Pentecost 2015

Pentecost  2015  …it is to your advantage that I go away, for if I do not go away, the Advocate will not come to you;

When the Advocate comes, whom I will send to you from the Father, the Spirit of truth who comes from the Father, he will testify on my behalf. You also are to testify because you have been with me from the beginning.

”I have said these things to you to keep you from stumbling. They will put you out of the synagogues. Indeed, an hour is coming when those who kill you will think that by doing so they are offering worship to God. And they will do this because they have not known the Father or me. But I have said these things to you so that when their hour comes you may remember that I told you about them. “I did not say these things to you from the beginning, because I was with you. But now I am going to him who sent me; yet none of you asks me, ‘Where are you going?’ But because I have said these things to you, sorrow has filled your hearts.

Nevertheless I tell you the truth: it is to your advantage that I go away, for if I do not go away, the Advocate will not come to you; but if I go, I will send him to you. And when he comes, he will prove the world wrong about sin and righteousness and judgment: about sin, because they do not believe in me; about righteousness, because I am going to the Father and you will see me no longer; about judgment, because the ruler of this world has been condemned. “I still have many things to say to you, but you cannot bear them now. When the Spirit of truth comes, he will guide you into all the truth; for he will not speak on his own, but will speak whatever he hears, and he will declare to you the things that are to come. He will glorify me, because he will take what is mine and declare it to you. All that the Father has is mine. For this reason I said that he will take what is mine and declare it to you.            John 15:26 – 16:15

                                   

With the experience of the Ascension of Jesus, which we explored last week, and now contemplating the story of Pentecost from the pen of John the Evangelist we have to come to grips with the idea that Jesus has left the building.  John reports Jesus saying “I tell you the truth: it is to your advantage that I go away, for if I do not go away, the Advocate will not come to you; but if I go, I will send him to you.                            

How can that be?  You probably want to protest and exclaim “Wait! Jesus hasn’t gone anywhere. Isn’t he present with his church? Isn’t he here, present in our hearts?”  Well that may be a comforting thing to think and a consoling thing to say.  But how dare we say it?  To take John’s gospel seriously it’s more the case that we’ve lost a loved one from the very center of our lives, the source of our joy.  According to what we’ve just read, the fundamental crisis of the early church was the departure of Jesus. He is the source of our lives, like the vine that pumped life into the branches. We did not choose Jesus; he chose us, and appointed us to be faithful followers. Yet he is gone. It started with the Easter message: “He is risen!” Remember, the angel saying, “he is not here.” It continued with the story of Jesus’ ascension and now with Pentecost faith seeks to make sense of that absence. Our Christian faith is an attempt to answer the question “How are we going to live without Jesus?

In the fourth Gospel, Jesus speaks at length with his disciples before his death and resurrection. He washes their feet on his last night with them. He tells them at length that he is leaving them. He prays for them before he returns to the Father. Then comes the actual departure. Fred Craddock wrote  in his commentary on John, “Before the departing Christ, the disciples had been as children playing on the floor, only to look up and see the parents putting on coats and hats. The questions are three (and they have not changed): Where are you going? Can we go? Then who is going to stay with us?”

Where are you going? “I am going to the Father and you will see me no longer” (John 16:10). Can we go? “Where I am going, you cannot come” (John 13:33). Then who will stay with us? “When the Advocate comes, whom I will send to you from the Father, the Spirit of Truth who comes from the Father, he will testify on my behalf” (John 15:26).                          

According to the Gospel of John the answer to the question “How are we going to live without Jesus?” lies in the presence of the Holy Spirit. John calls that presence the Spirit of Truth, the Advocate, the Paraclete. The word Paraclete refers to someone called in to help.  In the absence of Jesus, his presence draws near to his followers. Since Jesus has departed, once and for all, the Holy Spirit comes now to dwell with us.

It’s a hard truth to accept: for if I do not go away, the Advocate will not come to you; but if I go, I will send him to you.  If he had not left us, the Spirit could not have come.  We find it hard to talk about much less embrace what John tells us. Everything we know of the physical universe argues against the possibility of a  self aware yet disembodied life. It’s easier to try and hold onto a physical Jesus and keep telling ourselves that Jesus hasn’t left us if we just follow his directions. There was this young couple I met in the hospital when their long awaited infant was still borne. I recall allowing them to hold the child, to keep the child as long as they needed too. It’s so understandable. We want to hold onto Jesus in that same way. But, of course, over time and with changing conditions and shifts in social conventions that doesn’t necessarily mean we hold his values or extend his impact.                                         Albert Frederick Arthur George, the second son of King George the Fifth, at the abdication of his brother, accedes to the British throne as George the VI. The movie ‘The Kings Speech’  is about the fact that King George the VIth is a stutterer.  At the urging of his wife he starts working with an Australian speech therapist, Lionel Logue.  Logue teaches his patient relaxation and breathing techniques while probing at the underlying roots of the stuttering.  Eventually the King tells how his nanny preferred his brother over him and would pinch him to get him to cry at the daily presentation to his parents and he would be sent away, that she wouldn’t feed him which resulted in him not being a healthy child and that they forced him, a lefty, to write with his right hand.

We struggle in the church to wait for the Spirit, to be led by the Spirit, to live by the Spirit who has many things to tell us that we cannot yet bear to hear. It is difficult to wait for a Spirit whom we can neither touch nor see. No wonder, then, that sometimes in our impatience we turn to flesh and blood.  One of the things we have done is we’ve created a Nanny Church to look after us and to whom we give extraordinary authority.  And in response our Nanny provides us a list of what we should and should not do.  It fills the vacuum we feel when we don’t embrace the gift we’ve been given in the Holy Spirit.  We allow the institution to fill the absence of Jesus with its own false certainties and pretention that it has all the answers. And not unlike Prince Albert’s nanny this very human institution, driven robotically to protect it’s status quo, is given to pinch into tears and even starve the very ones for whom it has been charged to nurture.

I read an interesting story about a pastor who while looking for a Bible commentary in a religious book store was approached by an earnest faced man. “How are you doing, sister? Isn’t this a beautiful day the Lord has made? Praise the Lord! Let’s say Amen together.” She ignored him. Unfortunately that made things worse. He said, “Maybe you didn’t hear me when I said, ‘Praise the Lord!’ Listen, sister, I want to hear you say a good word for Jesus.” He continued to annoy her. Finally she turned to him and said, “I’m a pastor. I’m shopping for a Bible commentary. When I find the book I’m looking for, I will use it to write a sermon in which I will say a lot of good words for Jesus. In the meantime, please leave me alone.”                                                                 “You can’t be a pastor,” he said. “My Bible won’t allow women to be pastors.” She reached into her wallet, pulled out a business card, and handed it to him. Then she turned back to her shopping. “No, listen,” he said, “the Bible doesn’t say anything about women becoming preachers. You’re wrong. Your whole life is a sin.”  “Well,” she replied, “why don’t we let the Holy Spirit decide, since it was the Holy Spirit who called me into the ministry? In the meantime, I found my book and I’m going to pay for it now. Good-bye.”  “I can’t let you go yet,” he said. “Your salvation is at stake. You’re a woman and you don’t know your place. Worse than that, you don’t know the Bible. I’m worried about your soul. If you should die tonight, you would go to hell. I would be held accountable if I didn’t tell you the truth.”

Somehow she found the strength to speak to him. She said, “If you’re so concerned with truth, let me tell you what I know. In life and death, I belong to God. God called me to serve him, regardless of whether or not that’s written down in your Bible. My ‘place’ was choosing to obey him. I believe the Holy Spirit led me into this truth, and I trust the Holy Spirit will sort it out.” Then she added, “As far as hell is concerned, that is God’s decision, not mine nor yours. If it were up to me, hell would be full of people who cling to a Bible they never think about, and heaven would be full of people who trust in a God they cannot see.”              Christian faith is just that: faith in Christ. We trust what we have heard him say through nature and the scriptures, yet we remain open to hear him still speak through the Holy Spirit. In the end, we trust God will sort everything out, for the primary role of the Spirit is to point to Jesus’ revelation to us of God and to guide us into his truth. The Spirit of Christ will lead us into the life that Christ has come to give. The Spirit will teach us; the question is whether we are willing to learn.

What is required is a new openness to the Spirit. God is free to speak, even if the words are not yet written down in our ancient Bibles. God is able to save the world, far beyond our capacity to manage the bureaucratic inconsequentialities. Faith requires us to remain open to any act of God. That, it seems to me, is how we live without Jesus. That is how we live by the Holy Spirit. Like the wind, the Spirit blows when and where it wills. We have no control over what God is doing in the world. But if we open our arms like a cross-mast, if we set our sails and wait for the Spirit to blow and propel us, we find ourselves directed into the deep waters of grace.

It is difficult to trust God like that. Sometimes it is easier to look elsewhere for our security and approval. “When the Spirit of truth comes,” said Jesus, “he will guide you into all the truth.” That is the instruction we need, and that is what Christ promises. It is in that light Quakers hold that “Christ has come to teach his people himself.”  The institutional church is vested in the social conventions of previous generations and is unable, without dependence on Christ’s spirit to do what followers of the way have always been challenged to do – make the gospel accessible to each new generation.  At some point it’s necessary to discharge the Nanny church when she decides who are her preferred charges and who it’s her duty to pinch or starve.

…it is to your advantage that I go away, for if I do not go away, the Advocate will not come to you; but if I go, I will send him to you. And when he comes, he will prove the world wrong about sin and righteousness and judgment: about sin, because they do not believe in me; about righteousness, because I am going to the Father and you will see me no longer; about judgment, because the ruler of this world has been condemned. “I still have many things to say to you, but you cannot bear them now. When the Spirit of truth comes, he will guide you into all the truth; for he will not speak on his own, but will speak whatever he hears, and he will declare to you the things that are to come.  

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Jesus Has Left the Building…

 

Through the activity of the Holy Spirit, the living Christ, God’s activity within creation continues. God’s reliance upon us to act is not an abdication of God’s responsibility but an invitation to partner with God. We do not have to understand how that occurs or even accurately discern what God is doing. We can know that our work of reconciliation will ultimately prevail because God works with us.

Christian teachings about the New Testament story of Jesus’ ascension are uncomfortably problematic. An event in salvation history that is, at least, on par with the Resurrection is given short shrift by many or actually not acknowledged.  Yet, for Quakers who have, from our beginnings, embraced the notion of the gifting of the church with the Holy Spirit, Christ’s promised and continuing presence, it is an essential piece of the whole story.  Put in contemporary terms, the ascension means that ‘‘Jesus has left the building.”
Some Roman Catholics pray to Mary in the belief that a mother has leverage with her son and then the Heavenly Father has a warm spot in his heart for the desires of The Son.  It’s an effective way to get your prayers answered.  Others only pray to God, even to the point of argument and debate.  Despite Jesus’ teaching his followers to pray “Out
Father…” many I know pray to Jesus and envision him walking along side or even carrying them through tough times.  Does the message of Jesus’ ascension change how you address your prayers?  The text says that with Jesus no longer earth bound we are accompanied on our spiritual journey by the promised comforter and guide.

