Thursday, January 30, 2014

The Apocrypha Assessment: Tobit 11-12

As they get close to home, Tobias and Raphael go ahead. Tobias hugs his mother and heals his father. And the dog returns with them. (He hasn't been mentioned since they left.) Tobit and Anna greet their new daughter-in-law and there are 7 more days of celebration!

Tobias asks his father how much should he pay Raphael for all he's done for them. They resolve to give him half of what was brought back. But Raphael offers some advice and then reveals his identity as one of the 7 angels who enter into God's glory. The men fall down in fear so Raphael gets to do the whole "Do not be afraid" speech which seems to precede  any greeting from angels. After more exhortations to praise God, the angel vanishes.

It is interesting that Raphael feels compelled to deny that he actually ate or drank anything. And before he ascends he tells the men to write all this in a book. Is that supposed to be an explanation for the Book of Tobit's existence?

Monday, January 27, 2014

The Forest for the Trees

Paul Valery defined politics as "the art of making possible that which is necessary." But I am inclined toward this definition: politics is the art of letting peripheral matters, rather than necessity, determine what is possible. Mankind has a definite tendency to lose its focus on what is essential and become fascinated, like magpies, with bright and shiny irrelevances. We see this in governmental politics all the time. Worthy laws are shot down because certain congressmen didn't get their earmarks; certain words were or were not used; certain parties would or would not get credit. Sometimes it just comes down to somebody not liking someone else.

And this holds true for voters, too. In 2008 an internet experiment used online matchmaking software to help folks see which candidate agreed with their personal political philosophies. You would record how much you agreed with actual quotes from the candidates but without knowing who said what. The name of the candidate with whom you most closely agreed would be revealed. A lot of people were shocked that it was not the person there were considering electing. But for decades, polls have been exposing the wide gap between how Americans feel on issues and whom they vote for. It seems that electing state and national leaders is as much a popularity contest as electing class president in high school. And often charisma triumphs over character and core issues.

In today's passage (1 Corinthians 1:10-17) Paul is dealing with a problem that is in danger of splitting that church. Personality cults are developing. Some people are identifying themselves as belonging to Paul or to Cephas or to Apollos or to Christ. They haven't yet broken away from the church but they are pulling it apart. The Greek word that Paul uses for divisions, schismata, literally refers to tears in a garment. The church at Corinth is starting to look like a shredded shirt.

Who were the leaders who were the foci of these divisions? One was Cephas. That's the Aramaic word for "Rock," the nickname Jesus gave Simon. He was the foremost of the original 12 apostles so it is natural that some Christians would feel that Peter had primacy. However Paul had founded the church in Corinth and so many felt loyal to him. Apollos, as we learn in Acts 18, was a gifted preacher with a vast knowledge of scripture. He had visited Corinth after Paul and because of his eloquence, some preferred him. And then there there was a group that claimed that they were the true followers of Christ. Why does Paul list them as schismatics? Perhaps, like so many who say they belong to Christ, they had undergone that subtle shift where they really thought that Christ belonged to them. In other words, instead of seeking to be on God's side, they were actually insisted that God was on their side. It's a common fallacy that we decide the issues and God signs on.

Through his entire missionary career, Paul preached unity. Usually, the problem was between those who came to Christ from Judaism and those who came from Gentile backgrounds. But here the situation is more complicated: people are not clinging to what they were before they became Christians; they were fighting about what form of Christianity is best.

Now how do we know that this was more than just a preferences for the preaching styles of certain leaders? For one thing, we have no evidence that Peter ever visited Corinth, nor, of course, Jesus. Those parties who said they belonged to Cephas or Christ had not experienced them in the flesh and so their allegiance, like the others, must be be to what they perceived was the take each person had on the gospel. We still see that today. What distinguishes the preachers people follow is not just their personal charisma but also what they tend to emphasize.

I don't watch much religious TV (the lady with the pink hair frankly scares me) but you only have to catch a few minutes while channel surfing to know that one preacher always seems to be talking about the end times; another concentrates on people's feelings; one pushes hot button issues on sexuality; another can't stop talking about creationism. Each one has a following as witnessed by the millions of dollars they raise to keep their shows on their air. All would say they believe the Bible and I bet each would be able to subscribe to that basic summary of biblical truths called the Apostles' Creed. But that core gets lost in all the trappings of their personal styles and all of the other issues they flog.

Paul gets right to the point. He doesn't criticize his rivals. He uses himself as the example. "Was Paul crucified for you? Or were you baptized in the name of Paul?" Drop the word "Paul" and insert any Christian leader--John Haggee, Joel Osteen, Tim LaHaye, N.T. Wright, or even C.S. Lewis--and this sentence becomes a good way to see if we are usurping Christ and replacing him with one of his servants. No matter how holy they are, we must be careful lest we fall into idolatry. When we say "Jesus is Lord," it means nobody else can be. We must always be aware of and respect this vital distinction.

It is also an interesting exercise to to insert an issue in place of Paul's name and ask if we are enthroning it above our Lord. Were you baptized into the name of the Pro-Life movement or the Pro-Choice movement or Family Values or Gay Marriage or a particular stand on war? Of course not. It's not that these aren't important issues but they are not essential to being a Christian. Anyone who thinks differently is buying into the heresy C.S. Lewis named "Christianity and..." If your pet cause is as important as your loyalty to Christ, be careful that it doesn't eventually supplant your faith or that your faith doesn't become an extension of the cause. We should derive our ethics from following Jesus Christ, our incarnate, crucified and risen Lord. Our following Jesus should not be dependent on whether he endorses our causes.

