No Limits

Second Sunday After Pentecost


There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus. Galatians 3:28

In the last days, God says, I will pour out my Spirit on all people. Your sons and daughters will prophesy, your young men will see visions, your old men will dream dreams. Acts 2:17, quoting from Joel 2:28

During the most recent Southern Baptist Convention, a great deal of controversy arose when the popular (and very conservative) Christian Bible teacher Beth Moore mentioned that she would be giving the message on Mother’s Day at her home church. The objections came from those who think that Paul’s letters to the Corinthians and Timothy prohibit women from speaking in church. But there are other passages, like the Galatians passage that is part of today’s lectionary reading, that pretty clearly seem to say just the opposite. The Spirit blows wherever it pleases, and it pleases to flow to all sorts of people. It refuses to be confined to manmade boundaries. You can’t put limits on who God calls to speak God’s truth, any more than you can put limits on the Spirit.

I have to wonder why the men who came to this particular conclusion, out of everything in the Bible, chose to base their reasoning on these two verses, and seemingly ignore the many other places in the Bible where women do take leadership roles, including exercising authority over men and speaking for God. The stories of Deborah in the time of the Judges and of Huldah, advisor to King Josiah, are but two examples, and let’s not forget that the first witnesses to the Resurrection were women. Paul himself seems to offer contradictory advice, not only among his different letters, but sometimes even within the same letter. For example, in chapter 14 of 1 Corinthians, Paul says that women are not permitted to speak, but in chapter 11, he gives instructions for how women who speak should dress. Paul offers many other instructions on proper church behavior for both women and men which are widely ignored. Men should have short hair and women should have long hair. Men shouldn’t wear hats in church, but women should. Women shouldn’t wear makeup or jewelry.

The picture above is very interesting to me. It is one example of very early Christian art found in Italian catacombs, which date to the second and third centuries AD. A woman, thought to be Mary, stands with her arms raised in what is termed a “liturgical pose”, with the four gospels on either side of her. A picture is worth a thousand words, and that was probably even more true in pre-literate societies. It sure looks to me like she is assuming a leadership and instructional role. There’s also quite a few interesting stories of female leaders in extracanonical literature of the same time period. (more here)

I don’t see how any serious student of the Bible can long toe the current Southern Baptist line, and I am continually amazed by the theological contortions people will go through in order to harmonize contradictory instructions in order to make them apply across all time and space. (For example; one man suggested that it was okay for a woman to give the Sunday message if it was bookended by a man introducing her and giving concluding remarks after her message) Serious students of the Bible read the Bible enough to recognize “proof-texting” when it happens. Not only is it wrong to take verses out of their immediate context, they must be considered in relation to the culture that produced them and to the rest of the Bible. If you don’t consider context holistically, you can make the Bible say anything you want it to say. There’s an old joke about one frustrated scholar explaining this by saying “read this (Judas went and hung himself) and now this (Go thou and do likewise)”

Baptists have it right when they encourage people to read the Bible regularly. I am amazed at the biblical ignorance that is seems to be epidemic today, and I am grateful that I grew up in a tradition that stressed continuing Bible study as important for all ages. Traditionally, Baptists also emphasize the importance of a personal experience with God, out of which grows the concept of the “priesthood of the believer”. Christians relate directly to God, without the need for another human to mediate that relationship. That means that we are able to interpret and apply the Bible for ourselves under the guidance of the Holy Spirit. And as I read and consider the Bible, the whole Bible, in its cultural context, along with my own personal experience, I come to a very different conclusion about the proper role for women in the church.

I think that the proper role for women is to do whatever God has called them to do. And I think that those who would attempt to prevent women from answering that call are in a rather precarious position, for they oppose not women, but God.

Your sons and your daughters will prophesy. There is no superior gender, ethnicity, or social status as far as God is concerned. And that’s good news to me.

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One, Two, Three…Infinity

Trinity Sunday, Year C

I still have many things to say to you, but you cannot bear them now. 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. He will glorify me, because he will take what is mine and declare it to you. All that the Father has is mine. For this reason I said that he will take what is mine and declare it to you. John 16:12-15

Let’s play a little word association game. When you hear the word “God” what is the first word that comes to your mind? If you ask different people, you will get many different responses, because God is complicated. How we understand God depends an awful lot on our own experiences. It’s like the story about the blind men and the elephant. The one who touched the trunk thought it was like a snake, the one who touched the tusk thought it was like a spear, the one who touched a leg thought it was like a tree, and so forth. Due to their visual limitations and the size of the elephant, they could not see the whole elephant at once, and each came to a limited understanding of what an elephant is like.

We are in the same boat when it comes to understanding God, for God is infinite and our minds are finite. Moses tried to pin down God by asking “what is your name?” and God wasn’t having it. “I AM WHO I AM” was the only answer given. As Paul later put it, we see God “through a glass darkly” We keep trying to put God in boxes of our own understanding, and He won’t fit.

The Bible uses a lot of different metaphors to try and explain God. God is often compared to a father, and that’s the term Jesus used when he taught his disciples to pray. But God is also compared to a woman in labor and a nursing mother. God is called King of Kings and Mighty Warrior, but God is also described as a shepherd, a gardener, and a potter.