The Gospel of Matthew has no mention of the Ascension.  In his version there is no spectacular escape from the bondage of earth. The last words of his Gospel reads: 16Now the eleven disciples went to Galilee, to the mountain to which Jesus had directed them. 17When they saw him, they worshiped him; but some doubted. 18And Jesus came and said to them, “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. 19Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, 20and teaching them to obey everything that I have commanded you. And remember, I am with you always, to the end of the age.”

What a promise, “and remember, I am with you always, to the end of the age”!  Here there is no heavenly “ascension”, rather a promise of spiritual accompaniment.

Mark’s approach is different and, actually, dangerous.  He tells his version at the end of his resurrection narrative:  Later he (Jesus) appeared to the eleven themselves as they were sitting at the table; and he upbraided them for their lack of faith and stubbornness, because they had not believed those who saw him after he had risen.15And he said to them, “Go into all the world and proclaim the good news to the whole creation. 16The one who believes and is baptized will be saved; but the one who does not believe will be condemned. 17And these signs will accompany those who believe: by using my name they will cast out demons; they will speak in new tongues; 18they will pick up snakes in their hands, and if they drink any deadly thing, it will not hurt them; they will lay their hands on the sick, and they will recover.”19So then the Lord Jesus, after he had spoken to them, was taken up into heaven and sat down at the right hand of God. I’m going to suggest that it might be a bit presumptuous to test Mark’s notion of the security of the believer.

Luke’s is the preferred reading from the Gospels.  After Jesus voices a last lecture the very last lines from this Gospel read: Then he led them out as far as Bethany, and, lifting up his hands, he blessed them. 51While he was blessing them, he withdrew from them and was carried up into heaven. 52And they worshiped him, and returned to Jerusalem with great joy; 53and they were continually in the temple blessing God.

The reading from the ascension story in Luke’s sequel to his Gospel is a bit longer and a bit more detailed.   Acts 1:1-11. In the first book, Theophilus, I wrote about all that Jesus did and taught from the beginning 2until the day when he was taken up to heaven, after giving instructions through the Holy Spirit to the apostles whom he had chosen. 3After his suffering he presented himself alive to them by many convincing proofs, appearing to them during forty days and speaking about the kingdom of God. 4While staying with them, he ordered them not to leave Jerusalem, but to wait there for the promise of the Father. “This,” he said, “is what you have heard from me; 5for John baptized with water, but you will be baptized with the Holy Spirit not many days from now.”

6So when they had come together, they asked him, “Lord, is this the time when you will restore the kingdom to Israel?” 7He replied, “It is not for you to know the times or periods that the Father has set by his own authority. 8But you will receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you; and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.” 9When he had said this, as they were watching, he was lifted up, and a cloud took him out of their sight.10While he was going and they were gazing up toward heaven, suddenly two men in white robes stood by them. 11They said, “Men of Galilee, why do you stand looking up toward heaven? This Jesus, who has been taken up from you into heaven, will come in the same way as you saw him go into heaven.”

In Isaiah 6 we get a picture of what Jesus’ followers had to have in their minds as the place to which Jesus went.  In the year that King Uzziah died, I saw the Lord sitting on a throne, high and lofty; and the hem of his robe filled the temple. 2Seraphs were in attendance above him; each had six wings: with two they covered their faces, and with two they covered their feet, and with two they flew. 3And one called to another and said: “Holy, holy, holy is the Lord of hosts; the whole earth is full of his glory.” 4The pivots on the thresholds shook at the voices of those who called, and the house filled with smoke.

This is quintessential first century Judaism.  Mark and Luke, first in his Gospel and then in the book of Acts are certain that this is the heavenly place to which Jesus goes.

The question presented to us is Was Jesus’ ascension an historical fact or a well-informed and intentioned attempt to frame Jesus’ story in language and metaphors widely known and understood in first century Palestine?  People of our generation know, from reading from other cultures that the image of a king ascending to heaven, there to be worshipped by his former subjects was not unique to Christianity.  Romulus, the twin who with his brother Remus founded Rome was believed to have ascended to heaven and became the popular god Quirinus.  And of course we know of Enoch and Elijah in the Old Testament and beyond that the ancient figures of Hercules, Empedocles, and Alexander the Great. Of course we shouldn’t leave Mohammad standing on the rock in Jerusalem or Mary, the mother of Jesus, having left bodily remains on earth.

The idea of Jesus ascending to heaven from Palestine evokes continuing conflict between religion and science.   Taken literally the pervasive imagery requires a flat earth dependent on a questionable view of the solar system.  And to think that heaven is a physical place – necessary if one believes in a physical resurrection – poses the additional difficulty of locating it in the physical cosmos.

Ancient mapmakers placed Jerusalem at the center of creation similar to the way map makers today tend to present the earth with their own nation at the center.  The imagery subtly suggests that earth is at the center of creation. I’m afraid that Hubble has quieted that argument. Earth is far from the cosmos’ center and humans are not necessarily the high point of creation.

Does the image of Jesus ascending to heaven imply that heaven is better than earth or that the future is preferable to the present? Yet God created heaven and earth. Valuing heaven more highly than earth requires a considerable amount of human arrogance: who are we to assess God’s handiwork? If, as the Church has long taught, God determines the number of a person’s days, then being where God wants you to be – earth or heaven – is best for that person at that moment.

The New Testament repeatedly states that God is at work reconciling all creation to God. Widespread emphasis on heaven as the locus of life after death not only devalues the earth but also causes the Church and Christians largely to ignore the importance of caring for all creation. God calls human beings to join God in the work of reconciling all creation (and not just fellow humans!) to God.

Jesus says that he must leave the disciples but promises the gift of the Spirit to his disciples as a guide and advocate in his absence. The Church celebrates the gift of the Holy Spirit on Pentecost.

So what can Christians meaningfully say about Jesus’ ascension?

First, Ascension reminds us to understand our theology metaphorically, to hold even the most cherished concepts gingerly, tentatively. Like the early Christians, we do well to frame our experience of God in the language and metaphors of our time and culture, always aware that these are, at best, earthen vessels. And after all, these earthen vessels are all that we have.

Second, struggling with Ascension’s problems offers a helpful antidote to our tendency to arrogance and our inclination to evaluate reality exclusively in terms of human values. Thinking about Ascension can remind us that although God created humans and crowned us with glory and honor, God’s love has a breadth and depth that encompasses all life and the whole cosmos. Ascension, rightly understood, emphasizes God’s reliance upon us as partners rather than passive participants in creation’s renewal. Jesus is not here; we are; therefore, God relies upon us to act.

Through the activity of the Holy Spirit, the living Christ, God’s activity within creation continues. God’s reliance upon us to act is not an abdication of God’s responsibility but an invitation to partner with God. We do not have to understand how that occurs or even accurately discern what God is doing. We can know that our work of reconciliation will ultimately prevail because God works with us. Jesus’ ascension is a sign of hope. This hope is Ascension’s real message.

 

 

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“Therefore…” at the chapter break

… justice is often an excuse for certain ‘zealous’ people to condemn others. Christians haven’t been appointed to bring justice to the world but ‘rather to ask for mercy for the world, to keep vigil for the salvation of all, and to partake of everyman’s suffering, both the just and the sinners.” He challenged us as he challenged his readers in the seventh century to ‘put the lover of justice to shame by your compassion’.

 

In 1205 Cardinal Stephen Langton created chapter divisions in the Latin Vulgate. Three hundred years later, at the same time that the verses in each chapter were numbered, these divisions were laid over the Greek manuscripts of the New Testament. Unfortunately the division of the Bible into chapters and verses often divides the text in incoherent ways or at inappropriate points, and it encourages citing of passages out of context.  It gives some people license to stop reading a favorite text at a point that favors their point of view.

For today, I’ve an example where stopping one’s reading at a chapter break can cause the reader to miss the point being made by the author.  It is in Apostle Paul’s introduction of himself to the church in Rome. The passage starts right after Paul says that he had often planned to come to Rome but so far has been unsuccessful.  He says his purpose is to achieve something in the meeting in Rome that he had achieved in other parts of the world. That’s when he constructs this wonderful sentence saying ‘For I am not ashamed of the Gospel’.  We need to be particularly careful to not rely on our contemporary definitions of what gospel means because he defines gospel for himself.  He says “It is the saving power of God for everyone who has faith…”  We talked about that last week. He goes on and adds “…here is revealed God’s way of righting wrong, a way that starts from faith and ends in faith…”

The next fifteen verses are a scalding attack on immorality of every sort and over which we typically skim, unless of course it spurs our prurient interests and empowers us to wag our tongue at the misbehavior of someone else.

I’ll be reading from the New Revised Standard Version of the New Testament. This particular translation breaks three of Paul’s long sentences into thirteen.  Hang on…here goes…

18For the wrath of God is revealed from heaven against all ungodliness and wickedness of those who by their wickedness suppress the truth.

19For what can be known about God is plain to them, because God has shown it to them. 20Ever since the creation of the world his eternal power and divine nature, invisible though they are, have been understood and seen through the things he has made. So they are without excuse; 21for though they knew God, they did not honor him as God or give thanks to him, but they became futile in their thinking, and their senseless minds were darkened. 22Claiming to be wise, they became fools; 23and they exchanged the glory of the immortal God for images resembling a mortal human being or birds or four-footed animals or reptiles. 24Therefore God gave them up in the lusts of their hearts to impurity, to the degrading of their bodies among themselves, 25because they exchanged the truth about God for a lie and worshiped and served the creature rather than the Creator, who is blessed forever! Amen. 26For this reason God gave them up to degrading passions. Their women exchanged natural intercourse for unnatural, 27and in the same way also the men, giving up natural intercourse with women, were consumed with passion for one another. Men committed shameless acts with men and received in their own persons the due penalty for their error. 28And since they did not see fit to acknowledge God, God gave them up to a debased mind and to things that should not be done. 

That’s where chapter one ends.  Paul is face to face with a world in which the vices he lists are rampant and because religion and morality seem to hang together he rightly connects these aberrant and destructive behaviors to pagan religion. He contends that if nothing else, nature itself should have saved them from such ignorance and misconceptions of God.

