Monday, April 27, 2015

Laying Down the Law

Even when people like the same thing, they often like it for different reasons. I like Sherlock, the BBC's contemporary version of the Great Detective, for many reasons. I like the writing, the clever way they update these Victorian characters, the little details that are nods to the originals, the plots, the humor, and the superb acting. Some people just like it because they think lead actor Benedict Cumberbatch is sexy. You find the same thing in others fandoms, in sports, politics or most hobbies and enthusiasms: even within a group devoted to the same idea or activity, people are drawn to different aspects of it. And the same goes for religion. Some people like it for the inspiration, some for the moral order, some for the fellowship, some for the theology, some for the artistic elements, some for the acts of devotion and some for its precepts. Which is, oddly enough, why there are so many divisions within religions, such as Christianity, despite the fact that we agree on so much. We each feel our approach, our priorities, our emphases are the correct or most important ones. And just as the worst arguments happen within families, we seem to get most upset by those with whom we share the most.

There is a way to resolve this problem, at least within Christianity. Let's look at Jesus and at the Bible. What are the most important things according to our primary sources?

The Torah, the 5 books of Moses, contain 613 commandments by the rabbis' reckoning. And not being stupid, they realized that some must be more important than others. For instance, in a life and death situation, where strict adherence to every little rule might delay or prevent a good Jew from saving someone's life, which commandment takes precedence? When asked this, Jesus gave not one but two commandments: “Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind. This is the first and greatest commandment. And the second is like it: 'Love your neighbor as yourself. All the law and the prophets depend on these two commandments.” (Mt 22:37-40) In Mark's version, Jesus says, “There is no other commandment greater than these.” (Mk 12:31) Notice that Jesus is not saying, “These are somewhat important commandments” or “These are interesting commandments.” He says they are the greatest commandments--there are none greater and all the other ethical demands are derived from these two. Or as N.T. Wright puts it, “Everything else is footnotes.”

If you asked a group of people passing by on the street what they thought Christians held to be the most important commandments, what do you think they would say? No gay marriage? No abortions? No teaching evolution? If so, whose fault is it that we have let the emphasis on those things obscure the gospel, the good news of the love of God in Christ? Doesn't Jesus tell us that the commandments to love God and to love others trump every other commandment? Why don't more Christians acknowledge this?

Because it frightens them. The commandments to love are open-ended and non-specific. How do we know what actions are loving? People do lots of things in the name of love. Whereas the other commandments are more measurable. Make an image and worship it? That's a violation. Commit adultery? That's a violation. Work on the Sabbath? That's a violation. Except that even in this example, it's not always easy to determine if a commandment is being broken. Jesus' opponents felt that his healing on the Sabbath broke that commandment. Jesus didn't. To him, it wasn't work; it was an act of love.

And we do know love when we see it. You see lovers on the street walking with arms around each other; you see a mother restraining her child from crossing against the light; you see a man get out of his car, pull a wheelchair out of the back, set it up, lock the brakes and then help his aged parent into it. Those are all acts and signs of love.

There are less clear ones. In public, a mother yells “No!” loudly at her child. Is that abuse? Or is she trying to stop the child from putting the nasty thing it found on the floor in its mouth? You see a child crying in front of a stern-faced father. Is the father being cruel? Or has he just made it clear to the child for the twentieth time that he is not getting the expensive toy he wants today? The woman is putting back on the shelf the food item her aged father just put in his motorized cart. Is she being mean? Unnecessarily frugal? Or is she trying to observe the doctor's orders on what the older man cannot eat if he doesn't want to make his condition worse?

People do a lot of things for love, including inappropriate or even morally wrong things. That's why the commandment to love scares us. Why, it can be an excuse to do just about anything! But not really. You cannot harm someone and call it love. Indeed in the oath that doctors and nurses take they promise to “first, do no harm.” They do not take an oath to love their patients but if we as Christians are to follow Jesus and obey his commandments, it is understood that part of love is doing no harm to others nor allowing any harm to come to them, in so far as we can. Anything that harms or fails to reasonably protect others from harm cannot be considered love.

This is what John is getting at in our passage today. (1 Jn 3:16-24) “How does God's love abide in anyone who has the world's goods and sees a brother or sister in need and yet refuses help?” Letting the person who needs food or clothes or shelter or healing continue to suffer is not a loving thing to do. Not allowing people to feed the homeless, which is now the law in 33 American cities, is not loving. It makes no sense to say we love God and then do terrible things to those created by him in his image. Or allow terrible things to be done to them. Especially because, as John writes, “We know love by this, that [Jesus Christ] laid down his life for us...” The reason we love Jesus, and the way we know what love truly is, comes from what he did for us. He laid down his life; he set aside all claims to it; he gave it all up. And he did so for us. It only makes sense, then, that “we ought to lay down our lives for each other.” We need to go outside our comfort zones to help those who need it.

Little children, let us love, not in word or speech, but in truth and in action.” If there is one verse that should be up there with John 3:16, or the passages on the great commandments, as one of the verses we should all memorize, it is this one. We Christians talk a good game but we often sound like fans who enthusiastically discuss sports but don't actually play them. It is acceptable today to think of sports as merely entertainment, watching and paying athletes handsomely to do what we cannot. So we are used to seeing sports fans who are grossly out of shape. But Christianity is not here to entertain us. It is an activity in which participation is mandatory.

John says, “All who obey his commandments abide in him and he abides in them.” How does this work? How does obeying Jesus' commandments lead to him living in us? Because of a fact that John lets drop in the next chapter: “God is love.” Not “God is loving” but “God is love.” God is the ongoing act of love between the persons of the Trinity. And if God is love, then our participating in that divine love makes it part of us. God created us out of the overflowing of that love and having that love in us means that acting in love should naturally flow out of that. As it says in 1st John 4:8, “Whoever does not love does not know God for God is love.” And if we do not know God how can we call ourselves Christians, followers of the God of Love Incarnate? As Sister Claire Joy of the Community of the Holy Spirit said, “ God above all and then prove loving your neighbor as yourself.”