All these, and more, are true at the same time, and none of them gives a complete picture of God. Metaphors can only go so far in describing the indescribable. If you fixate on certain ones and exclude the others, if you try to take the metaphorical literally, or if you rely too much on your own understanding of them, you will have at best an incomplete and at worst a harmful understanding of God. In other words, you will have bad theology, and theology matters.

Bad theology often leads to bad actions as people desperately try to please not the real God, but the god of their imaginations. Often that is a scary picture, what my atheist friends like to disparage as “an angry sky god” ready to dish out the lightening bolts whenever we step out of line. And as Yoda has said, fear is the path to the dark side.

History is replete with examples of this. If you believe that God hates all those who worship differently, you wind up with Charlemagne forcing conversions at the point of a sword, and the Crusades. If you believe that God hates heresy, you wind up with the Spanish Inquisition, and the bloody Catholic/Protestant internecine warfare that swept through Europe. If you believe that God cursed some races to perpetually serve other races, you wind up with centuries of enslaved black Americans. If you believe God rejected the Jews because they rejected Christ, you wind up with pogroms and the Holocaust and that young man who went into a synagogue and started shooting people as they prayed. No, we can’t ignore bad theology.

I think the concept of God as Trinity is a helpful way to combat our human tendency to limit God in ways that fester into bad theology. God is one, yet God is also three. If that makes your head hurt, that’s because it is a paradox that helps get us out of our boxes of binary thinking. God is our Father, the creator and sustainer of the universe, but God is also the Son, the God who became human in the person of Jesus, and God is also the Holy Spirit, the God who is within us and permeates all living things. God is all of these things at the same time. Here are a couple more metaphors: Like a fidget spinner in motion, we can’t focus on one to the exclusion of the others. They are not all the same, but they all work together to accomplish the purposes of God. Like the Three Musketeers, “All for one, and one for all”.

The purposes of God are always driven by love. We know this because that’s what Jesus taught us, and that’s what Jesus lived. Jesus was the embodiment of God on earth. When Phillip asked Jesus what God was like, Jesus responded “If you’ve seen me, you’ve seen the Father.” The writer of Hebrews puts it this way: “The Son is the radiance of God’s glory and the exact representation of his being“. You learn what God is like by looking at and listening to Jesus.

Jesus taught that God’s Prime Directive is love. “Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind. This is the first and greatest commandment. And the second is like it: Love your neighbor as yourself. All the Law and the Prophets hang on these two commandments.

Jesus lived a life of love. Whenever he met some one he could help, he did, and in every way possible: physically, mentally, emotionally, spiritually. And he took that love to the last full measure of devotion. “Greater love hath no man than this: that he lay down his life for his friends” and that’s what Jesus did for us. “He being in very nature God, did not count equality with God as a thing to be grasped, but humbled himself and was obedient to death, even death on a cross.

The kind of love that Jesus is talking about, the kind of love Jesus showed us, the kind of love God has for us, takes a lifetime to even begin to learn. And the way that we learn it is by listening to the Holy Spirit, that voice of God’s truth that lives within us, and is continually pulsing with the drumbeat of God’s love.

The tongues of fire that descended at Pentecost and enabled people speaking different languages to understand Peter’s sermon were only the beginning of the Holy Spirit’s work in teaching us what God’s love is like, and how that love ought to be applied in real life.

We go on in Acts to read about Peter’s dream of the great sheet of clean and unclean animals, of Philip’s encounter with the Ethiopian eunuch, and the proceedings of the Jerusalem council, all of which welcomed those previously excluded into God’s family. The Holy Spirit helped the new Christians learn that God wants to be God of all people, not just God of a select few lucky enough to born into a good, Hebrew-speaking Jewish home. They began to learn that God’s love is inclusive, not exclusive. “There is neither Jew nor Gentile, neither slave nor free, nor is there male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus.” God’s love is for everybody. It doesn’t depend on ethnic or cultural origin, social status, gender, or anything else.

The Holy Spirit lead the early Christians to understand that love of God and love of others were inextricably linked. “Whoever claims to love God yet hates a brother or sister is a liar. For whosoever does not love their brother and sister, whom they have seen, cannot love God, whom they have not seen.

They learned to interpret the scriptures they’d read all their lives in new ways. They learned that God didn’t care much about purity rules “do not handle, do not taste, do not touch” but cared an awful lot about how they treated other people. “The entire Law is fulfilled in a single decree: Love your neighbor as yourself.

Here’s the kicker: The Holy Spirit didn’t stop guiding us into truth at the conclusion of the book of Acts. The Holy Spirit is still working on that, and God is still speaking to those who have ears to listen, and to learn. We’re still learning about God, and how God wants us to apply that love in a world that desperately needs it.

There is a great deal of symbolism in this 15th century artist’s depiction of Trinity. What’s most interesting about it to me is the little square between God the Father and God the Holy Spirit’s feet, which has been found to contain glue residue. Some art historians believe that the square once held a mirror. Do you see the symbolism there? God is inviting the observer to the table of fellowship. No matter who you are, no matter where you come from, no matter how you identify yourself, YOU are welcome here.

(I got the idea for the liturgy of welcome I used in church from here, and adapted it to fit our congregation.)

Father, Son, Holy Spirit, God in three persons, united in infinite love. Creating, sustaining, redeeming, teaching, guiding, and comforting, all in the name of love. The circles of God’s inclusive love keep expanding wider and wider, and it is our joy to be a part of that process, until that day when “every knee shall bow and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father” and all are joined together in that great multitude that no one can number, from every nation, from all tribes and peoples and languages, standing before the throne of God.