For many of us, this is like reading this morning’s newspaper or listening to any number of television’s religious celebrities, pundits or political wan’a bes.  “The world is going, maybe has already gone, to hell in a hand basket…”. From Paul’s list we have our favorites and tend to cherry pick what we find most sacrilegious and blasphemous in the behaviors of others.  Paul concludes saying: 29They were filled with every kind of wickedness, evil, covetousness, malice. Full of envy, murder, strife, deceit, craftiness, they are gossips, 30slanderers, God-haters, insolent, haughty, boastful, inventors of evil, rebellious toward parents, 31foolish, faithless, heartless, ruthless.  And then here is his last word on the subject 32They know God’s decree, that those who practice such things deserve to die—yet they not only do them but even applaud others who practice them…”

Yeah, Right! Those insolent, deceitful, ruthless people…they deserve to die… Paul’s on a roll, can this get even better?

Paul started this tirade in chapter 1 with this idea: 8For the wrath of God is revealed from heaven against all ungodliness and wickedness of those who by their wickedness suppress the truth.19For what can be known about God is plain to them, because God has shown it to them.  That is, God has taken steps to ensure that people, you and me, know better than we do.

Chapter two begins with the word ‘therefore’ linking what was just described and the consequences that follow.  This is where I lament the chapter break.  So, hang on, here is where chapter two begins: Therefore you have no excuse, whoever you are, when you judge others; for in passing judgment on another you condemn yourself, because you, the judge, are doing the very same things. 2You say, “We know that God’s judgment on those who do such things is in accordance with truth.” 3Do you imagine, whoever you are, that when you judge those who do such things and yet do them yourself, you will escape the judgment of God? 4Or do you despise the riches of his kindness and forbearance and patience? Do you not realize that God’s kindness is meant to lead you to repentance? 5But by your hard and impenitent heart you are storing up wrath for yourself on the day of wrath, when God’s righteous judgment will be revealed. 6For he will repay according to each one’s deeds: 7to those who by patiently doing good seek for glory and honor and immortality, he will give eternal life; 8while for those who are self-seeking and who obey not the truth but wickedness, there will be wrath and fury. 9There will be anguish and distress for everyone who does evil, the Jew first and also the Greek, 10but glory and honor and peace for everyone who does good, the Jew first and also the Greek.11For God shows no partiality.

Paul points out how easy it is to forget that the same principle on which one person is condemned the one who judges, in spite of having better knowledge, also condemns himself. To give assent to the moral impeachments of verses 18-32 of chapter 1 brings about one’s own condemnation.  No, it’s not that he does the same thing, but the conduct is the same.  The sin of the one was the same but the particular sins were not.  Let’s work on that a bit more.  Those who see themselves in the privileged position of being the more moral, who believe that they have arrived spiritually having been granted superior revelation, are like the servant in Matthew 3 who knew his Lord’s will and on whom his judgment will be most rigorous if it is neglected.

The fourth verse of this second chapter has a real sting in it because it asks do you despise the riches of his kindness and forbearance and patience? Do you not realize that God’s kindness is meant to lead you to repentance?  It is a forbearance which suspends judgment, a patience which waits long before it interposes. Paul holds up the grace of God and says that to judge others amounts to contempt of God’s goodness, magnified if God’s grace is ignored.

Alvin Rapien recently gave us a look into St. Isaac of Syria’s Theology of Hell. For Christians of many traditions hell is a place where the wicked experience pure punishment and where God’s love and mercy no longer constrain God’s justice. Isaac rejected the notion that mercy and justice should be held in such tension because he believed that the mercy of God trumps justice. For him it is mercy, not justice,  that describes God’s attitude toward humanity. It is God’s design to restore humanity thus hell is a place of God’s love.  He contends that the ‘torment of Gehenna is bitter regret’.  God’s intention for punishment stems from love “seeking to make whole his image.”  Those who turn away from God suffer as ‘a friend suffers from a friend.’ twisting the heart and torturing the mind.  This pain is rooted in the sinner’s response to love.

What does it mean to believe that God is love.  Is justice an acceptable category when discussing God’s interaction with the world.  Is hell where God pours out his wrath or can we believe that God’s love pervades all things, including hell?

Isaac contends that ‘Justice does not belong to the Christian way of life and there is no mention of it in Christ’s teaching.”  He points to the story of the same day’s wage given to all the laborers. He asks “how can a man call God just when he comes across the passage on the prodigal son who wasted his wealth with riotous living?” Justice is ‘equality of an even scale, for it gives to each as he deserves”.  Were God truly just then all would be doomed to death. “Remember” he said “Christ’s death was an act of mercy, not justice.”

Isaac  says that justice is often an excuse for certain ‘zealous’ people to condemn others. Christians haven’t been appointed to bring justice to the world but ‘rather to ask for mercy for the world, to keep vigil for the salvation of all, and to partake of everyman’s suffering, both the just and the sinners.” He challenged us as he challenged his readers in the seventh century to ‘put the lover of justice to shame by your compassion’.

 

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the gospel…it is the power of God

You may have missed the event when George Fox out did Robin Hood.  He converted the Sheriff of Nottingham!  The first thing the sheriff did was to confess and make restitution to a woman he had cheated.  Then he went into the market place to preach repentance to people. Fox’s letters emphasize purity of life and called people ‘out of the world’s evil ways, words, worships, customs and fashions’.  Here is the ethical aspect of the Gospel.  God’s power, felt in one’s life enables us to change, to throw off the bondage of contemporary culture and live lives pleasing to God. 

Romans 1:.

I found myself working this week in the Book Romans. That material is two thousand years old. We no longer take a three story universe seriously. The early Quaker material that I was reading is nearly 400 years old.  Some of my preparation required reading some of Rufus Jones’ work.  He did his best work between the two world wars and with the generation most effected by Darwin and continental Biblical Criticism which tore Denominations apart in this country.  We really can’t understand what these writers were attempting to impart to us when we read what they wrote through twenty first century lenses.
The Apostle Paul began his letter to the church Rome introducing himself.  He begins :Paul, a servant of Jesus Christ, called to be an apostle, set apart for the gospel of God, which he promised beforehand through his prophets in the holy scriptures, the gospel concerning his Son, who was descended from David according to the flesh and was declared to be Son of God with power according to the spirit of holiness by resurrection from the dead, Jesus Christ our Lord, through whom we have received grace and apostleship to bring about the obedience of faith among all the Gentiles for the sake of his name, including yourselves who are called to belong to Jesus Christ, To all God’s beloved in Rome, who are called to be saints: Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ.

I’ve got to tell you that our contemporary translations have been badly watered down.  For instance  in this passage Paul identifies himself as a “slave”, not “servant.”  Those who have a real feel for the times in which Paul wrote understand that Paul sees himself completely at the discretion of his master. In our time it’s easier to understand servant – the concept of slave is beyond us to imagine. He is his master’s envoy.  Where Paul says that he is ‘set apart’  the Greek reads “separated”, actually it’s even more severe than that.  The better translation is “severed” into the Gospel of God.  Remember that the Greek word for the church is ‘ecclesia’ – the called out ones.  You might wonder, called out from what? called out for what? 

In the sixteenth verse of the first chapter Paul wrote:  For I am not ashamed of the gospel; it is the power of God… for salvation to everyone who has faith, to the Jew first and also to the Greek.

Ever thought about that phrase before?  It is from this passage that George Fox based his ministry. He wrote:  The Gospel it is the Power of God to Salvation, for he that believes receives the Power, receives the Gospel, by which Life and Immortality is come to Light, And the Power of God expels away that which Darkens Life, and Immortality from People; and Captivates their Souls, Spirits and Minds, & keeps them in bondage, which Power of God expels that away, and sets them at Liberty, and gives them Dominion over that which burthened them, and to feel and see before that was, which Darkens Life and Immortality from them; And through this Power of God, Life and Immortality shines over that, in which the Saints Fellowship, the Church Fellowship, wherein they come to be Heirs of the Power of God, Heirs of the Gospel, Heirs of the Fellowship, Church Members, Members one of another in the Power of God (the Gospel) that was before the Power of Darkness was.

The Gospel is the power of God.  The Gospel isn’t a message about the power of God.  You see, our confusion comes from thinking that we know what a gospel is.  It is a message of good news.  But that isn’t Fox’s meaning. When Fox says, with Paul, the “gospel of God is the power of God” they are not describing what most of us what call ‘a gospel’.  When Fox was asked ‘what is the gospel’ here was his answer.  “The priest told me Matthew, Mark, Luke and John were the Gospel.  I told him the Gospel was the power of God.”  In Fox’s  8 volume set of his works Fox uses the word ‘gospel’ about 1800 times and 429 of those times he explicitly equates the Gospel with the power of God.   Never does he uses the phrase ‘gospel  message’ and never says that a proposition or a message is the power of God or that preaching  a particular message will release into the world God’s power.

When Fox does speak of preaching the Gospel you  might think this gospel was a message.  But it becomes quickly clear that there is no proposition to be proved or debated.  What is the power of God? Fox answers “Friends … know the power in one another and in that rejoice: for then you rejoice in the Cross of Christ…which Cross is the power of God to all them that are saved.  So you know the power and feel the power, you feel the cross of Christ, you feel the gospel, which is the power of God unto Salvation to everyone that believeth.”  So instead of a proposition it is a power which can be felt in one’s self and  in others; it works  to save believers; it is one with the cross of Christ.  It’s work is liberation.  He wrote  the Power of God expels away that which Darkens Life, and Immortality from People; and Captivates their Souls, Spirits and Minds, & keeps them in bondage, which Power of God expels that away, and sets them at Liberty…”  Now that sounds like good news to me.

Let me try this one more way.  For Fox, the gospel is not a verbal thing.  He wrote: For the Jews that heard not, and saw not within, stood against the gospel: and Christ said , ‘their ears were stopped and their eyes were closed;’ and so they heard words but the gospel, the power of God, they could not hear, … so none hear but they that hear within….”

Robert Barclay, the scholarly contemporary of George Fox  quotes the Apostle Paul in Romans 1:16 in his attempt to contrast the Quaker understanding of the gospel with the conventional one.  He wrote: For the gospel is not a mere declaration of good things, being “the power of God unto salvation to all those that believe” (Rom 1:16).  Though the outward declaration of the gospel be taken sometimes for the gospel; yet it is but figuratively, and metonymy. For to speak properly the gospel is the inward Power and Life which preacheth glad tidings in the hearts of all men, offering salvation unto them and seeking to redeem them from their iniquities, and therefore it is said to be preached in ‘every creature under heaven” …

Fox’s hearers knew that they were being called, not merely to preach a message, but to change their way of life, and that was immediately.

You may have missed the event when Fox out did Robin Hood.  He converted the Sheriff of Nottingham.  The first thing the sheriff did was to confess and make restitution to a woman he had cheated.  Then he went into the market place to preach repentance to people. Fox’s letters emphasize purity of life and called people ‘out of the world’s evil ways, words, worships, customs and fashions.  Here is the ethical aspect of the Gospel.  God’s power, felt in one’s life enables us to change, to throw off the bondage of contemporary culture and live lives pleasing to God.