The problem even occurs when the issues are matters of theology. The Roman Catholic and Eastern Orthodox churches split over the use of icons. Other divisions in church history have taken placeover whether baptism should be by immersion or pouring, whether the bread and wine physically become Jesus' body and blood or not, whether Jesus had 2 natures or one, whether we have free will or not, who could interpret the Bible and how how a church should be organized. All of these were important issues in their day. Some are still important issues. But we should not let them get between us and God nor between us and our fellow Christians.

When I was a home health nurse, I didn't bring up religion unless my patient did and I didn't argue religious issues with my patients. There was this one older woman I had been treating for years. We liked each other but she kept denouncing what she saw as the unbiblical hierarchy of my church. So one day I said, "My salvation doesn't depend on my church or anything other than what Jesus Christ did on the cross and how I respond." The issue never came up again.

I like to think that she knew here scripture well enough to recognize in what I said an echo of what Paul says here: that we should be wary of nullifying the power of the cross. On the cross Jesus demonstrated God's self-sacrificial love for us. On the cross Jesus took upon himself the full impact of the evil we have unleashed on the world by our sin, like our arrogant insistence that we are always right and to hell with anyone who doesn't agree with us. We see that sin in the fact that the religious leaders of Jesus' day had no right under Roman law to execute Jesus but they didn't let that stop them from finding a way to do it. Pilate could find no fault with Jesus but he was too much a politician to stand up to the crowd or even to his own emperor to spare an innocent man. The soldiers were, as ever, just following orders. The crowds were just venting at a man already condemned by the authorities and for whom they weren't willing to stick out their necks. Jesus was crucified because everyone thought that something else was more important than him. How often we recrucify him over our own fiercely held, terribly important agendas?

Jesus didn't say the world will know we are his disciples because we always agree with one another but rather by how we love one another. And we are to love each other as he loved us, with real self-sacrifice. What we do to the least of his siblings we do to Jesus. Should we snub each other, vilify each other, judge each other because we like this person or that, or hold this opinion or another? Because Christians like Nazarene James Dobson and born again Christian Jane Fonda and and Catholic John Boehner and fellow Catholic Michael Moore and Baptist Mitch O'Connell and evangelist Jim Bakker and emergent church leader Jay Bakker and Lutheran John Woo and Methodist Hilary Clinton and fellow Methodist George W. Bush and Episcopalian George H. W. Bush and United Church of Christ member Barack Obama and Anglican Bono disagree on a lot of issues. Do you think God is going to give us a pop quiz at the pearly gates? Do you think he will only admit those who are 100% in agreement with him on everything? If so, get out your handbasket; we're all in for a hot time.

By the way, are you surprised by some of the names on that list? I was. Offended? Tough. They are part of the family. You don't have to agree with them; you don't have to vote for or with them; but you do have to love them. And let us be more concerned with what Jesus is doing than what others are. A sure way is to stumble is to take your eyes off the leader's path. Peter forgot that once and asked Christ what would ultimately happen to John. To which Jesus replied, "What is that to you? You follow me."    

Friday, January 24, 2014

The Apocrypha Assessment: Tobit 10

While Tobias and his new wife and in-laws are enjoying the 2 week long wedding feast, his parents have no idea what is keeping him. Tobit wonders if something has gone wrong in retrieving the money. Anna jumps to the conclusion that her son must have died. Tobias, perhaps knowing what worrywarts his parents are, gets his in-laws to send him back home with his new wife. Raguel sends the dowry: half his wealth. He and Edna also bless the couple. And so Tobias and Sarah head back to the home of the distraught Tobit and Anna.

Thursday, January 23, 2014

The Apocrypha Assessment: Tobit 9.

Raphael completes the original quest: to get the money from Gabael in Rages. That goes smoothly and Gabael is invited to the 2 week wedding feast. He sees Tobias' strong resemblance to his cousin Tobit.

The Apocrypha Assessment: Tobit 8

The wedding night goes just fine thanks to Tobias following Raphael's advice about burning the fish liver and heart. Raphael pursues the repulsed demon and hogties him.

There's a lot of sweetness in this chapter: Tobias' wedding night prayer. (Raguel's prayer isn't bad either.) Raguel's words to Tobias about cheering up his depressed daughter and declaring that he and his wife will be like a second set of parents to Tobias.

There's also a bit of comedy in Raguel having his servants did a grave in case Tobias goes the way of his other sons-in-law and then having them refill the grave when the groom makes it through the night.

Monday, January 20, 2014

Loaded Question

The laconic hero, the man of action who says little, is an American icon. From John Wayne to Gary Cooper to Clint Eastwood, the idea of a guy who rarely speaks but says what he means is major trope in movies and TV, where the emphasis is more on showing than saying. The term “laconic” comes from Laconia, a region of Greece the capital of which was Sparta. A classic example of laconic communication can be found in the Urban Dictionary. Phillip of Macedon, the father of Alexander the Great, sent an ultimatum to the Spartans. He said, “You are advised to submit without further delay, for if I bring my army into your land, I will destroy your farms, slay your people, and raze your city.” To which the Spartans replied, “If.”

One would hardly accuse Jesus of being a man of few words, especially in the gospel of John. But that's what we get in today's lectionary reading. John the Baptizer does much of the talking and Jesus only has 3 lines. But there is a lot of significance in the first 2 of the lines.

