Monday, October 8, 2012

musings on suffering and redemption, part 1

When many of us think about suffering and God in the same breath we look for explanations that can make some sense of why God permits suffering to exist in the world he made. However, there really isn’t one that satisfies our intellectual appetite for rational answers and puzzle solving. Scripture tells us in Genesis that evil intruded into the goodness of God’s creation through the free cooperation of our first parents, Adam and Eve, with the evil one. But that story begs the question, why couldn’t God have created in such a way as to preclude the possibility of a Lucifer bent on destroying what God made; so, we come back to mystery.

Notwithstanding the intellectual frustration and skepticism that sometimes makes us want to avert our eyes from the mythic portrayal of humanity’s fall from grace, Genesis 3 does give us a story with which we resonate as human beings. Whether its Yo Yo Ma playing Ennio Morricone, U2 singing Where The Streets Have No Name, the feeling you have when you hold a newborn baby, or that joyful feeling when everything comes together just right at your dinner party - there are moments when we taste a bit of God’s beauty and imagine that there can be more of it, that there should be more of it! Moreover, we feel deep in our bones that it is wrong that there is not more of it. But we also all know in our more honest and humble moments that none of us has clean hands when it comes to our own participation in acts that find their root in that first evil temptation that came to Eve that caused her to doubt God’s goodness and love for her. We all know that we have hurt others and done our part to turn towards selfishness and away from God and what makes for human flourishing.

Since the beginning of Christian theology this acknowledgment that we all have participated in acts that resemble Adam’s and Eve’s fall from grace has been referred to as original sin. Rowan WIlliams’ little summary of what we mean by original sin is really quite helpful: “this is a tangle that goes back to the very roots of humanity.... In humanity's history, the ingrained habit of turning inwards, turning in upon ourselves, is passed on. We learn what we want.... by watching someone else wanting it and competing for it. Before we begin to make choices, our options have been silently reduced in this way.... Something needs to reverse the flow, to break the cycle..... Only a human word, a human act will heal the process of human history; it isn't ideas and ideals that will do this, but some moment in history when relations are changed for good and all, when new things concretely become possible.”

The tangle, as Williams calls it, a painful cycle of suffering and longing for redemption, is just what Paul is talking about in Romans 8:18-30. In vs. 19-23, Paul picks up on the theme of the tragedy of the fall (Genesis 3:16-19), as he evokes the metaphors of that story in a new way that transposes them from local events in the distant past to the universal experience of everyone everywhere. The images of Adam’s and Eve’s suffering (frustration with the soil, pain in childbirth, human to human strife) are transposed into language that describes the universal experience of all of humanity and the whole of creation; the creation itself is in labor pains, and it, along with all of humanity, experiences a painful desire for redemption. However, in this retelling of Genesis 3, the theme of hope that is only hinted at in Genesis 3:15, takes on flesh and blood in Romans 8. Creation’s longing is answered by God, as he remakes the human family after the image of the new Adam and Eve, his son. Jesus is the new character on the stage of re-creation, the firstborn in a large family (Romans 8:29). Jesus is the “human word, human act will heal the process of human history.” This must be, in part, what the author of Hebrews had in mind when he wrote: “Long ago God spoke to our ancestors in many and various ways by the prophets, but in these last days he has spoken to us by a Son.”

So, God’s answer to the problem of evil is a historical one, an existential one. Jesus has come in history to set the human race in a new context, a context of redemption, a large family. In the next of this three part series we will consider what redemptive difference Jesus makes in the here and now.

Questions for reflection:

1.If someone were to ask you how you could possibly believe in the existence of a good God when the world is so messed up how would you respond?

2. Do you resonate with Williams' description of original sin above? Do you think this is a helpful way to talk about the presence of evil and sin in the world?

3. What do we mean when we say that God's response to evil is historical and existential?

Tuesday, May 22, 2012

Freedom in Philippi Acts 16

Review and Introduction to This Sunday’s Text: Acts 16:16-34

In the history of the liturgy of the church there is a prominent tradition of lingering in the book of Acts for the two months or so of Sundays that separate Easter from Pentecost (Pentecost is next week, by the way). We have talked together a bit about the reasons for our lingering in Acts but maybe we should remind ourselves again. The book of Acts, as many of you know, is a historical account of the growth of the early church. Importantly, among other things, as observed early on in Acts, it is an account of Jesus’ followers growth - their growth from those who deserted him to those who will give their lives preaching about God’s love for all of humankind, the gospel of Jesus Christ. So, in many important ways the book of Acts is a deep reminder to us that God worked through human frailty to build his church, that the growth of the early church is always a matter, to borrow words from Saint Paul in his letter to church in Corinth, a matter of God’s strength working through human weakness and frailty. But there is another important ongoing theme in Luke’s Acts and it is this- Luke wants us to know that God’s love is truly meant to reach all people and all sorts and kinds of people. The gospel is not a message for one religious or ethnic group - it is not meant to be a private religious experience but is supposed to be for the redemption of the entire world and to touch all of humanity. We hear this foreshadowed in Jesus’ words that Luke gives us at the beginning of Acts: “you will receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you; and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth." Luke is very eager for us to understand the growth and development of the early church as a missional movement of God - - as God, through his people, makes his love for all of humankind known to all of the peoples of the world, regardless of who they are ethnically, socio-economically, etc.

Homily Recap:

However, in the passage before us this morning we are reminded that not everyone wants to hear the good news about Jesus. The ones in the story who really don’t want to hear about it are the men who have been trafficking this young girl. What a tragic picture, a girl whose life was completely out of her control and under the control of dark forces out to exploit her, whether the forces be supernatural or the flesh and blood men who owned her. When she is healed and her life is given back to her her owners retaliate against Paul and his cohort, bringing them before the authorities and charging them with “disturbing our city; they are Jews and are advocating customs that are not lawful for us as Romans to adopt or observe.” What is truly disturbing, however, is the fact that this girl’s life is given back to her from the powers of darkness and her owners don’t even stop for one moment to ask themselves whether they ought not to be happy for her? And they certainly don’t pause and ask themselves whether or not exploiting her had been a wicked thing all along! Far from stopping for reflection, they move to retaliate against Paul and Silas.

