Monday, July 13, 2015

Death Benefits

The scriptures referred to are Mark 6:14-29 and Ephesians 1:3-14.

They had to reshoot the end of Star Trek: Generations, in which Captain Kirk hands the film franchise over to Jean Luc Picard and his crew, because test audiences didn't like the original ending. Specifically they didn't like the part where the villain killed Kirk by simply shooting him in the back. It seemed like an ignominious death for such a hero. So they had to fly the actors back out to the desert to reshoot that part and give Kirk a more heroic death, one in which he saves the day.

They should have known the original death was anti-climactic. Sir Arthur Conan Doyle wanted to kill Sherlock Holmes and knew he had to make it big. Holmes had made him a wealthy and popular writer but Doyle wanted to be taken seriously as an author and so he decided to dispatch his most famous character. While hiking in Switzerland, Doyle had come across the Reichenbach Falls, an impressive series of waterfalls in the Alps with a total drop of 820 feet. The Upper Reichenbach Falls is one of the highest cataracts in the Alps at 300 feet. What more dramatic a place was there to kill the great detective. But Holmes was a genius so he could only be brought down by someone of similar intellect. So Doyle created Professor Moriarty, the Napoleon of Crime, as a worthy adversary. Watson finds the signs of a struggle at the edge of the falls and concludes that Holmes and Moriarty toppled into the abyss, locked in a mortal struggle. A fitting end for Sherlock Holmes...until Doyle resurrected him 10 years later.

In real life, great men do not have the luxury of picking a satisfying end to their lives. General George Patton died as the result of a car accident, less than a year after completing his key role in winning World War 2. Tennessee Williams choked to death on the cap of a bottle of eye drops he was using. Aeschylus was the father of Greek tragedy. His death was comical. A hungry eagle was trying to get at a tortoise it had picked up to eat. Apparently mistaking the playwright's bald head for a rock, the bird dropped the terrapin on Aeschylus' cranium trying to crack its shell. It cracked his skull instead.

So it is entirely believable that John the Baptizer would die at the whim of a girl. Herod the Great's family was a mess. This son, Herod Antipas, was actually tetrarch of Galilee rather than king of all Palestine as his father was. His insistence on being called a king eventually got him removed by the Romans. Antipas had an affair with his sister-in-law. He divorced his first wife and married her. Though John was openly criticizing him for his adultery, Herod probably took it as political criticism and thus jailed him. Nevertheless, Herod found himself fascinated by John and liked to listen to him, despite the prophet's objection to his captor's lifestyle.

That lifestyle apparently included drunken lechery towards his step-daughter. At his alcohol-fueled birthday party, Herod is so pleased by her dancing that he promises her anything she wants. The girl asks her mother what she should ask for. Her mother Herodias wants to shut up the bug-eating prophet and has her daughter ask for John's head. Herod doesn't want to lose face in front of his powerful guests and so has John decapitated. He has the prophet's head presented to the girl on a platter, who passes the grisly object on to her mother. John's disciples claim his body and bury it. And so Jesus loses his cousin.

It presages Jesus' own death, except his would be more public and more humiliating. And if his lifestory ended there, we wouldn't be talking about John or Jesus. Which is my beef with the way Godspell is usually staged. Before I saw it, I got the album. The last track is a haunting but mournful “Long Live God” with “Prepare Ye the Way of the Lord,” the opening song, gradually weaving itself in. And then there is a sudden drum riff and the tempo ramps up and when I heard that I thought, “That's where the resurrection takes place.” But when I saw the play, the cast carried the body of Jesus off the stage, down the aisle and out of theatre. The tempo change corresponded to nothing but the curtain call and the bowing of the actors. While otherwise faithful to the Gospel of Matthew, the play concludes with a dead Jesus. It is not only not true to the ending of that gospel, but dramatically, it is a very downbeat ending for what is otherwise a very upbeat musical. Imagine the Nazis shooting Maria Von Trapp at the end of The Sound of Music. And most stage versions follow suit. In the movie, which is set in a New York seemingly empty of all people but the dozen or so actors, the body is carried around the corner of a building and when the camera follows we don't see them but a typical busy city street. Jesus and the disciples are swallowed up by an oblivious crowd.

It is the resurrection of Jesus that makes his death more than a gory and tragic end to a previously promising life. Unlike Buddha or Mohammed or Moses, Jesus' teachings are not so easily separated from his identity. Jesus could only alter and replace the Old Covenant if he was a party to it, ie, God. His most radical ethical rules—turning the other cheek, loving your enemy, taking up your cross—only make sense if we, like he, will be resurrected. His death itself only takes on a greater significance than those of others if it was a sacrifice to save us.