Remember how we said that all the other commandments are footnotes to the two greatest? Those commandments are all ways one can show love. In one chapter of Leviticus alone (19) we are told: 
“Do not go over your vineyard a second time or pick up the grapes that have fallen. Leave them for the poor and the immigrant. I am the Lord your God.
Do not steal. Do not lie. Do not deceive one another....
Do not defraud your neighbor or rob him. Do not hold back the wages of a hired man overnight.
Do not curse the deaf or put a stumbling block in front of the blind but fear your God. I am the Lord.
Do not pervert justice; do not show partiality to the poor or favoritism to the great but judge your neighbor fairly.
Do not go about spreading slander among your people.
Do not do anything that that endangers your neighbor's life. I am the Lord.
Do not hate your neighbor in your heart. Rebuke your neighbor frankly so you will not share his guilt.
Do not seek revenge or bear a grudge against one of your people, but love your neighbor as yourself. I am the Lord.” And, yes, that where Jesus got that commandment.

The chapter goes on to command respect for the elderly and to treat resident aliens as countrymen. There are others which do not apply to us because we do not live in ancient Bronze Age theocratic Israel. But these are all concrete ways of loving our neighbor. There are others.

We can encourage and support and comfort and listen to and empathize with others, especially when they are in distress.
We can teach and guide and share with others helpful knowledge and our experience dealing with challenges.
We can learn from and understand and accept and strengthen and celebrate others' triumphs and joys.
We can hug and laugh with and reconcile with and forgive and ask forgiveness from others.
We can feed the hungry, provide potable water to the thirsty, house the homeless, visit the sick and those in prison, and welcome the immigrant, as Jesus told us to do in Matthew 25.
We can protect the vulnerable and give voice to the voiceless and work for the end of violence.
We can work for justice for all and peace for all.

There are many more ways to show love. They are limited only by our imagination and creativity.

In a way it is not surprising that the hardest commandments are the ones most people forget or ignore. Not many people bring up the command to love our enemies either. It's much easier to concentrate on simpler commandments that have to do with refraining from eating or drinking certain things, dressing a certain way, using or not using certain words, etc. These things are superficial but manageable. But commit yourself to love whomever you encounter--which is Jesus' definition of “neighbor”--and you open yourself up to all kinds of unpredictability. Your neighbor could not only be anyone but their needs could be things that even a Winn Dixie gift card and a boatload of platitudes could not fulfill. Love demands more of us.

Love always costs. Like everything else that's worthwhile, it will take time, it will take energy, it will take attention to detail and it will take money. That's the price of commitment. And love takes commitment. It takes commitment to the person you are trying to love, of course. But it also takes commitment to the whole idea of loving others. You can't just switch it off when you want to. Love means you can't just dismiss people. You can't deem some people unworthy of love. God loves us and if we are honest, we will admit that we can be pretty unlovable at times. God loves us in spite of that. If we are to reflect him, we need to do the same for others. We need to commit to it and make it our top priority in all that we think, in all that we say, in all that we do.

There are lots of laws in the Bible. Jesus says love is at the heart of them. The essential thing is to love God and to love those created in his image, which is everyone you meet. In 1st Corinthians 13, Paul said that you can be smart and do noble and heroic things but if you don't have love, you are nothing. If we try to impose parts of scripture on others without love, we are negating the gospel. The good news is not “You're going to hell.” It is that in Jesus we see what God is like and what we see is that God is love. If you want to know what love is, you need to get to know and follow Jesus. Knowing and being with and in Jesus is heaven. It's not a cloud; it's not Disney World writ large; it's not getting every little thing your heart desires. It's being included in the eternal circle of love that is our God. And it is including everyone we can, inviting them all and removing all the obstacles that are preventing them from entering in. Love is the mark of the Christian; it is how Jesus said the world would recognize us as his disciples. Love is the whole law.

Everything else is footnotes.

Monday, April 13, 2015

Taking the Long View

This was an historic year, religiously speaking. We had a blood moon and then Passover began on Good Friday evening just as it did the year Jesus was crucified. On Palm Sunday my wife, some parishioners and I went to the Passover Seder at St. Columba's church up in Marathon. So I felt very rooted in the faith traditions out of which the Eucharist and Christianity itself grew.

My interest in Judaism goes way back. My mother read books by Chaim Potok and Harry Kemelman and passed them on to me. Potok's books usually deal with tensions between Orthodox and Hasidic Jews and within Orthodoxy. Kemelmen's lighter mystery series that started with Friday the Rabbi Slept Late paint a picture of Conservative Judaism as it was in the latter half of the 20th century. One thing that I noticed is that it's common for Jews tend to think of their faith as down to earth and practical whereas they view Christianity as mystical and not as grounded in reality. And so I was interested when I heard this assessment of Christianity voiced in the recent TV movie Killing Jesus, although the person expressing such sentiments was Pilate! Which gives him credit for being a much more astute politician and more knowledgeable about Jesus than most historians think he was.

Still is it fair to say that Jesus was idealistic to an unrealistic degree? He did after all preach radical forgiveness of those who persecute us, loving even one's enemies, turning the other cheek in the face of violence, giving to all who ask, and being ready to die as a vital component of following him. What happens in our passage from Acts (4:32-35) is merely following that logic.

Pragmatists might have trouble with those key Christian ethical principles. Shouldn't we refuse to forgive people until they change their ways? Otherwise we are not stopping their behavior. The same objection can be made for loving one's enemies and not resisting violence. Giving to all who ask encourages the poor to be beggars rather than workers. And what if the work you are doing for Christ is so important that dying for your faith will also kill off a critical ministry?

Let's look at each of these objections. 