John points out Jesus to 2 of his disciples, calling him “the Lamb of God.” So the disciples follow Jesus. He notices them and asks, “What are you looking for?” The disciples call Jesus Rabbi and ask where he is staying. Jesus says, “Come and see.”

It seems to me that both Jesus' question and his response are relevant today. They need to be asked of all, seeker and Christian, if we wish to find where and who Jesus is.

Even people who are leery of the church are usually interested in Jesus. They want to know more about him. And there are a lot of versions of Jesus out there. A recent bestseller makes Jesus out to be a zealot, a fanatic in the original sense of that word, a devotee of the Temple. Other versions are that of a peasant sage who only spoke in enigmatic aphorisms, an apocalyptic prophet, a very political champion of the poor, and a hippie somehow transported from 1960s America to 1st century Judea. How is it that people, including scholars, see Jesus so differently?

As way of illustration, let me bring up the case of Sherlock Holmes. He is the most portrayed fictional character in films and TV. But up until recently, everyone was trying to portray the character as found in the original stories. But now we have Holmes portrayed as an action hero by Robert Downey Jr., as a recovering addict by Jonny Lee Miller, and as a high-functioning sociopath by Benedict Cumberbatch. Why so different? Part of it is the modern audience's desire for greater psychological depth in its heroes, as seen not only in Holmes but also in the recent versions of such oft-portrayed characters as James Bond and the Doctor of Doctor Who. We want to know what makes our heroes tick.

Part of it is novelty, though. We all know Holmes and to give us another standard version of these characters is considered boring by the creative people behind the scenes and before the camera and presumably by the audience. This is belied by the fact that the the most authentic portrayal of Sherlock Holmes is nearly universally acknowledged to be that of Jeremy Brett. His version was also extremely popular, probably because of his faithfulness to the complex character we find in the stories by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle. Still novelty sells, especially when the audience is not likely to know the original sources. So scriptwriters tend to overemphasize Holmes' mastery of boxing or his then legal drug use or his coldblooded approach to people's problems. Ignore the fact that, in the original stories, we rarely see Holmes fight and never see him strung out on drugs nor ever see him show any romantic interest in anyone, and “Voila!”--a new variation on a classic character.

Something similar I think is at work with Jesus. A lot of the written portraits we get of Jesus arise from academia. You'd think there would be a scholarly consensus but no. And I think I know why. I used to be a researcher for one of my Bible professors at Wheaton and what struck me was how inventive scholars can get when toiling in a field that has already been picked over by a legion of scholars for many centuries. A frequent technique I spotted was that a scholar will notice some small detail no one else has noted or fully explored and then try to make that tiny discovery the key to a reassessment of a major topic in the field. I read a paper that tried to do that with a Greek preposition. I read an article which went so far beyond the Biblical text in reconstructing the new Jerusalem in Revelation as to speculate on the money people of the new creation would use! Nor is Jesus immune to such treatment. And ironically I recognized the logical overreach of these efforts because of the Baker Street Journal, a repository of Sherlockian pseudo-scholarship.

In the 1930s Monsignor Ronald Knox, a biblical scholar, decided for fun to apply the then popular Higher Critical methods of analyzing the Bible to the 60 stories of Sherlock Holmes. And other Sherlockians have gleefully joined in what is called the Great Game, using ingenuity and some disingenuousness to infer all kinds of things about Holmes and Watson. (Accounting for Watson's wandering war wound has given birth to a lot of clever and fun theories.) Every year the Baker Street Irregulars meet in New York in January because some have deduced that Holmes' birthday falls on the 6th. At one memorable meeting, Rex Stout, the author of the Nero Wolfe mysteries, presented a paper claiming to prove that Watson was a woman. The reaction of his fellow Sherlockians was to pick up Stout, carry him outside and dump him into a snowbank. 

For Sherlockian scholars, it's all done tongue-in-cheek but it still shows that the less than rigorous application of biased scholarship, combined with ignoring some data, (eg, Watson married women, still an exclusively heterosexual rite in the Victorian era), leaps in logic, transforming speculation into fact and a large amount of looking for what you want to find, can allow you to prove just about anything.

I submit the same process is at work in some of the more sensational examples of biblical scholarship. Although I think most scholars are sincere, I do think the “publish or perish” pressure found in academic circles, where being notable can help one get tenure, is a major reason. It drives a lot of Bible or religious studies professors to seek and assert startling and new interpretations in a field where everything truly significant has probably already been said.

The other factor is that people see what they want to see. In psychology this is called “confirmation bias.” If you give, say, people who disbelieve in global warming, articles on the science behind climate change, they will scrutinize and pick holes in them and come out of the experience more convinced of their position. That was an actual experiment. The same thing happens when researchers present those who believe in global warming articles rebutting the science. It's why conservatives tune to Fox news and liberals to MSNBC. People like to have their biases confirmed and even inconvenient facts don't always change minds.

Nobody, not even people in church, likes everything they find in the Bible about Jesus. He talks entirely too much about hell, divorce and sexual immorality for progressives' tastes and entirely too much about giving to the poor, the immigrant, the imprisoned and about how difficult it is for the rich to enter the Kingdom of Heaven for the tastes of conservatives. There is a Poverty and Justice Bible you can get, highlighting all the passages concerning those issues and including a 56 page study guide and “practical suggestions on how you can make a difference in the lives of the poor and the oppressed.” And Conservapedia has a project to translate the Bible without “liberal translation distortions” and to “use powerful new conservative terms,” including “explaining the numerous economic parables with their full free-market meaning.” I'm not taking sides; I'm just pointing out that there are sides and each one is looking for validation of its position.