Mourning Tabitha

Fourth Sunday in Easter, Year C

Quick Bible trivia question: Who was Tabitha?
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In Joppa there was a disciple named Tabitha (in Greek her name is Dorcas); she was always doing good and helping the poor. About that time she became sick and died, and her body was washed and placed in an upstairs room. Lydda was near Joppa; so when the disciples heard that Peter was in Lydda, they sent two men to him and urged him, “Please come at once!”Peter went with them, and when he arrived he was taken upstairs to the room. All the widows stood around him, crying and showing him the robes and other clothing that Dorcas had made while she was still with them. Peter sent them all out of the room; then he got down on his knees and prayed. Turning toward the dead woman, he said, “Tabitha, get up.” She opened her eyes, and seeing Peter she sat up. He took her by the hand and helped her to her feet. Then he called for the believers, especially the widows, and presented her to them alive. This became known all over Joppa, and many people believed in the Lord. Peter stayed in Joppa for some time with a tanner named Simon. Acts 9:36-43

We have an ancient (well, 1984 is practically ancient) edition of a board game, which is labeled “Bible Trivia:Where the Trivia is Not Trivial” Some of the “correct” answers given are debatable. What was your answer to my question about Tabitha? Did you answer “a woman Peter raised from the dead”, or did you answer “a woman known for doing good and helping those in need?

At least in the Southern Baptist culture in which I grew up, the answer would have definitely been the former. The emphasis would have been on Peter, and how he demonstrated the power of God by performing the same kinds of miracles as Jesus did. Great emphasis would have also been placed on the evangelistic results of the miracle. In most sermons I heard dealing with this event, Tabitha herself seemed to be a mere prop in the story, a cipher of a woman important mainly for the role she played in advancing the message of the gospel.

But Tabitha wasn’t a cipher. She was doing exactly what all followers of Jesus are supposed to be doing: using the talents and resources that she had to help others. She was greatly loved and greatly missed by all those she had helped. Had she not made such an impact on others, had their grief at her passing not been so vocal, would Peter have even been there to to perform his show-stopping miracle? Why is it that when most people remember the story, they remember Peter more than Tabitha?

One answer might be that Peter is a man, doing manly things like public preaching, and Tabitha is a woman, doing womanly things like sewing. and of course, most of the Bible was written by men. I’m afraid there is some truth in that. There were women who traveled with Jesus and provided financial support for his ministry, yet not nearly so many stories about them as there are about Jesus’s male disciples. There were women at the foot of the cross who watched Jesus die, while most of his male disciples had scattered into hiding. The first witnesses to the Resurrection were women who had gone to Jesus’s tomb to perform a last (womanly?) service of caring for his body. In general, there are not nearly as many stories in the Bible of women of faith as there are of men of faith, and those we do have are often lacking in detail. Not only that, but in some cases the gender identity of prominent female disciples has been erased (Junia became Junias in some translations), or their moral character impugned.(Mary Magdalene) I’m sorry that we don’t know more about Phillip’s four daughters who prophesied, Phoebe , Lydia, Chloe, Nympha, Priscilla (who some think may have written Hebrews) or the anonymous “chosen lady” in 2 John.

There’s another answer, and that’s that the human mind is naturally drawn to the novel, the unusual, and the showy, overlooking the ordinary moments which make up the bulk of our lives. “Man bites dog” makes the newspaper; “dog bites man” doesn’t. Raising someone from the dead definitely falls into the “man bites dog” category. It’s just not something you see every day. And although the human mind works that way, I think the mind of God sees things somewhat differently.

Jesus repeatedly taught variations on the theme of “the last shall be first, and the first last“. When he observes a poor widow putting her last two cents into the offering plate, he tells his disciples, “Truly I say to you that this poor widow has put in more than all; for all these out of their abundance have put in offerings for God, but she out of her poverty put in all the livelihood that she had.” He tells his squabbling disciples that the way to greatness lies in servanthood. and that ” it is the one who is least among you all who is the greatest.” The hero of his story about the Good Samaritan is not the expected religious leaders who play important roles in the life of God’s people, but a nobody, an outsider, a cipher. During his last night on earth, Jesus assumed the role of the lowliest of servants, washed his disciples’ feet, and told his disciples to go and do likewise, “I have set you an example that you should do as I have done for you. He bluntly warns that God’s idea of what is most important isn’t necessarily what tends to catch human attention. “Not everyone who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ will enter the kingdom of heaven, but only the one who does the will of my Father who is in heaven. Many will say to me on that day, ‘Lord, Lord, did we not prophesy in your name and in your name drive out demons and in your name perform many miracles?’ Then I will tell them plainly, ‘I never knew you. Away from me, you evildoers!

God isn’t more interested in man-bites-dog stories than in dog-bites-man stories. In fact, I doubt God is pleased with stories about biting anybody or anything. I think God would prefer stories about dogs that help humans, or humans that help dogs. God wants us to do good wherever and whenever we can, and God is more concerned about the intent behind our actions than how big or small it might be. Yes, God was pleased by what Peter was able to do, but God was equally pleased by what Tabitha was able to do. Both Peter and Tabitha were channels of God’s spirit of healing and love.