Remarkable and chilling is the behavior of these men; this is very sobering for those who have ears to hear!!!

Luke gives us a provocative literary clue as to why her owners are unable to see her new freedom as an occasion for their own repentance, In verses 18 and 19 Luke uses the same Greek word, “to leave”, to describe the evil spirit’s leaving the girl and the owners’ hope of money leaving them. He says quite literally, the spirit left or departed and the money left and departed. And so in this little word play we are soberly reminded that one of the most common causes for spiritual blindness is greed. But that is not all that is chilling in this vignette. Next in this little scene we see what we often see in our own day. Those whose motives are to exploit others for their own profit hide their agendas behind any subterfuge available. In this passage the men who own the girl, of course, do not haul Paul and Silas before the magistrate and say, “hey we were making money off of the misfortune of this girl and they healed her and took away our ability to do that!”. No, they appeal to the fear of foreigners and suspicion of Jews. The crowd does the rest of the work for them and very quickly Paul and Silas end up flogged and in jail. It is a commonplace for Luke in his gospel and in the book of Acts, in the words of NT scholar Luke Timothy Johnson, to.... “connect spiritual dispositions to the disposition of possessions.”

And so all of what has happened so far in this story reminds us that the message of God’s love for the world will often be met with opposition, especially by those who are unwilling to see their spiritual blindness. We are also reminded again of the tragedy that comes from confusing illicit carnal pleasures with human flourishing. The owners’ slave is freed but those men chose to remain slaves to the bondage of their greed. How about you and me this morning? Do we have an attitude or disposition towards money, sex, or power (those are usually the three big idol factories) that keeps us from seeing God’s grace for us? Have we confused illicit carnal pleasures for human flourishing? Sobering thoughts but Luke reminds us here that the gospel is sometimes going to be felt as confrontation, especially when we are suffering from spiritual blindness

And yet God can move us in an instant from blindness to sight as we see in the rest of our story which is saturated with hope.

But paradoxically, our narrative this morning takes a turn towards hope only when Paul and Silas are put into prison. So, we are reminded here that the mission of God goes forward with its greatest power when the servants of God are in situations of powerlessness, following the cruciform God in mission. What is illustrated here in the cruciform pattern of Paul and Silas is put in lovely prose in Paul’s letter to the church which forms in Philippi from this very visit:

2:5 Let the same mind be in you that was* in Christ Jesus,
6 who, though he was in the form of God,
did not regard equality with God
as something to be exploited,
7 but emptied himself,
taking the form of a slave,
being born in human likeness.
And being found in human form,
8 he humbled himself
and became obedient to the point of death—
even death on a cross.

9 Therefore God also highly exalted him

It is in his cruciformity that Jesus is exalted and so we expect to see the same pattern in Jesus’ followers. Here are Paul and Silas prisoners in the form of the slave, in stocks and in jail in Philippi - - all because they freed a slave girl from an evil spirit and a life of exploitation. But as I just mentioned, this is where our story takes a turn towards hope. There is an earthquake and all of the prisoners are presented with an opportunity to escape but they don’t take the opportunity!! Somehow, Paul manages to keep everyone from leaving, knowing that the escape would result in the jailer losing his life, either by preemptive suicide, which he is apparently ready to do, or as a result of the capital punishment that would be dealt to him for letting the prisoners escape.

Now, understand, earthquakes were often seen in antiquity as the work of angry deities and that is about all we should take from the jailer’s question: “how can I be saved?” He is frightened by the earthquake and sees Paul and Silas as the ones who are able to tell him how to be saved from the punishment of the gods. The jailer, unlike the human traffickers responsible for putting Paul and Silas in jail, actually sees Paul and Silas as people who can tell him something he needs to know about the supernatural world. Paul sees this as an opportunity to tell the man about the one true God and how salvation is to be found in Jesus.

And so we meet salvation in a prison where those who are freed from their shackles remain in jail in order to save the life of a man who was essentially their enemy. Sounds like the gospel. The cruciform pattern of discipleship comes into clear view. I wonder if the Philippian jailer was in church at Philippi some few years later when Paul wrote that Jesus did not regard equality with God as something to be used for his advantage, but took the form of a slave. I wonder if he thought about that night when Paul and Silas did not see their freedom from their shackles as an opportunity to take for their own advantage but remained, so to speak, in chains so that they might speak the truth of salvation to this poor man. And so in all of this we are given the clarion reminder that true freedom comes from following Jesus, not in the avoidance of suffering.

In commenting on this narrative, Dr William Willimon, preacher and scholar, remarks: “in this story everyone who at first appeared to be free, the girl’s owners, the judges, the jailer, is a slave. And everyone who first appeared to be a slave - the poor girl, Paul and Silas is free.”

What makes for true freedom? Luke reminds us in the way he tells these stories that there are many ways to deceive oneself into thinking that one is flourishing as a human being, but only in following the cruciform Christ in mission can we be truly free.

Questions for discussion:

1. Do you have practices in your life that help you detect when you may be suffering from the onset of spiritual blindness?

2. Do you think of yourself as someone who is capable of hiding under subterfuge in order to not name or ignore your real reason for doing something? Why is acting in this way so sinister and life-destroying? Given the fact that people in leadership (e.g. political leaders, captains of industry) do this all of the time, how should the church respond in a non-partisan, yet prophetic way?

3. Can you think of a time when you made a profound sacrifice (cruciform-like) for someone in order to bear witness in words or deeds to the gospel?