Which brings us to Jesus' first words in today's gospel, “What are you looking for?” In the context, he is simply asking 2 of John's disciples why are they following him. But in a wider sense, this is a question to ask anyone coming to Christ.

If you are looking for a Jesus who doesn't hold to a high standard of moral behavior, who believes in letting people decide for themselves what they feel is right or wrong, you are going to have to ignore or explain away his teachings on chastity and marriage, on how being angry with a brother is tantamount to murder and calling him a name can put you in danger of hell and how Jesus says he did not come to do away with the smallest detail of God's law.

If you are looking for a Jesus who is unrelentingly hard on sinners, who would be standing alongside the Westboro Baptist Church at one of their protests, then you are going to have to ignore or explain away his teachings on forgiving a person 70 times 7, his own disregard for the strict interpretations of the observance of the Sabbath and the rules of ritual uncleanness, his forgiving those who did not first confess their sins and his not condemning the woman taken in adultery. (In fact, that last story is one of the targets of the Conservapedia's translation, citing its absence from many early manuscripts. But it certainly is in line with the character of a man who did not condemn the oft-married and now cohabiting Samaritan woman at the well and his forgiving a woman whose sins were so notorious that folks cringed to see her touch Jesus' feet with her hair and tears.)

If you are looking for a Jesus who wants to show the poor tough love, to let them sink or swim on the result of their own hard work, who is against handouts, then you are going to have to ignore or explain away his admonition to “give to any who beg of you,” his command not to “store up riches for yourself here on earth,” his telling the young rich man that he must sell all he has and give the money to the poor and, of course, that “camel through the eye of a sewing needle” thing.

If you are looking for a Jesus who hates the rich, who is primarily a social activist, who would support the violent overthrow of current society and the setting up of a different political system, then you are going to have to ignore or explain away his saying that in this world we will always have poor, his eating with the rich and tax collectors, his refusal to take sides on the hot button political issues of his time in order to bring people back to the realization that the origin of their problems were not external but internal and that moral and spiritual change were necessary.

If you are looking for a Jesus who is mainly interested in granting personal happiness and prosperity, you are going to have to ignore or explain away his words about serving him not through withdrawal from the problems of everyday life but through taking care of the naked, hungry, sick, imprisoned and immigrants, of his predicting the inevitability of persecution, and of the blessedness of being poor in spirit, mourning, or starving and thirsting for righteousness.

If you are looking for a Jesus who agrees with you 100% on any given subject, then you are not really looking for a Rabbi or teacher. You don't want to learn anything new about God or humanity or morality or spirituality. And Jesus is a teacher, someone who not only imparts knowledge but leads us to see things differently. If you're looking for a Jesus who parrots what you already think you know, then you really aren't looking for Jesus as he is.

But if you are looking for the real Jesus, the complex and challenging Jesus who exists, instead of the oversimplified and comfortable Jesuses people create in their own images,
if you have no preconceptions but will let Jesus be Jesus, then the best response is his own: “Come and see.”

Following Jesus is not meant to be a routine tour of the familiar landmarks of your thoughts and opinions. It is an adventure, taking you places you never anticipated. Those 2 disciples never thought that 3 ½ years later they would be shattered by brutal death of their teacher. Still less did they suspect that 3 days after that they would be be confronted with a resurrected Jesus who would make them rethink everything they thought they knew about him, about the role of the Messiah and about the nature of God. And they never saw themselves traveling the world, preaching Christ even to Gentiles and fearlessly facing death at the hands of those they had once thought their Messiah would overthrow, causing them to redefine victory and life and joy.

So what are you looking for? Is it a mirror image of yourself, your desires and dreams and fears? Or is it the true light which enlightens the world and which you were made to reflect? Where are you going? The same old circuit of self-selected mental and spiritual dead ends and enslaving habits? Or you following Jesus? It's scary because while he will never leave you or forsake you, and while the final destination we are all journeying toward is set, you won't know the exact path or the specific itinerary he has prepared for you. So where Jesus will lead you? The only way to know is to come and see. 

Sunday, January 19, 2014

The Apocrypha Assessment: Tobit 7

Raguel welcomes Tobias and Raphael. As is typical in the Near East, there is kissing and crying and loads of hospitality. Though Raguel and his wife Edna ask about Tobit's health, they somehow know he is blind and remark on how incongruous that is for a righteous man. Before eating Tobias presses his right to marry Sarah. Raguel's "Eat, drink and be merry tonight." [my emphasis] seems to indicate that Raguel doesn't think his new son-in-law will last any longer than the other 7. Nevertheless, the marriage contract is drawn up and Tobias and Sarah are legally wed. Raguel and Edna seem to teeter between hope and pessimism about Tobias' continued existence.

Friday, January 17, 2014

The Apocrypha Assessment: Tobit 6

As Tobias and Raphael set out they are joined by the young man's dog. Tobias gets attacked by a fish but Raphael gives him good advice about catching the fish and making useful medicine from the fish's organs. When they stop for the night the angel plays matchmaker, telling Tobias about his right to marry Sarah. He even gives him the way to defeat the demon, thanks to the fish bits. Oh, and no points for figuring out how Tobit's blindness will be cured. The writer telegraphs everything about his story.