Should we only forgive those who ask? Generally that's what's done in the Bible. In Luke 17:3 Jesus says, “Watch yourselves! If your brother sins, rebuke him. If he repents, forgive him. Even if he sins against you seven times in a day, and seven times returns to you saying, 'I repent,' you must forgive him.” So repentance should precede forgiveness, right? The major exception to this rule is committed by, of all people, Jesus. When he is crucified he prays for his executioners: “Father, forgive them, for they do not know what they are doing.” This is extraordinarily gracious of Jesus and is no doubt due to the fact that the soldiers have no clue as to the enormity of what they are doing. But we also see Jesus at times forgiving those brought to him for healing without them first asking for pardon. He intuited that their guilt or behavior was at least partly responsible for the damage to their body and spirit and that they needed God's forgiveness as part of the healing process.

We are not Jesus. But offering forgiveness to someone who hasn't asked for it is powerful. It is a recognition that we all screw up and do what we later regret. Unbidden forgiveness can startle someone and cause them to see you not as an opponent but as someone who cares for them. It can lead to a belated apology. Or it could offend the person who thinks that you are acting superior to them. If forgiveness produces this effect, it may mean that the person is not ready to admit their fault. They may never be. Which will give you some insight into how God feels when faced with those of us who reject his grace and mercy.

Jesus raises the bar on the behavior that he expects from us, especially when it comes to loving others. When people say that religions are all alike, what they really mean is that here is an ethical similarity. They almost all have some version of the Golden Rule, though often it is stated negatively: don't do to others what you wouldn't want done to yourself. But as far as I can tell the commandment to love your enemies is unique to Jesus. Because it makes no sense from an earthly standpoint. Let's assume that you did not initiate the aggression that caused someone to oppose you, so that the reason that they are your enemy lies with them. It is what they thought, said or did that caused the enmity between you. And that makes it extremely hard to be the one who initiates acting in love towards them. But, let's face it, rarely is the conflict entirely the other person's fault. Even if you didn't start it, it would be highly unusual if you did not then retaliate or do something that exacerbated the problem. Your actions may have been preceded by the thought, “Well, if you're going to act that way...” Usually in a conflict both sides think themselves to be the reasonable one and the other party to be the irrational one. And if that's how each person feels then it is hard to see how to compromise or resolve things.

Love, Paul tells us in 1 Corinthians 13:5, “is not self-seeking, is not easily angered; it keeps no record of wrongs.” Right there he points out 3 factors in a conflict. When people seek what benefits themselves, when they are touchy and easily provoked, when they keep a running tally of others' flaws and failings, disputes are inevitable. Sometimes I think that what could best help solve the problems of the Middle East (or anywhere, really) would be global amnesia. If everybody could just forget past wrongs maybe they could make progress resolving the problems of the present. But if people keep brooding over a list of old offenses, they will never be able to get past them and objectively focus on what needs to be done now. Similarly, if people only see things in relation to themselves, they won't be able to seriously consider the concerns of other parties. And if a person takes umbrage, the discussion will never get to what's vital.

When Jesus tells us to love our enemy, I don't think he means “have warm and fuzzy feelings about him.” That may not be emotionally possible, at least not at first. In the Bible, love is not merely a feeling; it is a commitment to someone's well-being. You can do that even if you are not particularly enamored of the person. What you cannot do is try to harm that person.

Now what if your enemy is not just your opponent but is objectively doing evil, that is, intentionally trying to harm you and/or others? What did Jesus do? When Peter cut off the ear of one of those who came to arrest his Lord, Jesus healed the man's ear. He asked for God to forgive his executioners. He told the man being crucified next to him, who had hurling abuse at Jesus before, that he was going to join Christ in paradise. Jesus' love is not theoretical but actual. Again Jesus raises the standard of how we are to live.

Not that Jesus was shy about telling his opponents about their errors. But he did not kill them or call for his followers to kill them. He called for love. And he called out the Pharisees and scribes when their actions did not show love for God or for those created in his image. In his scathing denunciation in Matthew 23, he accused the Pharisees of barring the gates of God's kingdom to others. He says that any converts they make are twice as fit for hell as they are. About their devotion to God's law, he says, “ have neglected the more important matters of the law—justice, mercy and faithfulness.” Jesus spoke the blunt truth to those in power. As Paul says, love “rejoices with the truth.”

The exposure of the truth is a real deterrent to those who prefer to operate in the dark. There's a reason why controlling the press and censoring free expression are top priorities for dictatorships. There is a reason why countries like North Korea try to ban the Internet or, in the case of China, create their own tightly monitored alternative. The truth is no friend to those who do wrong, no matter how hard they try to portray themselves as doing right. And they know that the truth can bring down regimes.

But surely violence in the name of what's right also brings down regimes. Yes, and often with no guarantee that the new regime will be any better, as we've seen many times over in the Middle East. In contrast, the transitions of Poland and Czechoslovakia from Soviet satellites to free countries were accomplished relatively peacefully and using video and broadcast technology of the time to expose the truth.

But what about in personal conflicts? Isn't turning the other cheek just an invitation to get beaten up? At times. But if one shows courage by refusing to fight, it can impress and even turn away aggressors. Dr. Stephen Foster is a medical missionary in Angola. According to Nicholas Kristof in the New York Times, “Armed soldiers once tried to kidnap 25 of his male nurses, and when Foster ordered the gunmen off the property, he said, they fired AK-47 rounds near his feet. He held firm, and they eventually retreated without the nurses.” Had he tried to shoot it out with them, it would have ended badly.

Violence begets retaliatory violence. Someone has to be the first to break the cycle and try something different. We keep trying things the old way and we see what that gets. Is it really that Jesus' way doesn't work or that we don't trust God enough to try it?

Giving to all who ask will get you taken advantage of—by the less than 5% in any social strata who try to con people. People seeking a free ride are not confined to the poor. But the vast majority of those who ask for help sincerely need it and find it hard to humble themselves to the point of asking. And after the Great Recession, when whole companies were destroyed, charities collapsed, pensions plummeted, homes were repossessed, and people nearing retirement age found themselves forced to find minimum wage jobs to replace their well-paying jobs which disappeared, we have found that the bad choices of the rich can also make people poor, even more so than the bad choices of the poor. Unless you have a copy of someone's tax return, you really don't know enough to judge if they are the deserving poor or not. At Christmas Lord of the Seas helped out a family that maintained a small but clean and neat apartment. It was so nice that despite the fact that they lived in subsidized housing, I wondered if they were that bad off. The family was so grateful that they all came out to the living room greet me. Except the teenager who would not leave his room and was so mentally ill that he was not allowed in school. As a former psych nurse, I would bet that caring for him 24/7, his frequent hospitalizations and his psych medications were a large part of the reason that the family had financial problems. And remember in this country medical bills are the number one reason for personal bankruptcy. Often the reason why a person or a family is not making it is not easily seen.

