24 August 2014

Living at Cross Purposes

Banias (Caesarea Philippi), the setting for Matthew 16: 13-28
Matthew 16: 13-28

Eleventh Sunday after Pentecost/ 24th August 2014

What does it means for us to bear a cross? We know something of what it meant for Jesus.  What about us?  You’re probably thinking, aren’t people suffering enough these days? Why do we have to talk about crosses? After all, it’s not Lent! Nevertheless, the lectionary invites us to consider Matthew 16 and asks us to consider this timeless question: what does it mean to live a cross-shaped, cruciform life?[1]

In Matthew 16 we find this classic exchange between Peter and Jesus and these memorable, unsettling verses: “If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me. For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake will find it. For what will it profit them if they gain the whole world but forfeit their life? Or what will they give in return for their life “ (16: 24-26).

But what does this really mean? First, let’s focus on what it doesn’t mean. The “cross” isn’t a synonym for every difficult task or demanding situation that we find ourselves in.  That’s how Billy Joel expresses it in one of his songs. Here are the lyrics: “We all have our cross to bear./ We all walk in darkness sometimes./ Though I know it don’t seem fair, /We all have our cross to bear.”[2] Now, I love Billy Joel, but he’s not a theologian—unlike Bruce Springstein, who is. And it’s more than just a New York vs. New Jersey thing. (Springstein really is a good theologian, so is Bono.)  “Bearing one’s cross.” It’s become an idiom, an expression basically meaning we have all our difficulties, and challenges, so grin and bear yours. I once saw a cartoon: a manager is sitting behind his desk talking with a disgruntled employee. The employee is standing in front of the desk with his hands actually nailed to a large cross on his back.  The manager says, “Oh come on, we all have our crosses to bear.” 

Referring to the cross in these ways belittles its meaning and cheapens Jesus’ journey to it. They also depoliticize Jesus’ death, which was done at the hands of the Roman Empire. Jesus’ cross is not our cross. Most of us here will not experience a death like his. There are some whose faithfulness to Christ and his call in their lives will lead to a cross, to death.  The more we learn about James Foley, the American journalist savagely murdered by the Islamic State in Iraq this past week, the more we see the depths of this man’s faith and the way his faith informed his life as an investigative journalist searching for the truth.  Jesus’ cross was uniquely his.  But there is something of Jesus’ cross that shapes the way we live when we’re walking with him.  James Foley’s experience was uniquely his. But the cross still shapes our lives.

But what does this really mean?  It’s complicated. In Matthew’s account there are at least two levels of meaning going on:  what actually happened in Jesus’ life and then Matthew’s take on what happened.  Matthew wrote his gospel in the 80s in order to provide a theological meaning of Jesus’ ministry. From our vantage, we tend to view the gospels as first-hand, historical accounts as they happened.  They’re not. We forget that the Gospel of Matthew, composed decades after Jesus’ life, was written with a pastoral responsibility for a community of believers trying to follow Jesus in an increasingly hostile world. Embedded in Matthew, in almost every chapter, is the Jewish-Gentile tension that was prevalent throughout the first century. Do Gentiles have to become Jews before they can worship Jesus and then be welcomed into the synagogue? Or can Gentiles be welcomed as Gentiles? And how does one worship Jesus as Lord within a larger society that demands that Caesar is divine? How does one serve God’s Kingdom, God’s Empire, as citizens or slaves in Caesar’s Empire? So, when we read Matthew 16 and hear Jesus talk about taking up a cross, it’s confusing. Is Jesus calling for treason against the state, because only the Roman state crucified people?

And how could verses 24-26 (above) have made any sense to the disciples prior to the crucifixion? What do you mean we have to be crucified? How is that useful? Peter’s resistance to the idea makes perfect sense; Jesus’ harsh critique seems inappropriate. These verses sound like the tongue of a preacher writing to his congregation decades after the resurrection. Matthew the preacher is basically saying that Jesus showed them something in and with his life and says to us: following Jesus inevitably means suffering and loss for a higher purpose. Therefore, don’t be surprised when people tell you otherwise and try to divert you from your calling. Just say to them, “Get behind me Satan.”