Thursday, January 16, 2014

The Apocrypha Assessment: Tobit 5

Tobias is concerned about going to reclaim money from someone he's never met. Tobit is more concerned that a good guide be found for the journey. So Tobias goes to hire one and happens to run into Raphael. The angel is undercover and says he knows the way to Media. Tobias brings him to his father and the angel lies about being a distant relation. What's fun is Tobit's assurance that one of God's angels will go with the 2 men.

Tuesday, January 14, 2014

The Apocrypha Assessment: Tobit 4

Tobit, sure that God will let him die, gives some last minute advice to his son Tobias. Great advice, too, drawn from various parts of the Old Testament and foreshadowing bits of the New Testament. He starts off asking his son to give him a proper burial, to honor his mother and bury her with him when the time comes. Revere God, take care of the poor, marry a Hebrew woman, Verse 15 is a negative version of the Golden Rule, found in nearly every religion.

Oh, and I have some money squirreled away that I really should have told you about when we got poor.

Sunday, January 12, 2014

Deep Waters

Late last year I performed my first solo baptism in  jail. I had participated in a previous one with my predecessor, the Rev. Don Roberts, so I knew to bring the holy water in a Tupperware container. And because in this case, the inmate's classification forbade me taking him to a private room outside the unit, we did the baptism in the inmate's cell. I asked the questions, the inmate answered and I had him bow over the combination sink/drinking fountain/toilet as I poured the water over his head. I gave him a baptismal certificate and welcomed him into the faith. He is one of the handful of inmates to whom I regularly take communion.

We all come into the church through baptism. It's common to think of baptism as uniquely Christian but in Jesus' day, baptism was a rite reserved for Gentiles converting to Judaism. It represented beginning a new life. The converts were to take new names and old sins were treated as if they had been done by another person. So when John started baptizing Jews for repentance, he must have been seen as a radical. Essentially, he was treating Jews as if they were as far from God as Gentile sinners. But the Jews of that time agreed that they needed to show radical repentance.

But the real question is why did Jesus get baptized? He was without sin so he didn't need to be reconciled with God. Even John says that Jesus should be the baptizer and John the baptizee. Jesus' reply is that it is the proper way to fulfill all righteousness; that is, to do everything a righteous person should do.

Why would a righteous person be baptized? Because a truly righteous person would realize that he is not morally perfect and that he too needs to start his life anew. But Jesus is not your average person. He is sinless. Why is he acting as if he weren't?

In Mere Christianity C. S. Lewis has a chapter entitled "The Perfect Penitent." He points out that by sinning, by opposing God's will in our lives, we are rebels against God. It isn't simply a matter of fallen people needing to be improved; we need to lay down our arms, so to speak. We need to surrender, to unlearn all our bad habits and attitudes. We need to kill that egotistical part of ourselves that says we know better than God when it comes to how to live our lives and how to act towards him and other people. Repentance is turning your life completely around. That is a very hard thing to do. “And here comes the catch,” says Lewis, “Only a bad person needs to repent: only a good person can repent perfectly. The worse you are the more you need it and the less you can do it. The only person who could do it perfectly would be a perfect person—and he would not need it.”

Lewis goes on to point out that if we ask God's help to do this, to take us by the hand and walk us through the process, to give up our will, to surrender, this is only possible if God has actual experience subordinating his will to—well, his will. How could he do that?

Only if God does in fact become a human being. Lewis says, “supposing God became a man—suppose our human nature which can suffer and die was amalgamated with God's nature in one person—then that person could help us. He could surrender His will, and suffer and die, because he was a man; and He could do it perfectly because he was God.”

So in his baptism we see Jesus doing perfectly for us what we cannot do. He is also showing us how to let God help us, which requires humbling oneself. Baptism is not a dignified thing to undergo, whether you are dunked completely underwater in a river or a pool or stand there and let someone pour water on your head. No one with water running down their face looks self-possessed. But that's the point. You are now God's possession. You have handed over the control of your life to him.

And Jesus' whole life is like this. What do we do after a baptism? We have a reception with cake and lots of good things to eat and drink. What does Jesus do after his baptism? He is driven into the wilderness by the Spirit to face temptation. Why? Because we get tempted. He shows us how to handle it. In the 12 step programs, they have made a neat little acronym to remind those going through the program of the 4 chief conditions in which people are most likely to succumb to the temptation to use again. That acronym is H.A.L.T. It stands for Hungry, Angry, Lonely and Tired. And in the wilderness, we see Jesus face all 4. He fasts for 40 days so, of course, he is hungry. His first temptation is to use his divine powers, not for God or for others, but for himself. He is certainly lonely out there in the desert. I don't imagine he sleeps well out there without a tent or bedroll and with his stomach aching for food. And I could see where those conditions would make him apt to be cranky. But Jesus shows us how to resist temptation under more extreme conditions than most of us will ever know.

Jesus starts his mission and asks people to follow him. How hard is that? Well, most of us can't get the courage to ask people to follow Jesus. Christ just does it.

He feels the backlash of his decision with those he loves the most. We are told that his mother and brothers come to fetch him at one point, thinking he must be out of his mind. His brothers tease him about going to Jerusalem for the festivals, according to John's gospel. His own town refuses to believe that this person whom they knew from childhood could be anyone special and their lack of faith in him means he can't heal them. Worse, at one point they get so angry at what he says they want to toss him off a cliff. Imagine being that rejected by your own town? If we make a stand for Jesus we might encounter the same opposition. Jesus shows us how.

