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.

 

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Pax Romana and the Peace of Christ

 

And suddenly there appeared with the angel a great multitude of the heavenly host, praising God and saying: “Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace to men on whom His favor rests!” Luke 2:13-14

Peace I leave with you; my peace I give you. I do not give to you as the world gives. Do not let your hearts be troubled and do not be afraid. John 14:27

On the second Sunday of Advent we light the candle of peace. It is interesting to note that the assurance of peace is a motif that appeared both at the beginning of Jesus’s earthly life and at the end of it. The angels proclaimed peace when Jesus was born, and Jesus reassured his disciples that his peace would remain with them, even when he was no longer physically present with them. But, as Jesus said, God’s definition of peace means something different than the way we usually understand the meaning of the word. 

The Pax Romana was a period of about two hundred years, during which the known world was relatively free from war, and which enjoyed relative domestic tranquility. This was accomplished through the power of the Roman Empire, which had had no serious international rivals since Augustus defeated Mark Anthony and Cleopatra. Domestic tranquility was assured through a heavy-handed law-and-order approach which brooked no dissent and offenders were severely punished. (Remember “Spartacus“?) 

When Jesus offered his peace to his followers, he wasn’t talking about the absence of conflict. In fact, he predicted that his coming would inevitably cause conflict between citizens of the Kingdom of God and the kingdoms of the world. It did, and it still does, because the two realms are incompatible. “No one can serve two masters. Either you will hate the one and love the other, or you will be devoted to the one and despise the other. You cannot serve both God and money.” Citizens of the Kingdom of God have pledged allegiance to God, not to Caesar.  Citizens of the kingdoms of the world place their trust primarily in Mammon (money; capitalism unrestrained by ethics) or Ares (war; power achieved through force or coercion) 

Citizens of the Kingdom of God know that it is God alone who saves, and that salvation is not always a physical thing. As Victor Frankl expressed it in Man’s Search for Meaning. “Life is not primarily a quest for pleasure, as Freud believed, or a quest for power, as Alfred Adler taught, but a quest for meaning. The greatest task for any person is to find meaning in his or her life.” Jesus put it this way, “For what does it benefit someone to gain the whole world and yet lose his soul?One can be a billionaire and lead an empty, meaningless life. I think that’s one reason behind the substance addiction that seems so widespread in the families of celebrities, who are often very rich. And Alexander the Great reportedly wept after learning there were no more worlds for him to conquer. 

The Pax Romana eventually failed, as did the Pax Britannica centuries later, and as will the Pax Americana sooner or later. Many people have very different ideas about what causes the enforced peace of empires to crumble, but I think it’s because the idea that peace can be accomplished by force is innately wrong. That isn’t how God designed the moral universe to work. Lasting peace will come only through the Pax Christus, the peace of Christ.

So what is “the peace of Christ”? I think a clue can be found in the context of the Johannine passage, which promises the coming of the Holy Spirit. The Holy Spirit is the presence of God within in us, and it doesn’t depend on external circumstances. It can’t be bought with money, or taken away by external force. As Paul expressed it,Who shall separate us from the love of Christ? Shall tribulation, or distress, or persecution, or famine, or nakedness, or danger, or sword?  As it is written, “For your sake we are being killed all the day long; we are regarded as sheep to be slaughtered.”No, in all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us. For I am sure that neither death nor life, nor angels nor rulers, nor things present nor things to come, nor powers, nor height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.”

The peace of Christ is available to all who follow Jesus. When a person begins to do that...not just “believe”, but behave accordingly…they will begin to experience this kind of peace. This peace is not necessarily an absence of trouble or even anxiety, but an assurance that you are in good hands and on the right side of history. If enough people would begin to emulate Jesus in everything they say and do, how different…how peaceful….our world would be!

And that’s good news to me.

Nobody’s Above the Law

Eleventh Sunday After Pentecost

But the thing David had done displeased the Lord. 2 Samuel 11:27

James I of England is generally given credit for developing the theory of the divine right of kings,  and arguments for and against the idea came strongly into political play during the time of the American Revolution. King Louis XIV of France is reported to have coined the phrase, “L’état, c’est moi.” Some might argue that Jeff Session’s recent public interpretation of Romans 13 uses the concept of divine right to justify the policy of family separation for those who have crossed the US border without official permission. However, the idea that powerful people can do anything they want and are above the law has been around much longer than that. It was certainly commonplace practice during the Bronze and Iron Ages.  Perhaps that’s what David was thinking when he arranged for Uriah’s death in order to acquire Bathsheba for himself.