I mourn for all the Tabithas, those who are overlooked and their stories forgotten, whether it is because of their gender or because their acts of kindness are considered ordinary. But God doesn’t overlook or forget anyone. We are all important and beloved by God, and God notices the ordinary as well as the extraordinary. And that’s good news to me.

New Wine, Great Sheets of Animals, and the General Conference

No one tears a piece out of a new garment to patch an old one. Otherwise, they will have torn the new garment, and the patch from the new will not match the old. And no one pours new wine into old wineskins. Otherwise, the new wine will burst the skins; the wine will run out and the wineskins will be ruined. No, new wine must be poured into new wineskins. And no one after drinking old wine wants the new, for they say, ‘The old is better.’”
Luke 5:36-39 (also Matthew 9:16-20 and Mark 2:21-22

About noon the following day as they were on their journey and approaching the city, Peter went up on the roof to pray. 10 He became hungry and wanted something to eat, and while the meal was being prepared, he fell into a trance. 11 He saw heaven opened and something like a large sheet being let down to earth by its four corners. 12 It contained all kinds of four-footed animals, as well as reptiles and birds. 13 Then a voice told him, “Get up, Peter. Kill and eat.” “Surely not, Lord!” Peter replied. “I have never eaten anything impure or unclean.” The voice spoke to him a second time, “Do not call anything impure that God has made clean.”This happened three times, and immediately the sheet was taken back to heaven.
Acts 10:9-16

I’ve been giving a great deal of thought to the recent special general conference of the UMC, which has been my adopted church home since leaving the SBC. The conference was specifically called to discuss what rules, if any, the UMC ought to impose on its member churches with regard to same-sex relationships. There were two main proposals, the One Church Plan, and the Traditional Plan. The One Church plan would have allowed individual congregations to decide how to handle requests to perform same-sex marriages and/or whether to allow GLBTQ people to become pastors of Methodist churches. The Traditional Plan would forbid these in all UMC churches. By a narrow vote, the Traditional Plan was approved, but its constitutionality and enforcement protocol remain in question.
I live in the Western Jurisdiction of the UMC, which is overall more inclined to take an inclusive view on this divisive subject than some of the other geographic jurisdictions. Following the vote, there was great rejoicing on the part of those who believe same-sex relationships are a mortal sin, and great sorrow on the part of those who believe GLBTQ people are part of God’s good and diverse creation.

I fall into the sorrowful camp on this, not only for reasons of science and empathy, but also for theological reasons. And I came to an inclusive perspective not because I don’t read the Bible, but because I do. I’m aware of the Bible verses usually cited to forbid same-sex relationships, but I’m also aware that translation and context matter in Biblical interpretation. What “the Bible clearly says” depends a great deal on what translation you are using, as well as the bias of the translator. And there are many things that “the Bible clearly says” that are widely ignored (like working on the Sabbath) or thought to be obsolete cultural mores (like wearing clothing made of mixed fibers) Why is this particular taboo given such relative importance?

Some will cite Genesis 1:27, where God creates mankind male and female in his own image, and commands them to be fruitful and multiply. If procreation is the criteria for a valid, God-approved marriage, what of those who cannot have children? Barring some miracle along the lines of the Sarah and Abraham story, my childbearing days have been over for quite a while now. Is my marriage still valid? Should postmenopausal women be forbidden to marry? How does the elevation of procreation as an imperative for marriage fit in with the Catholic doctrine of the perpetual virginity of Mary? Jesus quotes the Genesis passage, but he does so in the context of forbidding divorce to heterosexual couples. When I read the Genesis passage, I don’t understand it as being about the primacy of binary sexuality, but about the equality of men and women created in the image of a God who can’t be understood in an anthropomorphological way. When I read Jesus’s application of the Genesis passage to first-century divorce practices, I don’t understand him to be talking so much about sex, but about the misuse of power by men against women.

My theology comes not so much from individual Bible verses, but from the Bible taken as a whole, and particularly the Bible as it seems to be understood by Jesus. And it seems to me that quite a lot of what Jesus had to say and do was in the direction of inclusion, not exclusion; of principles rather than rules. What “the Bible clearly said” to Jesus was often quite different from what “the Bible clearly said” to religious people who opposed him. That’s how I understand the parable of the wineskins. The rules-based religion Jesus’s opponents promoted had become ossified, like the hardened, inflexible wineskins of the parable. Jesus wanted to bring the people of God to a better understanding of what God expects from humans in terms of their behavior. Jesus understood God’s Prime Directive to be “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you” and like new wine this principle cannot be confined by a set of rules.

Take Sabbath-keeping for example. “Honor the Sabbath day to keep it holy” is actually one of the Ten Commandments, unlike prohibitions against same-sex marriage or gay clergy. It’s a good commandment, and I think the principle behind it is still valid today, even if it is widely ignored. It isn’t good for anyone to work 24/7. We might call it “down time” instead of “rest”, but that’s the idea behind it. Unfortunately people have always had a nasty tendency of idolizing rules while forgetting the reason the rule was created. Hezekiah had to destroy the bronze serpent Moses had created to cure a plague of snakes, because the people of God had started worshipping it rather than remembering why Moses created it in the first place. By the time of Jesus, Sabbath-keeping had become more of a burden than a welcome respite to people. Jesus’s attention to the principle rather than the rule of law often caused him to come into conflict with those who believed the rule was inflexible. If Jesus could help somebody, he would, and it didn’t matter what day of the week it was. “The Sabbath was made for man, not man for the Sabbath.