Jesus gets bombarded with questions about the hot button issues of his day—taxes, ritual handwashing, what is and is not permitted on the Sabbath, what is and is not Kosher, etc. He doesn't get caught up in long debates that get bogged down in details and minutia. He stays on message. He get asked whose sins caused a man to be born blind. Jesus doesn't try to fix the blame; he fixes the problem. When a woman is caught in adultery, Jesus doesn't get into a discussion of whether or not she should be stoned in accordance with the law. He points out the absurdity of sinners condemning and executing another sinner. And in the end, instead of there being a dead woman, there is a woman who is grateful to Jesus for his mercy and alive to the new direction he has given her life.

Jesus deals with demands on his time and his energies to the point that he can't always eat in peace and he gets so exhausted he almost sleeps through a storm that threatens to sink the boat he's in. Yet he finds time to get off by himself and pray. He organizes a meal for 5000 at a time. He never says “no” to an opportunity to heal or to forgive.

Jesus faces massive opposition, so much so that it is not safe for him to proclaim the gospel. He does it anyway. He is betrayed by a friend. He is abandoned by his followers and one of his closest friends disavows knowing him. If you've ever had a time when you felt abandoned, Jesus has been there and done that. If you've never experienced that for doing the right thing, Jesus shows us how to do it.

Jesus is tried, tortured and executed, painfully, publicly and in as humiliating a way as possible. He feels abandoned even by God. Nobody in this church will ever experience this. But Jesus did—for us and in our place.

The question “What would Jesus do?” is a good one, though somewhat degraded by being turned into a meme and jewelry. We should also ask “What did Jesus do and why?” Much of it he did as an example to us and also so we can ask his help when faced with similar situations.

Lewis speaks of how, to help a child learn to write his ABCs, a teacher might put her hand around the child's hand, and write the letters so the child feels how to physically form them. Lewis speaks of God doing the same with us as we deal with things in this life and his being able to do so because he has first hand experience through Jesus. So when we are up against some challenge we can with confidence ask God to “walk us through this.”

And it's not like all we have is a book which tells us what Jesus did and which we are left to imitate on our own. Because as helpful as his example is, we have his Spirit within us to give us power and wisdom and inspiration to do what Jesus did.

One of the big promises that Jesus makes is in John 14. In verses 15-17 he says, “If you love me, you will keep my commandments. And I will ask the Father and he will give you another Advocate to be with you forever. This is the Spirit of truth, whom the world cannot receive, because it neither sees him nor knows him. You know him, because he abides with you, and he will be in you.” In verse 23, Jesus says, “Those who love me will keep my word, and my Father will love them, and we will come to them and make our home with them.” The Spirit is the presence of God in us. That is how what Jesus knows by experience is made available to us. Through the Spirit, we are connected to Christ and God the Father and have access to the power Jesus used to face and overcome the temptations and obstacles of life. Christ is not only beside us as we deal with them; he is in us helping us accomplish what we otherwise could not.

That is why what Jesus says in John 16:33 is so empowering: “I have said this to you so that in me you may have peace. In the world you will have suffering. But take courage! I have conquered the world!” We have peace because if Christ has conquered the world, we can, too, because he is in us. We needn't despair when the pressure of this world weighs us down. Because, as 1 John 4:4 tells us, “he who is in you is greater than he who is in the world.” And as Paul reminds us in Romans 8:37, “we are more than conquerors through him who loved us.”

Two men stand in a river and one immerses the other. On the surface, that's all that happened that day in Judea. But beneath that surface, Jesus was being the perfect penitent, doing for us what we cannot. And he did so all through his life. And that was so that people who open their hearts to him could have access to that power, to do what we should through the one who is in us. If we truly rely on his Spirit, we can, as he did, overcome this world. Again it may not look like that on the surface, but beneath the appearances, Jesus is changing the balance, relieving the pressure, shifting the dynamics of the situation. All we have to do is trust him, and as he did that day in the Jordan, take the plunge.

The Apocrypha Assessment: Tobit 3

At last the story is going somewhere. The previous 2 chapters were setting things up. Here we get Tobit praying to God for death. And the character of Sarah is introduced. Her tragic story is that she has been married 7 times but before she could consummate any of them the demon Asmodeus killed each of her husbands. A maid accuses her of killing her husbands and in despair Sarah intends to hang herself. But then, to spare her father dishonor, she prays to God for death. The prayers are heard and the angel Raphael is dispatched, not to kill Tobit and Sarah, but to solve their problems.

The parallels between Tobit and Sarah extend to unfair accusations triggering their death wishes. Tobit actually quotes Jonah in saying it is better that he die rather than live. Unlike Tobit, Sarah doesn't confess to any sins. And she gives God an 'out' should her death not be a pleasing option to him. Notice that she prays with outstretched arms, the ancient posture of prayer which is once again becoming popular.

The notes in the Harper Collins Study Bible suggest that Asmodeus is a folkloric demon lover who kills Sarah's husbands because he sees them as rivals. Yet he does not (or cannot) consummate his lust for her. The Interpreter's One Volume Commentary suggests that Asmodeus might be a Persian demon but could also be a Greek version of the Hebrew word for "destroyer." By the way Raphael means "God heals" which is his whole mission in this story.