You can read the whole sordid story in 2 Samuel 11-12 but here’s a quick summary: David has been having a pretty successful run after the death of Saul, assuming first control of the southern territories, and then expanding his rule over the northern tribes as well. He wrests control of Jerusalem from the Jebusites, gets the Ark of the Covenant back from the Philistines, builds himself a nice palace, makes plans to build a temple for God, has a number of significant military victories, and acquires several wives. But for some unknown reason,  one spring “at the time when kings go off to war” David decides to stay home and send the Israelite army off without him. Late one evening he becomes restless, goes up onto his rooftop, and spies on his neigbor Bathsheba, whose husband Uriah is away with the rest of the army. In any event, he decides that he wants to have sex with her. Like many women in the “Me Too” movement, Bathsheba is hardly in a position to say no. When she becomes pregnant as a result of  David’s blatant violation of the seventh commandment, he unsuccessfully tries a number of ruses to get Uriah home to bed his wife before the pregnancy becomes obvious. Uriah is too scrupulous to do that during wartime, so David asks his trusted deputy Joab to arrange a battlefield “accident” for Uriah. Now David is guilty of  blatantly violating the sixth commandment as well as the seventh. He quickly marries Bathsheba; problem solved, or so he thinks. And that’s where today’s reading picks up:

But the thing David had done displeased the Lord. The Lord sent Nathan to David. When he came to him, he said, “There were two men in a certain town, one rich and the other poor.  The rich man had a very large number of sheep and cattle, but the poor man had nothing except one little ewe lamb he had bought. He raised it, and it grew up with him and his children. It shared his food, drank from his cup and even slept in his arms. It was like a daughter to him. “Now a traveler came to the rich man, but the rich man refrained from taking one of his own sheep or cattle to prepare a meal for the traveler who had come to him. Instead, he took the ewe lamb that belonged to the poor man and prepared it for the one who had come to him.” David burned with anger against the man and said to Nathan, “As surely as the Lord lives, the man who did this must die!  He must pay for that lamb four times over, because he did such a thing and had no pity.” Then Nathan said to David, “You are the man! This is what the Lord, the God of Israel, says: ‘I anointed you king over Israel, and I delivered you from the hand of Saul.  I gave your master’s house to you, and your master’s wives into your arms. I gave you all Israel and Judah. And if all this had been too little, I would have given you even more. Why did you despise the word of the Lord by doing what is evil in his eyes? You struck down Uriah the Hittite with the sword and took his wife to be your own. You killed him with the sword of the Ammonites.  Now, therefore, the sword will never depart from your house, because you despised me and took the wife of Uriah the Hittite to be your own.’“This is what the Lord says: ‘Out of your own household I am going to bring calamity on you. Before your very eyes I will take your wives and give them to one who is close to you, and he will sleep with your wives in broad daylight. 12 You did it in secret, but I will do this thing in broad daylight before all Israel.’” Then David said to Nathan, “I have sinned against the Lord.” -2 Samuel 11:27-12:13

There are several thoughts that come to my mind when I read this passage. David may have thought that because he was king, he could do whatever he wanted and get away with it. As absolute ruler, I suppose David could have made everything legal by making an official proclamation to that effect. But what is legal is not necessarily kosher, and that’s not how God thinks. I believe God wove his moral law into the fabric of the universe, and no one is above that law. If it’s not okay for a commoner to rape and kill, it’s not okay for a king either. The rules are supposed to be applied equally to the rich and the poor, the powerful and the weak. Justice is one of the main themes of the Hebrew Bible, along with strong admonitions that rulers are to use their power and wealth to benefit others, not to please themselves. David wasn’t above God’s law, and God let David know that by sending Nathan the prophet to tell him so.

To me, the hero of this story is Nathan, not David. Speaking truth to power can be hazardous to one’s health, so I admire Nathan’s courage and cleverness as well as his moral clarity. It is Nathan, not David, who comes across as  “a man after God’s own heart”   here. Nathan understands how God expects humans to behave and he knows that David has missed the mark by a wide margin. But how can he communicate this in a way that he will be heard, while avoiding the personal repercussions from the wrath of an angry king who doesn’t want to be told what to do? Nathan goes about his goal obliquely, by telling a story. He crafts his story so well that David can’t help but be sympathetic for Nathan’s fictional poor man. It is only after David expresses his anger at the rich man’s outrageous behavior that Nathan delivers his punchline, “You are the man!” I think writers and storytellers and playwrights are often more important in God’s eyes than we know. They can say things that would never be heard otherwise, and if they are in tune with the heart of God they can be a very powerful force for good.

David’s life, at least as recorded in 2 Samuel, went rapidly downhill after the Bathsheba affair. Despite David’s public acts of contrition,  the child of his illicit dalliance died. I have to wonder if being a terrible role model for his other children didn’t have something to do with the fulfillment of Nathan’s prediction, which followed the Amnon/Absalom/Tamar debacle. Just as David felt he had a right to take Bathsheba because he was king, Amnon thought he had a right to take Tamar because he was a prince. Just as David plotted Uriah’s death, Absalom plotted to kill Amnon, and to take David’s throne. In my thinking, that’s how the business of the sins of the parents being visited on succeeding generations usually works. For example, absent divine intervention, therapy, or a combination of both, children of abusers often grow up to be abusers themselves.

