resurrection

embezzling the Spirit

The scripture reading in Acts 4 and 5 presents what many people have often described as an early look at Christian communism.  Before anyone gets too excited, understand I’m not talking about the tyrannical political system we became familiar with in the 20th century.  I know that “communism” is a word that raises a red flag.  (Yes, a “red” flag!)

1 acWe see language like “no one claimed private ownership of any possessions” and “everything they owned was held in common” (v. 32).  Chapter 2 has similar descriptions of the community.  “All who believed were together and had all things in common; they would sell their possessions and goods and distribute the proceeds to all, as any had need” (vv. 44-45).

That actually sounds communist.  That is, it sounds commune-ist, as in living in a commune.

We’re not talking about any element of force here.  There isn’t any government mandate; there isn’t anything done at the point of a sword.  Rather, “the whole group of those who believed were of one heart and soul.”  This is a community bound by love.  It looks like it’s taking care of everyone.  “There was not a needy person among them” (v. 34).

I would like to make a couple of side comments on all of this.  I do have respect for folks who choose to live communally.  (Understand, that excludes cults and brainwashing and places where people are held against their will!)  Many communes demonstrate a life with a healthy perspective on putting people before property.

Having said that, I’m not sure the early church in Jerusalem really was a commune.

Questions of commune set aside, building community is not easy.  Sometimes people speak of it in romanticized terms, but community involves characters of all sorts: crabby and gabby, serious and delirious, careless and cautious.  It seems inevitable there will be those who give and give and give and apparently don’t get much in return.  And then there are those who live by the motto, “It is more blessed to receive than to give.”

As they say, it takes all kinds.

At the center of it all are the apostles.  They’ve been acting as a sort of clearinghouse for the dispersal of funds.  They didn’t get that job because of any economic training they received.  They didn’t take any extension courses.  Instead, “With great power the apostles gave their testimony to the resurrection of the Lord Jesus, and great grace was upon them all” (v. 33).

2 acThat word “power” in Greek is δυναμις (dunamis).  It’s where we get our word “dynamite.”  Does anyone remember the 70s TV show Good Times?  It included the Evans family elder son, J. J., who often proclaimed he was “Kid Dyn-O-Mite!”  I don’t suppose any of the apostles would claim that title for themselves!

They use that great power in giving testimony, in giving witness, to the resurrection of the Lord.  (“Resurrection” makes this a fitting theme for the Easter season.)  Something about resurrection is that it’s not a one-time thing.  Resurrection is ongoing.  These early disciples, the Jerusalem church, demonstrate resurrection power.  The Holy Spirit is moving among them.  As we see, “great grace” was upon the community.

As we might know about community, there are those who simply get it.  They know what goes into building it, and they’re willing to step up and take part.

Everyone is important in the eyes of the Lord, but there are those whose presence, and whose absence, is especially felt.

One such person in that early church is a Cypriot named Joseph.  We’re told he is a Levite, a member of the priestly tribe of Levi who traditionally would help with ceremonial duties.  He has made a really good impression, because he has been given the nickname, “Barnabas,” “son of encouragement.”  He’s the guy who will help you when you’re feeling down.  He’s the one who will reassure you.  “You can do it!”  He is the encourager.  (That sounds like the name of a superhero—the Encourager.  He’s the one who’s in your corner.)

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[photo by Hian Oliveira on Unsplash]

Barnabas plays no small role in the book of Acts.  If this were a movie, we could say his agent did a good job in getting him the part.

After his conversion on the road to Damascus, Saul (later known as Paul) goes to Jerusalem, but the disciples there don’t trust him (9:26-28).  They know about his past, how he persecuted the church.  But Barnabas steps forward and vouches for him.  “This guy is okay.  He’s the real deal.”

In chapter 11, news has come regarding the church in Antioch: the number of believers is said to be growing quickly.  They want someone to check it out.  Here’s how the scripture reads: “News of this came to the ears of the church in Jerusalem, and they sent Barnabas to Antioch.  When he came and saw the grace of God, he rejoiced, and he exhorted them all to remain faithful to the Lord with steadfast devotion; for he was a good man, full of the Holy Spirit and of faith.  And a great many people were brought to the Lord” (vv. 22-24).  He also accompanies Paul on his first missionary trip.

I really like that.  Barnabas is known to be a good man, filled with the Spirit and faith.  He is a good man.  I don’t know what more can be said.  It’s hard to beat being called a good man.  True to his reputation, he sells a piece of land and brings the money to the apostles.  He wants to contribute to the cause and help those in need.  Thus endeth chapter four, and we move to chapter five.

4 acBut then…  You know Bonnie and Clyde?  Well, they ain’t got nuttin’ on Ananias and Sapphira!  Unfortunately, this part of the story does not end well.

We start off on a good note.  Just like Barnabas, they sell a piece of property and bring the profits to the apostles.  They’ve done their fair share in helping the community.  However, there is a problem.  The two decide to hold back some of the money, even though they said there would be more.  One of the meanings for the word translated “kept back” (νοσφιζω, nosphizō) is “embezzle.”

Peter knows something is up—maybe it was divine inspiration, or maybe he simply did the math.  He confronts Ananias, letting him know he could have given whatever amount he and his wife chose.  It was up to them.  He asks a rather blunt question: “why has Satan filled your heart to lie to the Holy Spirit and to keep back part of the proceeds of the land?” (v. 3).  He lets him have it.  “You haven’t lied to me.  You haven’t lied to us mere mortals.  No, my dear fellow, you’ve lied to God!”

What follows next has been the subject of controversy down through the centuries.  Ananias keels over and falls down dead.  Did Peter intend this?  Did he in some way cause it to happen?  If so, does the punishment really fit the crime?  It does seem to be a bit of an overreaction.  Peter’s ethics are called into question.

There have been numerous explanations about this.  Don’t worry, I won’t attempt to go into all of them.  Some say the pair have broken an oath to God and to their fellow believers, in that they agreed to pool their resources—without embezzlement!  Such oaths often included self-curses if they were broken.  “May God strike me down if…”

Others say Peter plays the role of prophet.  His words pierce Ananias into his very soul.  Others say when Ananias’ craftiness is exposed, he simply has heart failure!  So, there’s no great mystery.

Whatever the case, Peter seems to be a bit fuzzy on notifying the next of kin!  He arranges a hasty burial for Ananias without his wife’s knowledge.  (By the way, the name Sapphira is where we get our word “sapphire.”)  She shows up three hours later, and Peter gives her a chance to tell the truth.  A similar exchange happens, and she’s buried next to her husband.  On the bright side, at least Ananias and Sapphira are together forever!

Our passage ends, “And great fear seized the whole church and all who heard of these things” (v. 11).  I would think so.

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My earlier comment on Bonnie and Clyde notwithstanding, we should be cautious on how we judge Ananias and Sapphira.  As the noted 20th century British theologian F. F. Bruce said, “be careful: the temptation to seek a higher reputation than is our due for generosity or some other virtue is not so uncommon that we can afford to adopt a self-righteous attitude towards poor Ananias [and Sapphira].  Let us rather take warning from [their] example.”[1]  Their story is a cautionary tale.

What can we learn from this?  Is it as simple as Barnabas choosing love and Ananias and Sapphira choosing fear?  Did they go with safety and security over the apparent uncertainty that comes with genuine openheartedness?  Did they put their trust in material possessions to provide security?

Can we imagine another culture teaching that—one with which we might be quite familiar?

I’ve heard it said one good way to defeat the power of money and possessions over us is to give them away.

Luke is the author of Acts.  In his gospel, he tells the story of the rich young ruler who asks Jesus about eternal life.  He says he has kept all the commandments.  Jesus responds, “There is still one thing lacking.  Sell all that you own and distribute the money to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; then come, follow me” (18:22).  I don’t think Jesus was laying down a law for everyone and for all time.  He told him what he needed to hear.  Jesus recognized the grip the young man’s wealth had on him.

That can apply in a different way, and it regards our possessions after we have shuffled off this mortal coil.  Including the church in your will is a meaningful and needed way to benefit those who remain and those who come after.  It is yet another way of worshipping the Lord.  It is yet another way of giving to the community, indeed, the community united by the Holy Spirit.

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[photo by Alex Martinez on Unsplash]

Aside from matters of material possessions, we can see how Ananias and Sapphira chose to hold back.  Don’t we also do that, to one extent or another, in one way or another?  Are we not too often guilty of embezzling the Spirit?  And yet, thanks be to God, even when we hold back from the Lord, if we remain open to the Spirit, God is gracious.  There is always opportunity for service—and for the love that conquers fear.

 

[1] F. F. Bruce, Commentary on the Book of the Acts (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1987), 113-114.


to hell and back

The first church we served was in Nebraska.  We were in the Presbytery of Central Nebraska.  At one of the presbytery meetings, there was a lay pastor ready to be certified.  He was answering questions about his beliefs and his sense of calling, his faith journey.