As Friends went out they were not content to make this proclamation in a passive manner.  They believed that they were to make this proclamation in a way that challenged the existing order and called all men and women to come out of it.  Fox wrote:

All husbandmen, and dealers about husbandry whatsoever, cattle, or ground, to you all this is the word of the Lord God: do rightly, holily, justly, honestly, plainly, and truly to all men and people, whomsoever ye have to deal withal; wrong not any in any case, though it be never so much to your advantage. Deny yourselves, and live in the cross [Luke 9:23] of Christ, the power of God [1 Cor 1:24], for that destroys injustice; and ‘without holiness none can ever see the Lord [Heb 12:14]; and out of righteousness there is no true peace.’ Therefore all, of what sort soever, or what calling soever, do justly, (whether ye be masters or servants, fathers or mothers, sons or daughters,) to one another, and to all, do that which is just and righteous, uprightly and holily; in that you will have peace, and see God. . . . For ‘the kingdom of God stands in righteousness, peace, and joy in the holy ghost [Rom 14:17].

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No Partiality

“Peter declares that Jesus was about the business of changing people’s lives. He sums up Jesus’ ministry by saying that he “went about doing good and healing all who were oppressed by the devil”. Evil diminishes life for individuals and communities. It can dominate our will and remove the freedom to live in ways that are life-sustaining. It is seen in addictions and compulsions that drive the lives of individuals and the systems of abuse from which families and societies cannot seem to break free. The Gospels tell us that Jesus overcame what was killing people in order to restore them to life.”

 

Acts 10:34-43 Then Peter began to speak to them: “I truly understand that God shows no partiality, 35but in every nation anyone who fears him and does what is right is acceptable to him. 36You know the message he sent to the people of Israel, preaching peace by Jesus Christ—he is Lord of all. 37That message spread throughout Judea, beginning in Galilee after the baptism that John announced: 38how God anointed Jesus of Nazareth with the Holy Spirit and with power; how he went about doing good and healing all who were oppressed by the devil, for God was with him. 39We are witnesses to all that he did both in Judea and in Jerusalem. They put him to death by hanging him on a tree; 40but God raised him on the third day and allowed him to appear, 41not to all the people but to us who were chosen by God as witnesses, and who ate and drank with him after he rose from the dead. 42He commanded us to preach to the people and to testify that he is the one ordained by God as judge of the living and the dead. 43All the prophets testify about him that everyone who believes in him receives forgiveness of sins through his name.”

To appreciate the importance of these verses you need to understand its context. Cornelius is a Roman spit and polish soldier currently posted to the Empire’s headquarters in Caesarea. We are told that, though not a Jew he reveres God and contributes generously to meet the needs of people in the community. Because of his faithfulness Cornelius has a vision in which he is directed to summon Simon Peter to his home. At the time Peter is in Joppa, thirty miles away rooming with a Simon the tanner.

Tanning is considered one of the world’s dirtiest occupations. It wasn’t that tanners were ritually unclean, but there was a social repugnance for tanners because of their stench and filth. It was said for a tanner to look for a wife any place other than the family of another tanner was a waste of time. Simon the tanner may have stunk to high heaven but, from Peter’s point of view he was a Jew. The picture we are given is that Peter is living and breathing the smells of the tanning operation when he goes up on the roof top, probably for a breath of fresh air.

While there, like Cornelius, Peter has a vision. He sees a sheet full of unclean animals come down from heaven. A voice commands Peter to kill and eat these animals, but he refuses since, according to Jewish law, they are ritually unclean. Then the voice said, “What God has made clean, you must not call profane”. When the messengers from Cornelius arrive, Peter realizes that the vision wasn’t at all about unclean food, it was about how Jews were prejudiced against gentiles, that is non-jews. There is an Old Testament story with which Peter would have been familiar that happened in Joppa. Remember Jonah. God called him to preach to Gentiles and he decided he’d rather run away or die.

Peter thinks better of it and goes with Cornelius’ servants and enters his house. That’s important. Cornelius is a Gentile, an official in the occupying Roman army and he is from another nation. He may revere God and give alms generously, but he is a Gentile, not a member of the people of Israel. Does he belong to the people of God as Peter does, or not? Peter says to Cornelius ‘I need not tell you that a Jew is forbidden by his religion to visit or associate with anyone of another race. Yet God has shown me clearly that I must not call anyone profane or unclean…” I don’t know if you caught the irony in the story but Peter was much more comfortable staying in the stench and filth of Simon’s home than in the luxury of a Roman officials home. It makes you wonder how we make choices.

Later in our text find Peter begins his sermon saying “God shows no partiality,” for “in every nation anyone who fears and does what is right is acceptable to him.” To say that “God shows no partiality” means that belonging is not matter of one’s ethnic background. The issue is faith and the kind of life that flows out of faith.

In his message Peter declares that Jesus was about the business of changing people’s lives. He sums up Jesus’ ministry by saying that he “went about doing good and healing all who were oppressed by the devil“. Evil diminishes life for individuals and communities. It can dominate our will and remove the freedom to live in ways that are life-sustaining. It is seen in addictions and compulsions that drive the lives of individuals and the systems of abuse from which families and societies cannot seem to break free. The Gospels tell us that Jesus overcame what was killing people in order to restore them to life. It says that Jesus healed those who had been tyrannized by others. In simply theological language, Jesus’ goal was to release people from what made them captives. The Greek word usually translated “forgiveness” literally means “release.” Living destructively brings people to a point where the pattern of destruction defines the present and limits the future. For a person to have a different life, such behavior must no longer define us. This is what forgiveness means. It means that the grace of God brings release from the continuing to live destructively so that through a word of grace there can be a different future.

Do we live according to the words of Peter’s experience. “I truly understand that God shows no partiality, but in every nation anyone who fears him and does what is right is acceptable to him. Of course the question for us today is whether we embrace such grace for ourselves or others.

 

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Partiality

There’s a certain irony here:  Simon Peter’s comfort staying in the home of a Jewish Tanner and his great discomfort entering the home of a spit and polish Roman centurion. It says something about our prejudices.

Acts 10: 34-43 Our text for today comes from the pen of the same person who authored the Gospel of Luke.  Tradition says that Luke was a traveling companion to the Apostle Paul and not a disciple of Jesus.  His Gospel wasn’t written until about 90 A.D. or some sixty years after Jesus’ life and ministry.  The book of Acts was written sometime after that. That, of course makes great sense because at that time fewer than five percent of the population were literate, and those were of the wealthy elite. Luke is the only Gentile to have his writings included in the Bible.

 

The first part of our passage starts with Peter’s admission that the way God sees and accepts people is a challenge to Jews, good news for Gentiles and of great interest to Luke.  He uses Peter’s speech to summarize the life, teachings and ministry of Jesus of Nazareth, a Galilean no less, who was anointed by God with the Holy Spirit and with power and that he went about doing good and healing those who were oppressed the devil.

 

Acts 10:34-43 Then Peter began to speak to them: “I truly understand that God shows no partiality, but in every nation anyone who fears him and does what is right is acceptable to him.

To appreciate the importance of these words of Peter you need to understand the context out of which they arose. It all starts with Cornelius, a Roman officer stationed at the Roman capital of the area located in Caesarea. Luke sets the stage with this description of him. He was “a centurion in the Italian Cohort.” “He was a religious man, and he and his whole family joined in the worship of God. He gave generously to help the Jewish people, and was regular in his prayers to God.” And, because of his faithfulness in a vision he was instructed by an angel of God to summon Simon Peter to come to his home.  At the time Peter is in Joppa, a good thirty miles south of Caesarea, rooming with a Jewish tanner.

 

Tanning is considered one of the world’s dirtiest occupations.  It wasn’t that tanners were ritually unclean, but there was a social repugnance for tanners because of their stench and filth.  It was said for a tanner to look for a wife any place other than the family of another tanner was a waste of time.   Simon the tanner may have stunk to high heaven but, from Peter’s point of view he was a Jew.  The picture we are given is that Peter is living and breathing the smells of the tanning operation when he goes up on the roof top, probably to catch a breath of fresh air off the Mediterranean.

 

While there, like Cornelius, Peter also has a vision. A sheet full of unclean animals come down from heaven. A voice commands Peter to kill and eat these animals, but he refuses since they are ritually unclean according to Jewish law. Then the voice said, “What God has made clean, you must not call profane” (10:16). When the messengers from Cornelius arrive, Peter realizes that the vision is not just about unclean food, it is about unclean people.

You’ve got to remember another story rooted in Joppa.  It’s the story of Jonah who refuses God’s call to preach grace to the Gentiles and quite unsuccessfully tries to flee.  Peter goes with Cornelius’ servants and enters his house.  That’s important.  Cornelius is a Gentile, an official in the occupying Roman. He may revere God and give alms generously, but he is a Gentile, not a member of the people of Israel.  Does he belong to the people of God as Peter does, or not?  In the story of Cornelius Peter says to Cornelius ‘I need not tell  you that a Jew is forbidden by his religion to visit or associate with anyone of another race.  Yet God has shown me clearly that I must not call anyone profane or unclean…”

 

There’s a certain irony here:  Simon Peter’s comfort staying in the home of a Jewish Tanner and his great discomfort entering the home of a spit and polish Roman centurion. It says something about our prejudices.

 

Luke has Peter beginning his sermon saying “God shows no partiality,” for “in every nation anyone who fears and does what is right is acceptable to him.”  To say that “God shows no partiality” means that belonging is not matter of one’s ethnic background. The issue is faith and the kind of life that flows out of faith.  Some how that piece of good news has taken a back seat to latter day orthodoxy.

 

Then Luke, through the voice of Peter, offers a summation of Jesus’ life and work. “You know the message he sent to the people of Israel, preaching peace by Jesus Christ—he is Lord of all. That message spread throughout Judea, beginning in Galilee after the baptism that John announced: how God anointed Jesus of Nazareth with the Holy Spirit and with power; how he went about doing good and healing all who were oppressed by the devil, for God was with him.

We could spend a great deal of time on just those few sentences.  “…preaching peace by Jesus Christ”;  “he is Lord of all.” And then, after last Sunday seeing the significance of Galilee for Matthew reading Luke saying that though the message began in Galilee he speaks only of how it spread through Judea.  Then he describes in other terms Jesus’ ministry: how God anointed Jesus of Nazareth with the Holy Spirit and with power; how he went about doing good and healing all who were oppressed by the devil, for God was with him.  This is quite a challenge to orthodoxy.

For those of you who have problems with the phrase ‘oppressed by the devil’ I want to assure you that what Peter is quoted as saying isn’t what you may think he means.  It wasn’t until dualism became common a couple of centuries later that ‘the devil’ took on this cloak of being God’s adversary.  Luke already reminded us of the story of Jonah, well here is a reminder of the story of Job and God’s prosecuting attorney.  The one who challenges us in our easy faith.