Today’s reading also includes Psalm 51, which David is said to have written after his encounter with Nathan, and in which he expresses deep repentance for his behavior. It’s beautiful, emotionally expressive poetry, but I have a problem with those who derive theological implications from David’s declaration that “against thee and thee only (God) have I sinned”.  I think David sinned against quite a few others, including to begin with Uriah, Bathsheba, and the unnamed child who died, but also against Joab by giving him an order to kill. Then there were the loyal soldiers who were collateral damage in the ploy to get rid of Uriah, along with David’s other wives and children. I see the phrase as hyperbole expressing David’s conviction that sinning against humans pales in comparison to sinning against God. The problem I have with that kind of theology is that there’s plenty of evidence in the rest of the Bible, particularly the New Testament, to indicate that when you sin against human beings, you  are sinning against God, If all humans bear the image of God, then how you treat other human beings is how you treat God. “Thou shalt love the Lord thy God with all thy heart, soul, and mind” is irreversibly yoked with “thou shalt love thy neighbor as thyself.  Eighth-century prophets like Amos railed against those who were careful to observe the ritual law while ignoring the moral law. “I hate, I despise your feasts, and I take no delight in your solemn assemblies. Even though you offer me your burnt offerings and grain offerings,I will not accept them; and the peace offerings of your fattened animals, I will not look upon them. Take away from me the noise of your songs; to the melody of your harps I will not listen. But let justice roll down like waters, and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream. In the parable of the sheep and the goats, Jesus tells his listeners that  whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you did for me.”  Paul summed up the moral law in one commandment: love your neighbor as yourself., as did James: “If you really keep the royal law stated in Scripture, “Love your neighbor as yourself,” you are doing well. But if you show favoritism, you sin and are convicted by the law as transgressors“.

God doesn’t have one set of rules for the rich, powerful “winners” and another one for the poor, vulnerable, and forgotten “losers”. God cares about justice, and is still using courageous voices to remind us that God’s moral law is part of the design of the universe, and applies to everyone. And that’s good news to me.

 

The Last Lecture of Jesus

Ascension Day

In my former book, Theophilus, I wrote about all that Jesus began to do and to teach  until the day he was taken up to heaven, after giving instructions through the Holy Spirit to the apostles he had chosen. After his suffering, he presented himself to them and gave many convincing proofs that he was alive. He appeared to them over a period of forty days and spoke about the kingdom of God. On one occasion, while he was eating with them, he gave them this command: “Do not leave Jerusalem, but wait for the gift my Father promised, which you have heard me speak about. For John baptized with water, but in a few days you will be baptized with the Holy Spirit.” Then they gathered around him and asked him, “Lord, are you at this time going to restore the kingdom to Israel?” He said to them: “It is not for you to know the times or dates the Father has set by his own authority. But you will receive power when the Holy Spirit comes on you; and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.” After he said this, he was taken up before their very eyes, and a cloud hid him from their sight. Acts 1-9

Then he opened their minds so they could understand the Scriptures. He told them, “This is what is written: The Messiah will suffer and rise from the dead on the third day,  and repentance for the forgiveness of sins will be preached in his name to all nations, beginning at Jerusalem. You are witnesses of these things. I am going to send you what my Father has promised; but stay in the city until you have been clothed with power from on high.” When he had led them out to the vicinity of Bethany, he lifted up his hands and blessed them. While he was blessing them, he left them and was taken up into heaven. Then they worshiped him and returned to Jerusalem with great joy. And they stayed continually at the temple, praising God. Luke 24:45-53

Then the eleven disciples went to Galilee, to the mountain where Jesus had told them to go. When they saw him, they worshiped him; but some doubted. Then Jesus came to them and said, “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. Therefore go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you. And surely I am with you always, to the very end of the age.” Matthew 28:16-20

He said to them, “Go into all the world and preach the gospel to all creation. Whoever believes and is baptized will be saved, but whoever does not believe will be condemned. And these signs will accompany those who believe: In my name they will drive out demons; they will speak in new tongues; they will pick up snakes with their hands; and when they drink deadly poison, it will not hurt them at all; they will place their hands on sick people, and they will get well.” After the Lord Jesus had spoken to them, he was taken up into heaven and he sat at the right hand of God. Then the disciples went out and preached everywhere, and the Lord worked with them and confirmed his word by the signs that accompanied it. Mark 16:15-20

When they had finished eating, Jesus said to Simon Peter, “Simon son of John, do you love me more than these?” “Yes, Lord,” he said, “you know that I love you.” Jesus said, “Feed my lambs.” Again Jesus said, “Simon son of John, do you love me?” He answered, “Yes, Lord, you know that I love you.” Jesus said, “Take care of my sheep.” The third time he said to him, “Simon son of John, do you love me?” Peter was hurt because Jesus asked him the third time, “Do you love me?” He said, “Lord, you know all things; you know that I love you.” Jesus said, “Feed my sheep. Very truly I tell you, when you were younger you dressed yourself and went where you wanted; but when you are old you will stretch out your hands, and someone else will dress you and lead you where you do not want to go.” Jesus said this to indicate the kind of death by which Peter would glorify God. Then he said to him, “Follow me!” John 21:15-19

According to the Acts passage, Jesus spent forty days following his resurrection being physically present with his followers. The gospel writers have somewhat differing accounts of Jesus’s final instructions to his disciples, although the general message seems to be the same, especially insofar as Matthew and Luke/Acts are concerned. Jesus will no longer be around in human form, but he will always be with them in ways they don’t yet understand, and the disciples are commanded not only to follow his teachings, but to share them with others as well. The Markan passage, minus the snake handling and poison-drinking bits, is a little closer to what I was taught was the primary focus of the gospel: turn or burn.   However, the words attributed to Jesus by Mark do not occur in the earliest known copies of his gospel, and many scholars believe they may have been added some time later.  The last chapter of John doesn’t mention Jesus’s ascension, but a conversation with Peter where Jesus repeatedly tells Peter that the way to demonstrate his love and loyalty is by taking responsibility for the care of others. His final words to Peter, as John tells the story, are “Follow me”.