In today's reading from Ephesians, Paul spells out the transcendent significance of Jesus' death. In the Greek this whole passage is one long sentence. It starts by saying “Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ....” A better translation would be “Worthy of blessing is the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ....” And the rest of the passage enumerates the reasons that we should bless God.

He “has blessed us with every spiritual blessing in the heavenly places....” And then Paul goes on to tell us what they are.

First “...he chose us in Christ before the foundation of the world to be holy and blameless before him in love.” God didn't get stuck with us; he chose us. He chose us long before we chose him. He chose us before the creation of the world. This and the predestination talk in the next verse makes some people say we have no free will. But since God lives outside of time, he is kinda like the camera man in the helicopter filming the Macy's Thanksgiving parade. He isn't determining the parade but seeing all of it at once he can anticipate what will happen when a certain corner is reached, even before people in a specific part of the parade get there. He can broadcast that there is a problem ahead but he does not force people to respond to the problem in a certain way. He can decide to focus on one group, like a dance troop, at a specific point for his own purpose.

The key phrase however is “in love.” God chooses us in love. No baby has a choice whether her parents will love her, anymore than she has a choice in her hair color, or the culture she will be born into, or the language she will learn from her parents. And she can always reject or change those things later. Most children will accept what they inherit. But we see some people in Israel as well as people in the church reject what God has chosen for them. Still Paul is talking about how gracious God is to choose us in the first place. For that reason alone, God should be blessed.

He destined us for adoption as his children through Jesus Christ....” One of the misconceptions people have is that all humans are automatically children of God. We are his creations. He can adopt us as his children. But just as older children can refuse adoption, so can we reject God as our father. Theologians can argue whether or not God chooses us based on what he foresees our reaction to him will be, but the practical effect is the same. We who become children of God can look back and see how it came about and it appears in retrospect as if it were inevitable. For which reason we should bless God.

In him we have redemption through his blood, the forgiveness of our trespasses, according to the riches of his grace that he lavished on us.” Here Paul is referring to Jesus' death on the cross which bought us out of our slavery to sin. By taking the consequences of our sins upon himself, Jesus makes it possible for our sins to be forgiven. Another reason to bless God.

Next “he has made known to us the mystery of his will, according to his good pleasure that he set forth in Christ, as a plan for the fulness of time, to gather up all things in him...” God has revealed his “secret” plan for the universe, which is to unite all of his creation in Christ. Why are we here? To love and enjoy God and one way to express that is to use the gifts we receive from him to help restore the shattered unity of creation. We do it through proclaiming the good news of God in Christ, through peacemaking, through caring for each other, through stewardship, through using our talents and abilities in the arts and sciences, etc. So why are we here? To make the world God gave us (and which we have ruined) a better place with his help. Another reason to bless God.

In Christ we have also obtained an inheritance....” In the Hebrew Bible, the inheritance that Israel has from God is the promised land. For Christians, our inheritance is the new creation. The paradise which we have turned into hell on earth God will resurrect as the place he wanted it to be all along. And just as humankind was originally to reign as God's vice-regents over the earth, we are to reign with Christ in his kingdom. We are to be, as it says in 1 Peter 2:9, “a royal priesthood.” Yet another reason to bless God.

When we put out trust in Jesus after hearing the gospel, we “were marked with the seal of the promised Holy Spirit.” Jesus said, “If anyone loves me, he will obey my word and my Father will love him, and we will come to him and take up residence with him.” (John 14:23) Having God within us is, Paul says, “the pledge (or down payment) of our inheritance.” If we are to rule with Christ, we need to be Christlike. The presence of the Holy Spirit within us, transforming us, is a guarantee that God will do as he says. He is recreating us, making us into the people he intended us to be, so we can do what we were created to do. The gift of God's Holy Spirit to us when we are baptized into the death and resurrection of his son is another reason why he is worthy of being blessed.

Like his cousin John's fate, Jesus' was not a good death. But God used it to bring about good for us. His death transformed not only our deaths but our lives. He blessed us with salvation, a purpose, the gifts to carry it out, and a destiny that goes beyond our death. One day we will all die. We probably won't die like John or Jesus but we probably won't go out like Captain Kirk either. The important things are what happens on either side of our death. Jesus has handled what our afterlife will be. What we can do is use the blessings he's given us now to make our present life worthy of “the riches of his grace that he has lavished on us.” God can mine good out of bad situations but imagine what he can do if we offer him good things to work with, if we say, “Thank you for all your blessings. Use them to make me a blessing for others.” And by doing so, we can let others in on the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, who is worthy of blessing.

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