In the thirty ninth verse of this passage Peter reports the Easter story: We are witnesses to all that he did both in Judea and in Jerusalem. (Again, notice Luke’s refusal to acknowledge Galilee). They put him to death by hanging him on a tree; but God raised him on the third day and allowed him to appear, not to all the people but to us who were chosen by God as witnesses, and who ate and drank with him after he rose from the dead. He commanded us to preach to the people and to testify that he is the one ordained by God as judge of the living and the dead. All the prophets testify about him that everyone who believes in him receives forgiveness of sins through his name.”

Peter declares that Jesus was about the business of changing people’s lives. He sums up Jesus’ ministry by saying that he “went about doing good and healing all who were oppressed by the devil”.   Regardless of whether evil should be personified or not, we  do see and experience that which diminishes life for individuals and communities. We’ve seen and experienced how it can dominate our will and remove the freedom to live in ways that are life-sustaining. It is seen in addictions and compulsions that drive the lives of individuals and the systems of abuse from which families and societies cannot seem to break free. What ever this is, it is like an undeniable infection or cancer that takes life away. To heal, the Gospels tell us that Jesus overcame what was killing people in order to restore them to life.  The same today.  That which is killing people, destroying lives and making life hell has to be named.  In simply theological language, the goal is that people might be released from sin. The Greek word usually translated “forgiveness” is aphesis, which literally means “release.”   Living destructively brings people to a point where the pattern of destruction defines the present and limits the future.  For a person to have a different life, such behavior must no longer define us. This is what forgiveness means. It means that the grace of God brings release from  living destructively so that through a word of grace there can be a different future.

For Luke, not only is it important to him personally, but he will later joyfully report how Peter says the same to church leaders in Jerusalem.  He says “this means…that God has granted life-giving repentance to the Gentiles also.”

Of course the question for us today is whether we embrace such grace.  Do the words of Peter’s experience has resonance with us?  “I truly understand that God shows no partiality, but in every nation anyone who fears him and does what is right is acceptable to him.

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Galilee

The radical truth of Christianity, which sets it off from all other world-faiths, is that God became a human being and not just any human being, but Jesus of Nazareth.  He was a Jew.  But he wasn’t just any Jew, he was a Galilean Jew.

 

Sunday after Easter

The Gospel of John actually ends with the twentieth chapter without mention of Galilee.  The twenty first chapter is an add on that corrects his story by describing a later meeting of  Jesus with his disciples at the sea of Tiberias, the Roman name for Galilee that, according to John, occurred sometime later.  There is no mention of Galilee in Mark or Luke.  Luke concludes his Gospel with Jesus and company going no farther than the little village of Bethany in the Jerusalem’s suburbs and reports Jesus’ ascension. And then in the Book of Acts, his sequel to his Gospel, we read this of Jesus: “giving instructions through the Holy Spirit to the apostles whom he had chosen. 3After his suffering he presented himself alive to them by many convincing proofs, appearing to them during forty days and speaking about the kingdom of God. 4While staying with them, he ordered them not to leave Jerusalem…”

 

Matthew, the contrarian, reports three times where certain disciples of Jesus were instructed to meet the Lord in Galilee after His resurrection. The first was during the Passover meal that Jesus ate the night of his betrayal. He informed his disciples, saying, “After I have been raised, I will go before you to Galilee” (Matthew 26:32). Three days later, on the day of Jesus’ resurrection when Mary Magdalene and the other women came to the empty tomb of Jesus, Matthew reports that the effusive angel told them to notify the disciples of Jesus’ resurrection, and to tell them exactly the same thing they were told three days earlier: “He is going before you into Galilee; there you will see Him” (28:7). Then, only three verses later, as the women were on their way to inform the disciples of Jesus’ resurrection and the message given to them by the angel, Matthew says that Jesus appeared to them and said: “Rejoice!… Do not be afraid. Go and tell my brothers to go to Galilee, and there they will see me” (28:9-10). Then Matthew tells us that the disciples went to Galilee.  Why Galilee?  Why not Jerusalem?  Why not Judea? What is so significant about Galilee, at least to Matthew?  This is another reason that the Gospel’s can’t be harmonized.  I have to wonder why Luke goes out of his way to say that the disciples were to stay in Jerusalem while Matthew is clear about Jesus’ instructions for them to go to Galilee.

 

The radical truth of Christianity, which sets it off from all other world-faiths, is that God became a human being and not just any human being, but Jesus of Nazareth.  He was a Jew.  But he wasn’t just any Jew, he was a Galilean Jew. True, Jesus was born in Bethlehem of Judea, but his stay in Bethlehem was only a matter of weeks, if that.  He was never known as Jesus of Bethlehem, but Jesus of Nazareth. Nazareth, in Galilee, that was his real home. Matter of fact he was conceived in Nazareth.  He made Galilee the center of his life and work. Why Galilee?

Unlike Jerusalem and Judean Jews, for Galilean Jews their home land was a multicultural, multiracial region. Galileans were, in every sense of the word, a racially and culturally mixed people.  Galilee was surrounded and inhabited by Phoenicians, Syrians, Arabs, Greeks, Romans and others.  This racial and cultural mix affected their language; Galileans were often ridiculed for not speaking correct Aramaic and Hebrew. Their speech betrayed them.  Remember how Peter was able to deny Jesus but he couldn’t deny being a Galilean:  “Certainly you are one of them, for you are a Galilean, your accent betrays you” (Mark 14:70; Matthew 26:73).  The terms “peasants,” “the common people,” the ‘am ha-arez —”the people of the land” —were all terms applied to Galileans, all of which carried the stigma of a religiously uneducated people.  The Talmud advises orthodox Judean Jews “No man may marry the daughter of the ‘am ha-arez, for they are like unclean animals, and their wives like reptiles, and it is concerning their daughters that Scripture says: ‘Cursed be he who lies with any kind of beast’ (Deut.  27:21).”

On the political side, Galilee was the headquarters for the majority of the revolutionary movements attempting to overthrow Roman oppression.  It was the home of Judas the Galilean, the founder of the Zealot Movement.  Tradition has it that about the time when Jesus was just a small boy in Nazareth, possibly 8-10 years of age, Judas the Galilean captured the weapons arsenal of Herod the Great and led a revolt against the Romans.  But Rome crushed the rebels, leveled the town, sold the women and children into slavery and crucified some two thousand Jews.  All of this took place merely four miles from Nazareth.  Can you imagine the impact that this must have made on Jesus’ young impressionable mind?    In Luke 13:1-3 Jesus relates the incident of Pilate mingling the blood of Galileans with their sacrifices.  Notice the tone of compassion towards the Galileans in His words:  “Do you suppose that these Galileans were greater sinners than all other Galileans, because they suffered this fate? I tell you, no.”  It could very well have been that some of these Galileans whom Pilate slaughtered were Jesus’ own playmates as a boy in Nazareth.  The point is that rebellion was so common in Galilee that the term “Galilean”  took on the dark political connotation of a possible association with Judas the Galilean.”  Remember the sign placed over Jesus’ head when he was crucified?  It read “Jesus of Nazareth, King of the Jews,” the connection to Galilean rebellious movements was very strong.  Here is another pretender to the throne; this is what Rome does to such!

Pedigree was also involved.  There was this notion that only Israelites of pure ancestry made up the pure Israel.   After the exile, genealogies became important in order to separate pure families from those racially mixed.  The books of Ezra, Nehemiah and 1 and 2 Chronicles, written after the exile, are all filled with genealogical lists.    In the post-exilic period, these lists were important in order to determine who was a pure Israelite.  A person could not be a priest unless they could prove their ancestral purity to at least five generations.  No person could hold a public office who was not of pure ancestry  nor would they associate in court or in public office with persons whose ancestry was of doubt.  Proof of pure ancestry was important for a woman to marry into a priestly family.  Every Israelite knew his immediate ancestors and could point to which of the twelve tribes he belonged.  If the Messiah were to come from any place it would be from Judea, from Bethlehem, from Jerusalem—  but not Galilee! When Nicodemus stood up in the Council and defended Jesus, even he was labeled as a Galilean: “Are you from Galilee too? Search and you will see that no prophet is to rise from Galilee!” (John 7:40-52).

Galilee was the land of the rejected, the despised, the outcasts and foreigners.  It was here where people, wanting to escape from the puritans of Judea could flee into anonymity and obscurity.  This is where Jesus found Mary Magdalene and healed her of demon possession.  Their racial and cultural mix and their constant contact with gentiles and heathens, resulted in Galileans being despised and rejected by the “pure” Jews of Jerusalem who saw themselves as the sole heirs of cultural and religious purity.   As far as the Jews were concerned, nothing good could ever come out of Galilee, except a bunch of, rabble-rousers, half-breeds, ruthless, unrighteous people who despise the teachings of God.  Thus Galileans were regarded as fools, heretics and rebels.   No wonder Nathaniel was shocked to hear that the Messiah was coming from Galilee.  It was the last place from which one would expect the Messiah to come. Remember his reply to Phillip?:  “Can any good thing come out of Nazareth?” (John 1:43-46).

There’s a huge change in how Jesus addresses his followers in this text.  We of the Religious Society of Friends hang our hats on the passage in John 14 where Jesus says “I no longer call you servants (or slaves) but friends”  and the reason given is that he had told his followers everything, making them equals in that they would love one another.  But the shift is even greater in this passage in Matthew.  He tells the women to go tell “my brothers” – this is ghetto talk, barrio talk… this isn’t ancestry.com, it’s brotherhood from sharing the same cultural realities.

Galileans, by their racial and cultural mixture, were not only deprived of earthly social positions, they were predestined to hell!  Yet, when one looks at the attitude of John the Baptist and Jesus, they both disdained the preoccupation with ancestral and racial purity.  When the Pharisees insisted they were the children of Abraham and had Abraham as their father, John tells them that it is not ancestral purity that matters in the Kingdom of God, but repentance  (Matthew 3:9).  And Jesus declares to the religious leaders, that it is belief in the Son of God,  and not in being descents of Abraham, that would save them (John 8:36).

The human scandal of God’s way does not begin with the cross, but with the historical-cultural incarnation of  Jesus, in Galilee.  That God chose to become a Galilean underscores the great paradox of the incarnation in which God becomes the despised and lowly of the world and identifies with them and becomes one with them.

In Mark 1:9, 14-15, we read that Galilee is not only the place from  which Jesus comes to be baptized, but the place into  which he returns to begin his ministry.  One of the challenges faced by persons of  minority groups, or people that have experienced a great deal of powerlessness in society, is that once they leave the barrio or the ghetto, no one wants to go back.  We’ve seen this with international students from third world countries sent abroad to get training to enrich their homeland only to choose not to return. The push for upward mobility is too strong, and people no longer want to identify with their roots, their people. And here is the reason for the importance for Jesus’ brothers to meet him in Galilee–somebody has to go back and tell them that there is hope.  Jesus comes from that ghetto, he is the quintessential “homeboy”!  Out of Galilee, the place of the nobodies, comes the Somebody of God, Jesus Christ, who goes back into Galilee to form a community of hope, a community consisting of the children of God.