That’s what Peter and the other disciples learned in Caesarea Philippi. Jesus intentionally took the disciples to this alien place; he took them out of their comfort zones into a gross Gentile place, to a wild, very un-Jewish place. Caesarea Philippi was settled by Alexander the Great (356-323 BC) in the 3rd century BC; in 20 BC it was annexed to Herod the Great (74-4 BC) and later given to Herod’s son, Philip (d. 34 AD), who renamed it in 14 AD in honor of Caesar Augustus (63 BC- 14 AD). It was a Gentile community, full of temples to many gods, including a colossal temple, an Augusteum, not far away, built by Herod the Great to honor to the divinity of Caesar. It would have been a gross and offensive place from a Jewish perspective. During the Jewish Wars (66-70 AD)—so, after Jesus’ death but before the writing of this gospel— Caesarea Philippi was used as the staging area for the Roman troops that sacked Jerusalem and eventually destroyed the great temple to Yahweh in 70 AD. The author of Matthew would have known this. There’s also an enormous cave or grotto at the center of Caesarea Philippi that, according to tradition, is the birthplace of the god Pan. It’s called the Gate of Hades (not hell, there’s a difference); the cave is the entrance into the underworld, the home to an entire pantheon of Greek deities.

This is where Jesus took his friends (!) to test them, to this outrageous, shocking, offensive place, to hear what the people were saying about him and then to challenge them to answer, honestly: “Who do you say that I am?”   This is where Jesus wants his followers to make their confession—in Caesarea Philippi—to speak up for him, to acknowledge him Lord, there. Not in houses of worship. 

It costs us nothing, absolutely nothing, to say, “Jesus is Lord” here in this sanctuary. Jesus calls us to answer the question, not in safe places, but in inhospitable, out of the way, places on the edge. It’s here in Caesarea Philippi that Peter makes his famous confession, “You are the Messiah, the Son of the living God.” To which Jesus responds, “Blessed are you, Simon…for flesh and blood has not revealed this to you, but my Father in heaven.” You are Peter, you really are a rock, and upon what you said, I will build my church, “and the gates of Hades will not prevail against.”

But then Peter quickly realizes what it means for Jesus to be the Son of God—it means suffering and loss because people don’t welcome the Kingdom’s message. Jesus tells his disciples that he must go up to Jerusalem, undergo great suffering at the hands of the elders and chief priests and scribes, be killed, and on the third day be raised.

That’s when Peter interrupts Jesus and says, “Um…excuse me, Jesus, may I have a word with you,” as he whisks Jesus off to the side and says, “Jesus, I have a question for you. Are you on DRUGS? What are you smoking? What are you talking about? This can’t happen to you. This is not supposed to happen to you. Never. For God’s sake, Jesus, you’re the Messiah!”

Jesus turned to Peter, looked him dead in the eye, and said, “Get behind me, Satan! You are a stumbling-block to me; for you are setting your mind not on divine things but on human things.” And that’s when we hear these words about the cross. It’s easy to understand Peter’s astonishment.

Why is Jesus so harsh toward Peter? What does Peter know about crosses? It seems cruel. To be called “Satan” by the Son of God…one doesn’t easily get over hearing something like that! These words cut deep. But we have to remember what is at stake here: God’s Kingdom.  This is serious business. It’s a matter of life and death, for Jesus and for all those who follow him, for the Church. 

Jesus was sent to proclaim God’s Kingdom, which means the undoing of every other kingdom that claims to serve God and God’s people. As God’s Son, this was Jesus’ calling, his purpose, his reason for being. The meaning of his life wasn’t found within his life, per se, but discovered when his life was placed in service to something, Someone larger than himself. And that’s why Peter becomes Satan, which means, literally, an “Adversary.”  

Peter’s vision for Jesus’ life would take Jesus away from the vision he knew he had to fulfill. Peter’s understanding of the Messiah was at odds with Jesus’ life-purpose. Peter’s hopes and dreams for Jesus were no more than Peter’s projections of his own hopes and dreams for himself upon the screen of Jesus’ life.  Projections are often similarly self-centered. That’s why it’s often destructive and disastrous for us to get caught up in and be defined by what others are projecting on to us, when we feel bound by the burden of their expectations for us.  Our own projections are often self-serving. Peter’s projection doesn’t support Jesus in Jesus’ vision. Instead, Peter’s projection blocks, preempts, and thwarts Jesus’s purpose and obstructs him in his mission.