One of the ministers asked him about his views on Jesus Christ’s descent into hell.  The fellow didn’t know what to say.  My guess would be that was the first time anyone had ever asked him about it.  I can understand that; no one has ever asked me about it!  As you might know, there’s a line in the Apostles’ Creed saying about Jesus, “he descended to the dead.”  That’s from the modern, ecumenical version.  The original, traditional reading says of Jesus, “he descended into hell.”

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I honestly don’t remember the pastor’s name, but he took the opportunity to speak of Jesus’ descending into hell as an image of his own life.  He spent about two minutes telling us of his trials and tribulations.  (If two minutes doesn’t seem like much, get a stopwatch and time it.)  I really didn’t know him very well, but from what I did know, I knew he wasn’t lying about his experiences.  Meanwhile the poor fellow, the prospective lay pastor, was still up there, waiting for him to finish!  (By the way, he was certified.)

It was one of the more interesting presbytery meetings I’ve been to.

The epistle reading in 1 Peter 3 has some verses that are often associated with the so-called “harrowing of hell,” that is, the plundering of hell.  The harrowing of hell is said to be what transpired on Holy Saturday, between Good Friday and Easter Sunday.  Jesus visited hell and liberated the saints of old, and others.  There is no direct Biblical testimony to this, but it is based on a number of scriptures and the centuries-old witness of church tradition.  But let’s hold off on that visit for a few moments.

The lectionary reading actually begins with verse 18, even though the paragraph starts with verse 13.  Looking at it, I suppose I can see why that part was left out.  “Now who will harm you if you are eager to do what is good?  But even if you do suffer for doing what is right, you are blessed…  For it is better to suffer for doing good, if suffering should be God’s will, than to suffer for doing evil” (vv. 13-14, 17).  “If suffering should be God’s will.”  Yikes!

Tucked away in the midst of that is this little gem: “Always be ready to make your defense to anyone who demands from you an accounting for the hope that is in you; yet do it with gentleness and reverence” (vv. 15-16).  Don’t get in people’s faces.  Don’t make them feel stupid.  Don’t be a jerk.  (That last sentence is from an alternate translation.)

Peter’s audience has had plenty of opportunities and/or demands to explain themselves.  They have had to deal with persecution.

Then there’s a transition to Christ, who “also suffered for sins once for all, the righteous for the unrighteous, in order to bring you to God” (v. 18).  He has set the example for them, and us, of underserved punishment and unjust treatment.

Then Peter’s thought takes a slight turn.  “He was put to death in the flesh, but made alive in the spirit, in which also he went and made a proclamation to the spirits in prison, who in former times did not obey, when God waited patiently in the days of Noah” (vv. 18-20).

Who are these “spirits in prison, who in former times did not obey”?  There’s a curious story in Genesis 6.  There is mention of “the sons of God [who] saw that [the women] were fair; and they took wives for themselves of all that they chose.  Then the Lord said, ‘My spirit shall not abide in mortals forever, for they are flesh; their days shall be one hundred twenty years.’  The Nephilim were on the earth in those days—and also afterward—when the sons of God went in to the daughters of humans, who bore children to them.  These were the heroes that were of old, warriors of renown” (vv. 2-4).

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[One image of Nephilim]

No one really knows who these sons of God and Nephilim were.  Theories abound about fallen angels, giants, unrighteous men.  Whatever the case, they were consigned into the prison Jesus visited.  In response, Jesus found them worthy of hearing his message of good news.

But then there was Noah, of whom he and his family “were saved through water.”  Peter says, “this prefigured [baptism, which] now saves you” (vv. 20-21).  The water of the flood, through which Noah and his family passed, prefigures, or foreshadows baptism.

So there’s water, but what about fire?  We’re back to the harrowing of hell, the plundering of hell!

The New Testament has three different words translated as “hell.”  So pick your favorite.  The first one, “Hades” (άδης), like “Sheol” in the Old Testament, is the land of the dead, the grave.

The second word, “Gehenna” (γέεννα), is the one associated with fire.  It goes back to the valley of Hinnom, where some Israelites burned human sacrifices to pagan gods.

The third word, “Tartarus” (ταρταρόω), is used only once—in 2 Peter 2:4.  In Greek mythology, Tartarus was said to be as far below Hades as the earth is below heaven.  Friends, that is a long way!

The word “hell” in the Apostles’ Creed (κάτω katō) means “down” or “below” and can be translated as he descended to “lower ones” or “those below.”  So it’s not a place; it’s people.

Some speak of a struggle with Satan.  Many have been really creative in describing how Jesus kicks open the gates of hell and demands the release of the captives.  One of my teachers had a dim view of this whole scenario.  He didn’t put much stock in portraying Jesus in a boxing match with the devil!

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Banu said that, after my surgery seeing me unconscious in the intensive care unit, with all kinds of lines hooked into me and a ventilator tube going down my throat, she could better appreciate Jesus’ descent into hell.  He came down to where she was.

(Actually, on occasion, that might be a good story for hospital chaplains to use when consoling those in the waiting room.)

C. S. Lewis said of the harrowing of hell, “It was not once long ago that He did it. Time does not work that way once ye have left the Earth. All moments that have been or shall be were, or are, present in the moment of His descending.  There is no spirit in prison to Whom He did not preach.”

We’re told, “Whatever hells we may find ourselves in, whether in this life or another, Jesus is there waiting for us—and He has the power to pull us out.  Hell’s days are numbered.  Indeed, the only thing that keeps us there is our refusal to accept God’s love—and we may genuinely hope this love will [at last] prove irresistible.”[1]

How much during this particular Lent is this a meaningful word?

On Ash Wednesday, I spoke of the ashes put on our foreheads as a reminder of our mortality.  We are on this planet for a finite amount of time.  “Remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return.”  I suggested perhaps this time we might not need to be reminded “we are dust.”  We’ve witnessed plenty of dust this past year.

It’s possible we might be in our own Hades, indeed our own Hell, and yet, hope is here.  The word of good news, of gospel, is being delivered.

As we end the chapter, the good news of resurrection breaks forth from down below into glorious majesty.  Christ “has gone into heaven and is at the right hand of God, with angels, authorities, and powers made subject to him” (v. 22).  We speak of the triumphal procession of Jesus into Jerusalem on Palm Sunday.  How can we not also speak of the triumphal procession of Christ freeing the captives and defeating the grave—literally plundering death of its ultimate power?  Who else has gone to hell and back?

Angels, authorities, and powers have been made subject to him.  This isn’t some abstract nicety.  I’m not sure how often we encounter actual angels, but authorities and powers are forces we run into every day.  We can think of visible authority, like government.  There is easily recognized power, like the power of knowledge.  (Teachers, would you agree with that?)

There are realities more elusive and unknown.  Many of them we choose.  With others, we allow ourselves to be chosen.  We obey the authorities of money, of fashion, of “what will the neighbors say?”  We choose the power of life and death in the multitude of ways they are expressed.

We build up, and we tear down.  We affirm, and we negate.  We help, and we hinder.  All of that stuff has been made subject, all has been made subordinate, to Christ.

So, what about this Lent?  Are we to give something up?  Should we give up that which keeps us from answering others with gentleness and reverence?  Should we give up that which keeps us from having a clear conscience?  Should we give up that which imprisons us?

Thanks be to God, we have one who goes before us, one who leads in procession for us, one who has gone to hell and back for us, Jesus Christ.

 

[1] godoftheodd.wordpress.com/2017/04/07/the-harrowing-of-hell-what-really-happens-between-good-friday-and-easter-sunday


go to sleep, Dionysus

Yesterday marked the 25th anniversary of my brain surgery.  November 14, 1995 was a watershed moment in my life.  I came to think of that experience in terms of BC and AD: before cancer and after diagnosis.  Also, there was the traumatic event caused by radiation therapy.  I lost the hair on top of my head!  It began with a little piece falling out here and there when I combed my hair.  Then one day in the shower while washing it, a big hunk decided to say farewell.  That was when Banu and I decided to shave it all off.

A side effect of the cancer has been the influence on my brain itself.  I have found if I get really tired, I might have an episode in which I want to speak, but the words get hung up before I can get them out.  These episodes usually last from 5 to 20 seconds…  …but it sometimes feels like an eternity.

1 thMy doctors have said one way to combat this tiredness is to make sure I get enough sleep.  That sounds like good advice!  As a result, if I’m able to (after all, I do have meetings and other stuff to do), I’ll try to take a nap sometime in the afternoon.  At first, I was a little hesitant to admit it, but when one considers the effects of sleep deprivation on the brain and body, I think taking a nap is a good choice.  The Spanish, and other cultures around the world, have embraced the value of the siesta.

I’ve brought all of this up because the first part of our epistle reading in 1 Thessalonians speaks about slumbering, snoozing.  As a bit of preview, verse 11 is a bridge to the second part.  “Therefore encourage one another and build up each other, as indeed you are doing.”  What kind of things are they doing and should continue to do?  Check out verses 12 to 22.  It’s quite the laundry list.