Like the Sabbath, I think marriage meets a human need- the need for intimacy and companionship. The creation story in Genesis 2 includes a statement by God that “it is not good for the man to be alone. I will create a suitable partner for him“. Yes, I know the first couple was heterosexual, but there wasn’t exactly a large human population at the time from which to make generalizations. When large populations are considered, the majority of people will preferentially seek partners of the opposite sex, but some will be attracted to partners of the same sex, or not feel much in the way of sexual attraction at all. (It’s sadly interesting, although logically consistent, that some in the no-exceptions-to-binary sexuality camp even look askance at asexual, celibate people as being deviant in some way. I find that attitude very strange from both a Biblical and an early church history viewpoint.)

In the Acts passage cited above we read of Peter’s hunger-induced dream of the great sheet filled with items on his potential dinner menu, including, I assume, shrimp and bacon as well as steak and lamb chops. “Do not call unclean anything God has called clean“. This had to have been extremely difficult for Peter to accept, as it was a monumental change of the rules for an observant first-century orthodox Jew. The books of Moses clearly prohibited him from eating non-kosher foods. Peter understood the meaning of the dream to be that the good news Jesus brings is for everyone, not just for Mosaic law-abiding descendents of Abraham. In response, he goes to the home of a Gentile God-seeker named Cornelius and says, You are well aware that it is against our law for a Jew to associate with or visit a Gentile. But God has shown me that I should not call anyone impure or unclean.”…I now realize how true it is that God does not show favoritism but accepts from every nation the one who fears him and does what is right. Peter then shares the good news of Jesus’s life, death, and resurrection with Cornelius and his family. God shows up in a dramatic way, demonstrating his approval of both Peter, who broke what he thought were the rules by coming under Cornelius’s roof, and Cornelius, who was already considered to be an uncircumcised rulebreaker.

Of course, nothing is truly settled, then or now. There were some believers who held to a more rules-oriented criteria for inclusion in the family of God, and some who held to a less rules-oriented criteria. Later in Acts, we read of the Jerusalem Council which was convened to decide which, if any, rules Gentile converts were required to follow. Paul’s letters seem to indicate that he repeatedly had to deal with the same problem in the nascent Christian churches. (for example, his sarcastic suggestion to some of the Galatians here) On the other hand, while the Philippians and Galatians erred on the side of rules-for-the-sake-of-rules, Paul had to rein in the “if it feels good, do it” Corinthians. There’s a difference between breaking rules in order to do good to people, and breaking rules in order to please yourself, without thought of how your behavior might cause harm to someone else. Both “the rules are the rules” and “anything goes” are incompatible with the principle of the One Rule to Rule Them All that we call the Golden Rule or the Royal Law.

Does God sometimes change the rules? And if so, which ones? Or does the Bible show an evolving human understanding of God, and how God expects people to behave? My bet is on the latter. The books of Moses contain quite a few rules that are questioned by some of the greatest of the Hebrew prophets, as well as by Jesus and Paul. So I think that I’m in good company when I question the rule that only heterosexual marriages are valid, or that God only calls heterosexual males to be pastors. I’ve seen those rules hurt too many people. I’ve seen those rules cause too many people to turn away from God. And I don’t think God is too happy when we use rules in ways that harm rather than help people, or cause people to turn away from God.

To those who ask me, “What if I’m right and you’re wrong?” I will answer “What if I’m right and you’re wrong?” I would rather err on the side of inclusivity than exclusivity, because it seems to me that’s what Jesus did. He was continually criticizing those who threw up insurmountable barriers of religious rules that kept people away from God, and he was often criticized for the company he kept.

I think that God’s grace can’t be limited. God pitches a bigger tent and invites more people to the table than we think. And that’s good news to me!

One Wedding, Six Water Jars, and an Epiphany

Second Sunday After the Epiphany

On the third day a wedding took place at Cana in Galilee. Jesus’ mother was there, and Jesus and his disciples had also been invited to the wedding. When the wine was gone, Jesus’ mother said to him, “They have no more wine.”  “Woman,why do you involve me?” Jesus replied. “My hour has not yet come.” His mother said to the servants, “Do whatever he tells you.” Nearby stood six stone water jars, the kind used by the Jews for ceremonial washing, each holding from twenty to thirty gallons. Jesus said to the servants, “Fill the jars with water”; so they filled them to the brim. Then he told them, “Now draw some out and take it to the master of the banquet.” They did so,  and the master of the banquet tasted the water that had been turned into wine. He did not realize where it had come from, though the servants who had drawn the water knew. Then he called the bridegroom aside and said, “Everyone brings out the choice wine first and then the cheaper wine after the guests have had too much to drink; but you have saved the best till now.” What Jesus did here in Cana of Galilee was the first of the signs through which he revealed his glory; and his disciples believed in him. John 2:1-11

John’s gospel differs from Matthew, Mark, and Luke’s telling of the Jesus story in a number of ways, and is the only one who includes the water-into-wine miracle. In fact, John doesn’t use the word “miracle” to describe supernatural acts by Jesus. Rather, he uses the word “sign”. This leads me to believe that John chose to include specific acts in his gospel for metaphorical reasons. That is, John selected miracles not just because they displayed Jesus’s abilities to do things ordinary humans could not, but because they demonstrated something about Jesus that John wanted the reader to understand. John is the most metaphysical and mystical of the gospels, and there is always something else beyond the plain meaning of his stories about Jesus.

