of the entire nation. His generation, a collective taken as an individual, had served as the ratifying sacrifice of God’s renewed covenant of blessing. Their affliction and loss had opened a new future of hope and salvation for everyone.

JOHN 7:37-39

37 On the last day of the festival, the great day, while Jesus was standing there, he cried out, “Let anyone who is thirsty come to me, 38 and let the one who believes in me drink. As the scripture has said, ‘Out of the believer’s heart shall flow rivers of living water.’” 39 Now he said this about the Spirit, which believers in him were to receive; for as yet there was no Spirit, because Jesus was not yet glorified.

The author of the Fourth Gospel was very careful in setting his portrait of Jesus inside a framework that revealed both his messianic relevance to Judaism and his universal relevance to the human spiritual quest. By reconstructing the “life and message” of Jesus into the Jewish yearly cycle of festivals, the author translates his significance in terms of Deliverance, Covenant, Atonement, and Kingdom of God – the major phases and layers in the identity of his people.

Water is a powerful archetype throughout the Bible – from the primordial waters of chaos, which according to Genesis is the only thing God did not create, and the streams that flowed through the garden of paradise; to the parting sea that made way for the Hebrew fugitives; to the cool refreshment that sprung from a rock in the desert; to the Jordan River that marked their entry into the Promised Land; and on into the numerous uses of water in daily hygiene and ritual purification before meals and sacred ceremonies.

There is every indication that Jesus took inspiration for his kingdom movement from the OT prophets, and his greatest influence was Isaiah. The Bible book by the same name actually spans almost two centuries, with the themes of the eighth-century BCE “First Isaiah” taken up and developed by “Second Isaiah” during the Babylonian Exile (c. 540 BCE), and then further adapted by the so-called “Third Isaiah” after the exiles returned to Jerusalem  (c. 525 BCE). The major lines of concern for all three writers have to do with social justice on behalf of the poor, suffering, and marginalized populations of empire.

In Isaiah 55 (Second Isaiah) we read:

Ho, everyone who thirsts,
    come to the waters;
and you that have no money,
    come, buy and eat!
Come, buy wine and milk
    without money and without price.
Why do you spend your money for that which is not bread,
    and your labor for that which does not satisfy?
Listen carefully to me, and eat what is good,
    and delight yourselves in rich food.
Incline your ear, and come to me;
    listen, so that you may live.

This sounds very much like what the Fourth Gospel has Jesus say as he calls out into the marketplace. As the religious ceremony is wrapping up and people are on their way home, Jesus invites them to an experience that is inwardly deep (the heart-center of faith, longing, and love) in contrast to the public liturgy of the festival.

External religion is not sufficient to satisfy human spiritual need. No matter how interesting or necessary religion can make itself for the individual, however many relevant services it can offer the religious consumer, it cannot save us or make us whole. The difference between (outward) religion and (inward) spirituality is like the difference between using water to wash dirt off your skin and taking a long drink after working hard in the sun.

Someday

Posted: June 13, 2014 in ContraVerse

Someday

1 CORINTHIANS 12:3-17

Therefore I want you to understand that no one speaking by the Spirit of God ever says “Let Jesus be cursed!” and no one can say “Jesus is Lord” except by the Holy Spirit.

Now there are varieties of gifts, but the same Spirit; and there are varieties of services, but the same Lord; and there are varieties of activities, but it is the same God who activates all of them in everyone. To each is given the manifestation of the Spirit for the common good. To one is given through the Spirit the utterance of wisdom, and to another the utterance of knowledge according to the same Spirit, to another faith by the same Spirit, to another gifts of healing by the one Spirit, 10 to another the working of miracles, to another prophecy, to another the discernment of spirits, to another various kinds of tongues, to another the interpretation of tongues. 11 All these are activated by one and the same Spirit, who allots to each one individually just as the Spirit chooses.

12 For just as the body is one and has many members, and all the members of the body, though many, are one body, so it is with Christ. 13 For in the one Spirit we were all baptized into one body—Jews or Greeks, slaves or free—and we were all made to drink of one Spirit.

14 Indeed, the body does not consist of one member but of many. 15 If the foot would say, “Because I am not a hand, I do not belong to the body,” that would not make it any less a part of the body. 16 And if the ear would say, “Because I am not an eye, I do not belong to the body,” that would not make it any less a part of the body. 17 If the whole body were an eye, where would the hearing be? If the whole body were hearing, where would the sense of smell be?