After Matthew tells us that the keepers of the tomb reported their experience with the angel to the religious authorities and are given hush money he concludes his Gospel with this: Now the eleven disciples went to Galilee, to the mountain to which Jesus had directed them. 17When they saw him, they worshiped him; but some doubted. 18And Jesus came and said to them, “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. 19Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, 20and teaching them to obey everything that I have commanded you. And remember, I am with you always, to the end of the age.”

 

Here is the great commission. And the reality of to whom Jesus’ brothers were first called to go can’t be missed.  That’s were Jesus is and where we will meet Jesus, in Galilee among the Galileans.

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Easter 2015

 

…interestingly enough, even after two thousand years we can experience what those two women experienced in the cemetery on that first Easter morning.  We can, even today, experience the fellowship that his followers enjoyed on the Galilean shore.  The stories recounted in the other Gospels of Jesus coming among his followers – can still be ours today.  The living, aroused, Jesus is among us and as he said, is with us until the end of the age.  That’s the promise of Easter.

 

Easter

Scholarship suggests that the resurrection we celebrate today occurred on the morning of April 5th in the year 33. That’s based on fixing the crucifixion at 3: p.m. on April 3rd in the year 33.  The earliest account of Jesus’ resurrection is reported by the Apostle Paul in his first letter to the Corinthians, written from Ephesus in the year 56, some twenty three years later. All of the Gospel accounts are written even later. The point is, there are no eye witness accounts.  At best what we have preserved are stories that circulated within the wider fellowship of the followers of ‘the way’.

 

You recall that the women in Mark’s version go to the tomb wondering about who will roll the stone away.  In Luke and John the women find the stone rolled away and Jesus’ body missing. Matthew’s account of Easter morning starts similarly to John’s.  As soon as daylight permits, the text actually says “at the end of the Sabbath”, the two Marys begin their trek to see the tomb…and from that moment on Matthew’s story takes a very different course.    Matthew goes for the spectacular. It’s thunder and lightning, earthquake, wind and fire all rolled together. It is the best that nature can muster in response to the arrival of an angel of the Lord.

 

After the sabbath, as the first day of the week was dawning, Mary Magdalene and the other Mary went to see the tomb. And suddenly there was a great earthquake; for an angel of the Lord, descending from heaven, came and rolled back the stone and sat on it.  His appearance was like lightning, and his clothing white as snow. For fear of him the guards shook and became like dead men.

 

Matthew answers the question that the women in Mark’s version were asking “who will roll the stone away for us?”  The angel, that’s who.  And he not only rolls it back, he sits on it.  His is a commanding presence, shinning like lightning itself.  Those commissioned by the authorities, the Greek calls them ‘keepers’, to ensure that Jesus’ followers didn’t steal the body and then claim that the promised resurrection occurred, are rendered senseless, dumb-founded – shock and awe at the sight of the angel that rolled the stoned away and were completely shaken by the earthquake.

 

Matthew allows us to imagine what happens about the time the women arrive at the sepulcher.  The women were afraid.  Which is the first thing the angel says to them: But the angel said to the women, “Do not be afraid;…”  Yeah, right.  The commanding presence of this brilliant angel looking down at them from his perch atop the stone and they aren’t supposed to be afraid.   To complete the picture you have to imagine Mary Magdalene and the other Mary standing in front of the open tomb with the dumb struck keepers looking up at the angel. How different this is from the one young man in Mark and the two men who Luke says ‘stood by’.  And you’ll recall from reading John’s version, on Mary’s second trip to the tomb there are two angels in white sitting quietly where Jesus’ body had been laid.

 

The angel continued:  “I know that you are looking for Jesus who was crucified. He is not here; for he has been raised, as he said.  And he had said. You have to think back to Matthew 16 to when Jesus had tried to prepare his disciples for what lay ahead.  He told them that he must go to Jerusalem and suffer many things at the hands of the elders, the chief priests and the teachers of the law, and that he must be killed and on the third day be raised to life.  “He has been raised, as he said” the angel told them.  I wonder whether, in all the Passover activity and then the legal proceedings and then being witnesses to Jesus’ excruciatingly painful crucifixion that they had had time to reflect on what they had been told weeks or before.  But the angel knew.  He knew why they had come to the cemetery and he was exuberant in telling them the good news “he has been raised…”  A better Greek translation is ‘he has been roused’.

 

And what of us, do we, like those two Marys, still come to Easter morning expecting to find an entombed Jesus?  That’s not where Jesus is to be found.

Wrapping up his colloquy the angel says Come, see the place where he lay. Then go quickly and tell his disciples, ‘He has been raised from the dead, and indeed he is going ahead of you to Galilee; there you will see him.’ This is my message for you.”

 

This is the Easter story.  It was the message of the effusive angel “He has been roused from the dead.”  There’s a great story that still needs to be nudged out of the text but it isn’t the Easter story. It’s the story for next week. The Easter story is simple but is simply beyond my capacity to understand.  My brain gets in the way.

 

When we were in truck driving school and struggling to learn how to snug the DOT bumper of a 53 foot long trailer up against a dock our trainer said, ‘just follow it back’.  What?  Sitting in that high seat, staring at two rear view mirrors and the dock in the distance and he’s telling me to get out of my head and trust my instincts and allow the trailer to lead me.  It wasn’t a matter of belief, that’s a head trip.   It was simply a matter of letting off the clutch.

 

Easter’s like that.  Jesus was roused the Greek text says.  He was crucified, dead and buried, as the Apostle’s Creed confesses but God didn’t leave him there.  He didn’t leave his message there.  He didn’t leave his mission – not at all. Matthew says So they left the tomb quickly with fear and great joy, and ran to tell his disciples. Suddenly Jesus met them and said, “Greetings!” And they came to him, took hold of his feet, and worshiped him. 10Then Jesus said to them, “Do not be afraid; go and tell my brothers to go to Galilee; there they will see me.” 

 

During the Passover meal before the events of the last three days when Jesus ate the night of His betrayal, he informed his disciples, saying, “After I have been raised, I will go before you to Galilee.”  We will explore that next week.  Now, the serious challenge of Easter is no different than it was that morning in the garden, but, I think, quite a bit more difficult for us. We really don’t know how to get out of our heads, we don’t know how to extricate ourselves from geography and geometry.  We prefer to concoct theories about how things happen and then create belief statements that we repeat and ask others to repeat.  You can’t believe it but death wasn’t an end and we get to celebrate it’s new beginnings.

 

No one witnessed the resurrection – not even the struck dumb Roman keepers – But the witnesses that are most important are the time tested stories of people whose lives have been interrupted by the aroused Jesus.  Matthew tells us that the first two were the two Marys.  “Jesus met them and said ‘surprise, it’s me’ – that’s a lot closer to the Greek than ‘greetings’.  Later Matthew tells of a shore side breakfast and a commissioning. The other Gospels are similar in that regard.

 

The last words of Jesus in Matthew’s Gospel are these: “And remember, I am with you always, to the end of the age.”  We can’t comprehend it. But, interestingly enough, even after two thousand years we can experience what those two women experienced in the cemetery on that first Easter morning.  We can, even today, experience the fellowship that his followers enjoyed on the Galilean shore.  The stories recounted in the other Gospels of Jesus coming among his followers – can still be ours today.  The living, aroused, Jesus is among us and as he said, is with us until the end of the age.  That’s the promise of Easter.

 

 

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What’s with the Donkeys?

You see, we can’t overlook the donkey. The donkey obediently bears the voice and provides the base for God to speak. The donkey which returns again and again over thousands of years to this same little square of real estate crushes our feet to get us to acknowledge the messenger and the message from God. And the message hasn’t changed. There is a God of promise, a God of hope, a God of compassion and grace who desires to have a relationship with us, with me, with you.

 

Matthew, in the twenty-first chapter, relates the story of Jesus’ entry into Jerusalem. The story on which Palm Sunday is based occurred about two thousand years ago. When they had come near Jerusalem and had reached Bethphage, at the Mount of Olives, Jesus sent two disciples, 2saying to them, “Go into the village ahead of you, and immediately you will find a donkey tied, and a colt with her; untie them and bring them to me. 3If anyone says anything to you, just say this, ‘The Lord needs them.’ And he will send them immediately.” 4This took place to fulfill what had been spoken through the prophet, saying, 5“Tell the daughter of Zion, Look, your king is coming to you, humble, and mounted on a donkey, and on a colt, the foal of a donkey.” 6The disciples went and did as Jesus had directed them; 7they brought the donkey and the colt, and put their cloaks on them, and he sat on them. 8A very large crowd spread their cloaks on the road, and others cut branches from the trees and spread them on the road. 9The crowds that went ahead of him and that followed were shouting, “Hosanna to the Son of David! Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord! Hosanna in the highest heaven!” 10When he entered Jerusalem, the whole city was in turmoil, asking, “Who is this?” 11The crowds were saying, “This is the prophet Jesus from Nazareth in Galilee.”

Matthew is at great pains to place Jesus’ entering Jerusalem’s Temple Mount in the very center of Israel’s history and tradition. In his telling the story he quotes part of Zechariah 9:9 Rejoice greatly, O daughter of Zion! Shout in triumph, O daughter of Jerusalem! Behold, your king is coming to you; He is just and endowed with salvation, Humble, and mounted on a donkey,…. That Jesus is mounted on a donkey was no small thing. Now in our time we think of the donkey as an humble beast of burden and an animal of industry, clearly not a fit animal for any important assignment. Of course reality is that for the rough terrain of the eastern Mediterranean it was much better suited than the horse.

One of the most important stories in Jewish tradition is called “The Binding of Isaac”. It is found in Genesis 22:3: So Abraham rose early in the morning and saddled his donkey, and took two of his young men with him and Isaac his son; and he split wood for the burnt offering, and arose and went to the place of which God had told him. The place to which Abraham was commanded to take Isaac ostensibly to sacrifice his late in life miracle son was an elongated north-south stretch of mountainous wilderness known as Mount Moriah. When it occurred, four thousand years ago, the location meant nothing to the actors in this intense drama that ultimately contrasted a single God of abundance and grace with the blood thirsty gods of Caanan. But we know that that place in the wilderness would, in time, become the seat of David’s government and of Israel’s worship, the home to Solomon’s Temple and Herod’s Temple, the old city of Jerusalem. The fact that Abraham was mounted on donkey is no little thing in Israel’s salvation history.