Friday, January 10, 2014

The Apocrypha Assessment: Tobit 2

Tobit resumes his story. He returns to his family, sits down to a holiday dinner, and sends his son Tobias out to invite a poor person in to share it with them. Tobias returns with news that another Jew's murdered body is lying out in the marketplace. Tobit leaves his dinner untouched and retrieves the body. He eats and then buries the body after sunset. Then he sleeps in the courtyard. (The footnote in the Harper Collins Study Bible points out that touching the body makes Tobit ritually unclean which might be why he sleeps in the courtyard but why was he able to eat in his house? Interpreter's Commentary suggests either that the rules were relaxed for Jews in the Diaspora or that the food he ate wasn't that prepared for the festival and thus not holy.)

While he is sleeping in the courtyard, sparrows poop on Tobit's eyes. He develops cataracts and despite 4 years of treatment by doctors goes blind. Then he gets testy. His wife Anna supports the family by weaving. Her employers reward her with a goat. Blind Tobit, obsessed with being righteous, is sure the goat is stolen and he and his wife have words. The argument they have sounds like a real marital spat.

Thursday, January 9, 2014

The Apocrypha Assessment: Tobit 1

Tobit is a well-written fictional story about a pious Hebrew who suffers. Tobit (means "my good"; his son's name "Tobias" means "YHWH is my good") was a righteous Israelite who did not worship the golden calf and visited Jerusalem in neighboring Judah at the 3 major festivals (Passover, Pentecost and Tabernacles). He gives away 3/10 of his income, 1/10 of it to the poor and disenfranchised. He was originally a resident of Upper Galilee who is taken into exile by Assyria. He worked his way up to a high position but remained loyal to Jewish tradition, ie, eating Kosher, burying the dead, etc. This gets him in trouble but he is saved by his relative, Ahikar, who is the hero of some popular non-Jewish tales.

So far this story is off to a good start.

Tuesday, January 7, 2014

The Apocrypha Assessment: Introduction

Certain Christian denominations have additional books in their version of the Bible. The Eastern Orthodox, Roman Catholic, Lutheran and Episcopal churches include the books of the Apocrypha. Since I represent the last 2 denominations but have only read limited passages from them, I am curious about these books. So I propose to read them and then to comment on them in this blog. So let's get started, beginning with an overview. 

The name "Apocrypha" is Greek for "hidden." These books were originally included with the ancient Greek translation of the Hebrew Bible called the Septuagint. This translation was the Bible the apostles used and quoted in the New Testament. But they don't seem to have quoted the books of the Apocrypha. And we have no extant versions of these books in Hebrew or Aramaic, unlike the canonical books of the Old Testament.

Both Jews and Christians recognized that these books were not on the same level as the inspired books of scripture. But they felt they were good for private reading and personal edification. It would be as if you translated the New Testament and included the works of C.S. Lewis and Dorothy L. Sayers as complementary Christian reading.

Why read the Apocrypha if it is not scripture? For one thing, it gives us a window on the state of Jewish thought during the period between the Old and New Testaments. For instance we see a lot of development in the doctrines of angels and the afterlife between the 2 Testaments. We get glimpses of that in the Apocrypha.

Similarly when we finish the Hebrew Bible, Judea is a weak nation with limited autonomy under the Persian Empire that defeated the Babylonians. When we get into the New Testament, Israel is occupied territory under the Roman Empire. What happened in between? Did you know that the Jews were oppressed by the Syrian successors to Alexander the Great and attained independence for about 150 years? Again you learn about that in the Apocrypha.

Just as learning about other books written at the time of the Old and New Testament gives us insights into the issues, ideas and cultures surrounding scripture, reading the Apocrypha gives us information about what led up to and shaped the world of the New Testament. Think of this as background research.

Plus the Jews and early Christians found value and wisdom in reading these works, at least privately. As long as we acknowledge that these are not scripture, we should have an informative time studying books with which the people in Jesus' day were familiar.

The Apocrypha consists of 12 new books plus Greek additions to the Hebrew books of Esther, Daniel, Jeremiah and Chronicles. I will be following the order of books in the Harper Collins Study Bible and reading its notes and consulting The Interpreter's One-Volume Commentary on the Bible for help. I will do a chapter at a time. There are about 200 chapters. Due to my work as priest/pastor to 2 churches and as chaplain at the local jail, I'm not going be able to post every day but I hope to do so at least 4 or 5 times a week.

Next post: Tobit, chapter 1.

Monday, January 6, 2014


The scripture referred to is Ephesians 1:3-19.

I saw a one-panel cartoon that featured 2 dogs. One dog asks, “What are New Year's resolutions?” The other dog replies, “A 'To Do' list for the first week in January.”

At the end of a year we tend to look back at what happened to us and what we accomplished. At the beginning of a year, we usually look ahead at what we hope to do. But today's reading from Ephesians reminds us of something else we can do: count our blessings. In the first chapter of this letter, we are reminded of the blessings that we have in Christ. 

In my Greek exegesis class at Wheaton College we were very familiar with this passage. In the original Greek, verses 3 through 14 are one long sentence. So one memorable assignment was to diagram that sentence--in Greek! Most translations divide it up into many shorter sentences to make it understandable. Apparently, Paul was so caught up in this peon of praise that it took awhile before he stopped to breathe. Or maybe this is how he always spoke and his other secretaries did what the translators do: broke his stuff down into more manageable sentences.

He uses 3 forms of the word “blessing” in the 1st verse of our reading alone. Which is interesting because Paul enumerates 3 main blessings in this enormous sentence. The first he mentions is our adoption; the second is our redemption and the third is our sealing by the Holy Spirit. Let's look at each.

