Archive for the ‘Twenty-Second Bundle’ Category

LUKE 24:44-53

44 Then he said to them, “These are my words that I spoke to you while I was still with you—that everything written about me in the law of Moses, the prophets, and the psalms must be fulfilled.” 45 Then he opened their minds to understand the scriptures, 46 and he said to them, “Thus it is written, that the Messiah is to suffer and to rise from the dead on the third day, 47 and that repentance and forgiveness of sins is to be proclaimed in his name to all nations, beginning from Jerusalem. 48 You are witnesses of these things. 49 And see, I am sending upon you what my Father promised; so stay here in the city until you have been clothed with power from on high.”

50 Then he led them out as far as Bethany, and, lifting up his hands, he blessed them.51 While he was blessing them, he withdrew from them and was carried up into heaven.52 And they worshiped him, and returned to Jerusalem with great joy; 53 and they were continually in the temple blessing God.

The transition from the kingdom movement of Jesus to the religion of Christianity required some major shifts in accent.

  • From Jesus as messenger, spiritual travel guide and teacher, to Christ as the object of stationary worship.
  • From an accent on faith as full release to the present power of God, to beliefs as truth-statements necessary for salvation.
  • From promoting human liberation above every system, to a system of control ordained by god.
  • From an ethic of love and full inclusion, to a morality of judgment and separation.
  • From a revolution in human consciousness, to an institution of traditions and regulations.

The list could go on, but the point is made. Jesus’ gospel (good news) was simple and straightforward: You are already forgiven, and now the liberated life waits on you to let go of your neighbor’s guilt. Repentance for Jesus was not about confessing your sins, crawling shamefully back to God, and satisfying the conditions against his love and acceptance. God has no interest in punishing you, but only to be reconciled again. To that end, he has dropped the charges and is inviting you back. Repentance is the “turn-around” of surprise, joy, gratitude and love.

For obvious reasons, this is something that cannot be regulated. If the debt has been forgiven, the guilt released, and the past left in the past, then whatever leverage we might have had on each other is gone as well. How can we continue to segregate the sinners from the saints, if God’s preference for one over the other is no longer in play? What’s to become of the mechanism of retribution (payback) that informs so much of religion? How can we motivate contrition and obedience in new believers if the “wild card” of hell is off the table?

Early Christian mythographers rose to the challenge by reconstructing the backstory of salvation. Soon biographies of Jesus were showing up everywhere – not only our four canonical Gospels, but accounts that fit Jesus into a messianic, apocalyptic, gnostic, monastic, or charismatic framework of values and beliefs. He was made to say things and do things that “fulfilled” prophetic texts or popular expectations. The “thus it is written” in the above passage was put in the mouth of Jesus himself so as to remove any question of its authority.

Eventually (and it didn’t take long) his death was interpreted as the turning-point in human salvation, where the penalty for sin was paid and God’s need for vengeance satisfied. Or maybe God’s love was behind it, as the Gospel of John claims (Jn 3:16), though the prospect of perishing for doubt or disbelief still keeps control comfortably in the hands of church managers.

The purpose here is not to bash Christianity, but rather to suggest where it got off the path of the original Jesus – and why. Nothing is served by the exposé if the only reasonable outcome is total abandonment. The First Voice of Jesus is down there – somewhere. We need to dig beneath the accretions of church doctrine and sweep aside the corruptions of inferior motives, in order to hear again the good news.

 

EPHESIANS 1:15-23

15 I have heard of your faith in the Lord Jesus and your love toward all the saints, and for this reason 16 I do not cease to give thanks for you as I remember you in my prayers. 17 I pray that the God of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of glory, may give you a spirit of wisdom and revelation as you come to know him, 18 so that, with the eyes of your heart enlightened, you may know what is the hope to which he has called you, what are the riches of his glorious inheritance among the saints, 19 and what is the immeasurable greatness of his power for us who believe, according to the working of his great power. 20 God put this power to work in Christ when he raised him from the dead and seated him at his right hand in the heavenly places, 21 far above all rule and authority and power and dominion, and above every name that is named, not only in this age but also in the age to come. 22 And he has put all things under his feet and has made him the head over all things for the church, 23 which is his body, the fullness of him who fills all in all.