Finally, Jesus said if anyone wanted to follow him, they should disown themselves and take up their cross. In Jesus' day, being openly Christian could get you killed. In many countries today, that's still true. But surely this does not apply to us in the first world.

Why not? Though dying for Christ was the fate of many of the first Christians, they did a lot before that death. They fed the hungry, took care of the sick and dying, freed their slaves, rescued abandoned infants, and proclaimed the gospel. They considered their life to be a living sacrifice to God. They did not live for themselves but for Jesus and for others. And we should be doing the same. Instead by most measures self-professed Christians in this country live no differently than non-Christians. And the world rightly calls such Christians hypocrites. They realize that Jesus' ethics were more challenging than just observing etiquette. And the world's problems require more than mere politeness.

Make no mistake. Following Jesus will cost you. If it doesn't lead to your death it will hijack your life and transform it into something that will not necessarily resemble the life you imagined. It will rarely lead to fame and great fortune. It will almost certainly lead you into the messy, complicated lives of others. You will face the evil in them and in yourself. You will come up against the limits of your ability to love others and your desire to obey God. You will be tested. And you may not see the seeds you've planted blossom. So why do it? Why follow such a demanding, difficult way of life?

It makes no sense. Where is the logic in constantly forgiving any and all wrongs done to us? How is it reasonable to love those who hate us? Why in the world should we not strike back at those who strike at us? What is the point of giving what is ours to others? Who in their right mind would live a life according to someone else's dictates and not by one's own whims and desires? It makes no earthly sense.

It only makes sense in the light of the resurrection. Only if Jesus rose from the dead and promises us the same does it make sense to forgive anyone anything, to love all others including those who are our enemies, to not fight back, to give to all who ask and to give up the rights to this life to the one who died for it. If you want advice about maximizing life on earth alone, go pick up any one of the hundreds of self-help books out there. If you want a life that's relatively safe, reasonably comfortable, or centered around personal pleasure, I don't recommend following Jesus.

But if you take the long view, if you look beyond the brief years we have on this globe--far longer than the mayfly but centuries shorter than the tortoise or the trees, billions of years less than the earth and stars--if you believe that we will outlive all those and what we see about us, then Jesus' ethics make sense. If you believe that we live beyond death, then logic dictates that we take loving care of our relationships with others, with ourselves and with God. How we act towards God and towards others shapes who we are and what we will become over eternity. So it makes sense not to be someone who holds grudges forever, who lets hate inhabit us forever, who is forever ready to fight, whose grip on things never loosens, who saves his life at the price of his soul, who he or she is. Jesus' resurrection turns all the temporary values of this world on their heads. What we do here can make us devils or children of God in the long run. We can bend the shoot so that it will be crooked no matter how long it grows or we can keep it straight so that it ever seeks and soars to the sky.

What Jesus commands us to do makes no earthly sense. It is resurrection logic. It is the deep wisdom of the God of love and the fundamental law of his kingdom. If that is where we are heading, then we must do as he says. After all, he's been there. And there he waits for us to follow, saving us places at the wedding supper of the Lamb, the great and glorious celebration of God's eternal love for us. 

Sunday, April 5, 2015

Love Wins in the End

The scriptures referred to are the resurrection accounts in all the gospels.

Most action films end with the good guys winning, usually by killing the bad guys. That's how the film The Matrix ends, as I expected. What I didn't expect was that this violent action film would be so obviously structured on the life of Jesus. Mr. Anderson (which, reading ander as andros, man in Greek, could be translated as “son of man”) is Neo, the One who will be able to break through the illusion of the Matrix, and free other people from this machine-generated virtual reality. Morpheus is his John the Baptist, Cypher is Judas Iscariot and Mr. Smith is the devil. Neo is killed by Smith but comes back to life through the love of a woman named Trinity. And the film ends with Neo literally ascending from the earth. It's a good action film, but I have trouble with a messiah who kills such an astonishing number of people. And it is established that if you die in the Matrix, you die in reality. This makes Neo different from most other action heroes, who kill monsters, zombies, robots or aliens but not humans. Neo doesn't care about collateral damage. In effect, he is the opposite of Jesus, who came to bring life to all.

As the film series goes on, we find out more about the war between the machines and the humans. We find out that humans, having created Artificial Intelligence, treated the robots and machines badly, which caused them to rebel. In the last movie, in the Matrix Neo defeats Smith by inhabiting all the versions of the evil program and turning them into versions of Neo. In the physical world, Neo dies and this brings a truce between the machines and humans. There are parallels to the indwelling of the Spirit and the atonement. But Neo is just a man and stays dead. Trinity dies also. So while in the end Neo kinda brings reconciliation between the two sides, lots of people die through violence and the ending is a real downer.

I used to enjoy all the documentaries on the Bible that would come out around Easter. Well known scholars would be interviewed, new archeological discoveries would be discussed and I would gain some insights into the scriptures. But, possibly because they have covered every major event and issue over and over, they now no longer try to balance the skeptical and the more faithful viewpoints by scholars. In their desire to present novel interpretations and yet not overly offend the Christians and Jews who are most likely to tune in, they present controversial ideas but then refuse to evaluate them using critical thinking. These documentaries used to at least present the views of distinguished scholars on each side. Now they just seem to grab anyone who teaches religion at any college, however obscure, and juxtapose them with clergy I've never heard of. If you don't follow Biblical scholarship, you get a very distorted look at the state of the field.

