Monday, May 1, 2017

Return Trip

My wife and I have found yet another British detective series on Netflix. It is a procedural as are most of these shows and as usual it's all about the discovery and arrest of the murderer. Then they expect you to accept that the evidence presented is sufficient to convict the lawbreaker and that he or she is going away for a long time. Only a few detective series even touch on the trial phase, such as Law and Order. One of the best depictions of how the trial can go quite differently than one expects is the second season of Broadchurch.

Since I am chaplain at the jail, I see the punishment phase up close. I got curious about the history of punishment and imprisonment and decided to do a little research. In primitive tribal cultures, you don't have jails--for obvious reasons. Punishment for breaking the rules could be the forfeiture of property, shunning, exile or corporal punishment, such as beatings or even death. As civilizations arose, all of these, with the possible exception of shunning, are seen in the earliest law codes. These codes primarily use the principle of lex talionis or the law of retaliation. Punishments are supposed to be proportional to the crimes committed, ie, an eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth, a life for a life. Imprisonment was used in Athens as an alternative for those citizens who couldn't afford to pay fines. But the Romans were among the first to use prison on a large scale for punishment. They put their prisoners to work doing hard labor and they used slavery as a punishment as well. We still do. The 13th Amendment to the Constitution abolishes slavery and involutary servitude, except as punishment for a crime! I highly recommend watching the documentary 13th on Netflix for an eye-opening exploration of how slavery in the US never completely went away.

It wasn't until we get to the ancient Greeks, like Plato, that we get the idea of trying to reform the lawbreaker, to make the bad guy into a good guy. At least so far as secular history is concerned, that is. In regards to God's moral laws, that idea had already been around for centuries among the Hebrew prophets. Much of their message was to urge people to repent, literally “ to turn back or return” to God. When you are going in the wrong direction, the only logical thing to do is to turn around and go back. God is less interested in punishment than in seeing in us a change of heart and mind that leads to a change in our behavior. As it says in Ezekiel 18:21-23, “But if a wicked man turns away from all the sins he has committed and keeps all my decrees and does what is just and right, he will surely live; he will not die. Because of the righteous things he has done, he will live. Do I take any pleasure in the death of the wicked? declares the Sovereign Lord. Rather, am I not pleased when they turn from their ways and live?”

The call to repent is a mark of a prophet. Thus John the Baptist and Jesus begin their messages with the call to repent. And in our passage from Acts, Peter says, “Repent, and be baptized every one of you in the name of Jesus Christ so that your sins may be forgiven; and you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit.” (Acts 2:38) Repentance is the beginning of the process. It's the realization that the pit you've dug for yourself is way too deep and you need to stop digging and start looking for help getting out. Essentially it is like the first 3 steps in a 12 Step Program, which were summarized by a friend in AA as: I can't; God can; I'm going to let him.

But you don't hear the word “Repent” in most mainstream churches except when it pops up in the lectionary. Probably because we think that repentance is for people who commit horrible crimes or the more disreputable sins, the ones folks can't reasonably deny. But John never says, “Repent your grossest sins!” Jesus never said, “Repent your most obvious sins!” Peter doesn't say, “Repent only the sins that really bother you!” We are to repent all the ways that impede our ability to love God and to love other people, including the ones we kinda like and the ones we rate as trivial. Killing people is wrong but so is crushing their spirit by continually putting them down, which Jesus also condemned. (Matthew 5:21, 22) Lying is wrong but so is spreading malicious gossip, even when true. Adultery is wrong but so is controlling your spouse by destroying their self-esteem. Denying God is wrong but so is using his name to manipulate people to do your will.

We also often believe that repentance is a one time thing, the part that kicks off becoming a Christian and then is discarded, like the first stage of a rocket. But that's like thinking that once you get a medical check up, you needn't ever do it again. Step 10 of the 12 Step Programs is about continuing to take a personal moral inventory and promptly admitting when you're wrong. Think of how an athlete reviews every performance or game to see what they did right, what they did wrong and what they can do better. I find that last part the key: one may not be able to reach perfection in this life but one can always do better; one can always improve. Because what is essential to repentance is not feeling bad or sad but changing direction, changing your mind and your behavior.

What comes next? After you decide to reverse the direction you were taking, then what should you do? What are the next steps in returning to God? Peter says, “ baptized every one of you in the name of Jesus Christ so that your sins may be forgiven....” If you were to confess to a crime to earthly authorities, our criminal justice system would offer punishment. When we repent and confess our sins to God, we are offered forgiveness and grace. And we access that by being baptized. Originally a rite by which Gentiles came into the covenant community of God's people, the Jews, John the Baptist repurposed baptism as something Jews also could undergo to show their repentance and willingness to start over with God. For Christians it is both a sign of divine forgiveness and an entrance rite, by which one becomes a citizen of the Kingdom of God and a member of the body of Christ. In the early church, its form was that of immersion of the whole convert. But the word was also used of cleansing things like tables, which are unlikely to be immersed. So it can also mean having liquid poured on something. Paul used the picture of immersion to explain how through baptism we are united with Christ in his death and resurrection. As he was buried, we are immersed in water and as he rose again, we rise out of the water, a new creation.