Peter is tempting Jesus.  He’s tempting Jesus to be something other than himself, to pursue a different calling.  Jesus probably struggled with vocational issues every day. When we think about temptation, we often view it as being tempted to do something that we either know we shouldn’t do or want to do. We say we’re tempted by chocolate or ice cream, tempted by other cravings or habits that we know are destructive. They’re often temptations of doing. “The devil made me do it.”

But there are also temptations of being, which are far more serious; when we’re tempted or pulled away from being something or someone we’re not. There’s plenty in this world, whether in the past or in the present, trying to pull us away from the God-given purpose of our lives, from our callings. There’s plenty deep within the human heart and outside it that runs hell-bent away from the glorious vision God has for us and for the world. For the Holy Spirit, in love, is continually, incessantly, tenaciously struggling to draw us out of our tight, fearful, anxious selves to bring us into a larger, more expansive, generous life. But the nervous ego pulls back, prefers diminishment, recoils. Martin Luther (1483-1546) spoke to this tendency when he defined sin as “the heart turned in upon itself (incurvatus se).” There’s plenty within us and without us that resists the difficult path, which resists the struggle, which resists the fight, which resists the hard work of being faithful to our call. “To be nobody-but-yourself in a world,” e. e. cummings (1894-1962), said, “which is doing its best, night and day, to make you everybody else—means to fight the hardest battle which any human being can fight; and never stop fighting.”[3]  There’s plenty within that prefers to conform to society, that seeks after happiness and comfort and security, as if these were kingdom values (and they’re not!), and so never tries, never risks anything that’s costs us, never risks anything of significance with our lives on behalf of God’s kingdom—significant from God’s perspective, not the world’s.  Listening to the voice and will of God means not listening to the weak, fearful, narrow-minded voice of our egos. It means to stop being lured away from your calling by the false and timid call of the ego or the tribe or community or the church or your past or your family your parents even one’s spouse or partner. All these voices can pull us away from our true calling.

Being faithful to our calling means, therefore, a change of mind, a change of perspective.  And so we see that it was Peter’s own self-understanding that needed to be “crucified,” his assumptions about God and the ways of God needed to be put to a cross.  In other words, they needed to die, they needed to be given up in order for him to take up something new, something far more profound and meaningful, something larger than the constricted perspective of his narrow-self.  “Bearing one’s cross,” living a cross-shaped life is a continuous process of dying and rising throughout our lives.  It means giving up one way of being in order for something new to emerge.  Peter has to relinquish his perspective, his assumptions, his life, in order to receive a new perspective, in order to receive a new life.

Peter was not willing to do that (not then, anyway). Peter tempts Jesus to throw it all away, go the easy route, give up on the vision, set his sights on what is reasonable and practical, go after something that has some guarantee of success instead of failure. Peter has other plans for Jesus.  But they were Peter’s plans, not Jesus’ plans, not God’s plans.

What do we discover here about the cross?  What if the cross is the consequence, the result of, even the price we pay for being faithful to our God-given purpose, our work, our calling, our identity as individuals and as the Church Jesus Christ?  If so, then don’t be surprised if we’re faced with the temptation to run from our identity and our task, to take the easy route, to take the less painful, less risky, less faithful course.  The temptation to run is natural, for who wants to suffer?  Perhaps the temptation is greatest when we are being faithful to the call. 

There’s a little Peter is in us, some more than others.  But there’s a greater Jesus in us, too, who loves us deeply and calls us to follow and leads us into God’s Kingdom.  When we’re in love with our callings, when we’re in love with God—when we’re in love—we suffer with and for and through and because of, willingly.  That’s what love does.  When we catch a glimpse of the grace and beauty of God’s Kingdom and move toward it, we find ourselves willing to endure whatever it costs, because we have come to know something of its value. That’s what love does. Amen.

