Archive for July, 2016

Conscience

Posted: July 29, 2016 in ContraVerse

Conscience

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MARK 6:30-34, 53-56

30 The apostles gathered around Jesus, and told him all that they had done and taught. 31 He said to them, “Come away to a deserted place all by yourselves and rest a while.” For many were coming and going, and they had no leisure even to eat. 32 And they went away in the boat to a deserted place by themselves. 33 Now many saw them going and recognized them, and they hurried there on foot from all the towns and arrived ahead of them. 34 As he went ashore, he saw a great crowd; and he had compassion for them, because they were like sheep without a shepherd; and he began to teach them many things.

Jesus knew that stress and exhaustion can wear down both our tolerance and our charity in the adventure of life. Getting away once in a while to just be by yourself and recuperate your energy and perspective may not sound very ‘religious’, but is in fact one of the most important disciplines of the spiritual life. When we are tired and distracted by daily concerns, we are less resourceful, less focused, and less able to bring to life the vision to see our way through.

After all, our bodies are not merely the containers we ride in; they are the outward manifestation and physical support of who and what we are. Neglect or abuse the body, and the soul-life suffers. Take it for granted or ignore the communication of its symptoms, and you soon lose touch with your deeper life as well.

On this occasion Jesus and his disciples were seen by the crowd in their attempted get-away, and found the throng waiting for them on the farther shore. There were men, women, and children who had been on the outside of the wall, not permitted to enter the sacred space of the temple because they weren’t  righteous enough, or healthy enough, of the right complexion. They saw in Jesus the hope of their salvation because he walked on their side of the wall, with a vision big enough to include even such as themselves, and with a love bold enough to reach through to the crying need in every human heart.

EPHESIANS 2:11-22

11 So then, remember that at one time you Gentiles by birth, called “the uncircumcision” by those who are called “the circumcision”—a physical circumcision made in the flesh by human hands— 12 remember that you were at that time without Christ, being aliens from the commonwealth of Israel, and strangers to the covenants of promise, having no hope and without God in the world. 13 But now in Christ Jesus you who once were far off have been brought near by the blood of Christ. 14 For he is our peace; in his flesh he has made both groups into one and has broken down the dividing wall, that is, the hostility between us. 15 He has abolished the law with its commandments and ordinances, that he might create in himself one new humanity in place of the two, thus making peace, 16 and might reconcile both groups to God in one body through the cross, thus putting to death that hostility through it. 17 So he came and proclaimed peace to you who were far off and peace to those who were near; 18 for through him both of us have access in one Spirit to the Father. 19 So then you are no longer strangers and aliens, but you are citizens with the saints and also members of the household of God,20 built upon the foundation of the apostles and prophets, with Christ Jesus himself as the cornerstone. 21 In him the whole structure is joined together and grows into a holy temple in the Lord; 22 in whom you also are built together spiritually into a dwelling place for God.

How did Christ make both groups, the Jews and the Gentiles, into one? How is it that “both of us,” Jews and Gentiles (non-Jews), now have access in one Spirit to the Father? The writer believes that Jesus “in his flesh has made both groups into one and has broken down the dividing wall, that is, the hostility between us.” What does that mean?

The “hostility between us” is a function of the dividing wall that separates the saints from the sinners, the “chosen people” from the damned heathen, the insiders from the outsiders. Before Christ, the insiders believed they were pure and set apart from the filth and sin of the world, and, further, that all outsiders were without the hope of salvation.

In his life, Jesus was already breaking down this wall of prejudice and delusional thinking, by reaching out to and confirming the precious value of every “sinner” as well as shaking awake as many of the puritans he could. He showed all of us by his example that ritual purity and Bible-based orthodoxy are not the path into life in its fullness, but that love is – pure, unconditional, and sacrificial love.

His death on the cross – “the blood of Christ” – reveals this divine love with such clarity and power, at least to those few who are open to its message, that all our claims to exclusive possession of truth or to the only way of salvation have been exposed for the “wall of hostility” that they are. This path of love transcends orthodoxy and even religion itself, as the way of redemption and peace and one communion under God.

