Archive for the ‘Twenty-First Bundle’ Category

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.”

1 PETER 3:13-22

13 Now who will harm you if you are eager to do what is good? 14 But even if you do suffer for doing what is right, you are blessed. Do not fear what they fear, and do not be intimidated, 15 but in your hearts sanctify Christ as Lord. Always be ready to make your defense to anyone who demands from you an accounting for the hope that is in you; 16 yet do it with gentleness and reverence. Keep your conscience clear, so that, when you are maligned, those who abuse you for your good conduct in Christ may be put to shame. 17 For it is better to suffer for doing good, if suffering should be God’s will, than to suffer for doing evil. 18 For Christ also suffered for sins once for all, the righteous for the unrighteous, in order to bring you to God. He was put to death in the flesh, but made alive in the spirit,19 in which also he went and made a proclamation to the spirits in prison, 20 who in former times did not obey, when God waited patiently in the days of Noah, during the building of the ark, in which a few, that is, eight persons, were saved through water. 21 And baptism, which this prefigured, now saves you—not as a removal of dirt from the body, but as an appeal to God for a good conscience, through the resurrection of Jesus Christ, 22 who has gone into heaven and is at the right hand of God, with angels, authorities, and powers made subject to him.

You just have to wonder where an author finds the chutzpah to invent a doctrine about Jesus preaching to the departed souls in limbo (which in later doctrine became Purgatory) so they, too, could have a chance to accept the offer of salvation.

Or was it inspiration? Did the Holy Spirit put this idea in his mind by supernatural revelation? If we agree, then the discussion is closed. God said it, I believe it, and that does it.

But this might be another example of the emerging religion of Christianity establishing itself by setting in place the necessary mythological foundations. As the questions came up – Who was Jesus, really, and what was he about? How is our movement connected to our parent religion of Judaism? Did Jesus have to die that way? Did his death mean something? How is the world different after Jesus, and what are we supposed to do now? – a demand for meaningful answers required the tailoring of current myths from elsewhere along with some creative invention of their own.

We can only imagine what the question behind this particular “solution” might have been. What about the people who died before the time of Jesus? If his death fixed the problem (first assumption), and if salvation is dependent on hearing the doctrine (second assumption) and accepting that all this was done for you (third assumption), then they missed out. Are they in hell for something they couldn’t know and have a chance to accept? That wouldn’t be fair! So let’s get Jesus in front of them to proclaim the good news …

The apostle Paul had an easier and more reasonable solution to the problem of salvation before Jesus. If they didn’t have the special revelation of the Law and Prophets (Judaism), then at least God’s “eternal power and divine nature” are evident throughout creation (Romans 1:19-20). Each of us will be held accountable for the choices we make in the light we are given. Fair enough.

But wait a second, already by this time (late 60s CE) Christianity had made a decisive move, from a spiritually grounded moral revolution with dangerous political implications (under the leadership of Jesus) to a messianic sect of Judaism with a strong missionary campaign to win Gentile converts (under the leadership of Paul). As it went on, the new religion needed a devotional focus (Jesus the savior) and an orthodox company line (something like: Confess your sins, believe in Jesus, get baptized, and come aboard).

Now we have insiders (the properly saved) and outsiders (the unrepentant or ignorant throng). One day very soon Jesus is going to swoop down with his angels and take us with him to heaven, leaving the rest for unpleasant times ahead. In the meantime, if anyone interrogates your beliefs, here’s what to say; if they persecute you for what you believe, then you have good precedent in Jesus himself.

He had to suffer for our salvation, an innocent victim for the sinful race. There is no forgiveness without repentance, no pardon without satisfaction. Redemption through violence: it is God’s way.

Never mind that it contradicted the original gospel of Jesus himself.

 

PSALM 66:8-20

Bless our God, O peoples,
    let the sound of his praise be heard,
who has kept us among the living,
    and has not let our feet slip.
10 For you, O God, have tested us;
    you have tried us as silver is tried.
11 You brought us into the net;
    you laid burdens on our backs;
12 you let people ride over our heads;
    we went through fire and through water;
yet you have brought us out to a spacious place.

13 I will come into your house with burnt offerings;
    I will pay you my vows,
14 those that my lips uttered
    and my mouth promised when I was in trouble.
15 I will offer to you burnt offerings of fatlings,
    with the smoke of the sacrifice of rams;
I will make an offering of bulls and goats. Selah

16 Come and hear, all you who fear God,
    and I will tell what he has done for me.
17 I cried aloud to him,
    and he was extolled with my tongue.
18 If I had cherished iniquity in my heart,
    the Lord would not have listened.
19 But truly God has listened;
    he has given heed to the words of my prayer.

20 Blessed be God,
    because he has not rejected my prayer
    or removed his steadfast love from me.

There is a moral impulse in all of us, a need to believe that life is fair and people get what they deserve. The mere suggestion that it might not be so can provoke some to throw up their hands and threaten to quit the whole business. What’s the point then? they will protest. If the universe isn’t set up to favor the righteous and crush the wicked, then why work so hard to be good?

Many psalms hold this perspective, with the poet lamenting how the faithful suffer as sinners prosper. His resolution of the problem represents one of four ways that individuals have worked through this apparent moral contradiction in reality. His way is to re-frame hardship and loss as a means by which God tests, purifies, and strengthens our faith.

This might be something God does directly or else leaves to the member of his heavenly council named Satan (literally the adversary) whose job is to “prove” the character of believers by pushing them to the wall or tripping them into the fire. God blesses and the devil burns; together they work out the balance.

If the gap of retribution – that is, the elapse of time between a good or bad deed and the appropriate payback – is too long, one might begin wondering what God is up to. One compensatory adjustment looks for the reward or punishment to be paid out on an individual’s descendants. A corollary of this is to see your present suffering (or prosperity) as a consequence of your ancestor’s moral character.