Tuesday, May 15, 2012

After Easter - Cornelius and Peter

In the passage before us today we meet a fellow named Cornelius. He lives in an important city called Caesarea and he is an official in the Roman army. He is also, like the Ethiopian Eunuch we met last week, drawn to the God of Israel. And so we are reminded this week, as were last week, that Luke is very eager for us to understand the growth and development of the early church as a missional movement of God - - as God, through his people, makes his love for all of humanity known to all of the peoples of the world, regardless of who they are ethnically, socio-economically, etc. Cornelius is an example of that growth and development. While not being fully converted to Judaism he has become a practitioner of the Jewish religion; his worship of Yahweh is replete with daily prayer and the life-giving discipline of the giving of alms to the poor. Luke, the author of the gospel in his name and this book of Acts, thinks that this latter aspect of Cornelius’ worship is very important, for he calls special attention to it using the motif of Old Testament sacrifices (e.g. the alms are a memorial before God as Cornelius will later talk about them when Peter comes to visit him).

The reason why Cornelius’ giving of alms is so important to Luke is because the giving of alms to the poor is a sign that God is at work in the depths of the human heart.

Talented authors often use intertextual echoes to bring points home to their readers. In a novel, for instance, something may happen early on in the story, the importance of which is seen in its fullness only later in the story when something else happens that connects back to the earlier scene.

Here in this story of Cornelius we encounter just such an echo, an echo that comes to us from another story Luke tells us in his gospel, another story that talks about alms and the human heart.

In the gospel of Luke we meet Jesus talking about the importance of giving alms to the poor; this happens in the midst of a confrontation with the corrupt religious leadership of his day Luke (11:33-34). Invited to dinner at the home of one of those leaders, Jesus deliberately skips an important religious rite; he does not ceremoniously wash before the meal. When confronted, he says in so many words, you foolish people; you are dirty on the inside as evidenced by your greed and your obsession over your social status. This is made painfully obvious by your lack of support of the poor people in your midst. Deal with the inside of your heart. Repent of your selfishness and greed and this repentance will be reinforced by your giving alms to the poor.

Jesus is teaching in this passage, as in the whole of the gospel, that it is the cleanness of the heart that counts with God, and the evidence that God is at work in the heart will be in the way people treat the vulnerable in their midst. Fast forward from that encounter, through the cross and the resurrection and into the growth of the gospel in the early church and here in the text before us we have our echo of the importance of alms for the poor in relationship to ritual cleanliness. But this time someone gets it right and the someone is one who is by definition ritually impure - he is a gentile. The one who is counted by the Judaism of that day as unclean and unwashed gives evidence that God is at work in his heart by how he treats the poor.

We will meet Cornelius again in the homily that follows communion and he will teach us a lot about God’s love for all people but as we get ready to receive the sacrament of communion let us remember that at this table each week we are invited to come close to God’s heart; we confess our sins and we are cleansed so that we may love as Jesus loves, and care for others as Jesus cares for us. It is not what is on the outside that counts but that which is on the inside - it is what is on the inside, twisted and broken that we bring to Jesus to be straightened and made whole.

Part Two:

In the time we have remaining this morning I want us to come back to Cornelius. We have already noted that Cornelius is a signpost of what God desires to do with the whole of humanity - to change us from the inside out so that we might participate in Christ’s self giving love. The evidence of God’s work in Cornelius is seen clearly, perhaps most clearly, in the way he treated the vulnerable in his midst, by giving alms to the poor. But Cornelius is a signpost in another important way too. His response, as one outside of Israel to the God of Israel is a signpost (like the Ethiopian Eunuch of last week) that the mission of God is to bring his redemptive love in Christ to the whole of humanity - to every sort and kind of people.

In a conversation this week with a friend who is a New Testament professor, I learned something that I was not aware of: I quote Aaron Kuecker here almost verbatim: “Every time the Spirit speaks directly to a person in Acts, sends them toward a gospelled relationship that crosses a significant social barrier”.

And so last week the Holy Spirit tells Philip to go and talk to the Ethiopian Eunuch and this week, Peter, is told by the Holy Spirit to go to with Cornelius’ people.

We have remarked before that part of following Jesus is learning to see people as God sees them and nowhere is this drilled home more clearly than in what the Spirit teaches Peter in this mysterious vision; but, it is the way Peter applies what he learns in the vision that is most remarkable. Look at the two passages below - one is about food and one is about people.

Acts 10:14 But Peter said, ‘By no means, Lord; for I have never eaten anything that is profane or unclean.’ 15The voice said to him again, a second time, ‘What God has made clean, you must not call profane.’ 16This happened three times, and the thing was suddenly taken up to heaven.

Acts 10:28 You yourselves know that it is unlawful for a Jew to associate with or to visit a Gentile; but God has shown me that I should not call anyone profane or unclean.

In the vision Peter is told to regard foods that he regarded unclean as clean; and yet when he comes into Cornelius’ home he says that God has shown him that he should regard no person as unclean or profane. What is going on here? In the vision, there is pork and shellfish and the like, but in Cornelius’ home there is no mention of food but only of people - ONLY OF PEOPLE.

Well, something very important is going on. In the religious and socio-cultural context in which Peter lived what a person ate and how they were to be regarded as a human being were inseparable..... but here Peter says I have been taught by God to pull those things apart and to see all people as precious and dear to God.... it is what is going on in the inside that counts!!!!

Church, friends, brothers and sisters: we have no right to expect that we can follow the Spirit at work in the world when we regard the other, the one who is different from us as unclean, profane and not loved by God. To put it positively, we follow the Spirit and Jesus in mission when we take as a starting point that all people are loved by God and precious to him even though we struggle to see people that way because of our sinful fear and judgment of the other.

Questions for discussion:

1. I suggested above that the giving of alms, or our modern day equivalent, reinforces the work of God in our hearts? Do you agree with this? If not, explain why not. If you agree, why do you think God works that way?

2. On what grounds does Peter state his desire to baptize Cornelius’ people? Why does he ask if anyone wants to withhold baptism? Is that a rhetorical question?