EPHESIANS 2:11-22

11 So then, remember that at one time you Gentiles by birth, called “the uncircumcision” by those who are called “the circumcision”—a physical circumcision made in the flesh by human hands— 12 remember that you were at that time without Christ, being aliens from the commonwealth of Israel, and strangers to the covenants of promise, having no hope and without God in the world. 13 But now in Christ Jesus you who once were far off have been brought near by the blood of Christ. 14 For he is our peace; in his flesh he has made both groups into one and has broken down the dividing wall, that is, the hostility between us. 15 He has abolished the law with its commandments and ordinances, that he might create in himself one new humanity in place of the two, thus making peace, 16 and might reconcile both groups to God in one body through the cross, thus putting to death that hostility through it. 17 So he came and proclaimed peace to you who were far off and peace to those who were near; 18 for through him both of us have access in one Spirit to the Father. 19 So then you are no longer strangers and aliens, but you are citizens with the saints and also members of the household of God,20 built upon the foundation of the apostles and prophets, with Christ Jesus himself as the cornerstone. 21 In him the whole structure is joined together and grows into a holy temple in the Lord; 22 in whom you also are built together spiritually into a dwelling place for God.

We have already commented on how the institutionalization of religion makes it into a ‘tower of privilege’, horizontally separating insiders from outsiders and then dividing insiders into vertical ranks of status and power. In first-century Judaism division was built into the very architecture of the temple in Jerusalem. Different ‘courts’ had been created like concentric circles arranged around the inner sanctum of the Holy of Holies, where the presence of God was believed to be most intensely real. The ‘court of the Gentiles’ was farther out from center than the ‘court of Israel’. Among this more privileged company only priests were allowed to minister at the altar, but only the High Priest could enter the holiest place, and then but once a year on the Day of Atonement.

Paul looked upon the dividing wall between Jews and non-Jews as representative of the basic fault-line that runs through the human family worldwide. The habit of dualistic thinking not only divides groups into bigoted and often violent opposing parties, but it alienates us all from the Truth we mistakenly think we possess. In Paul’s view, Christ Jesus broke down the dividing wall – not only the wall in the Jerusalem temple but the one that fractures in two the truth of what we are together, as children of  God.

PSALM 89:20-37

20 I have found my servant David;
    with my holy oil I have anointed him;
21 my hand shall always remain with him;
    my arm also shall strengthen him.
22 The enemy shall not outwit him,
    the wicked shall not humble him.
23 I will crush his foes before him
    and strike down those who hate him.
24 My faithfulness and steadfast love shall be with him;
    and in my name his horn shall be exalted.
25 I will set his hand on the sea
    and his right hand on the rivers.
26 He shall cry to me, ‘You are my Father,
    my God, and the Rock of my salvation!’
27 I will make him the firstborn,
    the highest of the kings of the earth.
28 Forever I will keep my steadfast love for him,
    and my covenant with him will stand firm.
29 I will establish his line forever,
    and his throne as long as the heavens endure.
30 If his children forsake my law
    and do not walk according to my ordinances,
31 if they violate my statutes
    and do not keep my commandments,
32 then I will punish their transgression with the rod
    and their iniquity with scourges;
33 but I will not remove from him my steadfast love,
    or be false to my faithfulness.
34 I will not violate my covenant,
    or alter the word that went forth from my lips.
35 Once and for all I have sworn by my holiness;
    I will not lie to David.
36 His line shall continue forever,
    and his throne endure before me like the sun.
37 It shall be established forever like the moon,
    an enduring witness in the skies.”

David had known the providence of God in a personal way during the time he was a shepherd in the hills outside Bethlehem. And after he was anointed by the prophet Samuel and eventually became king of Israel, his perception of God’s hand on his life rarely dimmed. No doubt, David suffered bouts and seasons when the divine seemed far away or event antagonistic – witness the many psalms of anguish in the Bible – but in the long view he carried within himself an assurance of God’s ever-present and faithful love.

It may well be that David’s personal experience and faith was the germinal source of the Bible’s belief in an unconditional covenant existing between God and the royal throne. The earlier Mosaic covenant was more conditional, promising prosperity and divine favor to the people so long as they continued in obedience to the commands of God. Notice how the language of the Davidic covenant, on the other hand, is expressive of a unilateral promise on God’s part. “I will not remove from him my steadfast love” and “I will not violate my covenant” are not dependent on David’s moral performance or reputation. God will be faithful and will forgive – no matter what.

Jesus would later expand this notion of God’s unconditional love to include all people, a teaching that got him in trouble because it breaks down our walls of division.

2 SAMUEL 7:1-14a

 Now when the king was settled in his house, and the Lord had given him rest from all his enemies around him, the king said to the prophet Nathan, “See now, I am living in a house of cedar, but the ark of God stays in a tent.” Nathan said to the king, “Go, do all that you have in mind; for the Lord is with you.”

