Archive for the ‘Sixteenth Bundle’ Category

JOHN 20:1-18

Early on the first day of the week, while it was still dark, Mary Magdalene came to the tomb and saw that the stone had been removed from the tomb. 2 So she ran and went to Simon Peter and the other disciple, the one whom Jesus loved, and said to them, “They have taken the Lord out of the tomb, and we do not know where they have laid him.” 3 Then Peter and the other disciple set out and went toward the tomb. 4 The two were running together, but the other disciple outran Peter and reached the tomb first. 5 He bent down to look in and saw the linen wrappings lying there, but he did not go in. 6 Then Simon Peter came, following him, and went into the tomb. He saw the linen wrappings lying there, 7 and the cloth that had been on Jesus’ head, not lying with the linen wrappings but rolled up in a place by itself. 8 Then the other disciple, who reached the tomb first, also went in, and he saw and believed; 9 for as yet they did not understand the scripture, that he must rise from the dead. 10 Then the disciples returned to their homes.

11 But Mary stood weeping outside the tomb. As she wept, she bent over to look into the tomb; 12 and she saw two angels in white, sitting where the body of Jesus had been lying, one at the head and the other at the feet. 13 They said to her, “Woman, why are you weeping?” She said to them, “They have taken away my Lord, and I do not know where they have laid him.” 14 When she had said this, she turned around and saw Jesus standing there, but she did not know that it was Jesus. 15 Jesus said to her, “Woman, why are you weeping? Whom are you looking for?” Supposing him to be the gardener, she said to him, “Sir, if you have carried him away, tell me where you have laid him, and I will take him away.” 16 Jesus said to her, “Mary!” She turned and said to him in Hebrew, “Rabbouni!” (which means Teacher). 17 Jesus said to her, “Do not hold on to me, because I have not yet ascended to the Father. But go to my brothers and say to them, ‘I am ascending to my Father and your Father, to my God and your God.’” 18 Mary Magdalene went and announced to the disciples, “I have seen the Lord”; and she told them that he had said these things to her.

We should find it a bit peculiar how an empty tomb and folded grave clothes might validate a belief that Jesus was alive. Strictly speaking, the absence of a dead body doesn’t logically imply a resurrected one. The story tells us that Peter and “the beloved disciple” (a self reference to the author of the Fourth Gospel, traditionally identified with John) went home not quite understanding what had happened.

Interestingly, the Gospel according to Mark, which was written perhaps thirty years before this account, has everyone confused and afraid, once the disciples discover the empty tomb. There is no encounter with the risen Jesus and no resurrection appearances to confirm the miracle. The reader is left wondering what’s going on.

With the intervening narratives of Matthew and Luke, more confirmation details are added to the story: visitations of angels, an earthquake at the very moment of Jesus’ resurrection, his appearance to a couple of downcast disciples on their way to Emmaus, and his reunion with the whole group on a mountain.

It seems that early Christians were working hard to rebut the skeptics who may have been calling into question the whole platform of their movement. Jesus is alive? Prove it. 

                                                                                            

At first, the best the Christians could do was get the reader closer and closer to the resurrection event – visitors in white, quaking ground, and the real-time descent of an angel who rolls aside the stone (Matthew). But then again, the empty cave is really nothing more than a statement that “he is not here.” Then where is he?

Scholars conjecture that this is when the appearance narratives became necessary. Here he is! He appeared to this one, these two, a few women early in the morning, and to those eleven on the mountain. John will add his own appearance episodes: on Easter evening to most of the disciples, and again a week later when Thomas is there.

As John tells the story, the first witness of the risen Jesus was not one from the inner group of male disciples, but Mary of Magdala. The earlier Gospels of Mark (longer ending) and Luke introduce us to Mary as one out of whom Jesus had cast no fewer than seven demons. As the details around the resurrection are changing across the four canonical Gospels, the presence of Mary Magdalene is a noteworthy constant.

This narrative figure – devoted follower of Jesus and walking personification of New Life – had become the very embodiment of what the resurrection is all about. Not a vacant tomb, folded grave clothes, angelic visitors, nor even the reported appearances of Jesus himself could match the convincing testimony of one whose life had been transformed by him.

Still today, there is no more solid evidence that Jesus lives than the courageous freedom and joyful presence of those who carry his spirit within them. The resurrection cannot be proved or disproved as an historical event.

It either happens now, or it doesn’t really matter.

COLOSSIANS 3:1-4

So if you have been raised with Christ, seek the things that are above, where Christ is, seated at the right hand of God. 2 Set your minds on things that are above, not on things that are on earth, 3 for you have died, and your life is hidden with Christ in God. 4 When Christ who is your life is revealed, then you also will be revealed with him in glory.

