31 March 2013

Beyond Belief

John 1: 1-18 & John 20: 1-24

Resurrection of the Lord/ 31st March 2013

In John’s Gospel: seeing is believing.  It’s there at the beginning, “And the Word became flesh and lived among us, and we have seen his glory, …full of grace and truth” (John 1:14).  And did you notice all the references to seeing in his resurrection account?  The drama oscillates from clear vision to obscured vision to no vision at all. Mary Magdalene arrived in the dark, before light, and “saw that the stone had been removed from the tomb” (20:1).  But she didn’t see what she expected to see. She told the disciples, “I can’t find him.”  Peter and the other disciple went to the tomb.  The other disciple outran Peter, he “bent down to look in and saw the linen wrappings lying there” (20:5).  Peter went in, “He saw the linen wrappings lying there,…” (20:6). Then the other one went into the tomb, “and he saw and believed” (20:8).  Mary was left there alone, weeping, still searching.  “She bent over to look into the tomb,” John tells us, and then “she saw two angels in white” (20:11-12).  She explained why she’s weeping.   Then, as she spoke “she turned around and saw Jesus standing there” (20:14), but didn’t recognize him. He said her name and she began to see. When she heard her name she began to see (20:15-16).  She received a vision and returned to the disciples with something to say – something the other two might have seen had they bothered to stay on the scene long enough, instead of running off and leaving her in a cemetery! – so she returned and exclaimed, “I have seen the Lord!” (20:18).

            The sightings continued into the evening.  Jesus walked through walls, behind doors locked in fear, and stood among them and said, “‘Peace be with you.’  After he said this, he showed them his hands and side.  Then the disciples rejoiced when they saw the Lord” (20:19b-20).  Poor old Thomas showed up a little late for the party.  The “other disciples told him, ‘We have seen the Lord’” (20:25).  And then we have the famous words from Thomas, Patron Saint of Doubters, “Unless I see the mark of the nails in his hands, and put my finger in the mark of the nails and my hand in his side, I will not believe” (20:25).  A week later Jesus returns – that must have been a very long week for Thomas.  Word got back to Jesus about what Thomas said.  And then we have Jesus’ famous lines, “Do not doubt, but believe. …Have you believed because you have seen me?  Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have come to believe” (20:29).

            Seeing.  Not-seeing.  Believing.  Doubting.  The narrative is full of tension.  Of course there’s a little of Thomas in all of us, full of doubt in a skeptical, cynical age. We’re always looking for proof, for evidence.  People of faith sometimes use Jesus’ words to Thomas as an easy way out.  We’re told that we’re blessed if we have not seen.  Just believe. That is, we who are very late to the party, we don’t have to worry about seeing, we don’t need evidence, we don’t need to put our hands in his side, we’re just expected to believe.  We’ve come to assume that belief is what matters.  The Church invites us to believe.  Just believe.  Believe these things about Jesus and then one becomes a Christian:     
             Son of God.  Check. 
            Fully God, fully human.  Check. 
            Healer, miracle worker.  Check. 
            Preacher, prophet, teacher.  Check
            Died on the cross because of human sin.  Check. 
            Raised three days later.  Check.
            Ascended to heaven, coming again.  Check. 
            I’m a Christian.  I believe.

            But do you know what?  
            Belief didn’t roll that stone away. 
            Belief didn’t crack open the tomb. 
            Belief didn’t send Mary running to find the others. 
            Belief didn’t confront Peter and the nameless disciple. 
            It wasn’t belief that called Mary by name. 
            It wasn’t belief she heard calling her name. 
            It wasn’t belief that stood within their walls of fear.
            And it wasn’t belief that breathed on them and said, “Peace with you.” 

            Not belief.  Experience.  Not ideas and theories and proof.  An experience of the Holy, an experience that overwhelmed them and grabbed them, which startled and amazed them, which shattered all of their assumptions about reality, and changed their lives.[1] That’s an encounter that shakes our foundations, changes the course of our lives, that leaves us never the same again, that grants us a new future, a new horizon, and then calls us, moves us, sends us toward that horizon, that new day, out of the old and into a new world as different people.  That’s what resurrection looks like, feels like.