I gave up on one such documentary this week when a guy in T-shirt proposed that the reason that the tomb was empty because, constrained by the approaching Sabbath, Joseph of Arimathea just stashed Jesus in the nearest tomb and later moved him to his permanent resting place. This is the dumbest theory ever. It assumes that not only did Joseph do this immediately after sunset Saturday but that he never bothered to tell Jesus' other followers, not even after they were preaching the resurrection in public. At least Hugh Schofield in his book The Passover Plot put some real thought into his bizarre and elaborate theory of Jesus faking his death, even though Agatha Christie would reject it because she knew more about the effects of dangerous drugs than he apparently did.

I am not going to rehearse here all the problems with all the attempts to explain away the resurrection. Respected Biblical scholar N.T. Wright points out that there were many would-be messiahs in the time before and after Jesus. Their followers, if they escaped execution by Rome, either returned to their former obscure lives or decided to follow the next self-proclaimed messiah. Only Jesus' followers not only remained loyal to him after his death but insisted that he came back to life and lives still. Michael Grant wrote in his book on Jesus said that as an historian of ancient Rome he really ought to end the book with Jesus' death. The problem is, he found, without Jesus' resurrection it is extremely hard to understand why his disciples went from cowering from the authorities in the locked upper room to fearless witnesses willing to die for their belief, nor how this faith in a carpenter in a tiny corner of the Mediterranean spread throughout the Empire in less than 100 years. Because of his followers' testimony and martyrdom, Jesus is not only known today to people other than scholars but is worshiped the world over as Lord.

Rather than talking about how this happened I would like to focus on why. Why was the resurrection so vital to the first Christians and why is it still essential today?

To the disciples Jesus' death was much more than a downer. It was devastating. It was the death of their dreams, the destruction of their hopes. It plunged them all into despair. And remember many had followed John the Baptist, who had also been killed. Now the man who they thought was the Messiah, the Son of God, the new king from the house of David, was killed in the most grotesque and humiliating way possible. And they, his friends who thought they would rule the kingdom with him, ran like cowards when facing armed opponents. Their picture of Jesus and their images of themselves were shattered. In abject misery they holed up and could not even think of what to do next.

Denial is a part of grief, though usually before an imminent death. And some people say that the resurrection was some kind of hallucination born out of denial that Jesus was really dead. But it would have to be a group hallucination, one in which everybody saw and heard and touched the same thing. In fact, it would have to be a series of them that stretched out for forty days. And happened to 500 people, according to Paul. And then stopped. And the effect of this illusion would have to last all the way up to their deaths.

And they were avoidable deaths, depending entirely them on sticking to their story that Jesus arose from the dead. All they had to do to live was deny the resurrection. If their memories were at all odd or dream-like or influenced by others, why did none of them doubt and opt out of martyrdom? If it were a lie, their deaths are even more inexplicable. People might kill to cover up a scheme they concocted but who would die for a lie?

Grant is right. Only a real resurrection accounts for the change in the behavior of the disciples. They went from fearful to fearless at a time when most people would have given up and gone home. They had fled the authorities even when they had swords. Now they defied those same authorities armed only with the good news of the resurrection of Jesus Christ.

One reason is that, of course, Jesus' triumph over death meant that they would, too. All those promises of eternal life turned out to be not poetic but actual. Few people would volunteer to be the first person ever to use a parachute. But if you were in a falling airplane and saw a parachute save the life of someone who jumped from that plane, you'd be willing to be the second person to try it. In the Antarctic, hungry penguins are nevertheless reluctant to go into the water for fish out of fear that their predator, the sea lion, is waiting to eat them. So they crowd along the edge of the ice until one falls in. If he doesn't get eaten, they all dive in. Jesus raised the dead and then was the first to return from death on his own. So the disciples knew it was safe to die for him.

More than that, though, the resurrection of Christ meant that everything he said about himself was vindicated. It took decades for the vindication of the work of two Australian scientists who discovered that the bacteria H. pylori causes stomach ulcers. In 1982 medical journals and conferences rejected their work. Finally, one of the men, Barry Marshall, consumed the bacteria, developed an ulcer and then cured himself with antibiotics. In 2005 the two scientists won the Nobel Prize for their work. 

For the disciples, Jesus' credibility was vindicated on Easter. And even so, the disciples did not accept the first reports, those of the women who went to anoint the body that morning. When Jesus appeared to them they did not believe at first, thinking he was a ghost. Once it sank in that he was truly and bodily alive again, they had to reconsider everything Jesus said about himself, about his death and about the kingdom of God. They called him the Son of God. But they may just have meant that as a traditional title for a Davidic king. Now they realized that title was literally accurate. Jesus liked to call himself the Son of Man. And again that could just be a way of saying he was a human being. But now they thought of the passage in Daniel where it says, “And with the clouds of the sky one like a son of man was approaching. He went up to the Ancient of Days and was escorted before him. To him was given ruling authority, honor, and sovereignty. All peoples, nations, and language groups were serving him. His authority is eternal and will not pass away. His kingdom will not be destroyed.” (Daniel 7: 13-14) Who else could this refer to other than God's Anointed, Jesus, whom God raised from the dead?

All of the Hebrew scriptures were seen in a different light, especially the passages in Isaiah that spoke of God's suffering servant who was despised and rejected by the people, who was wounded for our sins, who died among criminals and was buried in a rich man's tomb. Who else could this refer to but Jesus, who was executed though innocent and whom John called the Lamb of God, who takes away the sins of the world?

All they had to do was keep trusting Jesus, Son of Man, Son of God, Lamb of God, and he, being faithful to those who are faithful to him, would be with them to the end of the age. So they passed the word along: Jesus is Lord and Savior to all who trust in him.

That's what Jesus' resurrection meant to the first Christians. What does mean to us today?

All of that and more. It means our faith is vindicated. Today's world, for all of our advances in science and medicine and democracy and human rights, is still being ruined by our arrogance and laziness and lust and greed and rage and envy and overindulgence. Even more than in the past we know what we should do and so it is all the more dispiriting that we don't act on this knowledge. We have had our trust in our leaders, our institutions, and our charities betrayed. To listen to the news is to invite your faith in your fellow man to be shattered.