3. Do you think, as a church, we receive outsiders as enthusiastically as does the early church as exemplified by how eagerly and quickly they assimilate the gentiles?

Tuesday, May 8, 2012

after easter again - the Ethiopian eunuch

The book of Acts, as many of you know, is a historical account of the growth of the early church. Importantly, it is among other things, as we have been observing recently, an account of Jesus’ followers growth - their growth from those who deserted him to those who will give their lives preaching the gospel of Jesus Christ: God’s love for all of humankind through Jesus. So, in many important ways the book of Acts is a deep reminder to us that God worked through human frailty to build his church, that the growth of the early church is always a matter, to borrow words from Saint Paul in his letter to church in Corinth, a matter of God’s strength working through human weakness and frailty. But there is another important movement in Luke’s symphony, and this is the movement - that God’s love is truly meant to reach all people and all sorts and kinds of people. The gospel is not a message for one religious or ethnic group - it is not meant to be a private religious experience but is supposed to be for the redemption of the entire world and to touch all of humanity. We hear this foreshadowed in Jesus’ words that Luke gives us at the beginning of Acts: “you will receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you; and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth."

Now, earlier in Acts Luke has shown us the power of the gospel at work in Jerusalem, Judea and Samaria, and in our text this morning we come to this truly amazing encounter that Philip has with the man from Ethiopia. The thing to note here, in light of Jesus’ words about God’s love coming to the ends of the earth, is that Ethiopians were regarded as living pretty much at the end of the earth. In fact historians note that Homer, in the Odyssey, mentions Ethiopians as those who live on the “Southern edge of the earth”. So, for Luke, in the way that he organizes and emphasizes the preaching of the early church leaders he clearly wants us to understand that a big Ethiopian flag is being raised here on this road from Jerusalem; and God is saying, I love these people as much as my beloved Israel, as much as their half-sisters and brothers in Samaria - go find me some people further away from Ethiopia and guess what, put another flag in the ground because I love those people too. There is always enough of the love of God to go around; human beings are the ones that are stingy with it and that should give us pause to reflect and be sure that we are not stingy with God’s love.

Back to the text: there is something about our Ethiopian man here that is just as important to Luke than where he is from. It is that he is a eunuch. Luke tells us five times that he is a eunuch; five times in a very short story. Luke thinks this is important to know about him. Now, a quick reminder about eunuchs in the ancient world. They were often taken from their families and castrated before puberty - they were people whose bodies were butchered in order to make them a unique kind of slave to the powerful master or mistress they served, for the eunuch had no family and no chance of having a family to get in the way of his singular devotion to the one who had power over him. Also, many times the eunuch-slave was entrusted to be around royal females or harems because he had been castrated. A eunuchs life was cruelly crafted to belong to no one but his master or mistress.

This particular eunuch had, apparently, come into contact with the God of Israel through Jews living in Ethiopia and his interest in the God of Abraham had drawn him to Jerusalem on what seems to have beeem a pilgrimage of sorts. He was apparently interested in becoming a follower of Yahweh and because of his position as treasurer to the Queen of Ethiopia, he actually has the means to make this trip.

Now, the first thing that comes to my mind about a long trip like that is that the one who takes it is being a bit, or maybe a lot, vulnerable. The Ethiopian was coming into Jerusalem to the temple as an extreme and exotic foreigner, a curiosity even among the Romans and Greeks, not to mention the people of Israel. The eunuch may have felt the same way some of you have felt when you have extended yourself to go to church for the first time or a first time in a long time; or maybe it is how you have felt when you have decided to draw closer to people within the church community - it feels risky - you can feel vulnerable and a bit nervous. What if my good faith efforts are rejected? Well, the thing you need to know about what would have happened to the eunuch in Jerusalem is that by and large his good faith efforts would have been in a very real sense rejected. The thing to know about what would have happened to him when he reached the temple is this: he would have been denied entrance. This is because according to Levitical law, no eunuchs (regarded as ritually impure due to their castration) were allowed in the temple. Their worship would always be, at best, at the margins of the community. After being reminded - and reminded when he is already in a vulnerable spot - of the multi-faceted scars that come with being a eunuch he gets in his chariot to head home.

Whatever happened in Jerusalem, however, was not enough to deter this man’s interest in Yahweh, for we meet him reading from the prophet Isaiah. And the text he is reading, well, let’s say that it is really catching his interest -
“ In his humiliation justice was denied him.
Who can describe his generation?
For his life is taken away from the earth.’”

In his humiliation he was deprived of justice.
Who can speak of his descendants?
For his life was taken from the earth.

Who is this about, the prophet or someone else, the eunuch asks? This was not a casual question for the eunuch, for like so many who have suffered under the powerful, the eunuch knew about people who had been humiliated, who had justice denied to them. Like millions of others who suffer injustices on this earth the eunuch knew that the person he was reading about in this messianic Psalm was someone with whom he could identify. There is something else about this passage that is especially poignant and another translation really brings it home.... the NIV renders the phrase about his generation, “who can speak of his descendants”.

The eunuch knew also of those whose lives were taken away from the earth, and whose descendants would never be spoken of, namely, eunuchs, namely him.

Who is being spoken of in this passage?! Who is the prophet talking about?! These were not casual or abstract questions. There was something about this Holy Book that spoke to his story, to his life. The answer that Philip gave no doubt invited the eunuch to see the story of Jesus’ suffering and humiliation in redemptive solidarity with his own (Philip begins preaching the gospel at that very passage from Isaiah). The eunuch in that moment came to know that God, in Christ, shares in our suffering so that he might claim our scars as his own, so that he might give us newness of life beyond the scars. There is a very important principle here in this and please don’t miss it: the story of God’s love in Scripture is always about you and Christ’s sharing in your suffering and pain to draw you into his redemptive love.