Along with becoming one with Christ, we are anointed with the Holy Spirit. Peter speaks of it as a gift because our reception of the Spirit is, along with our salvation, unearned. God graciously gives us his Spirit to remake us, to equip us and to unite us with him and with all other Christians. And indeed, as sincere as our repentance may be, we cannot follow Jesus without the Spirit to empower us. Again the 12 Step Programs tacitly acknowledge this when the person seeking help admits that he or she is powerless over whatever substance or behavior is making their life unmanageable and turns their will and their life over to God. (After all, AA got a lot of its ideas and principles from the Oxford Group, a Christian movement.)

There is another thing the Spirit does for us. If you've ever worked for a large company or organization, you realize how little communication there is between the average person and the man or woman at the top. In some organizations, you are discouraged to talk to the big boss and must go through your immediate supervisor or manager instead. But that is not how it is with God. The Spirit is our link to Jesus and to the Father, enabling us to communicate with God and God to communicate with us. Paul even tells us that when we don't know how to pray, the Spirit intercedes for us, communicating what we feel or need on a level too deep for words. (Romans 8:26) God expresses what we cannot.

Our passage from Acts got us talking about repentance, baptism and the gift of the Spirit. What surprised me was that in our Gospel for the day (Luke 24:13-35) brings in two other essential elements of the journey back to God. In this passage, the risen Christ joins two disciples heading to Emmaus. They express disappointment in the death of Jesus which invalidates his being the Messiah in their eyes. And Jesus responds to this mistaken idea. “Then beginning with Moses and all the prophets, he interpreted to them the things about himself in all the scriptures.” (Lk 24:27)

Remember no New Testament existed then. Jesus is using the familiar Hebrew scriptures to give them a new perspective on what happened. And that is another part of being a Christian. Including the New Testament, God left us a lot of words wisdom to work with: about 773,692, more or less. We need to study them, think about them, and discuss them with fellow Christians. And as Jesus demonstrated in this passage, we need to keep our eyes open for Christ in the scriptures, even the ones in which he is not explicitly mentioned. In Jesus we see what God is really like: loving but just, demanding but merciful, forgiving but not a fool, opposed to evil but willing to die to save sinners.

While we don't have the details of what Jesus pointed out in this instance and throughout the next 40 days, we can make educated guesses. In the Torah, there is the Passover lamb whose blood saves God's people from death. Moses speaks of a prophet who will come after him yet who will be greater than he. Isaiah, the book Jesus quotes more than others, speaks of God's suffering servant who takes on the iniquity of the people and by whose wounds we are healed. The prophets talk about a descendant of David who becomes an eternal king. The psalms talk of the son of God, God's anointed, the good shepherd and give chilling descriptions of Christ's death. I imagine the two on the way to Emmaus felt a bit like Detective Kujan at the end of The Usual Suspects: the clues and the person they were seeking were there all along if they just looked at things properly. Afterward they said, “Were not our hearts burning within us while he was talking to us on the road, while he was opening the scriptures to us?” (Lk 24:32) We too should have our eyes open as we study the written Word of God in order to find the Living Word of God.

In the twilight, the disciples don't perceive that it is Jesus who is talking to them. They invite him to stay with them. And it says, “When he was at the table with them, he took bread, blessed and broke it, and gave it to them. Then their eyes were opened, and they recognized him....” (Lk 24: 30-31) Later they tell the other disciples “ he had been made known to them in the breaking of the bread.” (Lk 24:35) The literal meaning of the word “companion” is “one who breaks bread with another.” Just as Jesus was both a fellow traveler and one who broke bread with the Twelve, he is both to us. Through his Spirit, he accompanies us on all our journeys through life, and in the Eucharist we break bread and drink wine with him. In fact, he is our food and drink, our spiritual nourishment. We come together as the body of Christ to share the Body and Blood of Christ. In this act, as Paul says, “ proclaim the Lord's death until he comes.”

As Christians, we need to examine our souls regularly, like those who examine themselves for breast or testicular cancer. When we find something amiss in our spiritual health, we need to tell it to God and if it is our fault, confess it and repent. We need to make sure we do not quench the Spirit we receive at our baptism. We must search the scriptures for what God is saying to us, keeping an eye out for Jesus. And we need to regularly break bread and share wine with our brothers and sisters in Christ.

Their encounter with the risen Jesus lit a fire under the disciples. They could not keep from sharing the good news with all they met. We need to do the same. After all, the good news is that whatever is wrong with us or with society, it is not hopeless. However set we are in our ways, we can change. However dirty we feel deep down, God can cleanse us. However helpless we feel, the Spirit is there to empower us. However often we have heard God's word, there are surprises in store for those who search it. However empty we feel, Jesus is there to fill us up and nourish our spirits. Whatever we need, we can trust God to provide it. We just need to step out in faith and let Jesus, our companion, lead us home to God.

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