But Jesus' resurrection means we can trust God. If Jesus did not rise again, then he would have been just another martyr, another good person destroyed by the world. And if he was the best person this world had ever produced, we would have to look askance at God. We would have to wonder if he really cares for us. Or if he is either indifferent or hostile to human beings and our pain and suffering. But if God raised Christ from the dead, then we know our faith in God's love is well-placed and that he will never leave us or forsake us, no matter how dark and dangerous our situation gets.

Jesus' resurrection means our hope is vindicated. Not only is our world bad now, it appears to be getting worse. Every advance in our technical prowess seems to be followed by a decline in our morality. Things that people and governments used to do in secret they now shamelessly do for all to see. The powerful oppress and exploit the weak and don't even hide it. The greedy proclaim greed a virtue; the unrestrained shrug and say they are powerless pawns of DNA or their environment; the liars ignore those who point out the truth and just repeat their falsehoods until people start to believe them. And none of this looks like it's going to change. To become better informed today is to invite your hope for humanity to be crushed.

But Jesus' resurrection means we can continue to hope for humanity's redemption. On Good Friday, it was Jesus' prospects and those of the movement he started that looked bleak. Jesus was helplessly bleeding out as his enemies mocked him; his disciples were hidden behind locked doors. But if God raised Christ from the dead, then we know we can place all our hopes in him. We know that God will make all things work together for the good of those who love him and that any delay is because God's timing is not ours. We know that despite events that tempt us to despair, God is making sure that everything will be all right in the end.

Jesus' resurrection means the love of God is vindicated. This week I heard a report from the Southern Poverty Law Center that says there are 784 hate groups in the US. And, after California, our state Florida has the second largest number of them: 50. There seemed a ray of light when the editor of the report said that their memberships were declining. But he said a lot of that is due to people going online instead, where the can express their hate under the Internet's anonymity. Nearly 50 years since the death of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and nearly 70 years since the death of Gandhi and of course just 15 years shy of 2 millennia since the death of Christ, people still think their problems do not reside in themselves but in some other group of people. And if they can just suppress or enslave or annihilate that group, everything will be wonderful. And this despite all evidence to the contrary. So ISIS continues to kill Christians and Shiite Muslims; Hindus and Muslims kill each other in Pakistan and India; Arabs and non-Arabs kill each other in Darfur. This world is a very unloving place.

But if Jesus rose after all the forces of hate did their worst to him, that means we know that God is love and that love wins in the end. It means we are not crazy for loving others including our enemies because whatever happens in the short run, God is love and love wins in the end. It means that demanding an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth and a life for a life is not only a futile and counterproductive strategy, it is an evil one because God is love and love wins in the end. God's love, as Paul says in 1 Corinthians 13, by way of the Phillips translation, “knows no limits to its endurance, no end to its trust, no fading of its hope; it can outlast anything. It is in fact the one thing that still stands when all else has fallen.” And if Jesus is the love of God Incarnate, then we know that when this world divided against itself falls, Jesus will be the last man standing. Because God is love and love wins in the end.

It must have been hell for the disciples all night that Thursday, when Jesus was arrested, and all day that Friday, when he hung on the cross, and all that night and all that Saturday and the next night, when he lay in the tomb. All of their faith and their hope and their love were smashed to pieces. Until just after dawn that Sunday when the women went to the tomb and the angels appeared and Jesus greeted Mary and Jesus walked to Emmaus and Jesus came to the upper room and they found out that Jesus was alive again and that everything they thought knew changed. Because God is love and love wins in the end.

Saturday, April 4, 2015

The Last Word: The Seventh Word from the Cross

For a dozen years I have been participating in the Community Good Friday Service at the Big Pine United Methodist Church. Preachers from the local churches--Catholic, Lutheran, Methodist, Vineyard, Episcopal--each preach on one of the 7 words Christ spoke from the cross. I was asked to preach on Luke 23:44-49. 

"Father, into your hands I commit my spirit."

It is 3 in the afternoon on a Friday in April, 30 A.D. Jesus has been awake since early Thursday. He has been betrayed with a kiss from a close friend, tried illegally in a kangeroo court, interrogated several times, slapped, beaten, whipped, ridiculed, rejected, marched stumbling through the streets of Jerusalem while carrying a heavy wooden beam, stripped naked, nailed to a cross, jeered at, and endured seeing the shame and sorrow of his widowed mother. His eyes sting from sweat and blood running down his thorn-crowned forehead. His mouth is parched; his throat is raw; his lungs burn from the effort to breathe. His arms ache from the weight of his body while his hands have gone numb from lack of circulation. His legs and pierced ankles scream with pain every time he raises himself on them to get a breath. His back is cross-hatched with lacerations and hanging strips of skin from the whip and he shudders every time it scrapes against the rough wood of the cross. Gnats and flies buzz around him, landing and walking on his helpless body with impunity, feeding on the blood and open wounds. He has been hanging here for 6 hours.

The only mercy shown to him is that the scorching sun has hidden itself for the last 3 hours. Eclipse? Clouds? He cannot turn and see. He can barely lift his head. His strength is running out of him with his blood. He knows that death is near.

God has let this happen to him. God led him to this, the most horrible death imaginable. He has lost his friends, his modesty, control over his own body. But most importantly, he has lost all awareness of God. That loving presence he has always felt around him is gone. That comforting voice that has always spoken to him is silent. That clear vision that has always guided him is absent. He is alone, utterly alone.

Does he curse God? Does he cry out in rage? In pain? In despair? No, he gathers his last breath. He summons the last particle of his strength. He painfully raises his shaking, protesting body to open his lungs and shout one last utterance. Not a roar of defiance, not a wail of despair, but a prayer. A prayer to a God he can no longer sense, the God who has left him to die, pinned to a stake on a rock in a dun-colored hell.