What could possibly be the meaning of this story, especially as John notes it is the first sign Jesus performs? I don’t think it’s that Jesus wanted to get everybody drunker than they already were. I can see how someone looking only at the plain meaning of the story might come to that conclusion, though. I can remember certain Baptist Sunday school teachers of my youth insisting that Jesus changed the water into grape juice, not wine. I can’t remember whether I had the nerve to ask or was only thinking, “Then why did the banquet master make that remark about the practice of serving inferior wine after the guest’s taste buds had been sufficiently dulled so as not to notice or care?”  No, I think we have to go beyond the plain meaning of this event to understand its significance.

In ancient times, wine was a symbol of joy. The book of Judges makes a reference to wine cheering both gods and men. Psalms speaks of wine making glad the hearts of men. The writer of Ecclesiastes notes that wine makes life joyful. Micah envisioned a time in the age to come when everyone would sit under his own vine and fig tree. Jesus himself used many metaphors of the kingdom of God as a banquet, a party. Many people have the mistaken impression that if they give their hearts and lives over to God, God is going to demand that that they give up everything they enjoy doing and start doing everything they don’t want to do. There are a lot of jokes, which really aren’t jokes, about people who want to wait until they are on death’s doorstep to “get religion” lest they miss out on the fun of life. Changing the water into wine is a sign to me that God is not a celestial party pooper out to make our lives miserable. As Jesus later will tell his disciples, “I have come that they might have life, and have it more abundantly.” God doesn’t want to ruin our lives, but improve them. Those who “taste and see that the Lord is good” will not want to go back to drinking the inferior wine of a life without God.

John notes that the six water jars were the kind used by religious people for ceremonial washing. I think he included that little detail to make a point. Just as tasteless water was changed into the choicest wine, Jesus was about to change the way people thought about God. Faith should not be thought of as a chore, but a delight. God is not so much concerned about whether we jump through all the right ceremonial hoops, but in how well we love. Jesus would condense all 613 commandments in the Torah into two: love of God and love of others. “So in everything, do to others what you would have them do to you, for this sums up the Law and the Prophets.” Some religious teachers emphasize rules, the “thou shalts” and “thou shalt nots”, some of which may have served a useful purpose at some point in time, but are no longer applicable. Jesus taught principles rather than rules. When he said “I have come not to abolish the Law, but to fulfill it, I think that’s what he meant. Rules may change in adaptation to changing times, but the principles upon which the rules were based are unchanging. And according to Jesus, the primary principle is love: love that is not an emotion, but an action. Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.

The epiphany of the miracle at Cana is that Jesus came not to make life boring or dull, but full and meaningful. God is less concerned with how well we dot all the i’s and cross all the t’s  that with how we treat others.  And that’s good news to me!

 

Know Jesus, Know God

First Sunday After Epiphany

Now when all the people were baptized, and when Jesus also had been baptized and was praying, the heaven was opened, and the Holy Spirit descended upon him in bodily form like a dove. And a voice came from heaven, “You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased.” -Luke 3:21-22

In the Western church, Epiphany is associated with the coming of the Wise Men to visit baby Jesus, but in the Eastern church, Epiphany is associated most closely with the baptism of Jesus. I think the Eastern church has the correct focus. While it is certainly an important epiphany to realize that God is God for all people, not just a select few who happened to have been born in the right place from the right parents, the greatest epiphany of all is that if you want to know what God is like, look to Jesus.

NT Wright relates that in his role as a college chaplain, some of the incoming students would tell him. “You won’t be seeing much of me, because I don’t believe in God”. to which Wright replied, “That’s interesting. Which god is it that you don’t believe in?”  The student’s responses were usually along the lines of what Wright describes as “spy in the sky”, a celestial Santa Claus that watches you all the time, knows when you’ve been naughty or nice, and doles out candy or lumps of coal accordingly. Wright would then say, “I’m not surprised you don’t believe in that god; I don’t believe in that god either.”

I’ve had similar experiences with some of my former students, many of whom were professing Christians as high school students but are now professing atheists. I tell them I don’t believe in the “angry sky god” of the new atheist writers, either. God is not a cosmic policeman, a celestial Santa Claus, or Thor for that matter. The God in whom I trust (which is, by the way, a better word choice than “believe”) can best be seen in the person of Jesus. If you want to know what God is really like, look at Jesus- what he taught, how he lived, how he treated people.

The story of Jesus’s baptism affirms Jesus as God’s special representative. “This is my beloved son, in whom I am well pleased“. The same phrase is repeated toward the end of Jesus’s ministry at the Transfiguration.  I like the way the writer of Hebrews phrases it,

In the past God spoke to our ancestors through the prophets at many times and in various ways,  but in these last days he has spoken to us by his Son, whom he appointed heir of all things, and through whom also he made the universe.  The Son is the radiance of God’s glory and the exact representation of his being, sustaining all things by his powerful word.