First, let’s return to getting shuteye.  Is the apostle Paul’s warning to “not fall asleep as others do, but [to] keep awake and be sober” just refer to physical sleep?  No doubt it includes that; it is possible to sleep one’s life away.  To use a common metaphor, one can wind up in the sleep of death.  (Actually, that’s pretty much guaranteed.)  Only one person has woken up from that sleep.  Only Jesus has awakened from a dirt nap!

This text is a grab bag of goodies.  I’ll have to leave some of the goodies in the bag.  It’s all framed within the theme of the coming of the Lord.  It’s an Advent theme before the season of Advent arrives.  The opening verses speak of “the day of the Lord [as coming] like a thief in the night” (v. 2).  Pay attention.  Pay attention to your life.  Don’t get caught napping—and this time, it really isn’t about physical sleep.

Thessalonica was a place where worship of Dionysus flourished.  He was the god of wine, agriculture, theater, and insanity, among other things.  (And according to the stories, Dionysus also rose from the dead.)  Still, it was his role as god of wine that guided his worshippers.  Their nighttime gatherings tended to be frenzied drunken orgies.  They just went mad.  When one worships the Lord of insanity, that seems fitting.  (Take note of the word “orgies.”  We’ll come back to it.)

The apostle counters with the life the Thessalonians have been called to.  “But since we belong to the day, let us be sober, and put on the breastplate of faith and love, and for a helmet the hope of salvation” (v. 8).  Paul tells them how to dress appropriately.  They are to clothe themselves with faith, love, and the hope of salvation.  They are not to be found in a state of undress, of a Dionysian nature.  And yes, “undress” is more than walking around physically disrobed.

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Why does he tell them that?  Why should they change their wardrobe?  He says, “For God has destined us not for wrath but for obtaining salvation through our Lord Jesus Christ” (v. 9).

That word “wrath” is an interesting one.  It might sound like God is ready to send a thunderbolt our way.  However, the wonderful truth of the gospel, the good news, is that God is not ticked off at us.  It’s true that God grieves the pain we inflict on each other, on creation, and on ourselves, but God’s essential nature is love.

The Greek word for “wrath” is ὀργή, orgē.  Guess what English word comes from it?  We think of “orgy” as a party with sexual abandon.  But the word orgē means anger, wrath, indignation.  The root idea is to swell up from within, like a fruit swelling with its juice.  Paul counsels the church to not go that route.  He doesn’t want them to stew in their own juices.

That word is used of Jesus himself.  In Mark 3, he is dealing with opposition to curing a man’s withered hand on the sabbath.  That’s the point; he shouldn’t be doing this on the sabbath.  Heal the guy some other time!  Jesus asks them, “Is it lawful to do good or to do harm on the sabbath?” (v. 4).  They don’t say a single word.

“He looked around at them with anger [with orgē]; he was grieved at their hardness of heart and said to the man, ‘Stretch out your hand.’  He stretched it out, and his hand was restored” (v. 5).  That had to make an impression!  Have their hard hearts been softened?  Apparently not, since we’re told they immediately went out to make plans on how to do him in.

(Please note: orgē doesn’t describe Jesus’ overall approach to life!  It was a flash, prompted by the injustice faced by the man in need of healing.  And it was commingled with grief.)

That’s not what Paul’s talking about when he tells the Thessalonians they haven’t been destined for wrath.  It’s something more expansive.  They haven’t been relinquished to that state of life.  They haven’t been left in that horrible, frightening condition which would shape them.  That’s a word for us, also.  We haven’t been abandoned to hating and being hated.  We haven’t been given over to the cynicism which so often pervades.

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Instead, we have been destined for salvation through our Lord Jesus Christ.  The path of the god Dionysus, and Dionysus today, with its uncontrolled passion, its undisciplined hunger, is a life of slavery.  Salvation through Christ is liberation—it is freedom.

Having said all of that, there is grace.  Paul adds that the Lord “died for us, so that whether we are awake or asleep we may live with him” (v. 10).  There is provision for those still slumbering.  They haven’t been forsaken.  They are still pursued by the Hound of Heaven.  I, for one, am thankful the Hound is pursuing me!

On that note, the apostle congratulates them.  Continue to encourage one another and to build each other up.

This was probably Paul’s first letter, written in the early 50s.  He has already encouraged them, in that the expectation of the Lord’s return is very much in the forefront of their minds.  It has troubled them concerning those who have already died, those who have fallen asleep in the other way.  Paul assures them their dearly departed will also be with the Lord.

Back to that laundry list.  He wants them to pay special attention to some things.  Make sure you don’t forget these!  First, he reminds them to take care of those who “have charge of you in the Lord and admonish you”—those who would caution or advise you (v. 12).  Maybe Paul has been to places where that doesn’t happen!

Looking through that list, I want to pay special attention to verse 14: “And we urge you, beloved, to admonish the idlers, encourage the fainthearted, help the weak, be patient with all of them.”  I’m especially interested in his call to “admonish the idlers.”  The NIV says “those who are idle.”  Is he telling them to reprimand those who just lounge around?

It’s not that such behavior—or rather, lack of behavior—should be commended, but the Greek word (ἄτακτος, ataktos) expresses something other than simply being idle.  “Idle” is not a very good translation.  The New Jerusalem Bible speaks of those who are “undisciplined.”  The term ataktos means “disorderly,” “out of ranks.”  It refers to soldiers who have broken formation, who have fallen out of line.

John Wesley speaks in these terms: “Warn the disorderly—Them that stand, as it were, out of their rank in the spiritual warfare.”[1]

The expectation of the Lord’s return can be portrayed in a way that inspires dread.  I once read a caption that proclaimed, “The good news is Jesus is coming back.  The bad news is he’s really ticked off.”  (“Ticked off” is a euphemism for what it really said.)  Maybe the point is made.  Paul indeed desires to reassure them, and by extension, us.  The spirit of Dionysus is still with us, and yet, as we await the Lord’s coming, we have not been consigned to wrath or disorder.  Maybe we should say, “Go to sleep, Dionysus.”  Go to sleep, you who would have us lose ourselves in the moment.

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Friends, let us raise our heads and welcome the Lord who brings clarity and freedom.  Who knows, we might have a BC and AD experience!  It might happen when we don’t expect it, like a thief in the night.

 

[1] www.ccel.org/ccel/wesley/notes.i.xiv.vi.html


death shall have no dominion

“And death shall have no dominion. / Dead men naked they shall be one / With the man in the wind and the west moon; / When their bones are picked clean and the clean bones gone, / They shall have stars at elbow and foot; / Though they go mad they shall be sane, / Though they sink through the sea they shall rise again; / Though lovers be lost love shall not; / And death shall have no dominion.”

1 roThat is the first stanza of Dylan Thomas’ poem “And Death Shall Have no Dominion.”  As you might have guessed, it was inspired by Romans 6:9: “We know that Christ, being raised from the dead, will never die again; death no longer has dominion over him.”

Thomas speaks of bones being picked clean, sinking through the sea and rising again, lovers lost but not love itself.  After everything is said and done, death shall have no dominion.

(That poem has appeared in many places, such as in Steven Soderberg’s remake of the movie Solaris.  In one scene, we hear George Clooney reciting that same first stanza.  It was also featured in the show, Beauty and the Beast, starring Linda Hamilton and Ron Pearlman.)

We will revisit death’s having no dominion in a few minutes.

Chapter 6 begins, “What then are we to say?”  St. Paul’s asking a question about something, so let’s check out chapter 5.  Very, very briefly, he’s been talking about Adam and Christ.  Through Adam, sin entered the world.  Through Christ, grace has been extended.  And this isn’t a tiny drop of grace.  We read in 5:20, “where sin increased, grace abounded all the more.”  There is a superabundance of grace.  We are awash in grace.

So how do we answer Paul’s question?  “Should we continue in sin in order that grace may abound?” (v. 1).  Hey, that sounds like a plan!  Let’s pour on the sin, knowing a tsunami of grace is on the way.  If a little bit do good, a whole lot do better!  I imagine Paul would think about it for a moment, and say, “No way, José.”

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"Look, there's a tsunami!"  "That's nice. Who has the suntan lotion?"

Instead, the apostle asks, “How can we who died to sin go on living in it?  Do you not know that all of us who have been baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death?” (vv. 2-3).

Baptized into his death.  That is a serious way of looking at it.  And it’s also a quite visual way of “looking” at it.  That’s especially true for those of us who were baptized by immersion—going into the grave and being raised back to life.  Accordingly, I have a story of my own baptism.

On the evening of the 3rd of August in 1985, I had what I might call a mystical experience.  I was in college at the time.  I had been meditating on Isaiah 55:8-9.  “For my thoughts are not your thoughts, nor are your ways my ways, says the Lord.  For as the heavens are higher than the earth, so are my ways higher than your ways and my thoughts than your thoughts.”