            Experience is what counts.  Without it all we have are empty, hollow, lifeless ideas and doctrines and pious platitudes and a church with a faith that has nothing to say worth listening to, that has nothing to offer, that’s dead, dull, and boring.  People have grown tired of belief, defending belief, arguing over belief; sometimes even killing people because of differing beliefs.  It’s no wonder that Christianity is in decline in the United States – we’ve reduced it to an idea or an ethic.  It’s no wonder that Protestants are no longer the major Christian faith in the country.  Protestants and Catholics are in decline, both liberal churches and conservative churches. The results of a major survey of religion in America have shown that for the first time in our nation’s history the largest category of religious affiliation in the U.S. is now known as “nones,” as in “none of the above.”  In the 1950s, nones made up about 2 percent of the population.  In the 1970s, it was about 7 percent.  Today, that number is close to 20 percent. Within that 20 percent, only 30 percent are atheists or agnostics.  Sixty-four percent of the nones say they believe in God or a “universal spirit,” but they don’t live out this faith in a community, a church, or an institutional setting.[2]

            I guess it’s nice to know they believe in something, someone.  But somehow, someway the church needs to get the message across that what we proclaim and witness to is beyond belief.  Not in the sense that it didn’t occur, but something other than belief, not only belief.  I’m not saying that ideas and doctrine and creeds are unimportant.  They are. We will affirm the Apostles’ Creed this morning.  But what really matters is what’s behind or underneath the creed – an experience. We have been entrusted with something more than beliefs about God. We have something more to offer the world beyond belief.   Why does this matter? Because in a world where people are dying and suffering, lost and confused, broken and weighed down by grief and sorrow, belief is not enough.

            Contemporary theologian Wendy Farley reminds us, “When we conceive of Christianity as beliefs, love fades into the background….”[3] Exactly!

            For it’s Love that raises the dead and cracks open our tombs. 
            It’s Love that reunites after death has done its worst.  
            It’s Love we recognize when Love calls our name. 
            It’s Love that stands within the walls of our fear. 
            And it’s Love that breathes into us new life and says,
                        “Peace” – not strife, not anxiety, not worry, not fear –
                        “Peace be with you.” 

It’s the experience of Holy Love that encounters us and shakes us and raises us and holds us and claims us and calls us and sends us.  Not once, but again and again. For Love never ends (1 Corinthians 13:8).  That’s what resurrection looks like, that’s what resurrection feels like.   It’s the experience of Love that changes us and changes the people we meet.

            The poet Emily Dickinson (1830-1886) wisely advised:  “The soul should always stand ajar, ready to welcome the ecstatic experience.” What if this was our prayer, our posture in the world?  “The soul should always stand ajar, ready to welcome the ecstatic experience.”  Souls that are open, ready to welcome an experience of resurrection, an encounter with the Holy that overwhelms us with love and overcomes us with joy, that changes us and transforms us and thus transforms the world.  Can you imagine what a different world this would be?  Can you imagine with me a church that anticipates this, expects this to happen?

            This is what we offer to the world:  the possibility of an experience. Love embodied.  It’s what we offer the world.  Jesus said, “As the Father has sent me, so I send you” (John 20:21).  And then Jesus breathed on them and said, “Receive the Holy Spirit” (John 20:22).  Before Jesus’ death he said to his disciples, you’ve seen the difference I have made in your lives, and you will do even greater works than these (John 13: 12).  You see, even here, we’re not asked to believe in something that took place a long time ago.  Something is happening now.  We’ve all been breathed on. Love is breathing through us.  Love is living through us. Love is trying to love through us.  You and I, according to Jesus, have been given this Love, this breath, this power.  And it’s ours to use. 

            Throughout the season of Lent many of us have been reading Sara Miles’ provocative and zany book, Jesus Freak:  Feeding, Healing, Raising the Dead. Raised without faith, years ago Miles stumbled into St. Gregory of Nyssa Episcopal Church in San Francisco, was invited to share in Communion.  She took a bite out of the loaf of bread and her life never was the same again.  She didn’t intellectually wrestle her way into belief; she experienced the healing grace in the sacrament.  Now in her life and her ministry, as a layperson, she knows that Jesus is alive and at work in the world.  At St. Gregory’s, whenever they send someone out into the world or launch someone on a new chapter of his or her life, they practice one of the oldest forms of blessing. Miles says, “We put our wrists on the person’s temples, so we could feel the blood beating in both bodies, and then we’d breathe, blowing lightly over the bent head, incarnating, once again, the breath of the Spirit.”[4]  Miles believes – she knows – that Jesus is still breathing through us.  And she knows, and I know she’s right, that there’s more power available to us than we are willing to imagine, there’s more Love at work in all of us than we suspect.  We are capable of so much more than we think.  If we’re honest, this probably frightens us, which is natural. But it’s true.  Love is breathing through us.  It’s Love that launches us out into the world.