To say that “God put this power to work in Christ when he raised him from the dead” (and so forth) might lead us to think that the resurrection was the decisive moment when Jesus became Lord and Son of God. Christian orthodoxy insists that he was Son of God since before the beginning, tending to blur even this distinction in its doctrine of Jesus as God. But this wasn’t Paul’s view. Jesus – Christ, Lord, and Savior to use some of Paul’s favorite designations – was not himself God, but rather was “declared” Son of God by the power of his resurrection (see Romans 1:4).

For Paul, everything changed at the resurrection – which wasn’t a mere miracle, but the transforming moment when Jesus was set free, raised up, and granted authority over the nations. Whereas the cross had been the world’s “No” to Jesus, the resurrection was God’s “Yes.” By declaring (which is more than just making an announcement, but making it so) Jesus his Son, God gave warrant to what Jesus had been all about.

The contrast between the crucifixion and resurrection of Jesus was even more significant to Paul, however, for it wasn’t simply “the world” that rejected Jesus, but the Law that had put him away. The accusation, rationale, and judgment that had sentenced him to die was based on and justified by the Mosaic Law at the heart of Paul’s own religion. Jesus’ kingdom movement had promoted the values of human dignity, liberty and neighborly love over the authority of Tradition, Temple and Torah (Jewish orthodoxy).

The Law wasn’t against these values, we should be clear. But in defending itself – as orthodoxy and empire are wont to do – it forced the condemnation of Jesus, an innocent and truly righteous man of God. For that reason, the merit system of purity and obedience informed by and organized around the Law was nullified, undermined and rendered invalid by its own self-contradiction.

                                                                                                     

It doesn’t appear that Paul was personally familiar with the early history of Jesus and his kingdom movement. Nowhere in his letters does he refer to Jesus’ teachings or notorious way of life. He started out as a “bounty hunter” for Christians, taking them into custody for prosecution. As a Pharisee, Paul (as Saul) was deeply devoted to his religion and upholding its Law. The followers of Jesus broke the Law, or at least didn’t observe it to the extent Paul knew they should, and so they needed to be brought to justice – just as Jesus himself had been.

Tradition has it that the young Pharisee was looking after the cloaks of those who started stoning a Jesus follower named Stephen. As he looked on (with approval, we presume), Paul heard Stephen call to God in his last breath, to forgive those who were taking his life. It may well be that this (admittedly reconstructed) encounter with the kingdom movement in the martyrdom of Stephen impressed Paul in a way he wasn’t yet ready to acknowledge or fully understand. But the seed of revolution was sown.

On his way to find more Christians, the inner tension caused by the polarity of his fanatical devotion to God’s Law and the unconditional forgiveness of Stephen finally “broke” (resolved itself) in the realization that the spirit of Jesus was still alive and active, even after his crucifixion. Although Paul recounts this experience as more like a mystical illumination than a supernatural encounter, the distillation of its significance was symbolized as resurrection.

Perhaps we can state Paul’s transforming experience as simply as this: in a moment that would become the turning-point of his life, Paul understood that God’s love is freely given (grace) and unconditional (forgiveness) – not in some abstract sense, but personally, for him (Paul), the one who had been fighting against this love with all his religious conviction.

Resurrection, then, marked the threshold into a new age. The cross had canceled out the validity of the Law as a way of salvation; now grace, and the trusting response of full acceptance called faith, is the path for everyone – Jews and Gentiles, male and female, saints and sinners alike.

The resurrection is not some miraculous event locked in the past, and it’s not merely something that happened to Jesus. Rather it is that decisive and life-changing moment when a person fully accepts his or her acceptance by God. Love wins.