If you have been raised …  This requires us to shift our thinking about resurrection from an end-time event, or even a postmortem event, to something that Paul looked for in the here-and-now. It’s very likely that this letter to the congregations in the region of Colossae was not written directly by the apostle Paul, but instead by a successor in the Pauline tradition of early Christianity.

The letter amounts to a defense (called an apology) against the tendency toward Gnosticism in the Greek streams of Christian development. While much about Greek culture was a celebration of the body, physical beauty, and the sensual enjoyment of life, the influence of Greek philosophy – particularly under the guiding theory of Plato and the Orphic tradition – emphasized acetic discipline of the body, renunciation of animal passions, and eventual escape of the immortal soul from its mortal coil.

Some strains of Gnosticism advised early Christ-followers to deny the physical reality of Jesus, suggesting instead that he was truly a spirit-being in mortal disguise – that his body only seemed to be real but was only an illusion. He didn’t really die (since he wasn’t mortal), except to the minds of the ignorant who were spiritually blind to his essential truth. The career-path of Christ only appeared as Jesus in order to capture our devoted attention and carry it away from the material realm and ultimately out of this world.

                                                                                           

The reader will recognize that orthodoxy Christianity eventually went in a “gnostic” direction – emphasizing immortality over resurrection (more on that in a bit), soul over body, afterlife over this life, and, since woman’s body is so deeply entwined with the rhythms of earth, moon and natural time, also male over female, reason over passion, doctrine over experience, and meaning over mystery.

Even the apology of Colossians illustrates the challenge early Christianity had in preserving its Hebraic origins as it accommodated to the wider Greek culture (the future of its expanding empire). The contrast of “above” and “below” might suggest a logic of dualism, which can easily slip into Gnostic assumptions and convictions.

Jesus and his initial revolution had germinated in a different value-context, particularly when it came to the appraisal of creation, matter, body and time. For the Hebrews, these are not corrupt, evil or illusory. Instead they represent the manifestation of divine glory and the embodiment of God’s sacred purpose.

For the Hebrew, resurrection represented the sanctification of flesh, to the point where the expired physical reality of the body is renewed and becomes again an epiphany of the spirit. But it wasn’t about getting the departed soul back into its carnal container – which is how a Gnostic would see it, and with considerable disgust. The Greek problem was due to the fact that its worldview and anthropology (view of human nature) were dualistic; a “reunion” of soul and body would be going in the absolutely wrong direction.

The Hebraic view, however, saw body and soul as essential aspects of a single mystery – the living person. In this value system, resurrection is the symbol of healing, communion, wholeness and authentic life. As we contemplate the witness and example of Jesus, as we follow him to the cross where he died in solidarity with God’s love for the world, we can also step with him into New Life (what he called the Kingdom of God) as awakened, compassionate, and generous human beings.

PSALM 118:1-2, 14-24

1 O give thanks to the Lord, for he is good;
    his steadfast love endures forever!

2 Let Israel say,
    “His steadfast love endures forever.”

14 The Lord is my strength and my might;
    he has become my salvation.

15 There are glad songs of victory in the tents of the righteous:
“The right hand of the Lord does valiantly;
16     the right hand of the Lord is exalted;
    the right hand of the Lord does valiantly.”
17 I shall not die, but I shall live,
    and recount the deeds of the Lord.
18 The Lord has punished me severely,
    but he did not give me over to death.

19 Open to me the gates of righteousness,
    that I may enter through them
    and give thanks to the Lord.

20 This is the gate of the Lord;
    the righteous shall enter through it.

21 I thank you that you have answered me
    and have become my salvation.
22 The stone that the builders rejected
    has become the chief cornerstone.
23 This is the Lord’s doing;
    it is marvelous in our eyes.
24 This is the day that the Lord has made;
    let us rejoice and be glad in it.

This passage from the Psalms would become one of those privileged texts that early Christians used as  “prophecies” of Jesus. “I shall not die, but I shall live” and mention of a rejected building stone becoming the chief cornerstone are references vague enough to be applied in any number of ways, which is a virtue that makes them readily adaptable to a variety of situations.

The theme of being punished by God was another feature with direct transfer value to early Christian theories of atonement – of how Jesus’ suffering and death was somehow instrumental in world salvation. An assumption that reality is moral in nature is deep in the cultural DNA of ethical monotheism, which is behind the Bible’s heavy accent on obedience, responsibility, justice and equality – but also our perennial struggle with guilt, forgiveness, retribution and punishment in Western society.