            Jesus is still breathing in us and through us, calling you and me to life.  Can you sense it? Feel it?  Yes?  No?  Maybe?  Just a little?  It doesn’t matter – let us open our souls, ready to welcome that ecstatic experience.  Try to sense what’s behind the creed when we off the Apostles’ Creed in a few moments. Then, with open souls let us share in the Lord’s Supper and receive the real presence of the Lord at his Table.  The Risen Lord who invites us to come.  Believe, yes, but more than believe, taste and really see that God is good!

[1] Here I’m indebted to the thought of C. G. Jung (1875-1961), “The seat of faith, however, is not consciousness but spontaneous religious experience, which brings the individual’s faith into immediate relation with God. Here we must ask: Have I any religious experience and immediate relation to God, and hence that certainty which will keep me, as an individual, from dissolving in the crowd?”  Jung said, “I am not…addressing myself to the happy possessors of faith, but to those many people for whom the light has gone out, the mystery has faded, and God is dead.”  Collected Works 11,148. See also James Hollis, Tracking the Gods: The Place of Myth in Modern Life (Inner City Books, 1995).
[2] Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life: http://www.pewforum.org/Unaffiliated/nones-on-the-rise.aspx.  See also Michael Gerson’s piece in the Washington Post,  “An America That Is Losing Faith With Religion.” http://articles.washingtonpost.com/2013-03-25/opinions/38008236_1_nones-protestants-agnostics
[3] Wendy Farley, Gathering Those Driven Away:  A Theology of Incarnation (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2011), 216. Emphasis mine.
[4] Sara Miles, Jesus Freak:  Feeing, Healing, Raising the Dead (San Francisco:  Jossey-Bass, 2010). 114.

28 March 2013

The Cross of the Incarnate One

 by Georges Rouault (1871-1958)
Meditation for Maundy Thursday

John 1:1-18

It’s unusual to hear the opening lines of John’s Gospel read during Holy Week.  We’re used to hearing how the “Word became flesh [– incarnated –] and lived among us” (John 1: 14) on Christmas Eve and Christmas Day.  Incarnation for Christmas.  Crucifixion and Resurrection for Easter. Sometimes during Christmas we sing carols about how Jesus was born to die or that the shadow of the cross is cast over the manger.  Scripture doesn’t exactly put it this way. Our hymns do, but not scripture.  Rarely, though, do we bring the Incarnated One, this one born in a manger, and place him on a cross.

In John Irving’s novel, A Prayer for Owen Meany, Owen says, “Anyone can be sentimental about the nativity; any fool can feel like a Christian at Christmas. But Easter is the main event; if you don’t believe in the resurrection, you’re not a believer. ‘If you don’t believe in Easter,’ Owen said. ‘Don’t kid yourself—Don’t call yourself a Christian.’” I take his point, but I would like to suggest that this is a perfect example of what I think we should not do.  With all due respect to Mr. Irving, I think he gets it wrong. We can’t separate Christmas and Easter.  Nor can we favor one over the other. We cannot separate Incarnation from Crucifixion and Resurrection. 

If anything, the early church reversed the order, they considered the Incarnation the “main event,” the greater mystery, not the death and resurrection. Why?  Because as the early theologians often said, “What God has not assumed, God has not saved.” That’s how the fourth century theologian Gregory of Nazianzus (330-390) put it. "What God has not assumed, God has not saved.” In other words, in order for humanity to be saved, it has to be assumed, taken on, saved from within, enfleshed, incarnated.  This is what makes the incarnation so extraordinary.  And without the claim of incarnation the crucifixion is “just” the death of another innocent human victim in history, and the resurrection, still mysterious and wondrous, is the resurrection of a human victim.  Without the Divine-human mix in Jesus, his life and ministry lose something of their power. It’s the Incarnate One on the cross.