I began to feel like I was being plunged into an ocean of love.  I was being baptized in love.  It was, as you might gather, a very powerful experience!

At the time, I did not go to church.  My mother, however, had begun attending an Assemblies of God church.  I told her I had this encounter with the Lord, and she said I needed to be baptized.  I really didn’t see the point in it.  What would it serve?  Didn’t God accept me as I am?  Her basic response was it was necessary to make that public profession of faith.

I eventually started attending church, though on a very sporadic basis.  Still, as the months went by, I began to sense baptism was for me.

So on a Sunday evening, the 3rd of August 1986, one year to the night I had my revelation of love, I stepped into the baptismal of the church, with its heated water.  There were two others who went before me: a boy about ten years old and an elderly woman, who upon being raised out of the water by our pastor, began speaking in tongues.

Then it was my turn.  Later on, after the service was over, I told my mother it felt like a huge weight had been lifted from me.  I could breathe.

[Someone is holding the shirt he wore during his baptism.]

3 roSo as I suggested a moment ago, I can relate to this business of dying with Christ and being raised back to life.  “We too might walk in newness of life” (v. 4).

“Though they sink through the sea they shall rise again.”

Paul says, “We know that our old self was crucified with him so that the body of sin might be destroyed, and we might no longer be enslaved to sin” (v. 6).

(By the way, if we read that bit about “our old self” being crucified with him in the King James language of “our old man,” the unfortunate question might be put to us, “Has your old man been crucified?”  We might wonder if they’re talking about a husband or a father.)

In any event, according to the apostle, we are no longer enslaved to sin.  We are not under its power.  We need not submit to its power.  But if we are really honest, sometimes we like that power!  When we’re presented with blessing and cursing, life and death, too often we go with the latter.  After all, in the hymn, “Love Divine, All Loves Excelling,” we sing the prayer, “Take away the love of sinning.”

I’m not sure when it happens, but at some point early in life, we discover manipulating people can be fun!

Something of which Paul assures us is “whoever has died is freed from sin” (v. 7).  That’s a good thing when what we’re considering is this matter of being crucified with Christ.  Of course, whoever dies is freed from a whole lot of stuff!

Paul continues, “But if we have died with Christ, we believe that we will also live with him.  We know that Christ, being raised from the dead, will never die again” (vv. 8-9).  And he finishes that thought in grand fashion: “death no longer has dominion over him.”

“And death shall have no dominion.”  If we have died to sin, what could that mean?

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Israel Kamudzandu, who teaches at St. Paul School of Theology in Kansas City, comments, “Christians must always remind themselves that our old self, our culture, our rights, our private spaces, and the desires of our flesh were crucified with Jesus Christ. Our daily living must demonstrate our newfound and grace-filled status in Christ.”[1]

Being from Zimbabwe, he puts it on a global scale.  “Sin is like a foreign domination in that it dehumanizes and reduces one to a victim position and some people die as victims because no one is there to rescue them…”

I guess the sentiment expressed by death having no dominion is especially meaningful for us in our strange new world.  It is especially poignant.

A couple of weeks ago, I spoke of how we’ve been given a reset button.  What do we do with it?  Are there new lessons to be learned?  Are there old lessons that need to be re-learned?  The coronavirus has given us a sort of pause, so maybe we can use it to reflect on all that life is.  Quite immediately for us, it is our own life.  How do we embrace life and reject death?

In times like these, time is something that can take on a sense of sameness, of uniformity, maybe even of monotony.  Schedules can go out the window.  For the past few weeks, I have felt like Friday was Saturday.  I’m not really sure why.  One thing I can say is that when I realize it is indeed Friday, I’m relieved I didn’t lose a day!

We can embrace life by keeping our minds active, keeping them challenged.  Take this time to learn a new language; develop your artistic side; read good books; do some writing; do more writing.  (I think I’m preaching to myself on that one.)

Is it too far-fetched to say, by not stretching ourselves, we’re embracing death?  Paul says to us, “So you also must consider yourselves dead to sin and alive to God in Christ Jesus” (v. 11).  We are called to claim our identity.  As those who have been buried with Christ and raised to new life, we are called to be ourselves.  I find that difficult, and I don’t think I’m alone in that.

Why is it so hard to be ourselves?

“And death shall have no dominion.”  Following from that, what does have dominion is shalom (שׁלוֺם).  The Hebrew term shalom means far more than what our paltry English word “peace” entails.  It is absolute well-being, perfect harmony, Heaven on Earth!  Shalom reaches to God, embraces the neighbor, permeates our politics, cares for creation.  We find shalom within ourselves.  If we take the pause I mentioned a moment ago, if we’re willing to listen, we hear that silent voice coming from within.

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We are called to lay aside the foolish facade the world imposes on us.  We learn to stop the incessant posturing, the soul-draining competition that leads to death.  We kill our spirits struggling to prove that we’re good enough, that we’re worthy, that we deserve love.  The one who has defeated death says, “I don’t care about that stuff!  I offer grace abundant, grace superabundant.”

The power of sin, the power of death, would plunge us into the water and hold us down.  We wouldn’t be able to resurface; we wouldn’t be able to see clearly.  We wouldn’t be able to see, even in those we are told to fear and loathe, the face of Jesus Christ.  We wouldn’t be able to see that his grace abounds.

Death shall have no dominion.

 

[1] www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=2052


two natures

What you see is the icon of Christ Pantocrator at Saint Catherine’s Monastery in the Sinai Peninsula.  It is also called the Christ of Sinai.  The word “Pantocrator” is Greek, and it means “almighty”—literally, “ruler of all.”

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There are plenty of details in the icon, with tons of commentary to explain it all, but the obvious feature is Jesus the “two faced.”  That’s not intended as an insult!  Reference has been made to the dual natures of Christ, human and deity.  Some speak of the side holding the Bible as divine (and stern!).  The other side, making the sign of peace, is tranquil and chill.  (I’m using proper theological language if you didn’t notice.)  Masculine and feminine aspects of Christ are also seen.

By the way, the image below reflects a mirror image of each side of his face.  (Sorry for the pun.)  It could be two different men.

A few years ago, something occurred to me about the image.  It seemed to me that the right side of his face—from our perspective—seems to have a droop about it.  I imagined a reason why.  Perhaps he had suffered a stroke or been struck with Bell’s palsy.  I renamed the icon, “Jesus the stroke victim.”  Again, I didn’t consider myself to be mocking this work.  If anything, I saw it as a sign of praise.

We are reminded of the resurrection body of Jesus, which still bore the wounds of the crucifixion.  There was no reason, apparently, for them to be erased.  There was no flawless, supermodel body.  Instead, there was one modeled to look like ours.  What a statement of solidarity and identification with human weakness!  There is no rebuke, but rather an act of glorification.

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We also have our own failings, our own vulnerabilities.  Perhaps this unprecedented time in which we find ourselves is one on a global scale, with its own host of maladies.  Might there be a fitting icon?  “Jesus the COVID-19 victim”?


invisible light

“It is universally agreed that the Emmaus story is a gem of literary art.”[1]  That’s a quote from Bogdan Bucur’s article, “Blinded by Invisible Light.”  (He teaches at Duquesne University in Pittsburgh.)

I think I would tend to agree with that.  Actually, the gospel of Luke itself is filled with gems of literary art.  There’s the Magnificat, the Song of Mary, in chapter 1 (vv. 46-55).  We have the parables of the Good Samaritan and the Prodigal Son (10:29-37 and 15:11-32).  We could come up with some other gemstones.

A couple of weeks ago on Easter Sunday, I said the celebration of it this year is muted.  This is certainly an Easter like none other.  Is it possible to miss some of the majesty?  The thing about majesty is sometimes it sneaks up right behind you.  The two disciples on their way to Emmaus find that out—though they don’t realize the majesty at first.

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{"The Walk to Emmaus" by Rowan LeCompte and Irene Matz LeCompte}

About that couple, they’re usually portrayed as two men.  Not everyone sees it that way.  Apparently, they live in the same house; it seems just as likely we’re dealing with a husband and wife.  In fact, in his gospel, John says “standing near the cross of Jesus were his mother, and his mother’s sister, Mary the wife of Clopas [also spelled as Cleopas], and Mary Magdalene” (19:25).

Maybe I’m mistaken.  Seriously, there’s no way someone’s wife would be written out of the story!  Perish the thought!

If it’s possible for us to miss the majesty, to not glimpse the glory, the same is true of our couple.  The scripture says, “While they were talking and discussing, Jesus himself came near and went with them, but their eyes were kept from recognizing him” (vv. 15-16).  There’s more on this point of not being able to recognize, not being able to see, but we’ll look at that in a moment.

The two of them are downcast, and Jesus wants to know why.  They’re surprised he hasn’t heard the bad news.  Cleopas says they’re dismayed because Jesus has been crucified.  They had such high expectations.  “But,” as verse 21 says, “we had hoped that he was the one to redeem Israel.”  We had hoped he would set Israel free.  We had hoped.