The influence of the Corinthian church plant on the subsequent history of Christianity cannot be overestimated. It was at once a highlight and a profound burden for the apostle Paul – almost from the day he began the mission. Family disputes, immorality, infighting among rival divisions in the congregation, negotiating tension between wealthy and poor, Gentiles and Jews, men and women, slaves and free citizens – the volatility of this group was at times almost more than Paul could manage.

And then this. Perhaps members were so eager to use their talents and resources for the cause of Christian outreach, that in their enthusiasm to plug in and make a difference the congregation began to divide according to the distribution of what Paul would come to call “spiritual gifts.” Whether a natural talent activated by the Spirit of God or more like a special ability endowed on an individual by the Spirit from outside, Paul at least was persuaded that spiritual gifts were how the Church does its work.

                                                                                                            

Whereas a primary role of God’s Spirit was associated with creativity, life, inspiration and wholeness, the upsetting consequence of all these purpose-driven charismatics contending for influence and recognition was the opposite. Elitism was motivating the like-minded and similarly equipped into competitively higher ranks, to the point where the very integrity of the congregation – not to mention the public image of the emerging Christian movement – was in jeopardy.

This is when Paul came to perhaps his most important insight. The Church, he said, is the resurrected body of Christ, the continuing voice and active work of Jesus in the world. Insofar as Christ lives in the individual believer, his or her spiritual gift will necessarily be used for good, be inspired by love, and build up the body rather than tear it apart. Each member has something to contribute, and the outcome will always be unity.

When members begin to grow possessive of their gifts, however, when they start comparing and competing for the stage, this is not of God.

It wasn’t long before the Christian movement fell apart along these dividing lines, of what each faction felt was most important. Today there are hundreds of separate denominations – some based on the gift of teaching, others on the gift of prophecy, others on healing, others on miracles, and still others on ecstatic utterance. Add to this the further disagreements over doctrines, sacraments, purity, and inclusion, and what you have is more like the dismembered cadaver of Christ.

PSALM 104:24-34, 35b

24 Lord, how manifold are your works!
    In wisdom you have made them all;
    the earth is full of your creatures.
25 Yonder is the sea, great and wide,
    creeping things innumerable are there,
    living things both small and great.
26 There go the ships,
    and Leviathan that you formed to sport in it.

27 These all look to you
    to give them their food in due season;
28 when you give to them, they gather it up;
    when you open your hand, they are filled with good things.
29 When you hide your face, they are dismayed;
    when you take away their breath, they die
    and return to their dust.
30 When you send forth your spirit, they are created;
    and you renew the face of the ground.

31 May the glory of the Lord endure forever;
    may the Lord rejoice in his works—
32 who looks on the earth and it trembles,
    who touches the mountains and they smoke.
33 I will sing to the Lord as long as I live;
    I will sing praise to my God while I have being.
34 May my meditation be pleasing to him,
    for I rejoice in the Lord.
35 Bless the Lord, O my soul.
    Praise the Lord!

One of the great themes of Pentecost is represented in the dynamic metaphors of breath and wind – Hebrew ruach, Greek pneuma, Latin spiritus. The thing about this force is that you can’t see it directly, but only its effects. It’s impossible to grab hold of it or pin it down, though you can “catch” the wind to harness its power. Spirit is elusive, unpredictable, and spontaneous. It might even be dangerous, if you don’t know what you’re doing.

Our terms respiration, perspirationinspiration, expiration and aspiration all derive from this root-word spirit. In the ancient world, breath and wind were not understood scientifically as biological and climatic functions, but rather lent themselves intuitively to mythological representation. The wind on the water and in the trees was pictured as the breath of God moving and animating creation. This wind/breath wasn’t a function but a force in its own right, the creative force of God’s will and purpose.

In this passage, the poet contemplates this generative breath of God filling forms with life and returning to him upon their extinction. All of creation, then, moves according to the rhythm of divine respiration. The Genesis myth recounts the beginnings of humanity, when Adam (whose name is derived from earth or ground, adamah) was fashioned by God like a clay figurine and brought to life only when the Creator breathed his own spirit into the human form.

This metaphor of breathing existence into being is much more embodied than some later ideas in religion, which would separate cosmos and God into natural and supernatural realms. The challenge then would be to devise ways of getting the two together again. In the early traditions, on the other hand, the metaphor of creation and extinction as rhythms in the respiration of God acknowledged the organic connection between them.