Archive for the ‘Nineteenth Bundle’ Category

JOHN 10:1-10

“Very truly, I tell you, anyone who does not enter the sheepfold by the gate but climbs in by another way is a thief and a bandit. The one who enters by the gate is the shepherd of the sheep. The gatekeeper opens the gate for him, and the sheep hear his voice. He calls his own sheep by name and leads them out. When he has brought out all his own, he goes ahead of them, and the sheep follow him because they know his voice. They will not follow a stranger, but they will run from him because they do not know the voice of strangers.” Jesus used this figure of speech with them, but they did not understand what he was saying to them.

So again Jesus said to them, “Very truly, I tell you, I am the gate for the sheep. All who came before me are thieves and bandits; but the sheep did not listen to them. I am the gate. Whoever enters by me will be saved, and will come in and go out and find pasture.10 The thief comes only to steal and kill and destroy. I came that they may have life, and have it abundantly.

This is where it becomes critical to keep in mind that the Gospel writer (of John) is giving us his presentation of Jesus after a half-century of history has already passed under the bridge. Any responsible reading of the Gospels needs to distinguish between the First Voice of Jesus himself and what the author might have Jesus say or do in response to his own (the author’s) context of challenges and concerns.

By way of illustration, just setting side by side the Gospels of Mark and John will reveal two very different Jesuses – however awkward that sounds. The direct, urgent, and concrete teaching of Jesus in Mark’s Gospel cannot be matched across the aisle with the lofty, abstract, and metaphysical teachings of Jesus in John. To put it baldly: they are not the same Jesus.

It helps to know that Mark was written during a time of rising apocalyptic expectations, out of the fray of the Jewish-Roman War that climaxed with the temple’s destruction in Jerusalem. John, on the other hand, came after the messianic sect of Christians had separated from Judaism and begun its productive conversation with Greek gnosticism and the mystery religions. Had the author of Mark opened John’s Life of Jesus, he would doubtless have been baffled and very possibly not even recognized the Jesus presented therein.

In the intervening decades much had happened that made a revision (or an altogether new telling) necessary. The Jewish-Roman War ended in the year 73CE, orthodox Judaism officially excommunicated Christians from fellowship by the mid-80s, and at least a few Roman emperors had tried to eliminate the Christian movement by legislation and persecution.

Along the way there arose a number of messianic pretenders, brave souls who claimed to carry the mantle of Jesus for the next phase in his kingdom campaign. Apparently, many had been taken in by these pretenders – these thieves and bandits. The shifting allegiances within the Christian community had resulted in division,  confusion, and more violent crackdowns. This was the historical context of the community for whom John is (re)telling the story of Jesus.

We should be careful, then, not to superimpose our contemporary questions and concerns and make them assumptions in our reading. (Although, in keeping with the New Testament Gospels as reconstructions of Jesus for their times, there is nothing in principle that should prohibit a fresh retelling for our own time and setting. In that case, the challenge would be to keep the First Voice of Jesus from getting lost in our portrayal.)

This passage is not about the superiority of Christianity to other religions. Instead it’s John’s answer (through the mouthpiece of his Jesus) to the then-pressing question: Who is the real Christ? Most of the pretenders were guerrilla leaders, wonder-workers, or esoteric spin-masters. John’s answer was simple: Just listen, really listen, and you will hear his voice.

This was – and still is – the First Voice of Jesus himself. Jesus didn’t come to lead a rebellion, do magic tricks, or reveal some secret truth. He taught love, loved life, and lived entirely in the moment.

That’s where abundant life flows.

 

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1 PETER 2:19-25

19 For it is a credit to you if, being aware of God, you endure pain while suffering unjustly.20 If you endure when you are beaten for doing wrong, what credit is that? But if you endure when you do right and suffer for it, you have God’s approval. 21 For to this you have been called, because Christ also suffered for you, leaving you an example, so that you should follow in his steps.

22 “He committed no sin,
    and no deceit was found in his mouth.”

23 When he was abused, he did not return abuse; when he suffered, he did not threaten; but he entrusted himself to the one who judges justly. 24 He himself bore our sins in his body on the cross, so that, free from sins, we might live for righteousness; by his wounds you have been healed. 25 For you were going astray like sheep, but now you have returned to the shepherd and guardian of your souls.