Jesus chides them, “Oh, how foolish you are, and how slow of heart to believe all that the prophets have declared!” (v. 25).  We’re told, “Then beginning with Moses and all the prophets, he interpreted to them the things about himself in all the scriptures” (v. 27).

That word for “interpreted” (διερμηνευω, diermēneuō) means more than to simply explain.  What Jesus does is to reframe, to re-imagine.  He takes the scriptures and pulls out deeper meanings.

An example of this is the parable of the Good Samaritan.  Someone asks Jesus how to achieve eternal life.  Jesus speaks of loving God and loving neighbor.  “But wanting to justify himself, he asked Jesus, ‘And who is my neighbor?’” (10:29).  Thus, we have the parable.  A poor fellow is robbed and beaten and left for dead.  A priest and a Levite see him and pass right by.  When the Samaritan sees him, he goes out of his way to care for him.  Jesus asks, “Which of these three, do you think, was a neighbor to the man who fell into the hands of the robbers?” (v. 36).

Jesus reframes, he re-imagines, the word “neighbor.”  A neighbor isn’t just a certain person.  You can make anyone a neighbor.  It’s a way of treating someone.

Returning to the idea of recognition, of perception, I imagine we’ve all failed to see something right in front of us.  When I was a kid and looking for a certain item that was hidden in plain sight, my mom would often say to me, “If it was a snake, it woulda bit you!”

2 lkIt’s hard to blame this couple for not seeing what (or who) is right in front of them.  Remember, the Bible says, “their eyes were kept from recognizing him” (v. 16).  There are all kinds of theories as to what that means.  Was there divine interference?  Were they not ready to see that level of glory, that level of (to use the word again) majesty?

Our friend Bogdan (who I mentioned at the beginning) says something like that about them.  As long as they think of Jesus as a prophet who failed to liberate Israel, “they remain unable to bear the brilliance of his glory.”[2]  They still need a transformation by the Spirit.  It’s the glory of the Lord that prevents them from seeing the glory of the Lord!  They are, in effect, blinded by the light.

Still, we can’t ignore what was going on within them.  This isn’t a walk in the park.  Their world has collapsed.  The bottom has dropped out.  Despair is threatening to overwhelm them.  Sadness has dulled their vision.

Maybe we can relate.  When we feel depressed, when it feels like the walls are closing in, our senses can become dulled.  It can be hard to see beauty.  It becomes difficult to have creative vision.  It might even be the case that smells aren’t as pleasant.  Maybe food doesn’t taste as good.

That can be true of us in this time.  Being cooped up in our houses, not being able to sit down in a restaurant, having to wear masks at the grocery store, the kids not attending school—it can be enough to drive anyone up the wall.  It can be enough to leave us dispirited.

So maybe we can relate to our friends on the road to Emmaus.

As they draw near their destination, Jesus is continuing on.  The day is nearly done, so they invite him to stay with them.  They offer him their hospitality.  “Please, come and join us for dinner.  We want you to spend the night.  You can continue your journey in the morning.”

He agrees.  And what happens at mealtime?  “When he was at the table with them, he took bread, blessed and broke it, and gave it to them” (v. 30).  That sounds familiar, doesn’t it?  The only thing missing is, “This is my body, broken for you.”

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What happens next is truly amazing and baffling.  “Then their eyes were opened, and they recognized him; and he vanished from their sight” (v. 31).  Their eyes are opened.  They recognize him.  Then he disappears.  That’s quite a miraculous act!  It’s in the breaking of the bread when the lights come on.  They realize who is dining with them.  They understand that they’re sitting at the table with their Lord.

That might be a tad difficult to understand, but it’s nothing compared with what’s coming up.  He vanished from their sight.  Wait.  What?

There are those who say Jesus was agile and quick enough to slip out without being noticed.  It seems that a resurrection body is quite athletic.  Maybe he diverted the disciples’ attention: something like, “Hey, what’s that over there?”  He points, then takes off.

He didn’t even ask to be excused from the dinner table!

The word for “vanished” or “disappeared” is an interesting one.[3]  Its root meaning is “made invisible.”  William Loader picks up on this when he speaks of the “surreality of the invisible man.”[4]  And we go back to the title of Bucur’s article, “Blinded by Invisible Light.”

So, after Jesus’ disappearing act, the pair engage in reflection.  Here’s another place where Luke displays his use of powerful, poetic language.  “They said to each other, ‘Were not our hearts burning within us while he was talking to us on the road, while he was opening the scriptures to us?’” (v. 32).  Were not our hearts burning within us?  The Revised English Bible reads, “Were not our hearts on fire?”

What an awesome experience.

Cleopas (and possibly Mary?) decide to make an evening journey back to Jerusalem.  They go to see the other disciples, who are already overjoyed, since they also know that the Lord has risen from the dead.  “Then they told what had happened on the road, and how he had been made known to them in the breaking of the bread” (v. 35).

From ancient times, the breaking of bread has been a time of welcoming, an act of hospitality.  It is a sign of community.  On the flip side, the refusal to share a meal with someone is seen as an insult.  It is inhospitable; it is a rejection of community.

Earlier, I suggested Jesus’ breaking of the bread is reminiscent of what we do in the sacrament of the Lord’s Supper, the Eucharist.  It also is an act of welcoming, of hospitality; it is a sign of community.  This fits with our understanding of the sacrament.  Our Book of Order says this about it: “When we gather at the Lord’s Supper the Spirit draws us into Christ’s presence and unites with the Church in every time and place.  We join with all the faithful in heaven and on earth in offering thanksgiving to the triune God” (W-3.0409).

We are united.  We are joined.  It truly is a holy communion.

As it was with those early disciples, so it is today.  In the breaking of the bread, and the sharing of the cup, Jesus is made known.  There is that invisible light, that invisible energy, that Spirit of love who unites us.

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Sometimes we miss the majesty, the glory.  We need the scriptures to be opened.  We need our minds to be opened.  We need our hearts to burn.  We need them to be on fire.  We need the Lord to be revealed to us—to be revealed to us again and again.

May the invisible light of Christ guide us on our resurrection journey.

 

[1] Bogdan Bucur, “Blinded by Invisible Light: Revisiting the Emmaus Story (Luke 13:13-35)” Ephemerides theologicae Lovanienses, 90:4 (Dec 2014) 685.

[2] Bucur, 694.

[3] αφαντος, aphantos

[4] wwwstaff.murdoch.edu.au/~loader/MtEaster3.htm


rich wounds, yet visible above

As you might have guessed, I have taken my title from the hymn, “Crown Him with Many Crowns.”  It’s part of the line, “Crown him with many crowns / Behold his hands and side / Rich wounds, yet visible above / In beauty glorified.”  That hymn isn’t usually sung on Easter, but there’s no law saying we can’t!

We’ll get to those rich wounds in a moment.

Our celebration of Easter this year is somewhat muted.  For many it is a great deal muted.  I’ve heard of some churches who plan to wait on celebrating Easter until they can return to their sanctuaries.  I suppose I would remind us that every Sunday, being the Lord’s Day, is a “little Easter.”  There are Christians all over the world who don’t have the luxury of a building on any Sunday.  My guess is they are celebrating the resurrection of our Lord today.

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[He Qi, "Easter Morning"]

And unfortunately, there are still some churches who are doing business as usual.  Of course, if they keep doing that, my prediction is they will very soon not be doing any business at all!

Having said all that, I am well aware of how we, and the rest of the human race, are exploring uncharted territory, to use a considerable understatement.

And sadly, the coronavirus has struck our church family.

If the planet Earth itself was ever in need of resurrection, this is the time.

Jesus is risen from the dead.  Matthew tells us, “After the sabbath, as the first day of the week was dawning, Mary Magdalene and the other Mary went to see the tomb” (28:1).  They were in for the surprise of their lives.

There is the utter disbelief of his friends, not to mention his enemies.  Seriously, it was just too insane.  Still, the women were quicker to accept it than the men were.  In his version, Luke tells us the men’s reaction to the women’s report.  “But these words seemed to them an idle tale, and they did not believe them” (24:11).

I don’t know about you, but I for one am glad that men disbelieving women is a thing of the past!

To quickly summarize Matthew 28: the women find the stone blocking the tomb has been rolled away.  The guards are quaking in their boots.  An angel tells the women to go and report what they saw, but on the way, Jesus appears to them.  When the priests hear the story, they engineer a coverup.  The disciples go to Galilee and meet the risen Jesus.  He gives them what has come to be known as the Great Commission.

“All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me.  Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything that I have commanded you.  And remember, I am with you always, to the end of the age” (vv. 18-20).

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A scripture passage often used for funerals is 1 Corinthians 15, Paul’s chapter on the resurrection.  A question that gets him started is this: “Now if Christ is proclaimed as raised from the dead, how can some of you say there is no resurrection of the dead?” (v. 12).  Later he deals with the questions, “How are the dead raised?  With what kind of body do they come?” (v. 35).