In my mind, this passage expresses the thought that people have often had wrong, or at least incomplete, ideas about God. That includes not just those opposed to the idea of God, or nominal believers, but some very devout believers. Even Biblical characters are not exempt from having wrong ideas about God. For example Jephthah apparently thought God was okay with human sacrifice; otherwise why would he have made the foolish vow to sacrifice “whatever first comes out of my house to greet me should God give me victory” Jeremiah hears God saying of human sacrifice, “I have never commanded such a horrible deed; it never even crossed my mind to command such a thing!” Even John the Baptist, who recognized Jesus as God’s promised Messiah, didn’t have a complete picture. The Gospel reading for today includes excerpts from John’s sinners-in-the-hands-of-an-angry-God sermons about winnowing forks and unquenchable fire. When Jesus didn’t turn out to behave in the ways John had expected, John wondered if he’d been mistaken. Jesus’s response was, “Go back to John and tell him what you have seen and heard–the blind see, the lame walk, the lepers are cured, the deaf hear, the dead are raised to life, and the Good News is being preached to the poor.”

During his ministry on earth, Jesus attempted to clarify what God was like and what God asks of the people of God. He compared God to a loving father, not an angry, capricious dictator. He instructed his disciples to address God as “father” in what we call the Lord’s prayer. The story we know as the parable of the Prodigal Son could better be titled the parable of the Loving Father. When he instructed his disciples to love their enemies, he equated that to behaving like God: “But I tell you, love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, that you may be sons of your Father in heaven. He causes His sun to rise on the evil and the good, and sends rain on the righteous and the unrighteous” The God revealed by Jesus is not an “angry sky god”.

Jesus repeatedly condemned the kind of bad theology that harms other people. He hinted that some traditions which were considered of paramount importance by the people of God in his time were not so much God’s commands as traditions of human origin.He often used the phrase “you have heard it said….but I say to you to elaborate on or even change the meaning of the rules that should govern the lives of God’s people. For example, “Man was not made for the Sabbath, but the Sabbath for man.” The God revealed by Jesus is not a cosmic policeman setting up a speed trap in order to punish violators.

Unlike some of the most religious people of his time, Jesus didn’t equate health and wealth as God’s reward for good behavior and sickness and poverty as God’s punishment for bad behavior.  John relates a story in which Jesus and his disciples encountered a man who was born blind. “His disciples asked him, “Rabbi, who sinned, this man or his parents, that he was born blind?” “Neither this man nor his parents sinned,” said Jesus, “but this happened so that the works of God might be displayed in him.  As long as it is day, we must do the works of him who sent me.”The God revealed by Jesus is not a celestial Santa Claus doling out rewards to rule followers and punishments to rule breakers.

Jesus lived what he taught. He fed people who were hungry and healed people who were sick, without regard to whether they were worthy or not. He went to the cross for our sake, where some of his last words were “Father, forgive them.” If Jesus is the beloved son in whom God is pleased, if Jesus is the radiance of God’s glory and the exact representation of  God’s being, if Jesus is the image of the invisible God, then Jesus’s words and actions are what shows us what God is really like.

Theology matters, and mistaken ideas about God have been the cause of some very terrible things throughout history. If you want to have the right ideas about God, and about how God expects humans to behave, look to Jesus. God is like Jesus.

And that’s good news to me.

 

Eureka!

The following is the script for the sermon I gave on Epiphany Sunday at Spirit of Hope United Methodist Church, with added hyperlinks to supplemental information.

When I was a science teacher, I used to tell my students a story about Archimedes, the Greek philosopher and scientist who lived in the 3rd century BC. Here’s how it goes: The king had commissioned a goldsmith to make a solid gold crown. When he received the finished work, he suspected that the goldsmith had cheated him by substituting a cheaper metal for some of the gold the king had given him. But he didn’t know how to prove it. Archimedes, who was employed by the king for his scientific knowledge, knew that different metals had different densities. If he could determine the density of the crown, he would know whether it was solid gold or not. Density is mass divided by volume. He could determine the mass of the crown by weighing it, but how could he calculate the volume of an irregularly shaped object without melting it down and destroying it? For days he thought about the problem, trying to come up with a solution. One day, he happened to be puzzling over the problem as he lowered himself into the bathtub. He noticed that the water level in the tub rose as his body went under water, and suddenly a light bulb came on in his head. He could calculate the volume of the crown by measuring the amount of water it displaced! Archimedes was so excited that he jumped out of the tub, forgetting to dress, and ran naked down the streets of town shouting “Eureka!” which translated means, “I have found it!”

You might say that Archimedes had an epiphany. If you look up “epiphany” in a thesaurus, you’ll find that its top synonym is “revelation”. Other synonyms include appearance, manifestation, and realization It comes from a Greek word that means to reveal. In is a moment like Archimedes had, you realize something you hadn’t realized before, you understand something in a new way. An epiphany is a sudden realization that can change everything…a Eureka moment!

The story about the Wise Men is an epiphany- something about the nature of God is revealed to those who are paying attention enough to notice it.

Despite what the carol “We Three Kings” says, the Wise Men were probably not kings and we don’t know how many of them there were. The tradition that there were three of them probably came from the three gifts of gold, myrrh, and frankincense. The idea that they were kings probably came from a passage in Isaiah which says “Nations will come to your light, and kings to the brightness of your dawn.”