In verse 4 he says that God chose us in Christ before the world was created. We are not mere accidents or side-effects of the universe. Out of all the possibilities he had, God chose us. That is amazing. You are his by design.

And he chose us with a particular end in sight: “to be holy and blameless before him in love.” “Holy,” as we've pointed out before, simply means “set apart for God's purposes.” “Blameless” needs no explanation. God wanted nothing to come between us and his love. Why? Because “He destined us for adoption as his children in Jesus Christ...” People are not automatically children of God. We are his creatures, just like the animals and plants. But we were created in God's image and he always intended to raise us to the status of his children, to graciously include us into the eternal love relationship he shares with his Son in the unity of his Holy Spirit.

Of course, something came up that presents an obstacle to our having a loving relationship with God: our sin. Our rebellion against God, our saying “Not your will but my will be done,” makes our union with him impossible, the way a person refusing to cooperate and give up drugs or alcohol makes a normal healthy relationship with them impossible.

Which brings us to the second blessing enumerated: redemption. “Redemption” means to buy back something or someone. The price of our redemption is the blood of Christ, God's son. That made possible the forgiveness of our sins. The Greek word used for forgiveness here is interesting. It literally means “freedom,” though in this context it is properly translated “pardon.” So our redemption means freedom from the consequences of our sins when it comes to our relationship with God. Rather than having our guilt and the just punishment for our sins hanging over our heads, God has liberated us from that. He has done it “according to the riches of his grace, that he lavished on us.” We don't deserve it. God has done this out of his goodness.

And he is not merely redeeming us, the human beings who are part of his creation, but the whole creation. Paul calls this the “mystery of his will.” The Greek word is actually the one from which we get the English word “mystery.” Paul may here be stealing the thunder of the many mystery cults that abounded throughout the Roman Empire. Their secrets, however, were closely guarded and only disclosed to their initiates. But the mystery Paul is talking about is an “open secret,” if you will. God has revealed his plans for the world and not hidden them from all but a spiritual elite. And his plan is to, in “the fullness of time, to gather up all things in him, things in heaven and things on earth.” The 'him” is obviously his Son. As it says in John 1, “all things came into being through him,” and God plans to accomplish the new creation through Christ as well.

That is big news! And it has implications. If God's plan of redemption is not just for us but for the whole of creation, that means just as we cannot neglect any human being but must see each as a brother or sister in Christ or a potential brother or sister in Christ, we cannot abandon any part of this creation as mere fuel for the end of the world but see it as something God created and once pronounced “good” and which is destined to be redeemed in Christ. Remember that John 3:16 says that “God so loved the world...” The Greek word used, “cosmos,” is not restricted to people. God created everything through Christ and will recreate everything through him in the end. We have to take that into account when dealing with matters of environment, pollution, resource scarcity, endangered animals and other aspects of our stewardship of the gifts with which God has showered us.

Because of our redemption, which makes us children of God, we have an inheritance. In various places we are told that those who trust God inherit the Kingdom of God, We are also told we inherit the earth, our salvation, eternal life, a blessing and glory.

The third spiritual blessing that God has given us is that “when you had heard the word of truth, the gospel of your salvation, and had believed in him, [you] were marked with the seal of the promised Holy Spirit...” When we put our trust in God, he sends us his Holy Spirit. The Spirit is the pledge, the down payment, or first installment of our spiritual inheritance. He is God within us; renewing and transforming us, pouring out God's love into our hearts, giving us gifts and equipping us to use them, helping us pray and expressing our deepest needs which are beyond words, reminding us what Jesus taught us and leading us into all truth, giving us the words we need to proclaim our faith.

Now all of this comes to us not on the New Year but upon receiving our new life in Christ. We get, as we said, the first installment; the remainder of our inheritance is to be received when Jesus returns. But in the meantime, we still get a lot. And we do periodically need to be reminded about it, lest our view of what Jesus has done for us narrows.

Mainstream churches rarely make a big deal of us being God's children except to say that we should therefore all love each other and treat each other well. The “prosperity gospel” churches, on the other hand, make much of our being “the King's kids” but instead on emphasizing spiritual blessings, focus on material blessings that, frankly, God does not promise us in this life. And in fact, the Great Recession has hurt a lot of the prosperity gospel churches and preachers. If you think trusting God should translate into material wealth, how do you explain losing your money/job/house? Not enough faith? Or just bad theology? The blessings we get are primarily spiritual and long-term. The gospel is not a “get rich quick” scheme.

But the spiritual blessings are real. And they are substantial. This is all God's doing and we should be grateful and give him glory. That bothers a lot of people. Why should we give God glory? Well, why do you praise anyone? Because they have done something worthy of praise. And what God has done for us is certainly praiseworthy. Because of Jesus Christ, we know we have been chosen by God before the foundation of the world. We know that our salvation depends on God's gracious will and not our ability to earn his favor. We know that we are redeemed by Jesus' blood, that he paid a very precious price to free us from our slavery to sin and our own way of doing things. Because of him, we can become children of God and heirs of God's kingdom. We know that we were sealed by God's Spirit and given his presence and power as a first installment of our inheritance.

Before you go on a journey it's wise to take an inventory of all of your equipment and assets. Before you go much farther in this new year, it is wise to count all of your blessings, bestowed upon you by a loving God, that “you may know what is the hope to which he has called you, what are the riches of his glorious inheritance among the saints, and what is the immeasurable greatness of his power for us who believe.