The most important Biblical reference to a donkey is found in the tenth commandment which warns the Israelites to not covet their neighbor’s donkey. Had you ever noticed? I’ve just got to ask that of all the things in the world we might be tempted to covet, would it be our neighbor’s donkey? I dare not touch the question of whether it was a man’s wife or his donkey which is of greater importance. According to Jewish teaching, when the tenth commandment speaks of not coveting either another man’s donkey or his wife this has everything to do with seeking knowledge from God. The Jews recognized that a man’s wife represents a spiritual medium. In the reference to a donkey the Israelites are being warned not to seek messages from foreign prophets.

Probably the most famous donkey in the Old Testament is the one ridden by Balaam. You remembe the story. While on his way to curse the Children of Israel, Balaam and his donkey passed between two vineyards. Standing in their way was an angel with a drawn sword, but only the donkey was able see him. In an attempt to save his master, the donkey turned from the path and crushed Balaam’s foot against a stone wall. Balaam, oblivious to the angel’s presence, began to beat the donkey and at this point the donkey began to speak. By crushing Balaam’s foot the donkey was attempting to make Balaam aware of the presence of the messenger of God. The donkey of Balaam both speaks and carries the prophet on his back. The donkey is both “a voice” as well the means of delivery for God’s messengers. Of course the good news is that after the donkey speaks, Balaam is able “to see” the angel.

There are some other donkey stories. There is the message of salvation in the story whre Joseph sends wheat to his father from Egypt on the backs of donkeys. And when the Syrian general, Naaman, returned home he took dirt from the land of Israel on the backs of two donkeys we have a story about the importance of the land of Israel. I particularly like the story of Saul, before he was anointed king, He was actually on a mission to find his father’s donkeys. On that excursion Saul meets Samuel and his life is changed forever. It reinforces the connection between donkeys and communications from God. And of special importance for today, three thousand years ago, a thousand years before the time of Jesus, King Solomon entered what becomes the Temple Mount in Jerusalem to assume the throne of David, the very same piece of turf and, wouldn’t you know it, on the back of a donkey. The donkey again is the medium by which messages from God arrive.

Mounted on a donkey Jesus wasn’t just entering Jerusalem to cheering crowds. It’s too easy for us to envision an historical event in which the whole of Jerusalem lined the streets, thronging the new Messiah. What the authors of the Bible fail to tell us is that on the same day, while Jesus, mounted on a donkey, enters Jerusalem near the north entrance to the outer court of the Temple Pilate is parading through one of the main gates of the city on a war horse accompanied by a squadron or two of battle-hardened Roman soldiers.

There were two parades that day. The first and by far the biggest consisted of those who wanted to curry favor with the political, religious and military power. The other crowd is singing a pilgrims’ chant of “Hosanna” from Psalm 118:25-26. It is an acclamation of praise. “Son of David”, and “He who comes in the name of the Lord”, are both messianic titles. “Hosanna in the highest” is equivalent to “Glory to God in the highest.” Tradition doesn’t tell us what the other crowd was singing but you can bet it wasn’t “Blessed be he who comes in the name of the Lord”

It is important, however, not to cut story from its moorings so that it becomes a triumphalist celebration. Two thousand years before Jesus Abraham rode his donkey into the wilderness of Mount Moriah in obedience to God. A thousand years before Jesus Solomon, astraddle a donkey, entered David’s enclave to assume the throne of Israel. Matthew tells us that two thousand years ago, just like Solomon and Abraham before him, Jesus approaches that exact same piece of real estate mounted on a donkey.

In contrast to Pilate Jesus doesn’t enter Jerusalem as if he were a glorious king seeking the adulation of the populous, nor does he come as a conquering king seeking vengeance. Jesus comes in peace; he comes to bring peace between the Creator and his creation; he comes to break down the barriers that exist between humankind; he comes that we may find a peace that passes all understanding. Matthew has the crowd proclaiming Jesus as the king in Jerusalem who has come as an outsider, a prophet from Galilee (Matthew 21:11). This is not a case of “meet the new boss, same as the old boss”: things are going to change, and in the biggest of ways, when Jesus is king — starting with how kings rule. Matthew also wants people to know that when he says that Jesus is king, we’re not talking about kingship as it’s usually conceived, or kingship as it’s usually used by those who have it. Jesus is a king who restores the glory of God’s people, but not with military victories. Jesus is not like other kings. Jesus did not come to be “king of the hill,” but to fulfill our longing that, as we find in Isaiah 40 “every mountain and hill be made low; the uneven ground shall become level,and the rough places a plain.

Isn’t that what the writer of the Gospel According to John meant when he wrote that Jesus said to Pilate, “my kingdom is not of this world”. It’s not that Jesus is uninterested in what happens on earth. Quite the opposite is true. Jesus didn’t come to tell us to give up on the earth, any more than he came to rule it like Pilate. Jesus came to redeem it. Jesus is king, but his kingship is not of Pilate’s world.Jesus didn’t come to take over Pilate’s system; he came to replace it. When we confess that Jesus is Lord and Christ, the anointed king, we are leaving no room for the Pilates of this world. When we confess Jesus as Lord – not in some distant world or only in the future, but of all that is, and of here and now – we are proclaiming the Good News. To affirm the vision of the kingdom and to live out its hopes in the present means championing alternatives to existing structures of oppression and authority. And it is possible, with Jesus as Lord, for all those with power to use it as he used his, for the vision of the prophets to find flesh among us who proclaim Christ the king.

You see, we can’t overlook the donkey. The donkey obediently bears the voice and provides the base for God to speak. The donkey which returns again and again over thousands of years to this same little square of real estate crushes our feet to get us to acknowledge the messenger and the message from God. And the message hasn’t changed. There is a God of promise, a God of hope, a God of compassion and grace who desires to have a relationship with us, with me, with you.

 

 

Matthew, in the twenty-first chapter, relates the story of Jesus’ entry into Jerusalem. The story on which Palm Sunday is based occurred about two thousand years ago. When they had come near Jerusalem and had reached Bethphage, at the Mount of Olives, Jesus sent two disciples, 2saying to them, “Go into the village ahead of you, and immediately you will find a donkey tied, and a colt with her; untie them and bring them to me. 3If anyone says anything to you, just say this, ‘The Lord needs them.’ And he will send them immediately.” 4This took place to fulfill what had been spoken through the prophet, saying, 5“Tell the daughter of Zion, Look, your king is coming to you, humble, and mounted on a donkey, and on a colt, the foal of a donkey.” 6The disciples went and did as Jesus had directed them; 7they brought the donkey and the colt, and put their cloaks on them, and he sat on them. 8A very large crowd spread their cloaks on the road, and others cut branches from the trees and spread them on the road. 9The crowds that went ahead of him and that followed were shouting, “Hosanna to the Son of David! Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord! Hosanna in the highest heaven!” 10When he entered Jerusalem, the whole city was in turmoil, asking, “Who is this?” 11The crowds were saying, “This is the prophet Jesus from Nazareth in Galilee.”

Matthew is at great pains to place Jesus’ entering Jerusalem’s Temple Mount in the very center of Israel’s history and tradition. In his telling the story he quotes part of Zechariah 9:9 Rejoice greatly, O daughter of Zion! Shout in triumph, O daughter of Jerusalem! Behold, your king is coming to you; He is just and endowed with salvation, Humble, and mounted on a donkey,…. That Jesus is mounted on a donkey was no small thing. Now in our time we think of the donkey as an humble beast of burden and an animal of industry, clearly not a fit animal for any important assignment. Of course reality is that for the rough terrain of the eastern Mediterranean it was much better suited than the horse.

One of the most important stories in Jewish tradition is called “The Binding of Isaac”. It is found in Genesis 22:3: So Abraham rose early in the morning and saddled his donkey, and took two of his young men with him and Isaac his son; and he split wood for the burnt offering, and arose and went to the place of which God had told him. The place to which Abraham was commanded to take Isaac ostensibly to sacrifice his late in life miracle son was an elongated north-south stretch of mountainous wilderness known as Mount Moriah. When it occurred, four thousand years ago, the location meant nothing to the actors in this intense drama that ultimately contrasted a single God of abundance and grace with the blood thirsty gods of Caanan. But we know that that place in the wilderness would, in time, become the seat of David’s government and of Israel’s worship, the home to Solomon’s Temple and Herod’s Temple, the old city of Jerusalem. The fact that Abraham was mounted on donkey is no little thing in Israel’s salvation history.

The most important Biblical reference to a donkey is found in the tenth commandment which warns the Israelites to not covet their neighbor’s donkey. Had you ever noticed? I’ve just got to ask that of all the things in the world we might be tempted to covet, would it be our neighbor’s donkey? I dare not touch the question of whether it was a man’s wife or his donkey which is of greater importance. According to Jewish teaching, when the tenth commandment speaks of not coveting either another man’s donkey or his wife this has everything to do with seeking knowledge from God. The Jews recognized that a man’s wife represents a spiritual medium. In the reference to a donkey the Israelites are being warned not to seek messages from foreign prophets.

Probably the most famous donkey in the Old Testament is the one ridden by Balaam. You remember the story. While on his way to curse the Children of Israel, Balaam and his donkey passed between two vineyards. Standing in their way was an angel with a drawn sword, but only the donkey was able see him. In an attempt to save his master, the donkey turned from the path and crushed Balaam’s foot against a stone wall. Balaam, oblivious to the angel’s presence, began to beat the donkey and at this point the donkey began to speak. By crushing Balaam’s foot the donkey was attempting to make Balaam aware of the presence of the messenger of God. The donkey of Balaam both speaks and carries the prophet on his back. The donkey is both “a voice” as well the means of delivery for God’s messengers. Of course the good news is that after the donkey speaks, Balaam is able “to see” the angel.

There are some other donkey stories. There is the message of salvation in the story where Joseph sends wheat to his father from Egypt on the backs of donkeys. And when the Syrian general, Naaman, returned home he took dirt from the land of Israel on the backs of two donkeys we have a story about the importance of the land of Israel. I particularly like the story of Saul, before he was anointed king, He was actually on a mission to find his father’s donkeys. On that excursion Saul meets Samuel and his life is changed forever. It reinforces the connection between donkeys and communications from God. And of special importance for today, three thousand years ago, a thousand years before the time of Jesus, King Solomon entered what becomes the Temple Mount in Jerusalem to assume the throne of David, the very same piece of turf and, wouldn’t you know it, on the back of a donkey. The donkey again is the medium by which messages from God arrive.

Mounted on a donkey Jesus wasn’t just entering Jerusalem to cheering crowds. It’s too easy for us to envision an historical event in which the whole of Jerusalem lined the streets, thronging the new Messiah. What the authors of the Bible fail to tell us is that on the same day, while Jesus, mounted on a donkey, enters Jerusalem near the north entrance to the outer court of the Temple Pilate is parading through one of the main gates of the city on a war horse accompanied by a squadron or two of battle-hardened Roman soldiers.