I grew up in the Baptist church, where we not only didn’t observe the liturgical calendar, we were somewhat proud of not doing so. So I don’t remember any special services or sermons commemorating Jesus’s ascension into heaven forty days after Easter. But oh boy, do I remember hearing about “the Great Commission”: “Therefore go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you”and “you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.

In the Baptist understanding of the word, “witnessing” and the phrase “making disciples” were synonymous with what others might call “proselytizing”; that is, striving to convert people to our faith understanding. This often involved the spiritual equivalent of “cold calling”, starting a conversation along the lines of “If you were to die today do you know whether you would go to heaven or to hell?” If the person said no (and didn’t slam the actual or metaphorical door in your face) then you followed up with some version of the “Four Spiritual Laws” or used a Bible to point out the “Roman Road” ,hopefully leading the person to pray “the sinner’s prayer“, thus accepting Jesus as “Lord and Savior”. But if Jesus were to physically walk among us today and observe what passes for “witnessing”, I think he might shake his head and say “You keep using that word. I do not think it means what you think it means

Jesus’s final instructions were to make disciples, which is not the same as getting someone to agree with a set of doctrinal statements or recite an incantation of magic words.  Following Jesus is a bit more demanding than that. It is a complete paradigm shift, a total change of orientation, a different way of seeing everything. For starters, it  means making an effort to act like Jesus in all our dealings with others. Jesus made it pretty clear that following him means consistently living the Golden Rule, “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you“. Jesus didn’t seem to be as concerned with correct beliefs as many people today seem to be, and in fact warned that people could profess all the seemingly “correct” things, but not be on the same team at all. “Not everyone who says to Me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ will enter the kingdom of heaven, but he who does the will of My Father who is in heaven will enter. Many will say to Me on that day, ‘Lord, Lord, did we not prophesy in Your name, and in Your name cast out demons, and in Your name perform many miracles?’ And then I will declare to them, ‘I never knew you; depart from Me, you who practice lawlessness.” In the parable of the sheep and goats in Matthew 25, the criteria God uses to differentiate the good guys from the bad guys is how they treated other people. There is no mention of belief in that parable, only behavior, and it seems that there are those on both sides who will be surprised by the final answer.

You will be my witnesses” isn’t a command, but a statement of fact. If Christians make the effort to “obey everything I have commanded you” (which is effectively summarized in the Sermon on the Mount) they are witnesses, and very compelling ones. “Let your light so shine before men, that they may see your good works, and glorify your Father which is in heaven.” Conversely, when Christians do not make an attempt to obey the teachings of Jesus, yet claim association with him, they are not only uncompelling witnesses, but “God’s name is blasphemed among the nations” because of their behavior. When it comes to “witnessing”, actions speak louder than words. Or, as the quote attributed to St. Francis goes, “Preach the gospel at all times. When necessary, use words.” Or, as Madeleine L’Engle wrote, “We draw people to Christ not by loudly discrediting what they believe, by telling them how wrong they are and how right we are, but by showing them a light that is so lovely that they want with all their hearts to know the source of it.” The early Christians were first given that name because they had a reputation for acting…well, like Jesus.

In “The Day the Revolution Began”, N.T. Wright postulates that many modern expressions of Christianity have sadly missed the mark Jesus set for us. He uses the term “platonized eschatology” to refer to the tendency to make faith in Jesus more about going to an idealized heaven after death rather than being about a way of life that also has the power to transform the world we live in. The “revolution” Wright sees Jesus as having started was to begin the Kingdom of God “on earth, as it is in heaven” in the here-and-now. The Kingdom of God would grow as a tiny mustard seed into a great tree with many nurturing branches, where all might come and find shelter. Christ’s atonement and resurrection made it possible for humans to begin to faithfully reflect the image of God in which they were created and to realize their true vocation- to join God in the task of putting right everything that has gone wrong in this world, and to enjoy the company of God and each other both here and hereafter.

As Jesus taught us to pray, God’s will will be done, on earth as it is in the alternate universe we call heaven. As Handel envisioned in words and music, the kingdom of this world (power, money, and self-gratification) will become the kingdom of the Lord, and of his Christ. (love, joy, peace, patience, goodness, kindness, gentleness, faithfulness, and self-control). And that’s good news to me.