The eunuch was one who was forced to be without a family, but in this picture before us he is brought into the family of God. Philip’ solidarity with the eunuch is a picture of Christ’s solidarity with him and of the enfolding love of a new family, the family of God consisting of all of Christ’s younger brothers and sisters. Remarkably there is a passage that comes later in that scroll of Isaiah - just three chapters later in our version of the OT.

Do not let the foreigner joined to the Lord say,
‘The Lord will surely separate me from his people’;
and do not let the eunuch say,
‘I am just a dry tree.’
4 For thus says the Lord:
To the eunuchs who keep my sabbaths,
who choose the things that please me
and hold fast my covenant,
5 I will give, in my house and within my walls,
a monument and a name
better than sons and daughters;
I will give them an everlasting name
that shall not be cut off.

I wonder if Philip showed this to him? I bet he did.

A New Testament professor friend of mine reminded me the other day that eunuchs were really segregated in a cruel way in the ancient world: “eunuchs are a stock figure in antiquity for the 'grotesque other' - neither male nor female (A. Kuecker)”. Grace Chicago Church, we know we are following Jesus when we are known to be a community that boldly embraces those who society has put at the margins and declared to be outsiders, those who are made to be the butt of jokes. May God pour out his love on us so that we may pour it out on everyone else.

Questions for discussion:
1. As mentioned above, Philip began with the text the eunuch was reading and used it as the door through which to walk to tell the rest of the story of the gospel. Does this approach stimulate your thinking about how you might talk about the gospel to those who have not heard or understood it? If so, how so?

2. Can you give two or three examples of kinds of people who are contemporary equivalents to eunuchs in the ancient world (stock figures of the grotesque other).

3. How do you think our church is doing at welcoming the examples you offered in answer to the above question?

Tuesday, May 1, 2012

After Easter 3

In the text before us this morning we have before us another passage of scripture that is familiar to many of us (Acts 4: 5-12). The passage often comes up this time of year, as the lectionary reminds us that we need to take time to ponder together the remarkable events that follow quite closely on the heels of the resurrection of the Son of God. The rhythm of the lectionary, so to speak, is inviting us to linger for a while on the impact of Easter. And so for the past few Sundays we have been taking note of several of Jesus’ post-Easter visits with his disciples. DON’T FORGET that the one common theme to all of these visits was Jesus’ desire to help his followers face their failures and weaknesses and restore them them to their vocation of following him in mission. As someone has put it, “On the far side of the resurrection, vocation and forgiveness occur together....”.

In the passage before us this morning we meet Peter, recently forgiven and restored by Jesus, now proclaiming boldly the gospel of Jesus Christ in the very city where Jesus was crucified, in the very city where Peter had denied him three times. Stop there for just a moment. Isn’t it amazing how powerful a hold geography can have on us?! I think all of us can relate to being back in familiar surroundings - even literally geographical surroundings (for Peter, Jerusalem) - where our past actions in those surroundings confronts us with our failure. In those moments it can at first feel like nothing has changed. You look up and you see a park bench or a cafe and you think unpleasant thoughts. Yet because of God’s forgiveness and acceptance in Christ the landscape of our pasts can become places of hope instead of a reminder of our failures. I am not suggesting that this happens lightly or automatically but if we learn to practice seeing ourselves as those who have been forgiven by God in Christ slowly but surely even the most haunting of landscapes can become vistas of God’s grace and love for us. It is because this stuff doesn’t come easily or automatically that some spiritual traditions with our faith have emphasized joining confession and acceptance of God’s love with physical practices like breathing, praying with icons in hand, getting on one’s knees, coming forward to receive communion each week, etc. This is because leaving the difficult practice of accepting God’s love and forgiveness simply to a cerebral exercise is too tall an order for our feeble minds.

Back to the Scripture text at hand: so, here is Peter proclaiming the gospel to the very religious leadership who had conspired to have Jesus murdered by the Roman government. Specifically, Peter and John are being detained and threatened for preaching and healing in Jesus’ name and so Peter takes the opportunity to appeal to the religious leadership to recognize the horror of what they have done. He says to them, in so many words, the one whom you crucified is now the one in whom you need to find salvation. Your victim has been raised from the dead; your victim is your judge; your judge forgives you. Repent and accept his forgiveness because there will be no other way of dealing with your sin if you refuse God’s love for you in the very one you crucified.

The language that Peter uses here to confront the authorities is strong and courageous, to be sure. But what is easy for us to miss is how much this tells us about the persistence that God has with regard to his passion to forgive people - even specifically those who conspired to murder the innocent Son of God. The proclamation to them from the OT, a text with which they would have familiarity, the stone the builders have rejected has become the chief cornerstone, is said to them to jar them out of their blindness and to beckon them to see that it is in Jesus that God is at work in the world to bring forgiveness, healing, and newness of life. He does not say to them, you had your chance - now you may as well go hang yourselves because God is never going to accept you. No, just the opposite: and one thinks here of the powerful words of the theologian, M Volf: "If God does not find what is pleasing in an object - if human beings have become ungodly - God does not abandon the object in disgust until it changes its character. Instead, God seeks to re-create it to become lovable again... God is not just generous even to the unrighteous; God also forgives their unrighteousness so as to lead them through repentance back to the good they have abandoned."
Sadly, in today’s religious climate, there are a great many Christian people (and to my dismay it seems like theirs are the voices most often heard in the media) who talk as if God somehow delights at the prospect of condemning the unbeliever. In this sort of climate it becomes even more important that we take great care in how we present the uniqueness of Jesus that is portrayed in this passage. When we talk about “salvation in no one else, for there is no other name under heaven given among mortals by which we must be saved”, we must make sure that people don’t imagine us to be saying that we know the end game between God and any individual person. What we are saying positively is that we, as followers of Jesus, believe that we have found our life in God to be in Jesus Christ and that the forgiveness, newness of life, wisdom, and life-giving community we have found in him can be found in no one else. This approach to dealing with the uniqueness of Jesus - this positive approach (which I think is the approach taken even in this bracing mini-sermon of Peter’s when you really think of it in its context) - is really very important. It is important because in this approach to the teaching in this text we are reminded of something very important that we need to come to terms with: God wants us to experience forgiveness and life in Jesus in such a genuine and palpable way that we are always at the ready to say to anyone and everyone that what we experience of human flourishing comes to us by no other name than Jesus. We should live our lives so that we are able to say to anyone and everyone that it is by no other name than Jesus that we have been drawn out of our selfishness in order to love others with the same love that God has loved us; that it is by no other name than Jesus that I have found the humility and impetus to ask my spouse to forgive me for the way I spoke to her. We should be able to confess that it is by no other name than Jesus that I am put in a space where I remember how much I am loved by God, in turn giving me a proper love of self that can enable me to turn from self-destructive patterns of sin that are appealing only in moments when I forget how much I am loved by God. It is by no other name than Jesus that the landscapes of my life become transformed from fields of despair and selfish wandering into places of hope where I can find my life in Christ and in loving my neighbor as myself. You get the picture.

