Posts Tagged ‘Bible’

JOHN 15:26-27, 16:4b-15

26 “When the Advocate comes, whom I will send to you from the Father, the Spirit of truth who comes from the Father, he will testify on my behalf. 27 You also are to testify because you have been with me from the beginning.

4b “I did not say these things to you from the beginning, because I was with you.But now I am going to him who sent me; yet none of you asks me, ‘Where are you going?’ But because I have said these things to you, sorrow has filled your hearts. Nevertheless I tell you the truth: it is to your advantage that I go away, for if I do not go away, the Advocate will not come to you; but if I go, I will send him to you. And when he comes, he will prove the world wrong about sin and righteousness and judgment: about sin, because they do not believe in me; 10 about righteousness, because I am going to the Father and you will see me no longer; 11 about judgment, because the ruler of this world has been condemned.

12 “I still have many things to say to you, but you cannot bear them now.13 When the Spirit of truth comes, he will guide you into all the truth; for he will not speak on his own, but will speak whatever he hears, and he will declare to you the things that are to come. 14 He will glorify me, because he will take what is mine and declare it to you. 15 All that the Father has is mine. For this reason I said that he will take what is mine and declare it to you.

What is the primary task of the Holy Spirit according to the New Testament? Before we answer that, let’s back up to ask what the Holy Spirit is up to in the larger witness of the entire Bible. It was the Spirit of God that hovered over the primordial waters of Genesis. The Spirit of God was understood to be the vital principle active in the budding, leafing, flowering, fruiting, pulsing, breathing, and procreating diversity of living things.

On Sinai, it was the Spirit of God that descended in thick cloud and thunder with the commandments for political order and prosperity. Through the prophets this same Spirit spoke words of advocacy on behalf of the poor, orphaned, and outcast. We remember Joel, who envisioned the day when the Holy Spirit would be released upon all flesh, with hope born anew in the hearts of people everywhere regardless of age, sex, or social standing.

As revealed in Jesus, the Holy Spirit was shown to be earnestly searching for a deep and universal faith of the human which was also a fundamental faith in the human, in what the human can become and accomplish in the name of love.

In such broad strokes we can discern a kind of progression in the work of the Holy Spirit through the course of time. Creative energy, vibrant abundance, moral conscience, human compassion, universal salvation, and unconditional forgiveness – there is a clearly observable forward advance to this adventure of the Spirit.

The New Testament itself is ecstatic in the belief that with Jesus (Spirit = unconditional love and forgiveness) history has reached its fulfillment. And although a final and complete redemption is perhaps still a ways off, even now creation and we ourselves groan inwardly from the labor pains of a new day dawning.

LUKE 17:11-19

11 On the way to Jerusalem Jesus was going through the region between Samaria and Galilee. 12 As he entered a village, ten lepers approached him. Keeping their distance, 13 they called out, saying, “Jesus, Master, have mercy on us!” 14 When he saw them, he said to them, “Go and show yourselves to the priests.” And as they went, they were made clean. 15 Then one of them, when he saw that he was healed, turned back, praising God with a loud voice. 16 He prostrated himself at Jesus’ feet and thanked him. And he was a Samaritan.17 Then Jesus asked, “Were not ten made clean? But the other nine, where are they? 18 Was none of them found to return and give praise to God except this foreigner?” 19 Then he said to him, “Get up and go on your way; your faith has made you well.”

What’s the difference between being made “clean” and being made “well”? We know from psychotherapy that alleviating the symptoms of mental disorder is not at all the same as building the strengths that promote mental order and happiness. Western medicine early on got oriented around the problems (dysfunction, impairment, injury, illness and disease) that compromise health, but only recently has attention been turning to the question of what supports higher well-being.

The ten lepers who approached Jesus for mercy were suffering from a terrible flesh-rotting disease that is still a problem in some parts of the world. Not knowing much about the physical causes and conditions of the disease, social morality back then ostracized lepers to their own colonies and regarded them as “unclean,” which carried religious connotations as a punishment for sin. Good people of society were careful to steer around lepers, reducing thereby the contagion of leprosy but also reinforcing the prejudice against lepers as accursed by God.

The question of whether this miracle story reaches back to an actual event in history misses the point, as reading the Bible literally will almost always do. Its real purpose in Luke’s Gospel is to reveal more of what the author believes Jesus was all about, where his true uniqueness and “power to save” were centered. As in other miracle stories of the Gospels, this episode presents Jesus as addressing those that society had dismissed or ignored as worthless.

But more than that, Jesus not only addressed them (i.e., acknowledged their presence), he also esteemed and honored the down-and-outs as children of God. Certainly he had compassion for their suffering, but he didn’t limit his outreach (as many of us do these days) to the effort of merely improving their living conditions. More often than not he touched them, had conversations with them, shared what he had with them, and invited them into his itinerant community of friends.

Without a doubt, many times these needy ones just took what Jesus had to give and moved on (or stayed where they were as he moved on). Their lives were changed by his love and its radiant power. Whatever their ailment, limitation, or disorder, Jesus effectively mediated and made possible their return to society. He “made them clean” by his regard for them as equals, as sons and daughters of God.