There were two parades that day. The first and by far the biggest consisted of those who wanted to curry favor with the political, religious and military power. The other crowd is singing a pilgrims’ chant of “Hosanna” from Psalm 118:25-26. It is an acclamation of praise. “Son of David”, and “He who comes in the name of the Lord”, are both messianic titles. “Hosanna in the highest” is equivalent to “Glory to God in the highest.” Tradition doesn’t tell us what the other crowd was singing but you can bet it wasn’t “Blessed be he who comes in the name of the Lord”

It is important, however, not to cut story from its moorings so that it becomes a triumphalist celebration. Two thousand years before Jesus Abraham rode his donkey into the wilderness of Mount Moriah in obedience to God. A thousand years before Jesus Solomon, astraddle a donkey, entered David’s enclave to assume the throne of Israel. Matthew tells us that two thousand years ago, just like Solomon and Abraham before him, Jesus approaches that exact same piece of real estate mounted on a donkey.

In contrast to Pilate Jesus doesn’t enter Jerusalem as if he were a glorious king seeking the adulation of the populous, nor does he come as a conquering king seeking vengeance. Jesus comes in peace; he comes to bring peace between the Creator and his creation; he comes to break down the barriers that exist between humankind; he comes that we may find a peace that passes all understanding. Matthew has the crowd proclaiming Jesus as the king in Jerusalem who has come as an outsider, a prophet from Galilee (Matthew 21:11). This is not a case of “meet the new boss, same as the old boss”: things are going to change, and in the biggest of ways, when Jesus is king — starting with how kings rule. Matthew also wants people to know that when he says that Jesus is king, we’re not talking about kingship as it’s usually conceived, or kingship as it’s usually used by those who have it. Jesus is a king who restores the glory of God’s people, but not with military victories. Jesus is not like other kings. Jesus did not come to be “king of the hill,” but to fulfill our longing that, as we find in Isaiah 40 “every mountain and hill be made low; the uneven ground shall become level, and the rough places a plain.

Isn’t that what the writer of the Gospel According to John meant when he wrote that Jesus said to Pilate, “my kingdom is not of this world”. It’s not that Jesus is uninterested in what happens on earth. Quite the opposite is true. Jesus didn’t come to tell us to give up on the earth, any more than he came to rule it like Pilate. Jesus came to redeem it. Jesus is king, but his kingship is not of Pilate’s world. Jesus didn’t come to take over Pilate’s system; he came to replace it. When we confess that Jesus is Lord and Christ, the anointed king, we are leaving no room for the Pilates of this world. When we confess Jesus as Lord – not in some distant world or only in the future, but of all that is, and of here and now – we are proclaiming the Good News. To affirm the vision of the kingdom and to live out its hopes in the present means championing alternatives to existing structures of oppression and authority. And it is possible, with Jesus as Lord, for all those with power to use it as he used his, for the vision of the prophets to find flesh among us who proclaim Christ the king.

You see, we can’t overlook the donkey. The donkey obediently bears the voice and provides the base for God to speak. The donkey which returns again and again over thousands of years to this same little square of real estate crushes our feet to get us to acknowledge the messenger and the message from God. And the message hasn’t changed. There is a God of promise, a God of hope, a God of compassion and grace who desires to have a relationship with us, with me, with you.

 

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Sheep and Goats

I can’t believe all the opinions I found about the goodness of sheep and the badness of goats trying to answer the question “What does Jesus have against goats?” I’ve got an answer. Nothing. According to the parable the Son of Man is not sorting sheep or goats. He is sorting people. They are simply divided the way a shepherd does. It’s a literary device. A simile. Through out the rest of the parable it is about those on the right or the left. You might recall in Exodus 12, when the original instructions for Passover were offered people were told they should choose a lamb of either a sheep or a goat.

Premised on how God has welcomed us, in the teachings of Jesus and the Apostle Paul, hospitality is presented as central to Christians’ life together. Today our culture reduces ‘hospitality’ to friendliness and private entertaining and with regard to the stranger, the indigent and the powerless, we have foisted this ancient obligation onto government and not for profit programs. Has genuine hospitality become a lost art? Christian hospitality remains a public and economic reality by which God re-creates us through the places and people we are given. Recovering this ancient tradition is essential in a world that has grown terrifyingly defensive and harsh.

Sarah Dylan Breuer says that all are invited to experience ‘salvation’ without precondition. And then goes on to answer the question “… what is salvation”? Both Jesus and Paul saw salvation not as merely a promise of a blessed afterlife. Salvation is something that starts today, and it’s about a certain kind of life — specifically, a life in community. And in both Jesus’ view and Paul’s, that’s not just any community, it’s a family. Jesus said that anyone who hears God’s word and does it is his sister or brother or mother (Mark 3:35). And the metaphor Paul most often uses for what we are as the Church, for who we are in Christ, is that we are sisters and brothers. Some modern translations have mangled that by employing the word “believers” for seeing the body of Christ of consisting of brothers and sisters. In other words, the invitation Jesus gives us is the invitation to relationship — with one another as much as with him and with the God who created us. Jesus’ invitation to us, his ragtag band of disciples from all nations, is to join God’s people. The invitation to join the community is issued to everyone. But the quality of life in the community — the extent to which our life together is an experience of members of one Body of Christ and a foretaste of the kingdom of heaven come to earth now — has a direct relationship to how we choose to live together once we accept Jesus’ invitation. That’s the invitation issued to us today. That’s the vision we’re called to claim as ours until it is realized for the world.

That’s the challenge of this parable spoken by Jesus.

Matthew 25:31-46

When the Son of Man comes in his glory, and all the angels with him, then he will sit on the throne of his glory. 32All the nations will be gathered before him, and he will separate people one from another as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats, 33and he will put the sheep at his right hand and the goats at the left.

Then the king will say to those at his right hand, ‘Come, you that are blessed by my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world; 35for I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, 36I was naked and you gave me clothing, I was sick and you took care of me, I was in prison and you visited me.’

Then the righteous will answer him, ‘Lord, when was it that we saw you hungry and gave you food, or thirsty and gave you something to drink? 38And when was it that we saw you a stranger and welcomed you, or naked and gave you clothing? 39And when was it that we saw you sick or in prison and visited you?’ 40And the king will answer them, ‘Truly I tell you, just as you did it to one of the least of these who are members of my family, you did it to me.’

Then he will say to those at his left hand, ‘You that are accursed, depart from me into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels; 42for I was hungry and you gave me no food, I was thirsty and you gave me nothing to drink, 43I was a stranger and you did not welcome me, naked and you did not give me clothing, sick and in prison and you did not visit me.’

Then they also will answer, ‘Lord, when was it that we saw you hungry or thirsty or a stranger or naked or sick or in prison, and did not take care of you?’ 45Then he will answer them, ‘Truly I tell you, just as you did not do it to one of the least of these, you did not do it to me.’ 46And these will go away into eternal punishment, but the righteous into eternal life.”

As this parable is structured several things are important to acknowledge. Jesus sets this parable in terms of the Pharisaic doctrine of the resurrection of the body and the eternal life of the soul with which the Jews of his day were familiar. It is set in the Kingdom of God, sometime after earthly life has concluded and all is said and done. There is no opportunity for any do-over or changes. There is no opportunity to make a defense or offer a list of reasons, excuses or alibis. The Son of Man does a basic sort of all humankind. Sheep on his right. Goats on his left.

I can’t believe all the opinions I found about the goodness of sheep and the badness of goats trying to answer the question “What does Jesus have against goats?” I’ve got an answer. Nothing. According to the parable the Son of Man is not sorting sheep or goats. He is sorting people. They are simply divided the way a shepherd does. It’s a literary device. A simile. Through out the rest of the parable it is about those on the right or the left. You might recall in Exodus 12, when the original instructions for passover were offered people were told they should choose a lamb of either a sheep or a goat.

The one of the throne pronounces sentences. To those on the right he says: ‘Come, you that are blessed by my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world’… And to those on the left he says ‘You that are accursed, depart from me into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels;’. That seems awful unfair to us. We want to think that judgment would be a personal thing based on what we believe or our achievements or our intentions. That’s clearly not the picture Jesus paints in the parable.

In both cases the standard by which people were judged was either for I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, I was naked and you gave me clothing, I was sick and you took care of me, I was in prison and you visited me.’ or , for I was hungry and you gave me no food, I was thirsty and you gave me nothing to drink, I was a stranger and you did not welcome me, naked and you did not give me clothing, sick and in prison and you did not visit me.’ Either you did nor did not respond to the needs of ‘The Son of Man’. That’s pretty simple.

Both neither those on the left or on the right have any conscious recollection of when they had or had not met the test. Both ask the same question: “Lord, when was it that we saw you hungry or thirsty or a stranger or naked or sick or in prison…?” Why was there no recall? Because the Son of Man wasn’t in the divine throne room sitting in judgment and wearing his robe. He was out in the world identifying with the indigent, unclean, struggling, mentally challenged, anxious, vulnerable, incarcerated, hungry, homeless and powerless. “…just as you did it to one of the least of these who are members of my family, you did it to me.” The least of these…

Could we really allow the Christ child, the boy born as king and the one appointed by God to judge the nations, to die of malnutrition in infancy in Africa, or have his hate kindled by living among the displaced being brutalized and depersonalized in a refugee camp knowing who this child is and just how little it would take to see him grow up and realize all he was created to be? Could we let a young girl have her life taken away in the sex trade or by spending her days fetching water rather than going to school, and her family suffering when the water she carries is causes illness? If we loved Jesus as much as we say we do, if we knew what we did and didn’t do for this family was what we did and didn’t do for the Christ? Or do we want to experience fellowship with Christ by serving and empowering the poor, outcast, and prisoners–the least of our world?

This invitation is not for after we die — then the chance to act is gone. It’s an invitation for this moment, this day, this generation. And, please, it’s not about avoiding punishment. It’s interesting to ask of his parable whether there were those on the left who had great intentions but failed to follow through and were there truly nasty people on the right who had unintentionally done the right thing. And what about this? Doesn’t this free us up from making decisions about who deserves our assistance and who doesn’t because they are in dire straits because of their own poor choices? I like the notion that those on the right didn’t do what they had done for praise or recognition nor did they do what they did out of obligation. Evidently they saw a need and met it, like George Mallory said of his climbing Everest, because it was there. There is no divine micromanagement of our lives.

What we do, the extent to which we respond to Jesus’ invitation not just to come into the House of God’s chosen people, but to live as one of the family, in relationship with and caring for the rest of the family, is the extent to which we experience eternal life, God’s just and peaceful kingdom, right here and now. It is in such community that we become aware of the needs of others. In Paul’s words, Christ’s risen life is the “first fruits,” and we are called to enjoy the full harvest of that abundant life. The goal is not justice. Justice alone leaves no room for mercy and grace. It’s hospitality. It’s sharing the extravagant grace of our creator. Do you want a taste of that? It’s there for you now, as abundant as are the opportunities to exercise compassion toward the least of Jesus’ sisters and brothers.

 

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