Questions for discussion:

1. If someone who is not a Christian were to ask you to explain what Peter means when he says there is salvation in no one else what would you say? Would you draw a distinction between uniqueness and finality on the one hand and narrowness on the other?

2. As we noted above, Peter confronts the religious leadership with their sin and says to them, in so many words, there is no way out of the trap you have made for yourself regarding Jesus other than repenting and being reconciled to him. This is shocking in at least two way: (a) his appeal to them is to be forgiven when he is probably angry with them and afraid of them (b) they are given only one route to move forward and it is through the risen Jesus. Does this part of the passage make you think of people from whom you need forgiveness?

Wednesday, April 25, 2012

After Easter (John 21)

The text before us this morning is another text about forgiveness and reconciliation. That is a common, if not predominant, theme in Jesus’ post-resurrection, post-Easter visits with his disciples. We have already called attention to this in last week’s homily where we noted that Jesus’ restoration of the disciples after they had deserted and denied him would assure that the church in its formative years, in the power of the Holy Spirit, would be formed into a community that, when it is true to its calling, will be easily recognizable as a place where people know by experience the radical importance of God’s forgiveness. The church, when it is true to its formative moment, is easily recognizable as a community that cherishes and lives by the truth that “God does not forgive us because we are good but makes us good by forgiving us”. And again this morning, here in this text (John 21), everything has to do with Jesus’ desire to help Peter face himself, his shame over his denial of Jesus, and his fears and uncertainty that led him to desert and deny. Peter had denied Jesus three times by a charcoal fire, as John has recorded it for us earlier in this gospel. Here, Jesus, also with a charcoal fire nearby, a literary nuance that John would not want us to miss, creates three exchanges with Peter that allows Peter to affirm three times his commitment to follow Jesus in mission, to care for God’s flock as a young leader in what will become Christ’s church - three affirmations, one for each of his earlier denials. I want to note two things about all of this that I hope will help us get our heads and hearts around what this passage might be saying to us this morning. First, Jesus suggests that Peter’s way forward to flourishing will be by taking responsibility to serve others in the way that Jesus has served him. Three times Peter says I love you, and three times Jesus says in so many words: “then love and care for my flock”. This is Jesus, in other words, reminding Peter of what he said to the disciples as he turned to face Jerusalem and the cross: “no one has greater love than this, to lay down one’s life for one’s friends”. What will hold Peter’s confession of love for Jesus in the future is not his will-power or his inherent goodness. What will hold Peter fast is his experience of Jesus’ restoration of him, reinforced and made solid through the discipline of pouring that same love into the lives of others. Peter, waking up each morning with a concern for the well being of God’s people and his neighbors, whoever they may be, will create the foundation from which he will not fall. So many times people will say to me, I don’t know how to deal with my doubts about my faith. I just feel like I can’t really commit to my faith because of all of these doubts I have. While it is important to face doubts genuinely and not feel ashamed or weak for having them, it is also important to not allow doubts to paralyze us from living in the flow of God’s love. In other words, what I think Jesus is saying to us, through Peter, is something like this: if you want to experience the authenticity of God’s love for you, then take responsibility for loving others as God has loved the world in Christ. Or, as the Carmelite Nun, Ruth Burrows puts it in an interview about her book, Love Unknown, “Many people think they have no faith because they feel they haven't. They do not realize that they must make a choice to believe, take the risk of believing, of committing themselves and setting themselves to live out the commitment. Never mind that they continue to feel that they do not believe. Under cover of being "authentic" we can spend our lives waiting for the kind of certainty we cannot have.” One thinks here of John’s words in 1 John 3:18: “Little children, let us love, not in word or speech, but in truth and action. And by this we will know that we are from the truth and will reassure our hearts before him whenever our hearts condemn us; for God is greater than our hearts, and he knows everything.” It would do us well as a church community, as we ponder this deep truth together, to note that there is very little in our socio-cultural setting to reinforce the truth that an authentic experience of God comes in a life of serving and loving others. There is so much in our advertising, in our consumerist mentalities, and in the spirit of free-wheeling hedonism that tempt us to think that a life well lived is a life where the bucket list is checked off - and the bucket list doesn’t seem to include a great deal of occasions of sacrifice for others. Contrary to our zeitgeist, the gospel says that a life well lived will conform to Jesus’ pattern of self-giving love. Interestingly, speaking of bucket lists, there is also here in this passage a remarkable reference to Peter’s death. Jesus says to him: “Very truly, I tell you, when you were younger, you used to fasten your own belt and to go wherever you wished. But when you grow old, you will stretch out your hands, and someone else will fasten a belt around you and take you where you do not wish to go.’ He said this to indicate the kind of death by which he would glorify God.) After this he said to him, ‘Follow me.’” The tradition of the early church, going back to the early church historian, Eusebius, tells us that Peter was martyred (as also was Paul) in the persecution of the church at the hands of the Roman emperor, Nero, in about 62 AD. There is also a tradition of the early church going back to Origen that Peter insisted on being crucified upside, declaring that he was not worthy of being crucified in the same manner as Jesus. What is most significant, though, about Peter’s death is not that he was a heroic martyr but that the life that took him to martyrdom was a life poured out in love for others. The Peter who denied Jesus three times became the leader of the early church who, Luke tells us in Acts, when the governing authorities forbade him from preaching the gospel said to them: ‘We must obey God rather than any human authority.* Finally, Peter tells us in his own words in the first of two epistles bearing his name what sort of life he found to be worth living. It was not a life of religious self-confidence, or intellectual certainty but a life marked by living in the flow of God’s love for people. For Peter, the purification of the soul came through obedience to Jesus’ self-giving love and produces a community known by that love. In Peter’s own words: “Now that you have purified your souls by your obedience to the truth* so that you have genuine mutual love, love one another deeply* from the heart.” (1 Peter 1:22) May God enlarge our faith and expand our imaginations so that we might understand how to order our lives so that we might live for the sake of our brothers and sisters in Christ and for the neighbor. 1. Do you find that sometimes you are guilty of the condition Burrows speaks to above? (i.e. “under cover of being authentic”, spending our lives waiting for a kind of certainty we cannot have. 2. What do you do when you struggle with doubt? Have you ever considered facing your doubts with action (e.g. taking responsibility to pour God’s love into others)? Assuming that most of us could be doing better with all manner of disciplines, what it would like for you to take a greater responsibility for pouring God’s love into others? 3. Does the exercise Jesus went through with Peter (three opportunities to affirm, one for each of the denials) make you think more deeply and imaginatively about the practice of confession of sin and affirmation/absolution? What comes to mind?