How do we describe the resurrection body?  Paul says that “this perishable body must put on imperishability, and this mortal body must put on immortality” (v. 53).  I’ll be honest: that really doesn’t help me much!  I have trouble envisioning what that looks like.

Someone who could probably identify with that is Thomas, the so-called “doubting Thomas.”  He wasn’t there when the risen Jesus appeared to his friends.  They say he showed them his hands and side—the hands and side pierced with nail and spear.  He doesn’t believe them, but a week later he does.  Jesus again appears to them, and he shows Thomas that he is real.

Through the ages, people have painted Thomas, not so much as a bad guy, but one who needs a major faith adjustment!  Is it possible that the idea of a resurrected body (as difficult as that is to swallow) still bearing wounds is even more of a stretch?  Here’s where we return to that “rich wounds, yet visible above” business.

The resurrection body of Jesus, who defeated death and the grave, still has scars!  I find that remarkable.  At first thought, we might expect his body, risen from the dead, to be in immaculate condition.  Does God do things by half-measures?  Why not have complete healing?

Perhaps the resurrection body of Jesus models what it means to be scarred.  Maybe it was a way of showing the disciples that it really was him.  They weren’t encountering a ghost; they weren’t having a vision.  So his wounds were a method of identification.

But surely it was much more than that.  In fact, the scriptures give testimony to that.  In 1 Peter 2, we are told, “He himself bore our sins in his body on the cross, so that, free from sins, we might live for righteousness; by his wounds you have been healed” (v. 24).  By his wounds you have been healed.  Jesus heals by taking on our infirmity.

Back to the idea of an immaculate, a flawless body—God not employing half-measures.  What better way to identify with we humans, to be plunged into human flesh, than to honor it?  Jesus, more than anyone else, understood what it meant to be “the man of sorrows.”  By retaining the scars, Jesus honors the depth of what it means to be human.  After all, he was human!

There has been much discussion about getting back to normal (post pandemic) and how long it will take before it happens.  I don’t believe it will ever happen.  If we somehow pretend to go back to the way things were, we’ll be fooling ourselves.  These events are happening; there’s nothing we can do to change it.  The question will be if we learn from this—if we allow the Spirit to teach us.

Maybe you’ve seen images from around the world what the reduced use of pollution-causing activities has done.  I saw a report on how, in northern India, the reduction of pollution has enabled residents to see the Himalayas, 200 kilometers away (about 125 miles).[1]  Someone commented, “We can see the snow-covered mountains clearly from our roofs.  And not just that, stars are visible at night.  I have never seen anything like this in recent times.”

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And it’s only taken a worldwide disaster to get it done!

Shelly Rambo, who teaches at Boston University School of Theology, has written extensively on trauma.  Something she says about trauma is that it marks “a ‘new normal’ in that there is no possibility of the person returning to who they were before.  A radical break has occurred between the old self and the new one.”[2]  The challenge for one who’s undergone trauma is how to “[integrate] the experience into their life.”  That’s true for us all.  That’s true for us as the church.

We see many reactions to this unwelcome viral visitor, just as we do with other calamities.  One of the most common is one I think we all have had, in one way or another.  We believe God has sent the disease or the storm or the accident or whatever.  Is it God’s will?  Is it a test?  Is it a punishment?  Is it a cruel cosmic joke?

(For what it’s worth, I don’t believe any of those things.  However, I do believe we can choose to believe those things.)

Regardless of what we believe, perhaps the more important point is asking how that belief affects us.  How does it affect our behavior?  How does it affect our faith?  Rambo says we can see Jesus’ wounds as “not only as marks of death but as ways of marking life forward.”

Our scars do not define us.  We all bear scars, be they visible or invisible.

Yes, the scars can be visible.  They might be scars from accidents or surgery.  Maybe we’ve been harmed by others.  Maybe we have harmed ourselves.

And yes, the scars can be invisible.  They might be the result of a constant drumbeat of insults, of ridicule.  Maybe we’ve been rejected because of the way we were born.  Scars can be left—left because of self-deprecation, self-doubt, self-hatred.

4 mtBut that takes us back to the glorious nature of this day.  Rich wounds, yet visible above—in all the ways “above” can mean.  In beauty glorified.  Jesus Christ looks at us, and he sees in our wounds something beautiful.  Our scars are beautiful.

[Even this guy’s scars are beautiful?]

The good news of this Resurrection Day is that the Holy Spirit empowers us as we mark our life forward.  We testify today we as the body of Christ, though wounded we may be, are empowered to say the devil, the grave, that which would harm us, does not have the last word.  Our risen Lord journeys with us as we declare with a holy boldness:

“Death has been swallowed up in victory.  Where, O death, is your victory?  Where, O death, is your sting?”

“But thanks be to God, who gives us the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ” (1 Co 15:54-55, 57).

 

[1] www.sbs.com.au/language/english/audio/himalayas-visible-for-first-time-in-30-years-as-pollution-levels-in-india-drop

[2] www.christiancentury.org/article/critical-essay/how-christian-theology-and-practice-are-being-shaped-trauma-studies


vital virus?

“Six years you shall sow your field, and six years you shall prune your vineyard, and gather in their yield; but in the seventh year there shall be a sabbath of complete rest for the land, a sabbath for the Lord: you shall not sow your field or prune your vineyard.  You shall not reap the aftergrowth of your harvest or gather the grapes of your unpruned vine: it shall be a year of complete rest for the land.” (Leviticus 25:3-5)

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It seems that, with caring for the earth, there was a guarantee it would still produce what people needed for life.  “You may eat what the land yields during its sabbath.”  Such was the sabbatical year.  Leviticus 25:8-55 outlines an early version of land reform.  It was the year of jubilee.  It was the sabbath after the fiftieth year (7 years times 7 years).  Debts were to be forgiven.  Slaves were to be freed.  And most of all, land that was sold was to revert back to the original owners.

In her article, “When Earth Demands Sabbath: Learning from the Coronavirus Pandemic,” Leah Schade notes, “In the 50th year they were commanded to take care of each other.  No interest charged on debts. No price-gouging. ‘If any of your kin fall into difficulty and become dependent on you, you shall support them,’ (25:35).  The working poor are to be released from their debts.  Everyone is set free, including the very Earth itself.”

What is the justification for this reordering of priorities?  “The land shall not be sold in perpetuity, for the land is mine; with me you are but aliens and tenants” (v. 23).  Here is God’s message to us:  The land belongs to me.  The earth belongs to me.  You are the caretakers.

3 blogIn my Old Testament classes at Bible college and seminary, when the year of jubilee was discussed, there seemed to be a consensus that it was never observed.  Maybe it was felt that God couldn’t be trusted.  Maybe there was a fear about what it would do to the economy!

It’s interesting that this month marks the 50th year after the inauguration of Earth Day in 1970.  What kind of jubilee could it be?

The coronavirus is forcing an economic slowdown.  This slowdown has had dire effects, leaving millions around the world jobless.  And yet, it is not without any beneficial qualities.  It’s been observed that, in some places, pollution levels are falling.

For a long time, I’ve wondered about the measure of economic health as being growth of the economy.  A faster rate of growth is better than a slower one.  What is “growth”?  Is it increasing our use of the earth’s resources?  Is it, contrary to the vision of the sabbatical year, not allowing the land to recover—not allowing it to breathe?

2 blogSchade reflects on this mania of growth.  “In the human body, cells that grow without rest, consume all surrounding resources, and take over the system are called ‘malignant’ because they lead to death.  The kind of growth envisioned by our consumerist culture is, indeed, leading to death.  Whether it’s a microscopic virus that erupts when humans refuse to respect the wildness of land or creatures, or monster storms super-pumped by global warming that churn across the land, the results are catastrophic in biblical proportions.”  Runaway growth of human cells is called cancer.

4 blogWe are literally sickening our planet.  We have given it scars.  It’s almost like we need life to emerge from death!

A lesson from the Easter event is that the one who is the resurrection still bears scars.  As the hymn says, “Rich wounds, yet visible above, in beauty glorified.”  Scars do not prevent thriving—and thriving in a way never believed possible.

The year of jubilee is about healing.  Does it take a virus to bring it about?


more than yes

I’ve sometimes said something that even I think is strange.  It has to do with being sick.  It’s happened when I’ve heard people talk about weight loss as a result of an illness.  Understand, I’m not referring to serious, life-threatening weight loss; I’m not talking about wasting away.  It’s just a question of taking off some pounds.  I’ve remarked (jokingly) a good way to trim the fat is to get sick.  Although, I add, it’s not the preferred method!

Another quirky comment deals with an almost abnormal (okay, let’s call it abnormal) satisfaction.  It’s possible in a weird way to enjoy being sick, or at least, not to hate it too much.  Again, I’m not talking about anything severe or really painful.  It’s simply that when one is under the weather, it’s possible to appreciate the days off.  And depending on how big a baby one is, it’s nice if you have someone to wait on you.  (Not that I would know anything about that!)