Only a small few of these, however, returned to Jesus out of gratitude for the way his love had set them free. Like this Samaritan – an ethnic identifier that compounded his stereotype as a degenerate – who turned back to offer his thanks for what Jesus had done, these grateful few not only enjoyed a new lease on life by virtue of being set free from their problem. They “reinvested” their freedom by choosing to live a more grateful life.

In making this choice, they were made well. This is what it means to be saved.

PSALM 34:1-10, 22

I will bless the Lord at all times;
    his praise shall continually be in my mouth.
My soul makes its boast in the Lord;
    let the humble hear and be glad.
O magnify the Lord with me,
    and let us exalt his name together.

I sought the Lord, and he answered me,
    and delivered me from all my fears.
Look to him, and be radiant;
    so your faces shall never be ashamed.
This poor soul cried, and was heard by the Lord,
    and was saved from every trouble.
The angel of the Lord encamps
    around those who fear him, and delivers them.
O taste and see that the Lord is good;
    happy are those who take refuge in him.
O fear the Lord, you his holy ones,
    for those who fear him have no want.
10 The young lions suffer want and hunger,
    but those who seek the Lord lack no good thing.

22 The Lord redeems the life of his servants;
    none of those who take refuge in him will be condemned.

There is a strong current in the Bible, vocally represented in the traditions that promoted the idea of Yahweh as not only supreme among the gods but as the only god there is (monotheism), which regards everything that happens as directly caused or allowed by the divine will. When things go well for us, this doctrine poses no problem at all. But when adversity comes and bereavement leaves us reeling in its wake, the connection between God and our experience is much harder to discern – and much easier to doubt.

We can use the familiar Western “centers of consciousness” as a way of analyzing this conundrum, picturing God as like us in possessing a mind (knowledge), a heart (passion), and a will (action). When it comes to human suffering, then, perhaps God

  1. knows about it, but doesn’t really care and refuses to help.
  2. doesn’t know about it, and would care if the information was provided (suggesting the importance of prayer).
  3. doesn’t know, and wouldn’t care even if He did.
  4. does know and certainly cares, but is afflicting or allowing the suffering so that something else can be realized (such as humility, repentance, patience, fortitude, or wisdom in the sufferer).

As you can see, the first three explanations make God into something “less than God” in the classical sense of an all-knowing, all-loving, and all-powerful authority over human affairs. The deities of other mythologies might demonstrate less-than-perfect qualities, but the unqualified monotheism of the Bible (Judaism and Christianity) and Quran (Islam) has traditionally forced believers to look for God’s hand (active/passive will) in our suffering and loss.

Another response might be to suggest that God names a mystery we cannot understand. Perhaps there isn’t a supreme being calling the shots or letting things slide. Maybe suffering is just part of the burden of existence – neither a punishment for sin or a strategy for our salvation. Sometimes it follows fairly predictably on our own poor choices, as the immediate or delayed consequence of what we are doing to ourselves, each other, and to our planet. Often, however, it defies explanation (even a theological one) and the best we can do is meet suffering with a grounded presence, mindfulness, and grace.

PSALM 68:1-10,

Let God rise up, let his enemies be scattered;
    let those who hate him flee before him.
As smoke is driven away, so drive them away;
    as wax melts before the fire,
    let the wicked perish before God.
But let the righteous be joyful;
    let them exult before God;
    let them be jubilant with joy.

Sing to God, sing praises to his name;
    lift up a song to him who rides upon the clouds—
his name is the Lord
    be exultant before him.

Father of orphans and protector of widows
    is God in his holy habitation.
God gives the desolate a home to live in;
    he leads out the prisoners to prosperity,
    but the rebellious live in a parched land.

O God, when you went out before your people,
    when you marched through the wilderness,
the earth quaked, the heavens poured down rain
    at the presence of God, the God of Sinai,
    at the presence of God, the God of Israel.
Rain in abundance, O God, you showered abroad;
    you restored your heritage when it languished;
10 your flock found a dwelling in it;
    in your goodness, O God, you provided for the needy.

32 Sing to God, O kingdoms of the earth;
    sing praises to the Lord,
33 O rider in the heavens, the ancient heavens;
    listen, he sends out his voice, his mighty voice.
34 Ascribe power to God,
    whose majesty is over Israel;
    and whose power is in the skies.
35 Awesome is God in his sanctuary,
    the God of Israel;
    he gives power and strength to his people.

Blessed be God!

If you were to spread the writings of the Bible along a line according to the chronological sequence in which they were likely produced, you would come to see how the concept and representation of God evolved through the centuries. A strict biblical literalism would then be forced to conclude that God has changed over time, which obviously conflicts with the Bible’s own claim that with God there is “no variation or shadow due to change” (James 1:17).