 

 

 

Thou Shalt Not Make Graven Images

You shall not make for yourself an image in the form of anything in heaven above or on the earth beneath or in the waters below. You shall not bow down to them or worship them; for I, the Lord your God, am a jealous God, punishing the children for the sin of the parents to the third and fourth generation of those who hate me, but showing love to a thousand generations of those who love me and keep my commandments.

The second commandment overlaps the first quite a bit, so much so that in some faith traditions the two are combined. While the first commandment is concerned with putting God first, the second specifically deals with symbols for the kind of things that might be given priority over God. Depending on the translation, these may be called “idols”, “carved images”, “likenesses”, or “statues”, and the categories used to describe these were quite broad. Most scholars believe that it was not images per se that were forbidden, but the worship of those images. However,  there are some Biblical literalists who disagree. The Protestant reformers  in Tudor England went about destroying religious works of art quite zealously. and there are many other examples of iconoclasm throughout history. An internet search on the phrase “graven images” will show you that there are people who hold to that line of thought today. One site I visited even suggested that allowing children to play with stuffed animals was a violation of this commandment, and might create an opening for demonic attack. (Cue theme from “The Exorcist.”)

Since I am not a literalist, I tend to agree with the idea that it is not the “likenesses” themselves that are a problem, but idolatry, or prioritizing anything above God. God is not particularly concerned with the family pictures or artwork I display on my walls, or my Instagram pictures of cats, but God is concerned that I have the right priorities. Anything that is given priority over God’s prime directive of love can become an idol. It is not things themselves that are bad, but the wrong use of things, and even good things can become idols. Each one of the “seven deadly sins” can be seen as idolatry: the result of taking something good and elevating it to a bad extreme. And symbols which might have represented one thing at one time can come to represent something entirely different at another time. When the created symbol becomes more important than the reason it was created, bad consequences are sure to follow.

There’s a story in Numbers about a bronze snake that God commands Moses to make intended to be an instrument of divine healing. Many years later, the writer of the book of Kings commends Hezekiah for destroying it   because it had become an object of worship.. It seems to me that the meaning of the symbol had changed over the years. Where once it was used by God as an instrument of healing, it came to mean something different in Hezekiah’s time. Perhaps they still saw it as a source of healing, but one that was under their control instead of God’s. Burn a pinch of incense, say the right words, and you would be healed. God has become a peripheral part of the equation, subject to the magical properties of the symbol. The story reminds me of the proliferation of relics in the medieval Catholic church, which were often viewed as having magical healing properties.

When I think of the de-evolution of the bronze snake into an idol, I can’t help but think of the quasi-idolatry demonstrated by some in connection with the American flag, the Pledge of Allegiance, and the National Anthem. As I understand it, the flag and the Pledge of Allegiance were meant to be symbols of the freedom and unity enshrined in our Constitution.”One nation, indivisible, with liberty and justice for all”. The brouhahas over standing vs sitting vs kneeling when the National Anthem is sung have eclipsed the original meaning of these symbols; it seems the symbols have become more important than the reasons they were created. If the flag “still stands for freedom, and they can’t take that away” why shouldn’t a person have the liberty to stand or sit or kneel as they choose? I suppose freedom also means a person attending a sporting event has the right to drink beer, talk to neighbors in the stands, or peruse a smartphone during the national anthem, although I personally wouldn’t opt to do those things. As I understand it, those who choose to kneel are doing it because they do believe in freedom, liberty, and justice for all, and love America enough to want to see those ideals more fully realized. And I’m really not sure how the idea that not standing is meant to convey a lack of support for those serving our country in the military got into this equation at all. Just as the Israelites forgot the original purpose of the bronze snake, I’m afraid that the meaning of the flag as a symbol of freedom and equality has become distorted into something different. Unity in conformity has replaced unity in diversity.

And while I’m busily alienating those who don’t agree with me about this, I don’t think national flags belong in churches, either, especially not front and center on the platform, and certainly not as the focal point of a worship service. I’m all for celebrating Fourth of July with flags and parades and fireworks and patriotic songs, but to me those patriotic displays belong in a secular setting, not in a church. I’m pretty uncomfortable when love for God is conflated with love for country. As a Christian, my primary allegiance is to God and the kingdom of God, which transcends all national boundaries. As the writer of Revelation envisioned heaven  “After this I looked, and there before me was a great multitude that no one could count, from every nation, tribe, people and language, standing before the throne and before the Lamb. They were wearing white robes and were holding palm branches in their hands. And they cried out in a loud voice:“Salvation belongs to our God, who sits on the throne, and to the Lamb.”  I really am concerned that, for some people, the American flag has become an idol, one which is elevated in practice if not in name above God. And of course, this is only one example of a misused symbol.

“Thou shalt not make any graven images”. I’m afraid the human race hasn’t outgrown the siren song of idolatry. And as Moses warned, when we listen to it we endanger not only ourselves, but our children and our children’s children and our children’s children’s children.