[1] “Cruciform” and “cruciformity” are terms often used by Michael J. Gorman, see Cruciformity: Paul’s NarrativeSpirituality of the Cross (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2001).
[2] Billy Joel, “Cross to Bear,” My Lives (Sony Records, 2005).
[3] e. e. cummings, "A Poet’s Advice to Students."

17 August 2014

Encountering the Risen Christ

Brian "Doc" Reed, "The Road to Damascus". Used by permission.
See below for details.
Acts 9:1-20

Twenty-first Sunday in Ordinary Time/22nd August 2010

This was the turning point in Paul’s life.  We could say Paul’s experience was the turning point in the history of the Church.  Without his titanic shift in perspective followers of Jesus would have been only a movement within Judaism. 

I'll admit at the outset that Paul is a challenge.  He just is. It seems that either you love him or you don’t.  Paul’s writings can be difficult to read.  He has a terrible habit of writing, long, run on sentences.  Personally, I love Paul—always have.  My admiration for him continues to grow.  After Jesus, Paul is the most pivotal figure in the New Testament primarily because he was compelled to proclaim God’s good news about Jesus beyond Judaism to the nations, to the Gentiles, a Hebrew word that means, from a Jewish perspective, “everyone else.”  But for Paul, most of as Gentiles, assuming most of us here are Gentiles, would not be part of the church.  

Here, I want to focus on Paul’s experience upon the Damascus Road and the change of perspective that occurred from that encounter.

In our postmodern, post-Christian, secular age we assume that miracles, visions, religious experiences like Paul’s are mythical or from another time.  Many assume that what happened to Paul only happened back then, not now.  Claiming to be wise, we assume that God doesn’t work that way any more.  Perhaps.  But what if God hasn’t changed?  What if we have?

In our age many have lost the capacity to see the world sacramentally or mystically.  We have lost our openness to the God-reality that imposes itself upon us all the time and surrounds us and in which we exist.  Because we do not expect to meet God along the road, many fail to find God and are left disappointed.  With expectations low, many carry on nevertheless, saying they believe in God without really expecting to experience or encounter the Holy.  They still use God-language, consider themselves religious or “spiritual” (whatever that is), they follow the rituals of the faith, they still stand in worship to confess the creed.  Yet they live as if everything, including their salvation hinges upon their efforts and actions and decisions.  They say “In God We Trust,” they say they believe in “God.”  What God?  For many, “God” has become a hollow, empty sign, a cipher for something else, a synonym for the ego.  When we don’t expect to encounter God, religion and the religious life are quickly diminished to miserable moralisms. This is what happens when folks reduce the Christian life as a  synonym for simply being ethical: following the rules, observing the Ten Commandments (often translated as learning right from wrong), being “nice” to one another, teaching our youth to behave like good little boys and girls, culturally conditioning them to conform to the dominant values of society. Ethics are important—but is that why Christ went to the cross, to get us to behave?  God didn’t send the Son to help us conform to the expectations of culture. God sent the Son to transform us. God sent the Son to transform the world.       

Forgetting this distinction, I believe, is one of the reasons the Church, indeed Christianity, is in trouble these days and has become completely irrelevant for many.  Something’s missing.  What’s missing is the energy, the vitality, the passion associated with an experience of God’s power—God’s redemptive power—the kind of experience Paul had that gave him a radically new perspective of God, himself, and the world around him.
Sometimes I wonder if Paul would even recognize the Church today. David Buttrick, professor at Vanderbilt Divinity School, asks, “When church is reduced to church management and the soul is scaled down to psychological promptings, who can speak of resurrection or spot surprising signs of redemptive power among us?  No burned martyrs light our skies; ministers burn out instead.  No Christians are persecuted; they merely perish from boredom.”[1]  We prefer Jesus-lite, religion without the inconvenience (or the cross).  But “where there is no cross, how can resurrection have meaning?”[2]   We prefer a decaffeinated Christianity without the kick—we don’t want anything to disturb our sleep.  But we need to wake up!  For Paul, the gospel was powerful and real, full of caffeine, with extra shots of espresso. 