PSALM 47

Clap your hands, all you peoples;
    shout to God with loud songs of joy.
For the Lord, the Most High, is awesome,
    a great king over all the earth.
He subdued peoples under us,
    and nations under our feet.
He chose our heritage for us,
    the pride of Jacob whom he loves.Selah

God has gone up with a shout,
    the Lord with the sound of a trumpet.
Sing praises to God, sing praises;
    sing praises to our King, sing praises.
For God is the king of all the earth;
    sing praises with a psalm.

God is king over the nations;
    God sits on his holy throne.
The princes of the peoples gather
    as the people of the God of Abraham.
For the shields of the earth belong to God;
    he is highly exalted.

It is a real effort for native citizens of a liberal democracy to relate to metaphors of God oriented on monarchy. Kings, thrones, and shields, trumpet processions and coronation events – these don’t ring rich with meaning as they must have once upon a time. Indeed, “once upon a time” in storybooks and Hollywood movies is about the only places we encounter this way of organizing life in the world.

It’s not that the words don’t make sense, mind you, but that their meaning isn’t very relevant to our daily experience. For many of us, kings and queens are odd anachronisms and exotic (maybe less advanced) symbols of government from another time and place.

Where we live, the aggregate effect of individual wills participating in dialogue and voting their preferences is how politics is done. In fact, breaking free from the tyranny of monarchical dynasties and taking a risk on the sovereign will of individuals electing their own leaders is how “the West was won,” as they say.

So isn’t it strange how we have struggled, sacrificed, and built our way of life on the rights and responsibilities of liberal democracy, and yet in our religion – particularly in our church sanctuaries on Sunday morning – we glorify God as a king on his throne, ruling over the nations? We fight for our freedom across the seas and defend our rights to property and protection against “big government” (the republican equivalent of the royal despot), while our mythology, theology, hymnody and worship exhort us to obeisance, submission, and obedience!

But what choice do we have? It’s there in the Bible, and the Bible is our ultimate authority on God-talk. Right?

However unacceptable it may sound at first, it is possible to see the Bible as both a timeless revelation and a very time-bound expression of the human quest for security, meaning, and destiny. It is timeless in the way it might bring us close to (but without containing!) the divine mystery, and it is time-bound because its metaphors, stories, and teachings were produced out of specific historical contexts.

It just so happened that the artistic and literary production of certain periods in the past was preserved, collected, and later canonized as sacred scripture. As subsequent generations progressively lost confidence in their own ability to seek and know God for themselves, they relied increasingly on these earlier efforts and agreements. We may be encouraged to pursue and cultivate our own experience of the divine mystery, but then we are expected to talk about it using a vocabulary more than two thousand years old!

Does God have to be a king sitting on his throne up there in heaven? Does God have to rule over the nations, or sponsor our nation over others? Does God have to be a male authority, a lord of all? Does God have to be personified at all?

How can we, today, express the present mystery of God in a meaningful and relevant way?

ACTS 1:1-11

In the first book, Theophilus, I wrote about all that Jesus did and taught from the beginning until the day when he was taken up to heaven, after giving instructions through the Holy Spirit to the apostles whom he had chosen. After his suffering he presented himself alive to them by many convincing proofs, appearing to them during forty days and speaking about the kingdom of God. While staying with them, he ordered them not to leave Jerusalem, but to wait there for the promise of the Father. “This,” he said, “is what you have heard from me; for John baptized with water, but you will be baptized with the Holy Spirit not many days from now.”

So when they had come together, they asked him, “Lord, is this the time when you will restore the kingdom to Israel?” He replied, “It is not for you to know the times or periods that the Father has set by his own authority. But you will receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you; and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.” When he had said this, as they were watching, he was lifted up, and a cloud took him out of their sight. 10 While he was going and they were gazing up toward heaven, suddenly two men in white robes stood by them. 11 They said, “Men of Galilee, why do you stand looking up toward heaven? This Jesus, who has been taken up from you into heaven, will come in the same way as you saw him go into heaven.”