 

Joseph: You May Say That I’m a Dreamer

Fifteenth Sunday After Pentecost

When Joseph’s brothers saw that their father was dead, they said, “What if Joseph holds a grudge against us and pays us back for all the wrongs we did to him?” So they sent word to Joseph, saying, “Your father left these instructions before he died: ‘This is what you are to say to Joseph: I ask you to forgive your brothers the sins and the wrongs they committed in treating you so badly.’ Now please forgive the sins of the servants of the God of your father.” When their message came to him, Joseph wept. His brothers then came and threw themselves down before him. “We are your slaves,” they said. But Joseph said to them, “Don’t be afraid. Am I in the place of God? You intended to harm me, but God intended it for good to accomplish what is now being done, the saving of many lives.  So then, don’t be afraid. I will provide for you and your children.” And he reassured them and spoke kindly to them. Genesis 50: 15-21

The Joseph stories, found in Genesis 37-50, have always been among my favorite Bible stories, and I particularly love the conclusion to his saga as told in today’s  reading. Joseph’s story begins in Genesis 37, where he is the pampered and probably somewhat spoiled eleventh son of Jacob. It doesn’t help the family dynamics that he is the son of Jacob’s favored wife Rachel, who died giving birth to Joseph’s younger brother Benjamin. Although Benjamin is also given special treatment by his aging father, it is Joseph who bears the brunt of his older half-brothers’ anger and jealousy. Joseph’s personality probably had a fair amount to do with that, as he seems to have had a tendency to flaunt his superior status. The ten older brothers cook up a plot to kill Joseph and make it look like an accident, but relent when an opportunity arises to make a few bucks as well as getting rid of their annoying little brother. Instead of killing Joseph, they sell him to slave traders, who carry him off to Egypt in chains. There he undergoes quite a few more trials and tribulations before eventually rising to power as Pharaoh’s second-in-command. He had learned to harness the power of his dreams not only to promote himself, but to advance the welfare of others. Joseph uses his position of authority not only to save Egypt and his family from famine, but also to make Pharaoh a tidy little profit in the bargain. When Jacob finally dies of old age, it sends Joseph’s guilty brothers into a bit of a panic. What if Joseph, no longer constrained by consideration for his father’s feelings, decides it’s payback time? Instead, Joseph responds, “Am I in the place of God? You intended to harm me, but God intended it for good.” And unlike his great-great-great-many times nephew David, Joseph really means what he says. He has changed, and so have his brothers.

I think one of the reasons I like the Joseph story so much is that I can relate to it in several ways. I was a precocious but not very socially aware child, and as a result was frequently ostracized and sometimes bullied. The bullying was usually verbal, but sometimes physical. Usually I could outrun or pedal faster than my would-be tormentors, and escape their intended harm to my person. However, on one occasion when I was walking to school, one of the patrol-boys (this dates me, I know!) deliberately kept me waiting at a crosswalk long enough for a second child to come up from behind and repeatedly hit my back with a plastic golf club. My desire for self-preservation took precedence over my desire to follow the rules, and I took off running and stormed into the principal’s office to report the incident. I remember being quite upset with both my parents and my school because as far as I knew, my attackers were never punished. In retrospect, perhaps that is why “The Count of Monte Cristo” became one of my favorite books for the next few years. Fast forward to about fifty years later, when people began finding long-lost and forgotten classmates through social media. The golf club incident had not been part of my conscious mind for decades. Out of the blue I was contacted by the man the patrol-boy had grown up to be, apologizing and asking for my forgiveness! I had thought that he wasn’t punished, but he told me that not only was he permanently banned from being a patrol-boy, he had been tormented for years remembering and regretting the incident and his part in it.

When I received his first email, I couldn’t help but think of the Joseph story. “You intended to harm me, but God intended it for good.”, because that was how I feel about my painful past now. In retrospect I see that even the bad things that happened in my life have helped mold me into who I am now. I became quite analytical about improving my social skills, and eventually got pretty good at them.  Because I knew first hand how painful it is to be ostracized and teased, I became very sensitive to picking up on the suffering of others, as well as a fierce advocate for the underdog.  I grew out of my Alexandre Dumas-inspired revenge fantasies, and sought instead to become a “wounded healer”. to use my painful experiences as a springboard to help others in pain. My former classmate and I continued to correspond up until the time of his death several years ago. Both of us had changed for the better over the years, and both of us attributed those changes to the working of God in our hearts and minds.

Centuries after the time of Joseph but long before my time, Paul wrote to the Roman Christians, “we know that God causes all things to work together for good to those who love God, to those who are called according to His purpose.” Paul understood what Joseph was talking about, although I think this verse is often misunderstood and misapplied in harmful ways. There are some people who believe so strongly in the sovereignty of God that they think that if something bad happens, God caused it to happen for a reason. I find this kind of thinking disturbing theologically as well as psychologically harmful to the people to whom it is often directed. When someone loses a child, I don’t think it’s because God needed another angel. When someone loses a job, has their home destroyed by a hurricane, or gets cancer, I don’t think it’s because God wants to teach them a lesson of some kind. I don’t think that’s the moral of the Joseph story, or what Paul understood about the nature of God either. The way I see it, bad things can and will happen to all of us. Sometimes these are the result of our own mistakes, but more often they are the result of other people’s bad intentions or bad choices, or just plain bad luck.  It is how we respond to the bad things in life that determine whether we are broken or made stronger by them. We can turn inward and be consumed by despair and anger and regret, or we can turn to God, who is able to turn suffering into hope.