I often wonder what Jesus thinks about the contemporary Church—yes, there are signs of life and vitality, and I’m grateful that Catonsville Presbyterian is a thriving, healthy community of faith—but we need to know that there are many churches these days that are broken and hurting, consisting of people that are petty, fearful, shortsighted, cruel, and divisive, “stumbling along,” Buttrick says, “at the brink of apostasy and selling out Jesus for a good deal less than thirty pieces of silver any day.”[3]  It’s enough,  Anne Lamott imagines, to make Jesus drink gin from the cat dish![4]

Few can claim the kind of religious experience that Paul had.  It’s true.  But it happens and it is happening.  We might not get thrown from a horse in blinding light.  It could happen.  However, something like such experiences can and do occur today.  Despite our resistance the Risen Christ still encounters people today in overt or subtle ways; the Risen Christ still meets people along the road and changes them. This still can happen.  It is happening.  In fact, the Risen Christ wants to meet us along the road of our lives.  He wants to blind us with truth and love and then open our eyes.  He wants us to see.  He wants to awaken life within us and make something beautiful of our lives. 

This is God’s desire for us. But do not underestimate the enormous forces deep within our souls that resist this holy work in us.  Look at Paul, locked in the confining perspective of his worldview, determined to be a roadblock to the people of the Way,[5] hell-bent on the destruction of God’s people, willfully bucking against the new thing God was doing in the world.  Surrounded by a blast of light, he’s convicted by these words, “Saul, Saul, why do you persecute me?”  Why do you kick against what I’m doing in the world? Why do you resist?  Paul doesn’t even recognize his victim.

We might not experience the Risen Christ exactly this same way, but the dynamics and the patterns of the resistance are very familiar to us.  And we have to be careful talking about what happened to Paul as a conversion.  It was not a religious conversion from Judaism to Christianity.  He became a follower of Jesus within Judaism.  It was a conversion of another kind.  Paul was locked in one perspective—it wasn’t Judaism per se—it was simply his own.  He thought he knew all there was to know about his God, his world, and himself.  He thought he knew how God acted in the past and, therefore, would most definitely act in the future.  He thought he knew about this Jesus the criminal and his band of blasphemers.  He thought he knew the truth, had all the facts, understood what was going on. That is until one day it was all—shattered!—in the encounter with the Resurrected One and he was given a new perspective, a new outlook, a new view of himself, of the world, and more importantly, a new understanding of the radical grace of Yahweh.  He discovered that truth is stranger and more wonderful than fiction, he realized the facts are not what they seem, that he completely misunderstood what was before his very eyes.  The text says, “Saul got up from the ground, and though his eyes were open, he could see nothing; …” (Acts 9:8).  In seeing he could not see. He was blind to what was happening in front of him. Paul needed new eyes to see reality in a new way.

So how do we get new eyes? Albert Einstein (1879-1955) once said, “There’s nothing more practical than a good theory.”[6]  In order for us to see reality we have to get our theories straight, because your theory will shape the way you view the world.  Theory, from the Greek, means “to contemplate” or “to see.”  The Greek theorein means, literally, “to contemplate the divine.” We often assume that facts build reality, that if we have all the facts we’ll be able to determine what is true or not true.  Many live in a Joe Friday world.  Sargent Joe Friday on the television series Dragnet, back in the 1950s, would say when investigating a crime scene, “Just give me the facts, Ma’am, just the facts.”  But, facts are not enough.

We’ve actually inherited this attitude regarding facts from the European Enlightenment.  The philosophers of the Enlightenment were obsessed with facts, with raw data.  Contemporary philosopher Alasdair MacIntyre points out, “Straightforward facts” do not exist.  They were “like telescopes and wigs for gentlemen . . . a seventeenth century invention.”[7]  Facts tell us very little about reality; facts need to be interpreted and this requires a theory, an interpretive framework or perspective.[8]  That’s why there’s nothing more practical than a good theory.  The theoretical physicist Werner Heisenberg (1901-1976) taught us that facts are malleable in their meaning; facts can mean one thing in one situation and then mean something else in another, depending upon one’s perspective, one’s theory.  That’s why good theories actually help us understand the facts better; they provide insight into the way the world really is. 