Theologian Wendy Farley makes this clear:  “The cry of dereliction of the Incarnate One on the cross inflames history by enacting the deep truth that there is nowhere we could go on earth or in the heavens above the earth or in the deep under the earth and fail to find the Beloved.  Nothing severs the unity between Divinity and humanity.  Nothing obscures from the Beloved the radiance of our own spiritual beauty.” [1] Divinity and humanity linked on the cross.  Nothing can obscure that connection.  Nothing can sever that link, that union, that relationship – even the abyss of death.  Humanity and Divinity; Divinity and humanity.  Flesh and spirit; spirit and flesh.  Not either/or, but both and.  Always both-and, held together in tension.

All of us are servants of the Incarnate One who calls us to love and to serve one another, not in the abstract, but concretely, physically, in spirit and flesh.  This bread and this cup are not “spiritual,” they are real, tangible, material.  The bread and juice we will take into our bodies and digest; and they will become part of us.  We’re called to embody Christ in tangible ways, called to embody love. 

Being a servant of the Incarnate One was beautifully demonstrated today in the images of Pope Francis washing feet this evening in Rome.  Washing the feet, not of priests or cardinals, but twelve young offenders, aged 14 to 21.  And for the first time, a Pope washed the feet of two women, which was significant enough, but one woman was a Serbian Muslim.

Pope Francis, Maundy Thursday
 foot washing in Rome.
There are people in the church and beyond the walls of the church this night who need to know that this Christian life is more than just an ephemeral spiritual exercise that has nothing to do with real life; instead, it’s about real life, really real life, the real lives of real women and men and children who have been to hell and back, who need to know, in tangible, personal ways that God is with them and for them, that love continues to be embodied and incarnated in the world.  God is with us.

We’re going to read the opening verses of John on Good Friday and again on Easter morning to drive the point home.  The cross and resurrection proclaim the grace of the Incarnate One, who comes in the flesh for the sake of humanity, in order to heal and restore us and make us whole, who comes to serve, who comes in love, “who having loved his own who were in the world, he loved them to the end” (John 13:1), and calls us to do the same.

[1] Wendy Farley, Gathering Those Driven Away:  A Theology of Incarnation (Louisville:  Westminster John Knox Press, 2011), 166.

24 March 2013

Friend, Friend Indeed

Jean-Hippolyte Flandrin (1809-1864),
"Christ's Entry into Jerusalem" (c.1845)
Luke 19:28-40 & Philippians 2: 5-11

Palm Sunday/ 24th March 2013

Today we walk with Jesus into Jerusalem, with palms in hand, and our shouts of “Hosanna” and “Blessed.”  It’s bittersweet.  Always is.  We know what the week will bring.  We know the stories, all of them:  Matthew’s and Mark’s, Luke’s and John’s. They each have their own slant, their own distinctive voice, with unique (even conflicting) chronologies and theological outlooks. This year the lectionary favors Luke’s version of Jesus’ entry into the religious and political powder keg otherwise known as Jerusalem, the City of David, the city of Yahweh’s shalom, Yahweh’s peace.  Was there ever such a misnamed city?  City of God’s peace?

            We all know what waits.  Even after all these years, this text, these stories of that fateful week that changed the course of history, of our history, the questions remain, the answers difficult to discern. Why?  For what?  What did Jesus’ suffering and death accomplish? What does it tell us about the nature of God? How we answer informs our faith commitments, Holy week, every week.

            During our adult education hour throughout the season of Lent we explored the various ways the New Testament attempts to “make sense” of the cross. One theme that I tried to suggest each week is that the New Testament does not speak with one voice regarding the meaning of the cross.  Even the creeds are silent.  Not silent about the cross, but what the cross means.  Instead, throughout its history the Church has generated metaphors, that is, ways to express its meaning, metaphors of atonement (victory, sacrifice, etc.).  But the metaphors should not be taken literally.  Metaphors should be revelatory; in other words, our metaphors or images of the cross should open up reality for us, they should allow the real, the true, the beautiful, to emerge. They should not close off reality, but open it.  Not provide less meaning, but more.  They should enlarge the soul, not diminish it.