Eventually the gap can become so great that your only comfort is in knowing that we will all get what we deserve in the next life. Heaven and hell, then, help resolve the problem of moral inequity by ensuring that no one escapes the long arm of God’s law. Look at those slugs and scoundrels driving their fancy cars. Their day of reckoning is coming, and it won’t be long before they’re writhing in torment with the rest of God’s enemies. Just knowing this makes us smile.

Of course, it can also happen that a believer stops believing at this point. If God’s purpose is to get everything started, supervise the process and occasionally intervene, allocating rewards to the good people and penalties to the bad people, then he’s not doing his job very well. How deserving of worship is a God who can’t even manage his responsibilities on the job? He might as well not exist. Life isn’t fair and people don’t get what they deserve. It sucks, but that’s how it is.

This might seem to exhaust our options, but there is one more response to the moral inequity of life. We don’t dismiss it as only apparent or make God into a cosmic quality control officer.  Nor do we need to push out the time frame across generations or into the next life. We can agree that life isn’t fair and people don’t get what they deserve. But it doesn’t suck. Instead of retribution or karma at the heart of reality, it’s all grace.

Grace is the principle that transcends morality. It declares that the grounding mystery of existence is creative, generous, provident and forgiving. It’s not about making things even and setting the balance right. You can’t earn it, steal it, bank it, or lose it. It doesn’t come to you because you’re good enough or better than the next guy. It falls as spring rain on the fields of the just and unjust alike.

Hardship and fortune don’t need to be moralized; ‘good’ and ‘bad’ are value judgments we impose to make things meaningful (or bearable). Life is a mixture of pain and pleasure, love and loss, joy and sorrow. Happy is the person who moves through it all with faith, releasing all expectation and just resting in the grace of each moment.

Don’t worry, there is enough for everyone!

ACTS 17:22-31

22 Then Paul stood in front of the Areopagus and said, “Athenians, I see how extremely religious you are in every way. 23 For as I went through the city and looked carefully at the objects of your worship, I found among them an altar with the inscription, ‘To an unknown god.’ What therefore you worship as unknown, this I proclaim to you. 24 The God who made the world and everything in it, he who is Lord of heaven and earth, does not live in shrines made by human hands, 25 nor is he served by human hands, as though he needed anything, since he himself gives to all mortals life and breath and all things. 26 From one ancestor he made all nations to inhabit the whole earth, and he allotted the times of their existence and the boundaries of the places where they would live, 27 so that they would search for God and perhaps grope for him and find him—though indeed he is not far from each one of us.28 For ‘In him we live and move and have our being’; as even some of your own poets have said,

‘For we too are his offspring.’

29 Since we are God’s offspring, we ought not to think that the deity is like gold, or silver, or stone, an image formed by the art and imagination of mortals. 30 While God has overlooked the times of human ignorance, now he commands all people everywhere to repent,31 because he has fixed a day on which he will have the world judged in righteousness by a man whom he has appointed, and of this he has given assurance to all by raising him from the dead.”

It’s questionable whether a lot of religious “objects” – presumably temples, altars, and idols – directly translates into a population being “extremely religious.” We know from our own day that the paraphernalia and even the practices of religious life do not necessarily correlate to a vibrant spirituality. A religion can be dead inside, underneath all the elaborate display and outward activity.

The gods of Greek culture were associated with the wide range of concerns in daily life. There was a god of commerce and a goddess of marriage, a god of wine and a goddess of the hunt, a god of war and a goddess of love, a god of healing and a goddess of the harvest; on and on across many domains of nature and society. Each god or goddess was represented by an emblem or idol, and since most Greek deities were anthropomorphic (human-like) in character, their associated idols were commonly statues – “formed by the art and imagination of mortals” –  set up in temples or sacred locations.

The Hebrews, on the other hand, had been a nomadic federation of tribes in their early history. Carting around an idol would have been a logistical challenge – although Yahweh’s war-box (the ark of the covenant) did serve as, or at least slip into the function of, an idol during that time. Eventually graven images and artistic likenesses of Yahweh were prohibited and violently rejected as idolatry, which refers to worshiping an idol.

A danger for the Jews, and for the Christians after them, was more a conceptual than physical idolatry – becoming so enamored of and devoted to a particular mental representation of God (in idea and doctrine), that it effectively closes down access to the divine presence. This is the mystery “in which we live and move and have our being,” which is really a definition that defies definition when you think about it.

How can you picture this mystery? How do you symbolize being itself? It would seem that the mere attempt would amount to constructing an idol.

                                                                                           

Jewish religion was really the first example of what is called ethical monotheism, a belief in one god whose primary relationship to humans is as the absolute moral authority. Yahweh demanded purity, obedience, retribution and repentance; and at some fateful time in the future, he will judge all people according to their righteousness or sin, rewarding or condemning them as they deserve.

As Christianity began as a messianic sect within Judaism, this was its basic worldview and expectation as well. As the religion got going, Jesus was simply inserted into the existing program as the long-anticipated savior and final judge. His death on the cross had paid the penalty for sin, but only for those who believe. For everyone else – all those nonbelievers – things would continue as before, with them punished according to the principle “You get what you deserve.”

Had Christianity stayed true to the life and gospel of Jesus himself, this entire system would have been thrown off by the radical force of his insistence that we don’t get what we deserve – none of us do. Instead we get grace, love and forgiveness out of the generous initiative of God. Nothing has to be earned, paid, or believed; and no membership is necessary – if it’s even possible to talk of insiders and outsiders any longer.

In fact, it could even be said that our belief in God is the last idol to set aside.