1 jn 5Of course, there can be many problems with that, aside from being unnecessarily needy on said person!  One big problem would be getting used to being sick or injured.  A problem would be allowing it to define us.  You know, being the survivor of brain cancer who takes anti-seizure medication, whose condition is exacerbated by lack of sleep.  (Again, not that I would know anything about that!)

[Speaking of brain cancer survivors, there’s a woman named Joan Reilly who has her own quirky story.  She had the same kind of cancer as mine, oligodendroglioma.  Part of her story is told in her dry-wit cartoon, “What My Brain Tumor Taught Me about Anxiety.”[1]]

Considering the questionable appreciation of—or reliance on—sickness, there’s a fellow some might say is the embodiment of it.  But first, we need to set the stage.

The gospel reading in John 5 begins by saying, “After this.”  We’re starting right after Jesus has healed the son of a royal official, a son who was at death’s door.  Now we see Jesus entering Jerusalem, during “a festival of the Jews” (v. 1).  It’s not clear which festival is intended.

I want to digress for a moment on something that has led to oppression and death: which is the use of the word “Jews” in the gospel of John.  Without going into great detail, the context of John’s gospel is very important.  “Jews” can refer to the Jewish officials, and/or possibly to the Jewish people who were at that time persecuting the church.

A grievous misunderstanding of the word’s use has had a horrific effect down through the centuries.  Christians have inflicted all manner of cruelty against Jews.  It’s even led to the hateful nickname, “Christ killers.”  Friends, that is not the way to read the gospel according to St. John!

Moving on, we come to a pool known for its healing qualities called Beth-zatha, or Bethesda.  (Of course, we know Bethesda, Maryland as the home of the Walter Reed Medical Center and the National Institutes of Health.)  This pool attracts people with all manner of illnesses.  One wonders if there aren’t those with an entrepreneurial spirit traveling though the villages selling containers filled with the therapeutic elixir of Bethesda!

2 jn 5What is the source of the water’s power?  Legend has it that an angel now and then goes and stirs up the water, and the first one in gets healed.  Anyway, that’s what part of verse 3 and all of verse 4 say.  But there’s almost universal consensus those words were added on later.

Okay, the stage is set.  The first actor, Jesus, is already present.  The other actor, a poor soul who we’re told has been sick for thirty-eight years, is found lying on the ground among some other unfortunate ones.  Thirty-eight years is a massive chunk of someone’s life.  When you figure in life expectancy in those days, it’s likely this fellow has known nothing but sickness.

When Jesus sees the man, he asks him a question that, on the face of it, seems to have an obvious answer.  It’s almost like asking, “Is the sky blue?”  He makes the inquiry, “Do you want to be made well?”  Do you no longer want to be sick?  Are you tired of lying around here?

We might expect the sick man to respond, “Yes, yes, yes!”  What does he say?  He begins, “I have no one to put me into the pool when the water is stirred up.”  And because of that, “while I am making my way, someone else steps down ahead of me” (v. 7).  It’s not the straight answer we might imagine.  And as you might also imagine, there have been quite a few takes on his reply.

A common viewpoint goes back to what I said earlier about a reliance (and even appreciation, if possible?) on being sick.

Raymond Brown is somewhat less than charitable in his assessment.  He notes about the man, “His crotchety grumbling about the ‘whippersnappers’ who outrace him to the water betrays a chronic inability to seize opportunity, a trait reflected again in his oblique response to Jesus’ offer of a cure.”[2]  He says our poor fellow demonstrates a quality of “real dullness.”

Without hurling insults at the sick man, can we get a sense of him saying something like, “Can I think about it and get back to you?  I’m not sure I’m ready to make that commitment yet.”

I think I can understand his reluctance.  He’s lived with this illness for a very long time.  As I suggested earlier, is it possible he’s let it define him?

In this congregation, we are blessed to have several people who, in one way or another, have experience in the medical field.  Maybe I’m the only one who’s ever heard this, but I have heard comments (not very positive ones!) about people being referred to as “the appendectomy in room 203,” or “the head trauma in 315.”  Again, I don’t know if anyone here has encountered that.  I’m sure it’s a necessary shorthand, so to speak.  It would be a bit of a mouthful to say, “James Moore, the fellow in 203 who had an appendectomy.”  But maybe we can see just a tiny example of being identified with one’s ailment.

So maybe our friend at Bethesda has in some way become comfortable with his condition.  Now he has the opportunity to leave his comfort zone.

3 jn 5

I wonder, how often has Jesus asked me to leave my comfort zone?  How many times have I said, “Can I think about it and get back to you?  I’m not sure I’m ready to make that commitment yet.”  How many times have all of us decided against leaving our comfort zone?  I suppose there’s a good reason for it to be called our “comfort zone”!

Leaving our comfort zone forces us to move forward and be responsible in a way like never before.

In his article, “Courage to be Whole,” Kyle Childress includes the quote, “if it is hell to be guilty, it’s certainly scarier to be responsible—response-able—able to respond to God’s call, able to respond to the word and love of Jesus.”[3]  I’ve found it’s easy to talk about something, but not as easy to actually do it.

He adds, “We know that to get up and follow Jesus will involve us in people’s lives in ways we’re not sure we want, because to be whole means to be re-membered, re-connected with God and with God’s people and God’s creation.  No more isolation.  No more living my own private life where no one bothers me.  To be whole means to get off of the couch and get involved.”

So far, we’ve looked at the fellow as reluctant to receive healing.  Still, as I said, there’s more than one way to consider his answer to Jesus.  Remember, he says, “Sir, I have no one to put me into the pool.”  I have no one.  Is that his plaintive cry?

Brian Stoffregen speaks of an alternate idea of healing.  It has to do with cultural and social connection.  “The man in our text has no one to put him in the water when it is stirring.  He has no friends.  He has no family.  There is no one to help him.”[4]  It looks like he’s been shunted aside, basically forgotten.  For him, healing would not only be physical, but it would help restore those social connections without which one might exist, but not really live.

It’s somewhat analogous to people who live on the street.  When we lived in Philadelphia, it was a not uncommon event to encounter them.  Even here in Auburn, there are more homeless people than we might imagine.

After all that, what does Jesus do?  He says, “Stand up, take your mat and walk” (v. 8).  And that’s what the sick man does.  Jesus simply tells the man what to do.

It’s been about twenty years since the movie, The Matrix, came out.  For those who’ve never seen the movie, very quickly it’s about a computer hacker named Neo (played by Keanu Reeves) who learns about the nature of his reality, which is that he’s living in an illusion generated by sentient and malicious computer programs.  A group of people led by Morpheus (played by Laurence Fishburne) help him break free of the illusion and see the world as it really is.

4 jn 5

They teach him to live in the real world, part of which involves training in various fighting techniques.  They do this in a simulation.  Neo is not making any progress.  An exasperated Morpheus scolds him, “What are you waiting for?  You’re faster than this.  Don’t think you are, know you are.  Come on.  Stop trying to hit me and hit me.”

I mention this because sometimes we get trapped in our thinking.  (Actually, it’s much more than “sometimes.”)  I wonder if something like that is going on with Jesus and the sick man.  What are you waiting for?  Jesus wants to cut through the man’s explanations—and even his misfortunes—and just tell him, and show him, what to do.  Jesus lets him know he needs more than yes.  Just do it.  (And again, am I saying something without actually doing it?)

At the end of verse 9, a new paragraph begins with the words, “Now that day was a sabbath.”  We’re moving on to the story at large, which is Jesus’ violation of the sabbath rules.  That is, the rules the religious leaders follow and teach the people.  The point isn’t his healing of the man but his command to take his mat and carry it.  Carrying his mat on the sabbath constitutes working on the sabbath.  It is forbidden!

Verse 10 says, “the Jews said to the man who had been cured, ‘It is the sabbath; it is not lawful for you to carry your mat.’”  (Remember what I said earlier about the use of the word “Jews.”)

With their use of the understanding of sabbath they would hinder the man.  They would hinder him from experiencing God, from experiencing the power of the Holy Spirit.  Elsewhere, Jesus says, “The sabbath was made for humankind, and not humankind for the sabbath” (Mk 2:27).  The sabbath was made for us; we were not made for the sabbath.

I wonder: what rules, what guidelines do we have—what do we impose—that hinders others (and ourselves) from fully experiencing God?  What walls do we build in the attempt to prevent the saving and empowering grace of Jesus Christ from reaching certain others?  How often do we mimic the prophet Jonah’s attitude toward the people of Nineveh, saying, “I don’t want them forgiven!”

We are nearing the end of the Easter season.  Is there anything in us that has died and needs resurrection?  Or at least, is there anything in us that needs healing?  I think I’m safe in saying yes to both of those.  But we are not alone.  We have a Lord who directs us—who carries us, if need be—into those stirring, healing waters.