The author of the Acts of the Apostles (or Acts) is the same person who wrote the Gospel according to Luke, comprising a two-volume account of the Christian movement. Tradition attributes authorship to an attending physician who traveled briefly with the apostle Paul (which might explain the “we” references in Acts). Whoever he was, the author was Christianity’s first “court mythographer” – the one who composes the empire’s official history.

Because of his reported association with Paul, who was the Church’s key strategist for outreach and expansion, Luke’s story of Jesus and his movement were likely influenced by the apostle himself – even heavily influenced. Nevertheless it is important to keep in mind that Luke was written at least thirty years after Paul, which leaves a lot of time for sifting, spinning, and further development.

Luke is to be thanked for the dramatic plot design that introduces Jesus through the divine portal of a virgin’s womb, tracks him through the miracles and teachings of his ministry, relates with omniscience his anguished prayer in the Garden and his private audience with Pilate and Herod, bears witness to the quiet conversation between Jesus and the rebels hanging with him, observes the risen Jesus on Sunday and eavesdrops on two disciples on their way to Emmaus …

And finally this: Jesus rising vertically into the air and disappearing on a magic carpet of clouds. “What are you looking for?” ask two angels suddenly appearing. “He’ll be coming back, just as you watched him leave.”

There you have it – the Great Story we all know and love.

                                                                                                

We are fairly certain that Luke was written not long after Matthew. Both of them used the plot of Mark’s Gospel (up to the empty tomb) and laced it with teaching material likely taken from a hypothetical source named “Q” for Quelle (meaning “source”). For this reason, the three Gospels of Mark (70 CE), Matthew (80 CE) and Luke (90 CE) are called the Synoptic Gospels, since they share (or “see”) so much in common.

A close comparison of Luke to Matthew strongly suggests that our author had Matthew’s account in front of him as he wrote. Having a better grasp of Hebrew (or maybe he was just more educated), Luke corrects some mistranslations in Matthew that almost border on the ridiculous.

For instance, where Mark’s original introduces us to a blind beggar by the name of “Bartimaeus, son of Timaeus,” Matthew, not realizing that “Bartimaeus” translates as “son of Timaeus” in Hebrew, turns Mark’s single beggar into two blind men. Luke later caught the error and restored the original in his retelling.

And again, when Jesus is preparing to enter Jerusalem during the Feast of Tabernacles, Mark tells us that he rode in on a colt to the cheers of his fans. As Matthew picks up the story, he finds an Old Testament passage (Zechariah 9:9) to use as prophecy of the event:

Rejoice greatly, O daughter Zion!
    Shout aloud, O daughter Jerusalem!
Lo, your king comes to you;
    triumphant and victorious is he,
humble and riding on a donkey,
    on a colt, the foal of a donkey.

Matthew misreads (or inserts) an “and” before the reference to a colt, now making it necessary for Jesus to ride on two animals at once! Luke corrects the problem and reverts the story from a veritable circus act to a paradoxical victory parade on the back of a donkey.

But this might be the most fateful change that Luke made to Matthew’s text. At the end of Matthew’s Gospel, Jesus is standing on a mountain with his disciples. He confirms his supreme authority and then commissions his followers to spread the word and make more disciples. “And remember,” he says to them, “I am with you always, to the end of the age.”

Close curtain. In other words, Matthew leaves us with the intriguing assurance that Jesus is still somehow present with the disciple community as it carries on in the world.

And what does Luke do? By making Jesus ascend into heaven – presumably so he can come back again – he leaves the disciple community spiritually bereft, as it were. Jesus is not “with you always,” but is rather absent from the scene until his return. Even if Luke fervently believed that the Second Coming was about to happen, this modification of the Christian myth would take Christianity still farther from the original gospel of Jesus – about as far away as one can get!

In transferring Jesus to heaven and later on, Luke thereby initiated the Age of the Church. Now, while Jesus is away and the priests are in charge, you’d better fall in line.