I understand the character of God to be a creative, redemptive force for good in the universe. For me, God is not a puppet master, but a beloved companion. When bad things happen, God is with us, weeping with us, striving to help us weave the broken threads together into something good and true. He is Emmanuel, God-with-us, working with and through us for the transformation of our lives and of our world. And that’s good news to me.

 

How to Live in “Interesting Times”

Thirteenth Sunday after Pentecost

Let love be genuine; hate what is evil, hold fast to what is good; love one another with mutual affection; outdo one another in showing honor.
Do not lag in zeal, be ardent in spirit, serve the Lord.
Rejoice in hope, be patient in suffering, persevere in prayer.  
Contribute to the needs of the saints; extend hospitality to strangers.
Bless those who persecute you; bless and do not curse them.
Rejoice with those who rejoice, weep with those who weep.
Live in harmony with one another; do not be haughty, but associate with the lowly; do not claim to be wiser than you are.
Do not repay anyone evil for evil, but take thought for what is noble in the sight of all.
If it is possible, so far as it depends on you, live peaceably with all.
Beloved, never avenge yourselves, but leave room for the wrath of God;for it is written, “Vengeance is mine, I will repay, says the Lord.” No, “if your enemies are hungry, feed them; if they are thirsty, give them something to drink; for by doing this you will heap burning coals on their heads.”
Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good.
Romans 12:9-24

This week’s Romans passage has been on my mind a lot this week, particularly the verse about “if it is possible, so far as it depends on you, live peaceably with all.” It seems I’ve been antagonizing, and being antagonized by, Facebook friends left and right a great deal during this past week. My discomfort with my friends on the right had to do with the “Nashville statement”,  much of with which I do not agree, and my discomfort with my friends on the left had to do with the aggressively violent components of antifa, with which I also do not agree. I find these “conversations” extremely emotionally distressing because I’m a peacemaker by nature. I try to make connections with people, and to find common ground. But I also am a person who believes it is important to stand up for love, kindness, justice, and fairness. Like Jeremiah, I find it impossible to keep my mouth shut (or typing fingers still) at times, because it becomes “in my heart like a fire, a fire shut up in my bones. I am weary of holding it in; indeed, I cannot.” It might make my life easier if I stuck to posting only cute kitten pictures and happy thoughts, but I just can’t remain silent in the face of injustice or unkindness. I get especially upset when I see people expressing thoughts and exhibiting behaviors that drive people away from God, for I think that having a relationship with God is of great benefit.  I have quite a few friends who have been driven from the arms of God into the arms of atheism by those who think they are “watchmen” doing God’s work.  I don’t think that barring the doors of the Kingdom of Heaven to all who do not agree with a particular understanding of God, or of scripture, is doing God’s work. I think we are supposed to be witnesses to what God has done in our own lives, not watchmen telling other people what they are doing wrong in theirs. And so, I really appreciate Paul’s acknowledgement that no matter how hard I try, it may not always be possible to get along with all people at all times.

We live in “interesting times”, but the times the Roman Christians to whom Paul wrote this passage were no less “interesting”, challenging and dangerous. They lived under the whims of a succession of dangerously megalomaniac emperors– Caligula, Claudius, and Nero. They were looked upon with suspicion and distrust by the dominant established religious, political, and cultural systems, who invented all kinds of wild “fake news” stories about the nascent Christian movement. Rumors were spread that Christians practiced cannibalism during the Lord’s supper; that their “love feasts” were orgiastic; that they started the Great Fire of Rome. Given their precarious circumstances, it seems quite reasonable that Paul would have urged them to keep their heads down and not go looking for trouble, as he does later in Romans 13. Don’t make unnecessary waves. When in Afghanistan, wear a burqa. Perhaps those survival practicalities also lay behind his admonition to attempt to “live peaceably with all“. But I also remember the words of the prophets Jeremiah and Ezekiel, who contended against “those crying ‘peace, peace’ when there is no peace.” I don’t think it’s okay with God to pretend everything is good when it’s not, especially when remaining silent might cause harm.