The prayer comes from Psalm 31, a song of David, his ancestor. David wrote it at a time when he was besieged. Part of it goes,
"Be merciful to me, O Lord, for I am in distress;
My eyes grow weary with sorrow,
My soul and my body with grief.
My life is consumed with anguish
And my years by groaning;
My strength fails because of my affliction,
And my bones grow weak.
Because of my enemies,
I am the utter contempt of all my neighbors;
I am a dread to my friends--
Those who see me on the street flee from me.
I am forgotten by them as though I were dead;
I have become like broken pottery."

David went from Hero of Israel to a fugitive from his former friend, King Saul. Hunted by the army he once led, David must have wondered if his anointing by Samuel was a blessing or a curse. He too felt separated from God. "In my alarm I said, 'I am cut off from your sight.'"

Perhaps this is why this psalm suddenly comes to Jesus. He is at his rope's end. He is as low and as helpless as anyone can be. He can do nothing himself; everything is out of his control. That is the most terrifying situation in which we can find ourselves. Those who have been mugged or beaten or assaulted say that the worst part of it is realizing that you cannot stop it. The fact that you cannot prevent your attacker from doing anything he wants to you is the most shattering aspect of the whole experience. You are completely vulnerable, entirely at the mercy of your assailant. Jesus is at that point.

It is typical, it is understandable, that when you find that everything is beyond your control, you despair. Horrendous experiments on rats found that when they realized that they will get shocked no matter what they do and that there is no escape, they lie down and let the electric convulsions flow over them. They give up. When I was a private duty nurse, I saw rich and powerful men give up in the face of chronic or debilitating illness. The drive that enabled them to conquer the treacherous world of business dries up in the face of an enemy they cannot out-think, bribe or intimidate. The spirit goes out of them.

When everything is beyond your control, you can act as if all is lost...or you can realize that everything was never within your control. You can wake up from your childish daydream of omnipotence and see your true position in the universe. And then you can throw yourself upon the only one who really is in control: God.

But that is cold comfort to the one who believes that if there is a God, it is an impersonal force that governs the immutable laws of the universe impartially. To expect any relief from such a creator is foolishness. And certainly at this point it looks as if the God who let this happen to Jesus is at best indifferent to his plight. On what basis can he--can we--expect mercy, much less help?

We trust people when they have come through for us in the past. We base our faith in others on our experience of their love. The infant cries until he sees his mother. He knows she will feed him, change him, comfort him because she has done so in the past. Mom means everything will be all right. The same infant looks startled the first time Daddy tosses him in the air. But he catches him and it is all right. The baby begins to love that giddy feeling of free falling because he knows that the strong arms of his loving father are always there to catch him. What was scary becomes thrilling because we know that ultimately we are safe.

In the psalm that is running through Jesus' mind David follows his verse about being cut off from God with this one: "Yet you heard my cry for mercy when I called to you for help." David does not let his awful present blot out his remembrance of God's grace in the past. Despite all the expressions of persecution and suffering in this psalm, there is an undercurrent of hope. Hope is a confidence about the future that is rooted in God's goodness to us in the past.

But what good things could Jesus reflect on? He was born into poverty. He worked hard, supporting his family after Joseph died. When he started his mission, he was violently rejected by his hometown. His mother and brothers thought he was crazy. His cousin John was beheaded. He had been hounded and threatened by the Pharisees and Sadducees throughout his ministry. He was betrayed by one of his best friends. His life as God's Anointed hadn't been personally rewarding. On what could Jesus base his trust?

At the end of It's a Wonderful Life, George Bailey sees that, though it may not have been what he wanted, his life was a blessing to all whom he touched. And through being a blessing to others, he himself was blessed. Though Jesus did not seem to benefit by following God, those who encountered him did. The blind regained their sight, the deaf their hearing, the mute their voices, the lame their legs, the possessed their selves. He brought enlightenment to the dim and nourishment to the ravenous. If he could not see God's grace in what God did for him, then he could in what God did through him.

Jesus knew the love of God as it was manifested in his life. He experienced the power of God as it flowed through him into those he healed. He saw the mercy of God as he pronounced forgiveness on the suffering. He could say with David, "How great is your goodness, which you have stored up for those who fear you, which you bestow in the sight of men on those who take refuge in you."

And so, as he hung there, seemingly forsaken by God and man, Jesus could draw upon the mighty acts of God that happened in and through him and he could, with his final tortured breath, pray to the Father who he knew, despite his present condition, loved him. William Barclay says that this verse from Psalm 31 was a familiar prayer to Jews. Mothers would teach it to their children at bedtime. And so we have this most abused man, with his last seconds of mortal consciousness, praying as if he were a child about to drop into a peaceful sleep in his father's arms.

He knows that his labors are over, He knows that he has earned his rest. And he knows that he will awaken again, a new man, at the dawn of a new day, a new era, made possible by his obedience to his Father's will, that through his sufferings, humanity might find an end to its pain and through his sacrifice, we might come to know the love that triumphs over death. 

Thursday, April 2, 2015

Love and Dirty Feet

The scriptures referred to are John 13:1-17,31-35.

You may have heard about the firing of Jeremy Clarkson, one of the hosts of the British car show, Top Gear. I've only caught bits of the show but I knew he had gotten in trouble before for making blunt and politically incorrect statements. I figured he'd done it again but was even more offensive this time out. But, no, he was sacked for cursing at a producer of his show for 20 minutes and then punching him. The reason for his violent rage? After a day of filming on location, he didn't like the soup and cold meat platter he was offered. He wanted a steak, despite the fact that the chef at the hotel they were staying had gone home for the day. What he thought the producer should do about that I haven't discovered.

In his autobiography, talk show host Phil Donahue wrote of how insidious becoming a celebrity can be. After his Dayton, Ohio show went national and became the first daytime talk show, ostensibly aimed at women, that tackled serious and controversial issues, it became wildly popular in the 1970s and 80s. And as Donahue was increasingly recognized in public, he noticed that he was offered perks. His restaurant reservations and plane tickets were upgraded once those in charge realized who had made them. And it gets very easy to start expecting special treatment when you are rich and famous and in charge of something popular.