But that same night the word of the Lord came to Nathan: Go and tell my servant David: Thus says the Lord: Are you the one to build me a house to live in? I have not lived in a house since the day I brought up the people of Israel from Egypt to this day, but I have been moving about in a tent and a tabernacle. Wherever I have moved about among all the people of Israel, did I ever speak a word with any of the tribal leaders of Israel, whom I commanded to shepherd my people Israel, saying, “Why have you not built me a house of cedar?” Now therefore thus you shall say to my servant David: Thus says the Lord of hosts: I took you from the pasture, from following the sheep to be prince over my people Israel; and I have been with you wherever you went, and have cut off all your enemies from before you; and I will make for you a great name, like the name of the great ones of the earth. 10 And I will appoint a place for my people Israel and will plant them, so that they may live in their own place, and be disturbed no more; and evildoers shall afflict them no more, as formerly, 11 from the time that I appointed judges over my people Israel; and I will give you rest from all your enemies. Moreover the Lord declares to you that the Lord will make you a house. 12 When your days are fulfilled and you lie down with your ancestors, I will raise up your offspring after you, who shall come forth from your body, and I will establish his kingdom. 13 He shall build a house for my name, and I will establish the throne of his kingdom forever. 14 I will be a father to him, and he shall be a son to me.

The God of the Bible is a God more of time than of space, which has meant that the preferred means of contemplating the divine is the word rather than the image. Words are composed into stories, and stories tell us of events that happened and will happen, catching our present experience up into the rolling wave of destiny.

When David offered to secure God an architectural space where He could dwell among His people, God responded by recounting for David the sacred story of his personal rise to political power on the advancing crest of divine providence. This has, in fact, been the strategy for recovery used by the Jewish people down through history when in the midst of various persecutions or exiles: they’ve told the story of God’s mighty acts of mercy and deliverance, and have found their hope for the future renewed.

When life gets us down, we are sometimes unable to see much of God around us. Our experience is of a divine absence, and there seems no way out. It is precisely then that a personal life review can be most helpful. As we remember the many events along the way of serendipitous grace, unexpected strength, and deliverance from what could have become incredible disasters and personal blunders, our awareness grows of a provident and guiding hand helping us through. We can hope again because we know that, even if at present all seems dark, God is with us even now.

2 SAMUEL 7:1-14a

 Now when the king was settled in his house, and the Lord had given him rest from all his enemies around him, the king said to the prophet Nathan, “See now, I am living in a house of cedar, but the ark of God stays in a tent.” Nathan said to the king, “Go, do all that you have in mind; for the Lord is with you.”

But that same night the word of the Lord came to Nathan: Go and tell my servant David: Thus says the Lord: Are you the one to build me a house to live in? I have not lived in a house since the day I brought up the people of Israel from Egypt to this day, but I have been moving about in a tent and a tabernacle. Wherever I have moved about among all the people of Israel, did I ever speak a word with any of the tribal leaders of Israel, whom I commanded to shepherd my people Israel, saying, “Why have you not built me a house of cedar?” Now therefore thus you shall say to my servant David: Thus says the Lord of hosts: I took you from the pasture, from following the sheep to be prince over my people Israel; and I have been with you wherever you went, and have cut off all your enemies from before you; and I will make for you a great name, like the name of the great ones of the earth. 10 And I will appoint a place for my people Israel and will plant them, so that they may live in their own place, and be disturbed no more; and evildoers shall afflict them no more, as formerly, 11 from the time that I appointed judges over my people Israel; and I will give you rest from all your enemies. Moreover the Lord declares to you that the Lord will make you a house. 12 When your days are fulfilled and you lie down with your ancestors, I will raise up your offspring after you, who shall come forth from your body, and I will establish his kingdom. 13 He shall build a house for my name, and I will establish the throne of his kingdom forever. 14 I will be a father to him, and he shall be a son to me.

It seems nearly inescapable that once religion gets located and our sacred representations of God are arranged just so in the holy space of temples and shrines and churches, human society falls into the divisions of ranks and classes. When our god is believed to dwell more inside the sanctuary than outside among the people and in nature, those whose job is to supervise the rituals of worship, recite the blessings and prayers, and authorize the official orthodoxy, become increasingly decked out in special insignia and perched in places of high honor.

Deacons, elders, junior priests, parish priests, cardinals, bishops, archbishops, high priests, and so on, form an ascending gradient of value and influence, from common folk in the secular world to the ordained hierarchy of the sacred realm. Inevitably we have insiders and outsiders, members and aliens, the “chosen people” and the heathen throng.

Yahweh had first been revealed as the God of slaves, whose special favor was on the underdogs, the low-born, the orphans and rejects of the world. Perhaps that is why he was so adamant against the tower of privilege that temple-based religion so easily becomes. Centuries after Solomon made the fateful decision to build a temple in Jerusalem, the prophets continued to rail against its excesses and abuse of power.