Tuesday, April 10, 2012

Easter 2012: Creation and New Creation

the recap below is in two parts, marked accordingly - the texts for Easter were Revelation 21:1-4; Romans 8:18-26; John 20:1-18

Part One: Before Communion

Our text before us from Romans 8 is a resurrection text that pictures the hope of the entire cosmos bound up in what God has promised to do for a new humanity destined to be raised in the power of Jesus’ resurrection.

Romans 8:19: “For the creation waits with eager longing for the revealing of the children of God”
pairs with verse 23, “and not only the creation, but we ourselves, who have the first fruits of the Spirit, groan inwardly while we wait for adoption, the redemption of our bodies.”

Also, the same rich theology is found in the passage which serves as our regular assurance of forgiveness during preparation for communion: “So if anyone is in Christ, there is a new creation: everything old has passed away; see, everything has become new (2 Cor. 5:17”).

We explored this passage at greater depth during the homily but before we received communion we took note that Paul gives us some important teaching regarding what one of our postures should be towards this great hope of cosmic redemption and our resurrection. The posture? Patience! This may seem a little counter-intuitive. After all, didn’t we just read that “the whole creation”, as one translation renders it, “stands on tiptoes” awaiting the resurrection of human beings? And what are we supposed to be in response to that mind-blowing news!? Patient?!

Why would Paul stop at that point to exhort us to patience? Because he wants Christians to be real about what it is like to experience the promise of redemption in the midst of the messiness of a world that is not yet fully redeemed; he wants us to be real about what it is like for us to experience God’s grace and then fall back into faithlessness; and there is a certain way that he wants us to wear this realism - and the way is patience.

I recently saw at a local coffee shop an ad for a math tutor In addition to listing his credentials as a mathematician and math educator he also included this line: I am patient. I thought that was genius marketing, for everyone who struggles with math anxiety needs a patient tutor.

What Paul is saying here is that we are to have a big-picture patience towards our fellow human beings, with a fallen world, and with ourselves. We need to have patience while we await in faith and hope the promise of the resurrection.

When you sin; when you become furiously frustrated with the seeming futility of your endeavors; or, when you feel paralyzed by doubt - St Paul exhorts you to be patient. He does not say pretend everything is OK or better than it actually is; he does not say become a hedonist or nihilist in the face of your angst; he does not say ignore your sins or your frustration. Instead, he says, in so many words, “be patient with them and with all else”. The question is begged at this point. Why should you be patient? Our answer is in two parts. (1) God is patient with us (2) you have an anchor that holds you to the promise of the world to come - the resurrected Jesus. So, in the meanwhile you can be patient with yourself and others, even if it is a restless patience - and it often is.

But you say you don’t my failure - how can God be patient with me? How can I be patient with myself in light of what I know about myself? Well, here is where it is important to remember that Good Friday and Easter are joined inextricably together. So, when we take a glance back at Good Friday we remember that it is precisely in what is perceived by human judgment to be failure that God heals the world. Jesus went to the cross a failure, a human failure; he disappointed all of the human expectations of who Messiah should be and what Messiah should don. So, he died alone! He was in the minds of even his followers, a failed Messiah.

Even though Jesus’ perceived human failure on the cross is not due to any defect on his part, it is vitally important that we comprehend the ramifications of the fact that he willingly put himself in the place of human shame and failure in order to identify with our shame so that we might be embraced by the Father’s love. In that moment of separation from God the Father, when Jesus had all of the evil and sin of the world taken into himself, that is the same moment that he claimed our failures, in order to take them through the purging fires of death and into the promise of resurrection. As St. Paul puts it in the 6th chapter of Romans, “if you have been united with him in a death like his you shall surely be united in a resurrection like his.”

Discussion Questions:

1. Can you think of occasions when you should have been more patient with the frailties and failures of those around you? What was going on in your mind and heart when you did not exercise patience?

2. Read the part of George Herbert’s poem and Ben Myers’ comment on it below. Then discuss the question that comes at the end of that.

Love bade me welcome, yet my soul drew back,
Guilty of dust and sin.
But quick-ey'd Love, observing me grow slack
From my first entrance in,
Drew nearer to me, sweetly questioning
If I lack'd any thing.