A better explanation is that something has indeed changed (or evolved); however it’s not the reality of God but the mythological imagination of humans contemplating that reality. As human beings have evolved – from hominids to homo sapiens, and through the numerous stages of cultural development – the notion of a hidden agency and supreme intelligence behind things has steadily advanced. What becomes evident to us, then, is the fascinating way in which a regional population of human beings became increasingly rational, ethical, and inclusive in their orientation and behavior.

Before we file our exceptions to this statement, let’s quickly review how the Bible’s representation of God progressed over time. In the earliest traditions, god* is the jealous warrior deity of nomadic tribes that originally settled the region of Sinai. Yahweh’s idol may have been a war box that announced his arrival to towns and villages under invasion. At this stage, god’s love was a subordinate quality to his aggression, violence, and conquest.

A while later we find Yahweh inviting select individuals and their families into a formal ritual of agreement called a covenant. By obeying his will and worshiping no other god but him, the people are given assurance of Yahweh’s protection, blessing, and future prosperity. This use of the covenant metaphor is a strong indication that humans were progressing into a more stable, rational, and cooperative way of life. God’s love is coming more to the forefront of his personality, as one who cares for his people.

                                                                                                      

In the time of the prophets, the complexities of urban life advanced new concerns for marginalized members (orphans, widows, and other poor). Even outsiders coming to the gates as strangers were to be looked after and offered hospitality. In the prophetic consciousness, this ethical concern of god’s for those who suffer forced frequent confrontations with kings and political administrations that oppressed or neglected them. The love of god was opening out into a wide compassion, not only for insiders but outsiders as well.

Finally, with Jesus – who stood in the tradition of the prophets but took their challenge to another level – we hear that god’s love extends all the way to his “enemies.” These may be outsiders or insiders; their defining characteristic is an utter disregard for god’s will, even an outright antagonism to his way. In short, they are “sinners.” Jesus declared that all sinners are forgiven, that humanity’s debt to god has been released. His message of unconditional forgiveness was so revolutionary in its implications and so radical in its reach, that Christianity itself was unable (or unwilling) to carry it forward for long.

In all these various evolutionary frames, the representation of God is just out in front of human development. The depiction of god’s love in art, story and theology is an idealized projection at first, praised and glorified as an exceptional virtue of the deity. And because worship of god is also the aspiration of devotees to be like god – to love as god loves – this virtue is increasingly activated and gradually takes its place in the human moral repertoire.

*In order to distinguish a representation of God from the reality of God, we use the convention of a lowercase ‘g’ when speaking of the concept of God in art, story and theology. The reality of God is a mystery beyond words.

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?

PSALM 114

1 When Israel went out from Egypt,
    the house of Jacob from a people of strange language,
2 Judah became God’s sanctuary,
    Israel his dominion.

3 The sea looked and fled;
    Jordan turned back.
4 The mountains skipped like rams,
    the hills like lambs.

5 Why is it, O sea, that you flee?
    O Jordan, that you turn back?
6 O mountains, that you skip like rams?
    O hills, like lambs?

7 Tremble, O earth, at the presence of the Lord,
    at the presence of the God of Jacob,
8 who turns the rock into a pool of water,
    the flint into a spring of water.

Parting the Red Sea and Jordan River are mythological references to the story of when the Hebrews were delivered from Egypt and later given possession of the Promised Land. These images resonate with our universal human condition, delivered as we are in our birth, wandering through the wilderness of this world, and hoping for passage to a better place on the other side – either the other side of what we are currently up against, or on the other side of the Dark Gate.

The mountains skipping like rams and the hills like lambs are obvious metaphors (technically similes). Water from rock is another link into the national myth of the Hebrews, recalling the time when a whack from the staff of Moses brought forth refreshment for the mutinous assembly at Mount Horeb (Exodus 17:1-7).

But let’s not stop there.

“The Lord” is also a metaphorical reference to a supreme power and intention behind all things, personified on the model of a high magistrate or land owner. Is God literally a sovereign ruler sitting on a throne somewhere, or the deed owner of the universe? No, not literally. These titles and associations are being used elliptically, as it were, to speak of something that cannot be directly named or known.

Those who seek after an unmediated experience of the supreme reality are known as mystics, and they are unanimous in cautioning the rest of us against taking our names and concepts of God too seriously. Is the deepest mystery a skipping ram? No, not literally. A sovereign lord? Again, not in the literal sense. What about a being “up there” or “out there” in some straightforward way? Not even that.

Orthodoxy is in perpetual tension with mysticism in every religion. The dogmatists want to define and legislate our representations of God, while the mystics are trying to penetrate past our need for concepts altogether. One defends explanations while the other cultivates an experience. Together they embody the dynamic poles of a creative rhythm: control/release, certainty/openness, verbosity/silence, belief/faith, and meaning/presence.

Dogmatists push religion outward into greater divergence, as all religions differ in the way they make sense of God. Mystics, on the other hand, pull religion inward toward a deeper convergence, where holy books are respectfully set aside and words are finally surrendered to ineffable communion with the divine mystery.

Somewhere in this rhythm the rest of us work out our salvation, on the way from Egypt to the Promised Land.