5 jn 5

And guess what?  That healing doesn’t come to us all by our lonesome.  It comes in the connection that is community.  It comes in the connection that is this congregation.  It comes in the connection that sends us beyond these walls.  It comes in the connection that bids us to “go forth in peace,” to be the peace and to share the peace.  It bids us “to love and serve the Lord,” to love our neighbor more than any rules that would hinder.  We serve the Lord, who reminds us there’s plenty of water in the healing, life-giving pool.

 

[1] medium.com/spiralbound/what-my-brain-tumor-taught-me-about-anxiety-513113356d68

[2] Raymond E. Brown, The Gospel According to John, I-XII (Garden City, NY: Doubleday & Company, 1966), 209.

[3] www.ekklesiaproject.org/blog/2010/05/courage-to-be-whole

[4] www.crossmarks.com/brian/john5x1.htm


crafting another way

When Banu and I were at seminary, there were three floors in the main building set aside for residence.  We lived on the third floor (mind you, in separate rooms before getting married!).  Up on the fourth floor, there were a number of students from India.  Constantly emanating from the community kitchen was the unmistakable scent of curry.  I think the aroma had seeped into every counter and shelf.  That strong smell would waft up and down the hallway.

Ac 1

When you live with people from all over the world, you learn about a lot of different cultures.  And that could mean learning to appreciate—or at least to tolerate—the smell of curry, whether you like it or not!  (By the way, I do like curry—just not a whole lot of it at once!)

Try not to salivate too much, because I’ll be returning to the subject of food in a few minutes!

Speaking of different cultures, Luke, the author of the book of Acts, mentions a variety of them, as he and his friends travel around the Roman Empire.

In today’s reading, we hear about Tabitha, who lives in Joppa (modern day Tel Aviv).  He calls her “a disciple” (v. 36).  It’s the only time in the Bible that the Greek word for “female disciple” is used (μαθητρια, mathētria).

We’re introduced to her while the apostle Peter is in Lydda, a nearby town.  While he’s there, Tabitha dies.  Knowing that he’s in the neighborhood, some people send word, giving him the sad news.

Luke makes a point of giving us her name, which means “gazelle,” in both Aramaic (Tabitha), and in Greek (Dorcas).  Luke’s the only New Testament writer who is a Gentile.  He has life experience in bridging the gap between Jew and Gentile.

Ac 2

[“St. Tabitha” by reinkat]

Tabitha might be the same way.  One idea is that this woman with two names has, in her ministry, worked with people from all kinds of backgrounds.  She’s a “cultural hybrid.”  She’s at home in her own culture, but also in the cultures of the people around her.[1]

In other words, she has taken the time to expand her identity.  She can relate to many different people.  And she has done this in a loving way.  That’s why, as we see in verse 39, after Peter shows up, “All the widows stood beside him, weeping and showing tunics and other clothing that Dorcas had made while she was with them.”

We’re told that “Peter put all of [the widows] outside and knelt down and prayed.  He turned to the body and said, ‘Tabitha, get up.’  Then she opened her eyes, and seeing Peter, she sat up” (v. 40).

As you can see, the lectionary appoints this text for the season of Easter.  (Which makes sense, with all of this rising from the dead business.)  Because of that, it’s been said “wherever the power of death is overcome by the power of resurrected life, we see again the power of God alive in God’s world.”[2]  In raising Tabitha, Peter is showing—and he himself is being shown—how the Lord is crafting another way, a new way.

I use that word “crafting” quite deliberately.  It speaks to the sense of art and beauty that we see.  Tabitha crafted wonderful garments to share with others who both admired and needed them.

The Acts of the Apostles, according to some people, should be called the “Acts of the Holy Spirit.”  That wouldn’t be a bad name!  The Spirit is evident in what the young church is doing, in both success and failure.  The Spirit is certainly evident in the raising of Tabitha, but even more importantly, the Spirit is evident in the beauty that is her life—and also in ours.

Ac 3Aside from the drama and spectacle (raising the dead, speaking in tongues, etc.), the power of the Spirit is seen in the halting, stumbling efforts that this community of people from various backgrounds demonstrates in their life together.  Jürgen Moltmann calls them “the Pentecost community,” and he says they “always have ‘more than enough.’”[3]

Why is that?  “Because the power of the resurrection and the Spirit of fellowship have liberated them from the fear of death and from anxiety about life.  If God is for us, if God is in our midst, between each and all of us, then there is no longer any want, in any sector of life…”  [The Lord is my shepherd; I shall not want.]

“That is the message of the Pentecost community in Jerusalem, which made so many rich.  And that is their message to us as well.”

One of the amazing things about the Holy Spirit is that there is always more than enough.  Can we trust that?  Can we trust the call and receive the courage it takes to be a Pentecost community?  So often, we operate from a mentality of scarcity, and it affects everything we do.  We miss out on abundance of Spirit, generosity of Spirit.  We miss out on celebration of Spirit.

Luke makes a point about this at the end of our passage.  I like the way he closes the chapter.  After Tabitha is raised, just as in Lydda, celebrations begin.  Hear verse 42: “This became known throughout Joppa, and many believed in the Lord.”  For sure, that’s a cause for celebration.  Do we honestly think he’s talking about a bunch of folks with long, grim faces?

Ac 4Then, seemingly out of the blue, Luke ends the chapter by tossing this in about Peter: “Meanwhile he stayed in Joppa for some time with a certain Simon, a tanner” (v. 43).  What’s going on with that?  Why should we care about his lodging accommodations?  Did his trip advisor screw up the itinerary?  Maybe a one-star rating is in order!

No, I think we can see a bit of another, a new direction of ministry.

As a tanner, one who makes leather, Simon is engaged in an unclean line of work.  That’s “unclean” in a literal sense.  Handling dead animals all day tends to make one dirty and stinky.  I imagine some of you know more about tanning than I do—which isn’t much!  It’s likely he would also be ritually unclean.  That is, he would be ritually impure, unable to worship in a proper, acceptable way.

So what might seem to be Luke’s casually throwing in a random comment turns out to be anything but random.  Peter, quite knowingly, stays in an unclean place.  Peter should be disgusted by Simon the tanner, with his filthy, stinky job.  But Peter sees Simon as more than a tanner; he recognizes him as a brother in Christ.  It hasn’t been an easy transition.  To move beyond what he’s been taught his entire life doesn’t come without effort and difficulty.

And it’s while he’s staying with Simon that he has a vision of God ringing the dinner bell, saying, “Come and get it!”  (I told you I’d get back to food.)  Hmm, so what’s on the menu?  Critters that fly around; critters that are creepy and crawly; critters that root around in the dirt.  In other words: delicious.  But then we have that ritually unclean business.

So Peter’s going nuts, breaking laws right and left.  But some laws should be broken.

It’s probably easy for us to dismiss ritual purity laws when it comes to stuff like food.  What about rules that say you can’t associate with certain kinds of people?  And you better not stay at their house!  Seriously people, in today’s society, we have to be vigilant against the transmission of cooties.  There’s a good reason for these guidelines.

Ac 5

In reality, there can be a real problem with codes of purity.  The way they exclude and separate people becomes unjust and hard-hearted.  And in the book of Acts, that painful truth slowly dawns on Peter and his friends.  In the next chapter, when he is called to visit Cornelius, the centurion, Peter says, “You yourselves know that it is unlawful for a Jew to associate with or to visit a Gentile; but God has shown me that I should not call anyone profane or unclean” (10:28).

What purity codes do we enforce?  In what ways do set up rules to keep people away?  How do we shun people, thinking that in doing so, we are serving God, even defending God?

Banu has noted, “I am always amazed about the churches where the main mission statement lists these words—‘Welcoming, friendly congregation…’  Then one wonders why nobody really pays any attention to the words.”  I’ve wondered about that myself.  Are they welcoming, regardless of socio-economic, sexual, racial, political, athletic, culinary orientation?

Peter and his friends, including the risen Tabitha, are learning to allow the Holy Spirit to craft a new way for them.  They are learning to allow the Holy Spirit to craft them into something beautiful.

Even though they are trying to follow where the Spirit leads, it is still quite unsettling to stay with the process and not rush through it.  Sometimes, staying with the process can seem tedious, maybe even painful.

Our prayer is to work towards paying attention to the movement of the Spirit.  We want an environment in which the wondrous promises of God will continue to be realized.  At times the journey of transition is arduous; its tasks may seem tiresome.  And if we learn anything from Peter staying with Simon the tanner, it might even be stinky!

Still, if we think of the Spirit as the master artist, and ourselves as the ones being crafted, again, it’s not a good idea to rush the job.  When we hinder or resist the movement of the Spirit in our lives and among each other, we rob ourselves, as well as the world around us, of the full expression of what we can be.

Ac 6

We are crafted to face the truth about ourselves, no matter how beautiful that might be!

 

[1] www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=1625

[2] www.patheos.com/Progressive-Christian/Living-Power-John-Holbert-04-15-2013.html

[3] Jürgen Moltmann, The Power of the Powerless (San Francisco:  Harper and Row, 1983), 131.