We see this, sadly, in religion. Creflo Dollar, promoter of the prosperity gospel, wants his followers to get him a $65 million airplane. Other TV evangelists have displayed extravagant lifestyles that contrast strongly with that of Jesus of Nazareth who had no place to lay his head. And it's really hard to imagine any of the modern batch of TV preachers stripping off their thousand dollar suits and doing something as menial as Christ does on the first Maundy Thursday.

Science Fiction author Phillip Jose Farmer once wrote that the first thing that would strike a time traveler going to earth's past would be the smell. People didn't bathe much if at all, weren't particularly hygienic about the disposal of human waste, and often kept their animals in their home. Streets were filthy and so in Jesus' day when guests arrived, it was the job of the lowliest slave in the household to remove their sandals and wash their feet. It was a nasty duty. So imagine the shock of the disciples when Jesus stripped off his outer garment, wrapped a towel around his waist and began to wash and dry the feet of his students. It would be akin to having the Pope plunge a toilet you clogged. You would be appalled.

Now usually when we talk about Jesus washing the disciples' dirty feet we talk about his humility. And certainly that's part of it. But that's not the main point he's making. He says in verse 15 of our gospel, “For I have set you an example, that you also should do as I have done to you.” But I don't think Jesus was saying, “I want you to make a big show of your humility.” That's a humblebrag, a contradictory way of showing you are humble. Rather I think Jesus was building to a slightly different point. And he stated it in the same form. In verse 34 Jesus says, “I give you a new commandment, that you love one another. Just as I have loved you, you also should love one another.” (Emphasis mine) Put the two verses together and you see the parallels. “For I have set you an example, that you also should do as I have done to you....Just as I have loved you, you also should love one another.” Jesus is not so much saying “Be humble like me” (at least not here) so much as he is saying, “Be loving like me.”

How is doing the most repulsive task of a slave a show of love? Ever seen a mother wipe the runny nose of her child? Or a woman brush dirt off the back of her husband's shirt? When you love someone, you care about their cleanliness and appearance. Parents clean the butts of their infants, something they would not do to a stranger. And children will often reciprocate when their parents get too infirm to clean themselves. It is amazing what you will do for someone when you love them.

We have a tendency when thinking of Christian love to spiritualize it to such an extent that it ceases to resemble real love. It becomes thinking good thoughts about people we may or may not actually have made an effort to get to know rather than doing good and helpful things for them. Because getting involved with people is messy. Just as the disciples' feet got dirty by moving through the streets of Jerusalem, we all pick up less than savory stuff as we journey through life. People are messy. And love means dealing with that mess.

The primary way that Jesus dealt with the messes we make of our lives is through the cross. But his actions on this night mean we should also deal with the everyday messes in the lives of those we love. Of course we naturally do this with our children and our families. But Jesus is dealing here with his students, the people he is mentoring. Now I don't think Jesus is saying “Insert yourself in the drama of those you work with” but “Do what is necessary to help the people around you when their lives are messy. And do it out of Christian love.”

Notice, too, that what is unexpected about the situation is not the action itself, it's the person doing it. Normally a slave should have done it. I don't know if the family whose upper room they were using didn't have a slave, or were bad hosts. I like to think that the slave walked in, all ready to clean feet, with the bucket and towel and Jesus saw him and relieved him of them, seeing a good opportunity to make a point. So, too, we should look for opportunities to serve people in Christ's name doing stuff that ought to be done.

My colleague, Fr. Mark Sims, was supposed to appear in court for doing what ought to be done. He is one of 3 clergy who were arrested for feeding the homeless in Ft. Lauderdale. It seems that the city, along with 33 others in the country, have passed ordinances that make life even more difficult than it is for the homeless in the hopes that they will move on. The council has made feeding the homeless almost impossible outside of a very well-appointed shelter or a restaurant. Mark was supposed to appear in court Monday but someone probably thought that jailing a priest during Holy Week for feeding the homeless would just garner the city another round of terrible press. So it was postponed. But Mark and his partners in this mission are just doing what Jesus said to do in Matthew 25: feeding Jesus by feeding the least of his siblings.

What's really interesting is Jesus' interaction with Peter. At first the outspoken fisherman wants nothing to do with Jesus washing his feet. Jesus in effect says to him, “But this is what I do—I serve people. If you don't let me do that, you really aren't a part of me and my mission.” At a recent reception at another church in the Keys, a man tripped and fell headlong into the refreshment table. Quicker than anyone else could react, all 3 off-duty nurses at the event were there were at his side. It doesn't matter than one of us was retired and another was no longer actively nursing; we reacted because we are nurses. If someone needs first aid we are on it like white on rice. It's what we do and what we are. The same is true for Christians. If someone is in need, we should be on it like red on a Holy Week stole. It's what we do and what we are.

Once Peter realizes that he must let Jesus wash his feet, he goes in the opposite direction. “Wash the rest of me!” he says. But Jesus says, “You don't need a bath; just a footwashing.” Jesus is concentrating on what is needed at the moment. He is not setting up a footwashing business, much less a spa; he is doing the task at hand. So Jesus is not saying to us, “Do psychotherapy on your troubled neighbor or coworker,” but “Listen to their troubles. ” He's not saying, “Become this homeless guy's social worker,” but “Feed him.” He's not saying, “Solve all the world's problems,” but “Love and serve your neighbor, right here, right now.”

Of course, you may feel called into a more organized ministry, to start one or to join an existing one. You can always refer the troubled person to therapy if you realize that what they need is beyond your abilities or resources. But the main thing is to do what is necessary when it needs to be done. The Red Cross knows that the first and hardest step in first aid is just getting people to do something. Folks tend to wait until someone else acts. If just one person goes to the rescue of somebody, other people will also respond. Jesus knew that. So he set us an example...of humility, yes, but mostly of love. If we are his followers, we need to do likewise. We need to be ready to get our hands dirty, and do the messy job of loving one another.