So how do we strike a balance between “living peaceably with all” while living lives that are a faithful testimony to the Way of Jesus? How do we apply Paul’s words to the Roman Christians in our own place and time? I think the key is in what Paul calls “genuine love”. Everything we say and do ought to demonstrate love. If there is to be any competition between followers of Jesus, it ought to be in showing love. By showing love to others, we are serving God. When Paul talks about holding fast to the good and hating evil, I don’t think he was talking about strict observance of the Mosaic purity laws or the Greco-Roman household codes.  I certainly don’t think he was talking about passing moral judgement on those who violate those laws, for that goes counter to the overall message of both Jesus and Paul. Jesus’s harshest words were not for “sinners”, but for the Pharisees who were careful to observe all the laws of Moses. His highest praises were not for the religiously observant, but for those who worked to improve the welfare of others. Paul was once the epitome of a good Pharisee, not only in his strict personal adherence to the Mosaic laws, but also in his zealous persecution of the early followers of Jesus. He hounded, imprisoned, and was a party to the murder of the first Christians precisely because he believed their theology was dangerous, wrong and harmful.  In hindsight he came to consider all his previous “godly”behavior less than worthless. (“Rubbish” in the RSV; “dung” in the KJV; “garbage” in the NIV)  When Paul talks about “good” and “evil” here, I think he is talking about doing things that help people versus doing things that hurt people. “Do unto others as you would like for them to unto you.” as Jesus phrased it, which is entirely consistent with the teaching of  Hillel, the grandfather of Paul’s mentor Gamaliel: “That which is hateful to you, do not do to your fellow. That is the whole Torah; the rest is the explanation; go and learn.”  Paul goes on to give several concrete examples of what this kind of genuine love looks like in action in his time and place. Here’s what this passage says to me in my own time and place.

First, be optimistic about the future. There is a God, and he is working to bend the arc of the moral universe toward his design of justice and love. How quickly he is able to do that depends a great deal on whether we work with him or against him in the bending process. We’re not there yet, not by a long shot, so suffering is inevitable. When suffering comes, “why did this happen to me?” is the wrong question to ask. Attempting to answer that question will most likely lead to assigning blame to God, self, or others. Instead of looking for someone to blame, be patient.  Patience is not endurance for endurance’s sake; rather it is active. Patience asks, “How can I best get through this?”, and “What can I learn from this”, and “How can I use this to help others?” Instead of cursing the darkness, patience sees the light at the end of the tunnel, and actively struggles to reach it.

Acknowledging that “stuff happens”, and refusing to assign blame for it, leads us to do what we can to mitigate the suffering of others. Offer thoughts and prayers for those caught in the midst of tragedy, but let those thoughts and prayers lead you to assist in material ways. As James put it, “Suppose a brother or sister is without clothes and daily food. If one of you tells him, “Go in peace; stay warm and well fed,” but does not provide for his physical needs, what good is that?” When bad things happen, we shouldn’t ask if someone is deserving of our help; we should ask how we can help. I think Jesus was pretty clear about that in his  conversation about the man born blind. Prevailing religious thought in the time of Jesus was that God rewarded the good and punished the bad. If someone was sick or poor, they must have done something to deserve their fate. Therefore, either the blind man had somehow sinned prenatally (original sin?) or his parents had done something wrong. This thinking is not dissimilar from some of the “blame the victim” and “prosperity gospel” theologies popular in some circles today. Rather than assign blame, Jesus took the opportunity to help, showing us by his example that we ought to do the same.

Have empathy: put yourself in another’s shoes and feel what they are feeling without overwriting their experience with your own thoughts and feelings. Share in the joys and sorrows of others without being jealous or judgemental.   You can’t raise yourself up by bringing others down, either by blaming them for their own misfortunes or by shaming their joys. I think blame can be a form of magical thinking, and shame a form of arrogance. This happened to you because you did x, y, and z. Since I do a, b, and c instead, what happened to you will never happen to me. Or: I’m morally superior to you because I did m, and you did n.  Judas objected to Mary’s waste of an expensive perfume, telling her it could have been put to better uses, but Jesus praised her.

Be humble:  Don’t think that you alone have all the correct answers, and it is your responsibility to convince others to come around to your way of thinking. I get especially tired of people using the phrase “the Bible clearly says” in an attempt to “correct” someone else’s thinking. First of all, using the Bible as an argument doesn’t work with people who don’t believe God speaks through it. Secondly, “the Bible clearly says” arguments have been used in defense of all kinds of horrible things in the past, including slavery and the genocide of indigenous peoples by European invaders. Cultivate the ability to listen and learn from others and from history. If the Bible were completely clear as some like to think it is, there wouldn’t be thousands of different denominations. Humility doesn’t mean self-abasement, but neither is it condescending to others. It takes humility to understand that the lenses through which you understand the Bible or see reality are unique to you, and quite possibly do not yield perfect vision. For now we see through a glass, darkly, I also like the way Doctor Who phrased it, “Nine hundred years of time and space and I’ve never met anyone who wasn’t important.”

Don’t try to get even. It doesn’t work,  and remember that the means are equally as important as the ends. Those who use evil means with the intention of achieving a good result are in danger of becoming just as bad as the evil they oppose. I’m reminded of the last lines in “Animal Farm: ““The creatures outside looked from pig to man, and from man to pig, and from pig to man again; but already it was impossible to say which was which.” The only lasting way to destroy an enemy is to make him a friend. Because I believe the image of God is stamped indelibly on every human soul, I do not believe that certain people lack a conscience, even when they behave as though they don’t have one. Even Darth Vader found redemption in the end, and I might point out that his conscience was not awakened at the point of Luke’s lightsaber, but through their relationship.  As Martin Luther King observed, “Darkness cannot drive out darkness; only light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate; only love can do that.”

Of course, all this is easier said than done. But I’m going to keep working on it.