The desire for approval coincides exactly with the ego’s most passionate pursuit: recognition. To be noticed, validated, accepted, affirmed, praised, rewarded, promoted and glorified – this is what we might call the ladder of upward mobility in ego ambition. Whether at the first rung of this ladder or the last, the primary reference of value is “me” – the self-involved ego.

The gospel of Jesus went to the key term in this motivational system, insisting that human liberation and the healing of our world are possible only as we are able to rise above and get beyond the neurotic contraction of “me” and “mine.” If he ever proclaimed a heavenly treasure for those who would give everything to the poor and follow him, it was only to get them invested in his kingdom movement. In addition to promoting restorative justice through the redistribution of wealth, their time together would give him opportunity to open their hearts and free them of the need for reward.

Jesus wasn’t on a sweeping campaign through the world, scooping up as many converts as he could on his way back to heaven. His kingdom movement was about waking people up, setting them free, and making them whole – NOW, not later on or somewhere else.

But sadly this is the direction Christianity went. As an institutional religion under the “Christian” banner, the irony is that the farther it went along, the more unlike Jesus it became. Condemning the world that Jesus loved and separating itself from the people that Jesus sought, the Church turned out to be his greatest adversary. Keeping pure by staying inside, pleasing God by being obedient, waiting for Jesus to come again: Only a few have seen through this trance as the Church’s business plan, not the original gospel of Jesus.

PSALM 16:1-4, 12-19

I love the Lord, because he has heard
    my voice and my supplications.
Because he inclined his ear to me,
    therefore I will call on him as long as I live.
The snares of death encompassed me;
    the pangs of Sheol laid hold on me;
    I suffered distress and anguish.
Then I called on the name of the Lord:
    “O Lord, I pray, save my life!”

12 What shall I return to the Lord
    for all his bounty to me?
13 I will lift up the cup of salvation
    and call on the name of the Lord,
14 I will pay my vows to the Lord
    in the presence of all his people.
15 Precious in the sight of the Lord
    is the death of his faithful ones.
16 Lord, I am your servant;
    I am your servant, the child of your serving girl.
    You have loosed my bonds.
17 I will offer to you a thanksgiving sacrifice
    and call on the name of the Lord.
18 I will pay my vows to the Lord
    in the presence of all his people,
19 in the courts of the house of the Lord,
    in your midst, O Jerusalem.
Praise the Lord!

You have loosed my bonds. There are many metaphors used in religion to represent what is commonly called “the human condition,” but the most popular by far is that of captivity, bondage, imprisonment, and oppression. Salvation in light of this metaphor can be understood as escape or emancipation if the accent of meaning is on the circumstances of bondage, or as awakening, empowerment, and transcendence when the liberative move is more about an inner shift of consciousness.

What is it that holds us in bonds? Repressive governments do this, but so do the heavy circumstances of poverty and economic hardship. The prison of consciousness that we call the status quo can keep us in a consensus trance our entire lives. And we cannot forget the multiform delusion of orthodoxy, where the mind is strapped and chained by convictions that hold captive an otherwise creative intelligence.

Is it correct to say that mortality is another form of oppression? Are human beings “stuck” in time and “condemned” to die? Many feel so. But upon closer inspection what we find is that it’s not really the conditions of mortality that keep us hostage, as the widespread fear we have attached to this fact of facts. We are prisoners, then, not of death but of the fear that the prospect of dying provokes in us.

Of course, other animals die as well, but we have no evidence that they worry over it quite to the extent that we do. So much of the world we construct as human beings – at both the cultural and individual levels – are little more than shelter, distraction, and insurance against death, not to mention a major campaign for its denial and temporary postponement.

It’s not long before we find ourselves locked inside a prison of our own making. We invest in layers of insurance that obligate us to monthly payments, which makes it  necessary to pursue higher-paying jobs and work longer. We purchase gym memberships and a growing pharmacy of supplements in an effort to stave off the creeping menace of age, dysfunction, and disease. We might hand over our freedom and intelligence to a religion that promises everlasting life in exchange for our doctrinal consent and a weekly offering.