For the longest time, and still for a large majority of  believers, “steadfast love” and “punishing severity” were held in tension in the orthodox concept of God. It was not an overt contradiction to regard the same personality (divine or human) as compassionate and merciful one moment, vengeful and punitive the next. This bi-polar tension in theology worked its way out as alternating anxiety and despondency in the human psyche – or perhaps the conflicted human psyche projected this bipolarity into the nature of God.

Still, by the time of the Protestant Reformation (16th century CE) this internal conflict was driving denominational development. Martin Luther’s evident concern over the security of salvation was answered by John Calvin’s doctrines of predestination and the perseverance of the saved. And across all denominations the belief in God’s universal and irresistible grace has run up against the conviction that unrepentant sinners (that is, those able somehow to resist God’s grace) will suffer everlasting punishment.

Jesus would later proclaim a radical revision to this ethical concept of God, with his gospel of unconditional forgiveness. Sadly, Christian orthodoxy buried his teaching under layers of interpretation that effectively canceled out his message and reaffirmed God as a retributive deity who used redemptive violence (in Jesus’ death on the cross) to “save” the world.

 

JEREMIAH 31:1-6

At that time, says the Lord, I will be the God of all the families of Israel, and they shall be my people.

2 Thus says the Lord:
The people who survived the sword
    found grace in the wilderness;
when Israel sought for rest,
3     the Lord appeared to him from far away.
I have loved you with an everlasting love;
    therefore I have continued my faithfulness to you.
4 Again I will build you, and you shall be built,
    O virgin Israel!
Again you shall take your tambourines,
    and go forth in the dance of the merrymakers.
5 Again you shall plant vineyards
    on the mountains of Samaria;
the planters shall plant,
    and shall enjoy the fruit.
6 For there shall be a day when sentinels will call
    in the hill country of Ephraim:
“Come, let us go up to Zion,
    to the Lord our God.”

Jeremiah was the son of a priest and very likely had been one himself, when he felt God’s calling out of the religious establishment and into the streets as a prophet. Mounting tension in Judah’s international relations was causing concern for many, especially as the superpowers of Assyria, Babylonia, Egypt and Persia were becoming increasingly interested in its prime real estate.

The response from the religious establishment was effectively no response at all. Generally the belief was that God would protect his temple, the holy city, and its people from harm since they had been chosen for a long and bright destiny. God wouldn’t let his most important project fail, and since the Jews figured so centrally in that project, he wouldn’t let any harm come to them either.

But as we know, the city walls did come down and its temple was destroyed, an event that was not only a political catastrophe but an existential crisis of the first order. All at once, the fabric of meaning was ripped to shreds and the foundations of security were shattered into pieces. Jeremiah had sounded the warning, but no one listened. Now in the aftermath and amid the wreckage, he could only say, “I told you so.”

But he didn’t. Instead, he helped his generation through a process of serious self-examination. Their self-righteous complacency and sense of entitlement had made the nation vulnerable to collapse. It wasn’t the Babylonian army that overpowered them, and it wasn’t because God had abandoned them. Rather they had lost their vision, forgotten their divine appointment, and allowed their once-vibrant faith to recede from the edge of risk and fall asleep under the hedges of orthodoxy.

                                                                                                 

Only after coming to terms with their own responsibility in this tragedy could the survivors really find healing. This has always been true. When your circumstances close in around you, when it feels like God isn’t hearing your prayers and other people don’t care, it is tempting – almost irresistible – to look outside yourself for both the culprit to blame for your troubles and the savior who will rescue you from them. In either case, the locus of creative control is deferred somewhere other than where it really belongs, which is inside yourself.

That’s not to say that you must take the blame, or conversely pull yourself up by your own bootstraps. Taking responsibility is importantly different from taking blame. Blame is really a story you tell yourself for the purpose of assigning a cause to your pain and anger. Beyond pinning your troubles on someone or something else, blame has the additional benefit of letting you do nothing but stand there and point. Or if you are blaming yourself, it can leech like a paralyzing anesthetic into your soul. As a consequence, your personal challenges can slowly evolve into chronic problems – not going away but instead getting worse.

To take responsibility you need to stop looking behind, around, or even up ahead for the solution you seek. While it is certainly true that these dimensions of your situation can contain insight, resources, and guidance, your salvation starts as you find your center and place both hands on your pain. However it got here, it is yours. Insisting that someone else did this to you doesn’t take away the responsibility of dealing with it.

The way of healing and freedom begins at the point where you realize that you have control over whether and to what extent you allow this ordeal (loss, hardship, betrayal, or abuse) to define you and determine the rest of your life.

Jeremiah grieved with his people as they stood in the rubble of their beloved homeland. He helped them take responsibility by accepting the reality of their experience. But then he challenged them to hold a different frame around their pain, one that could let them see that this experience was not just an ending but the start of something new.