"A guest," I answer'd, "worthy to be here";
Love said, "You shall be he."
"I, the unkind, ungrateful? ah my dear,
I cannot look on thee."
Love took my hand, and smiling did reply,
"Who made the eyes but I?"

"Truth, Lord, but I have marr'd them; let my shame
Go where it doth deserve."
"And know you not," says Love, "who bore the blame?"
"My dear, then I will serve."
"You must sit down," says Love, "and taste my meat."
So I did sit and eat.

Commenting on this poem, New Testament Prof Ben Myers wrote on his blog recently:

“The opposite of love is not hatred, but shame. "Love bade me welcome yet my soul drew back, / Guilty of dust and sin" (George Herbert). Divine love is the abolition of shame. It is hospitality, welcome, the healing of the wounded gaze. "Love took my hand and smiling did reply, / Who made the eyes but I?" Shame stoops over, looking inward on the self. Quick-eyed love stands up straight, face to face with the beloved.” Ben Myers

In light of what Myers says above, do you think you should ever feel ashamed before God? What should it sound like to preach the gospel to yourself if and when you do feel ashamed before God?

3. In light of what we have talked about above, do you think some of these insights (e.g. Jesus’ deliberately taking a place of shame) might help you tell the gospel story a bit more robustly than you might have some time ago? Explain what you mean with examples.

Part Two: After Communion

When the tomb was discovered to be empty this was a mind-blowing experience for the early disciples; no one expected that Jesus would be raised from the dead. It is not as if his disciples went away from the events surrounding his crucifixion and said, as one theologian has put it: “that’s OK -God will raise him from the dead. No, emphatically no! No one expected a resurrection from the dead in this way (devout Jews expected a resurrection at the end of history but not one person, namely the Messiah, in the middle of history). But very early in the life of the church (and we saw it in our Romans text this morning), within not too many years of the disciples’ first experience of the resurrected Lord, they begin to incorporate the reality of the resurrection into their devotional theology; their theological imaginations are taken over by this staggering event and the resurrection of Jesus becomes another crucial lens through which to understand God’s love for this world.

It is this lens that makes it possible for Paul to say what he does in Romans 8, where he spells out the promises of individual salvation in the broader context of God’s creation and new creation. I submit to you that not enough importance is put on the importance of seeing our salvation as individual people within this broader story of what the creator God has always intended for his fallen creation.

Warp and woof is a lovely phrase that not many people use anymore; it is comes to us from the world of weaving. The warp threads, in a piece of woven fabric, run lengthwise while the woof threads run crosswise. I like to use this phrase when talking about creation and new-creation/redemption because creation and redemption taken together are the warp and the woof of God’s intentions for this world. He who created did not have to be coaxed to redeem; it was the same love that drove him to create a world - a world that would one day be in dire need of redemption - that drew Jesus to the cross to die on our behalf. Jesus Christ holds the weaving of creation and new creation together. The fall of humankind had cosmic ramifications and so the resurrection of humankind in Christ does as well. The same love that drew forth a world of divine image bearers is the same love that redeems the failures of divine image bearers

The English poet, John Donne, captures the important connections between creation, new creation, and resurrection in these lovely verses taken from his poem entitled, Hymn To God, My God, in My Sickness:

We think that Paradise and Calvary,
Christ's cross, and Adam's tree, stood in one place;
Look, Lord, and find both Adams met in me;
As the first Adam's sweat surrounds my face,
May the last Adam's blood my soul embrace.

So, in his purple wrapp'd, receive me, Lord;
By these his thorns, give me his other crown;
And as to others' souls I preach'd thy word,
Be this my text, my sermon to mine own:
"Therefore that he may raise, the Lord throws down."

What Donne expresses in this beautiful verse is what Paul implies in Romans 8: God’s intention in creation and redemption springs from the same love. Moreover, when we remember that creation and new creation are the warp and the woof of God’s creation-project, we are also provided with one of the reasons why we can trust the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ. For, God, unlike us, has no other motive than love when he creates and when he redeems. The only motivation for creation was to make something beautiful; God did not need beauty. His desire to make beauty is sheerly gratuitous. Likewise, in his new creation, our redemption and resurrection, we recognize that he is also motivated by sheer generosity. Redemption and creation are gratuitous, free of charge, and both flow from the fount of God’s love.

Expanding on this idea - Rowan Williams in his book Tokens of Trust, in reflecting on the warp and the woof of creation and new creation puts it to us that we can trust God because his only motive is love; he has no private or hidden agenda. His agenda is for the sake of humankind, whom he created in his own image and in whose image, now known to us as the face of Jesus Christ, we are being redeemed. To illustrate his point, he offers this example from the healing of the man born blind in John 9.

“Jesus asks the blind man he’s just cured whether he believes in the Son of Man. He’s certainly not asking whether the man is of the opinion that the Son of Man exists; he wants to know whether the former blind man is ready to trust the Son of Man - that is Jesus in his role as representative of the human race before God. The man - naturally - wants to know who the ‘Son of Man’ is, and Jesus says that it is him; the man responds with the words, ‘I believe’.

He believes; he has confidence. That is, he doesn’t go off wondering whether the Son of Man is out to further his own ends and deceive him. He trusts Jesus to be working for him, not for any selfish goals and he believes that what he sees and hears when Jesus is around is the truth (Williams from Tokens of Trust, p.5)”.

Questions for discussion:

1. Rowan Williams, in the book mentioned above, observes that a great many people nowadays have a profound distrust of authority. Many, many people simply don’t trust that the authorities and institutions that they have dealings with are really are working for them. Do you agree with his suggestion? Give some examples based on whether you agree or disagree.

2. Can you put into your own words why it is important to see creation and new creation as the warp and the woof of God’s “creation-project”?

3. If someone were to ask you why they should believe in God or trust him, would you feel comfortable using the ideas put forward above, especially the thoughts of Williams around the healing of the blind man?