But perhaps the greatest liability in the construction of this fortress we build has to do with how it prevents us from full participation in reality, constantly shuttling our awareness away from this present moment, from the real presence of mystery. The spiritual traditions name this mystery the ground of existence, the presence of God, radiant being, and Abundant Life – but whatever it’s called, the referent is acknowledged as beyond all names and forms.

When we stop running and hiding, fretting and fighting, looking away and waiting for later, there is in that moment, in that very passing moment, the possibility that we might fall into the gracious support of the present mystery we call God.

ACTS 2:14a, 36-41

14a But Peter, standing with the eleven, raised his voice and addressed them:

36 “Therefore let the entire house of Israel know with certainty that God has made him both Lord and Messiah, this Jesus whom you crucified.”

37 Now when they heard this, they were cut to the heart and said to Peter and to the other apostles, “Brothers, what should we do?” 38 Peter said to them, “Repent, and be baptized every one of you in the name of Jesus Christ so that your sins may be forgiven; and you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit. 39 For the promise is for you, for your children, and for all who are far away, everyone whom the Lord our God calls to him.” 40 And he testified with many other arguments and exhorted them, saying, “Save yourselves from this corrupt generation.” 41 So those who welcomed his message were baptized, and that day about three thousand persons were added.

This may be the very point at which early Christianity lost its way. How faithful to the original message and First Voice of Jesus is this exhortation to “Save yourselves from this corrupt generation”? Not close at all! Jesus didn’t proclaim his gospel as a way out, or call on his followers to separate themselves from the world.

And then there’s this: “Repent … and be baptized so that your sins may be forgiven.” In the original gospel of Jesus there was no “so that” – no conditions to be satisfied nor repentance required before God was willing to forgive. His “good news” (gospel) was that it is already done! Forgiveness has been accomplished. God’s love for the world is unconditional, boundless, and preemptive.

So then, why the sudden reversal? How could the revolutionary message of Jesus so quickly get turned into its diametrical opposite – that people still need to be forgiven, and only those who satisfy the conditions against God’s love will be saved (rescued)?

Our clue might be given in this story of Peter’s first “church sermon” during the Jewish feast of Pentecost. Already in the previous chapter a matter of ecclesiastical policy had to be worked out, as a replacement for the traitor Judas needed to be identified and properly installed. The author of Acts (traditionally Luke) wrote the larger narrative in order to give an account of Christianity’s rise from a ragtag band of twelve to the organized religion it would become.

                                                                                                 

How do you get from an itinerant company following the winds of the spirit and going toward human need, to a corporate institution where membership qualifications, a leadership hierarchy, and doctrinal conformity are paramount? The short answer is that you change how you do things.

The fact is, Jesus’ gospel of unconditional forgiveness doesn’t fly well inside a church where there’s no wind. Churches, denominations, and religions are inevitably faced with the challenge of defining the difference between insiders and outsiders. For Jesus there were no outsiders, which made it meaningless to speak of insiders. By opening one’s life to the liberating power of God’s love and living courageously in that freedom for the purpose of liberating others, Jesus would sometimes say that a person “entered” the kingdom of God. But this kingdom has no membership.

It’s not easy for people to get their minds around this concept of community as a spreading organism rather than an enclosed membership, but Jesus repeatedly pushed back on demands that he should set up a board of directors, organize the roster, and publish an orthodoxy. When he died, however, the demands won out and Jesus’ kingdom movement became an established religion.

That’s the sociopolitical explanation, but there is also a psychospiritual one. It has to do with the fact that unconditional forgiveness, genuine community, and a relentless pursuit of human liberation are impossible for our egos to accept. If God has forgiven me without conditions, then in accepting it I will be empowered to do the same on behalf of my enemy. But loving my enemy will require that I let go of my self-definition as the righteous and innocent opponent of my enemy.

The problem is that my ego has no reality underneath these labels of self-definition; it is a pure construct. Letting go is certain death.

To love as Jesus said God loves, and to forgive regardless of whether our enemies see their error and repent, requires too much of us. Who I am must be given up on the cross (released, set aside, transcended) so that a greater love can move through me (resurrection).

Frankly, I’d rather not. Please change the message and compensate me with the salvation I have earned by repenting, getting baptized, and believing the right things.

Thankfully, the Christian Church obliged.