            The fact that we have various metaphors, images, symbols, theologies of the cross tell us that what occurred that week was bigger than our metaphors.  It’s a story that we can’t completely tell.  Never will.  History as a science does not have the power or the authority to bear such truth.[1] 

            The New Testament gives us four gospel witnesses, but there were others, too, who experienced that awful week, who walked with Jesus into Jerusalem and watched him confront the powers that seek to undo God’s way in the world.  And so we must attend to this story lightly, gently; don’t think you have it all figured out, don’t assume you know what it all means – because you don’t.  Here and there we are given glimpses of the truth, discover a new angle or perspective that allows us to see things about the story that we never noticed before.  And sometimes, by the grace of God, we hear the story with an entirely different ear; we listen to the story with our souls and hear it as if for the first time.

            Speaking of ears and listening, I’ve had a hymn running through my head for the last week or so.  It’s the Lenten hymn, “My Song Is Love Unknown.”  The text was first a poem by the English Puritan minister, Samuel Crossman (1623-1683), written in 1664 while England was enduring yet another outbreak of plague.   The tune was written in 1918 by the English composer John Ireland (1879-1962).  The story goes that one-day Ireland was at lunch with Geoffrey Shaw (1879-1943), himself a composer and Anglican church musician.  Shaw handed Ireland a slip of paper and said, “I want a tune for this lovely poem by Samuel Crossman.”   Ireland took the paper with the poem on it, picked up a menu, and then proceeded to compose the tune, on the back of the menu.  In a few minutes Ireland handed it back to Shaw, with a casual remark:  “Here is your tune.”[2]

Both the tune and text have been working on me this week.  The part that grips and grabs me, that touches something in me occurs when tune and text come together in a striking way toward the center of the tune.  About halfway through Ireland intentionally deviates from the dominant or tonic key of D-Major. It’s a technique called chromaticism, modulating out of the dominant key; it’s a signature technique that Ireland loved to use.  He breaks out of tonality.  Inserts dissonance.  Producing a kind of twinge that then hooks us. The companion text for this part of the tune, the dissonance in each verse, is:  
            …O who am I That for my sake;….
            …But O my Friend, My Friend indeed;…
            …Then ‘Crucify!’ Is all their breath;….
            …Yet steadfast He To suffering goes;….
            …This is my Friend, In whose sweet praise….

            It’s here, at the heart of the hymn, at the heart of the text, it’s these lines that kept repeating, again and again, in my head:  Yet steadfast he to suffering goes.  Yet steadfast he to suffering goes.

            That’s my image of Palm Sunday as Jesus faces Jerusalem, knowing full well what he was doing.  Steadfast. With unwavering commitment he sets his face toward a city he knows will reject him, as it did to so many prophets before him.  With firm resolution, rooted and grounded in unfathomable love, he chooses to go this way.  He chooses to suffer, to undergo what few of us are willing to endure.  It’s this act, this choice, this willful decision that’s so remarkable, that arrests us with awe.  He doesn’t go to conquer or defeat or annihilate or judge. He goes to suffer.  Not to celebrate suffering for its own sake, not to glory in suffering.  God forbid!  Echoing Isaiah from long ago, Jesus is one who serves by suffering, a “suffering servant,” (Isaiah 53), suffering for, suffering with, suffering through the pain and anguish of broken world, a world of broken hearts, suffering the sorrow of a wayward humanity alienated from God’s justice and love and hell-bent on self-destruction.

            This is who God is.  Not God omnipotent, blustering about with bravado, full of power and might, shock and awe, but a God who demonstrates a different kind of power, a power strong in weakness, as the Apostle Paul knew (2 Corinthians 12:9).  Or, as Paul wrote to the Philippians, “let the same mind (that is, way) be in you that was in Christ Jesus.”  And what was that way?  Quoting from a hymn that would have been familiar to the Philippian church, Paul described the way of Christ:
            who, though he was in the form of God,
                        did not regard equality with God
                        as something to be exploited [or grasped],
                                    but emptied himself,
                                    taking the form of a slave,
                                    being born in human likeness.           
            And being found in human form,
                        he [as God!] humbled himself
                        and became obedient
                        to the point of death – even death on a cross. (Philippians 2:6-11)

            The Lord chooses to empty himself, to give himself completely, to surrender, to be a slave, a servant, steadfast, sure to suffering he goes, in love, even if love means all the way to death, all the way to hell and back – and not just death, the excruciating, dehumanizing death on a cross.