Matthew just writes that “there came Magi from the east. “Magi” is often translated “wise men”, but it has the same root meaning as the word “magic”. It’s the same word used of Simon the Magician in Acts, who was not an exemplary character. Magic was not exactly kosher; God’s people were advised to stay away from it in rather strong terms. Although we are not sure exactly where in the east they came from, one widely accepted theory is that they were most likely from Persia, where modern day Iran is.

The book of Jeremiah makes a couple of references to magi in the role of advisors to the Babylonian king, and their presence is implied in the book of Daniel too. Magi were astrologers and priests of the Zoroastrian religion, who cast horoscopes and interpreted dreams in order to advise the king. This would have been a high-status position in the Persian court for which they would have been well compensated. They must have been wealthy in order to afford the long trip to Bethlehem, bearing expensive symbolic gifts.

So what’s the epiphany? What did Matthew realize about the character of God that caused him to include this particular story in his gospel? You’ll remember that Luke chose instead to include the story of angels announcing Jesus’s birth to shepherds, but in Matthew the good news of Jesus’s birth is communicated to those on the other end of the socioeconomic spectrum. As one of my Baptist Sunday School teachers used to say, “God is concerned with the down and outs, but also the up and outs.” God cares about everyone and everyone needs God, whether they know it or not.

The epiphany, the big reveal of the Wise Men’s journey is that God is God of all people, both Jews and Gentiles. God doesn’t play favorites. Paul came to this realization when he wrote to the Ephesians that the mystery of Christ,“ was not made known to people in other generations as it has now been revealed by the Spirit to God’s holy apostles and prophets.  This mystery is that through the gospel the Gentiles are heirs together with Israel, members together of one body, and sharers together in the promise in Christ Jesus.”(Ephesians 3:2-6)

This idea that God was the God of all people would not have gone over well with many of the religious leaders at this time. Most of them thought of God in rather tribalistic ways. That is, they were God’s special favorites. As long as they were careful to observe all the laws God had given to them, God would specially bless them. Outsiders were dangerous and should be avoided, because they had different customs and beliefs that might cause God’s people to fall into sin.

Although the Wise Men were well-educated, rich, and well-respected in their own country, they would have been considered outsiders by most of God’s people at the time. They were of a different religion, were of a different culture, spoke a different language. They worshipped one god, but they called their god Azura Mazda rather than Yahweh. Their primary prophet was Zoroaster, not Moses. They were not descendants of Abraham and they did not observe the laws of Moses or the traditions interpreting these. They were not of the same tribe, and therefore potentially dangerous.

God’s people at that time took very seriously what they understood to be God’s command to separate themselves from Gentiles. They feared they might be contaminated by association with them. Had the Wise Men wanted to learn more about the God of Israel, they would have found it very difficult. For example, they would not have been allowed into the Temple past the outermost courtyard. They would have been told that in order to become a part of the people of God, they would have to be circumcised and follow all kinds of dietary laws and other customs. They’d probably have to give up their day jobs, too, as the magic arts were generally frowned upon.

God had commissioned his people to be a “light to the Gentiles” beginning with Abraham, whom he promised “in thee all the families of the earth shall be blessed”. Whenever God’s people decide to hide God’s light under a bushel and hoard God’s blessings for themselves, God is going to act, sometimes in ways that surprise us. God met the Wise Men where they were. If you think about it, God actually used one of the tools of their religion to bring them to Him. They studied the stars looking for meaning and guidance, so God gave them a star, a star that led them to Jesus. And when they finally found Jesus, they knew they had found what they were looking for. Eureka!

The Bible records many Eureka moments, moments when God breaks through our blurred vision and our impaired hearing and makes an appearance. With Abraham, we have the beginning of the understanding that there is only one God. With Moses, we have the genesis of ethical monotheism; that is, the one God expects us to behave in certain ways. With the great 8th century prophets like Amos, Micah, and Isaiah, we see the light beginning to dawn on people that God is more concerned with how we treat other people than if we are saying the right religious words and performing the right religious rituals.

All these glimpses into the nature of God are leading up to one great epiphany, the one that was first glimpsed in a manger in Bethlehem. If you want to know what God is like, look to Jesus.  The writer of Hebrews puts it this way: In the past God spoke to our ancestors through the prophets at many times and in various ways, but in these last days he has spoken to us by his Son, whom he appointed heir of all things, and through whom also he made the universe. The Son is the radiance of God’s glory and the exact representation of his being, sustaining all things by his powerful word. (Hebrews 1:1-3)

Epiphany is more than a once-a-year celebration of divine revelation. God revealed his nature fully and completely in Jesus and God is still revealing himself to those who seek him. During his last night before he gave his life for us. Jesus told his disciples that epiphanies would continue: I still have much to tell you, but you cannot yet bear to hear it. However, when the Spirit of truth comes, He will guide you into all truth. For He will not speak on His own, but He will speak what He hears, and He will declare to you what is to come. He will glorify Me by taking from what is Mine and disclosing it to you.” (John 16:12-14)

Not everyone in Bethlehem heard the voices of the angels which directed the shepherds to the manger. Not everyone in Persia understood the meaning of the star that guided the Wise Men on their journey. The year to come will hold many Eureka moments for those who seek God, for “The LORD is near to all who call on him, to all who call on him in truth” (Psalm 145:18)

May we have eyes to see and ears to hear what God is saying through the Spirit to us today. Amen.

Audio of sermon can be found here.