            Last week and this morning in adult education we read statements from two people without a lot in common – the playwright Oscar Wilde (1854-1900) and pastor-theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer (1906-1945) – writing from different centuries, from different professions, but both in love in Christ, both writing from a prison, in prison for very different reasons; both knew something about a cross.

            In a personal letter Wilde called De Profundis (Out of the Depths), from 1895, (never published in his lifetime), Wilde shares what Christ had come to mean to him.  Wilde compares Jesus to an artist. The life of the artist is one who gives expression to that which cannot speak.  “To [an artist] what is dumb is dead,” Wilde said.  “But to Christ it was not so.  With a width and wonder of imagination that fills one almost with awe, [Christ] took the entire world of the inarticulate, the voiceless world of pain as his kingdom, and made of himself its eternal mouthpiece.  Those…who are dumb under oppression and ‘whose silence is heard only of God,’ he chose as his brothers [and sisters].  He sought to become eyes to the blind, ears to the deaf, and a cry on the lips of those whose tongue had tied….  And feeling, with the artistic nature of one to whom Sorrow and Suffering were modes through which he could realize his conception of the Beautiful, that an idea is of no value till it becomes incarnate and is made an image, [Christ] made himself the image of the Man of Sorrows, and as such has fascinated and dominated Art as no Greek god ever succeeded in doing.”[3]

            And from Bonhoeffer, who discovered something profound after suffering through two world wars and now viewing the world from his vantage in a prison cell.  Our perspective must change, he said in July 1942: “…we have learned to see the great events of world history for once from below, from the perspective of those who are excluded, suspected, maltreated, powerless, oppressed, and scorned, in short the sufferers.” Later, not long before his execution in 1945 and reflecting upon Christ on the cross, Bonhoeffer wrote:  “God lets himself be pushed out of the world on the cross.  He is weak and powerless in the world, and that is precisely the way, the only way, in which [God] is with us and helps us…The Bible directs [us] to God’s powerlessness and suffering; only the suffering God can help.”[4]

            Pro me.  Bonhoeffer liked to say. All this was done, Pro Me, For me.  For you and me.  Jesus suffers, not in our stead, not because he’s taking the blows of an angry Father-Judge, blows meant for us, blows we think we deserve – No! Instead, Jesus demonstrates with his life: this is who God is; this is what God is like.  God is one who suffers with, who identifies with our struggles and sorrows, who participates in our pain, who bears it all – because we can’t! One who takes on and undertakes Death, to show that even Death has no power to separate us from God’s presence. 

            Yet, steadfast he to suffering goesYet, steadfast he to suffering goes. The dissonance at this point in the hymn tune is matched, twice, with the image of Jesus as Friend. Two images, inextricably linked: the friend who suffers.  Jesus the friend, a true friend, who is with me all the way, all the way to hell and back, who suffers with me in all the dissonant and broken places of my life; Jesus our Friend who suffers – with us – and carries us along the way all the way, even to death, all the way, and back.     
            But O my Friend,
            My Friend indeed,
            Who at my need
            His life did spend!
Yes,     This is my Friend,
            In whose sweet praise
            I all my days
            Could gladly spend.[5]

[1] Kenneth E. Kovacs, The Relational Theology of James E. Loder:Encounter and Conviction (New York:  Peter Lang, 2011), 113 ff.
[2] Muriel Searle, John Ireland, the Man and His Music (Tunbridge Wells:  Midas Books, 1979), cited in LindaJo H. McKim, The Presbyterian Hymnal Companion (Louisville:  Westminster John Knox Press, 1993), 72.
[3] Oscar Wilde, De Profundis, cited in Anthony W. Bartlett, Cross Purposes:  The Violent Grammar of Christian Atonement(Harrisburg:  Trinity Press International, 2001), 177.
[4] Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Letters and Papers from Prison. Eberhard Bethge, ed. (New York:  Macmillan, 1971), 360-361.  Emphasis mine.
[5] John Ireland, “My Song Is Love Unkown,” The Presbyterian Hymnal (Louisville:  Westminster John Knox Press, 1990).