When Einstein was a child he imagined what the world would look like sitting on the tip of a rocket travelling at the speed of light.  That experience later became the basis for his Theory of General Relativity (1915).  As a result, Einstein’s new perspective offered a more accurate understanding of reality, a better description of the physical world, requiring us to set aside the theories of Newtonian physics.

Your theory, your perspective shapes the way you view the facts.  This is why there’s nothing more practical than a good theory.  Good theory will lead you to the truth, lead you into truth, and the facts will fit better.  Bad theory will lead you to untruth where the facts don’t easily fit.  We saw this play out tragically several years ago when former vice president Dick Cheney kept asking the C.I.A., in the build up to the war in Iraq, “Why doesn’t your intelligence support what we know is out there?”[9]  It’s the theory, the perspective that determines what you see.

Sometimes there are things we don’t want to see, can’t see, won’t see.  We are so caught up in our tiny worlds, trapped in what Swiss theologian Emil Brunner (1889-1966) called “I-castles,” our inner fortresses built up to keep everyone out (including God), imprisoned in our self-security from which we are unable to extricate ourselves, let down the drawbridge, cross the moat and live in freedom beyond the castle keep.[10]  In those moments we need someone to come and break down our defenses and pull us out of ourselves—we cannot do this on our own, no one can.  We need someone who gives us courage to reach beyond sight, to step out with carefree abandon into life itself.

That’s what Jesus offers when we follow him—a titanic shift in perspective, a new outlook, a new lens through which we look out upon the world with new energy to live life unconstrained.  That’s why I affirm that the heart of the Christian experience is transformation. 

When we encounter the Risen Christ—or, better, when he encounters us—everything changes and we are never the same.  Our eyes are open and we begin to see things to which before we were blind.  And that’s why it’s often a shattering experience—a graceful shattering—because that’s what it takes to change us.  It’s shattering, but it’s full of grace because it’s offered in love—always offered in love.  It’s an experience that removes falsehood and allows us to move deeper into the truth, deeper into reality, offering us the truth that sets us free.  Old ways are cast aside; new life is given.  You can’t go back to the former way—you don’t want to!  You can’t continue believing in the old way—you just can’t.   Your values change—because they must.  Your perspectives change.  You might even say you’re “born again” (John 3:3).  In love, Jesus breaks open our walls of isolation, pierces our defensive armor, relaxes our fearful egos, and frees us to turn around, to change, to repent (as in metanoia, which means to change our minds, our thinking).   In Jesus Christ we are given a glimpse of God’s perspective and from that vantage point everything changes.

This is what happens when we encounter the Risen Christ or Christ encounters us.  What Paul experienced in that moment was shattering and graceful, but it was shattering and graceful because he encountered the presence of the Risen Christ, a personal presence, who came to him in love. This is critically important to grasp here because Jesus is not an idea to ponder or a fact from the distant past that we verify, and what the Lord requires from his followers is more than our belief and behavior.  Jesus wants more than your belief in him, he wants more than your ideas about him. He wants people who know his significance is greater than his teachings. His teachings only have authority because of the person who stands behind them.  He wants more than your ethical behavior and your “Christian” niceties, as impressive as they might be.  Jesus wants you, your lifeall of it—so that you can come more alive as a person in him, to discover what it means to be human.  God sent the Son, flesh and blood, divine and truly human, a person, to meet us as persons along the road of our lives.  Jesus is a person we encounter, God with a face, not a thing, not an idea, but a personal presence who speaks to us, as the old hymn put it, “who talks with us and walks with and tells us that we are his own.”  He connects with us face-to-face, with a language that convicts even as it redeems.  In the conversation an exchange takes place and in that exchange, through the relationship, that interaction, we are transformed—person to person. It’s our ongoing relationship with God that matters most to God, not our belief and behavior.  When we walk with him our lives will change as we take on his traits, his love, his grace, his mercy, and his joy.  In this divine-human encounter we become more human, which is the whole point of the gospel!

Few can claim a Damascus Road experience exactly like Paul’s. But it happens. Whether in dramatic or subtle ways, the Risen Christ still encounters people today. Whether in a moment or across the many years of a lifetime—which, when compared to the age of the universe, is still but a moment—he continues to tear open our false realities, shatters them, in grace, and allows God’s transfiguring light to shine through.  God’s light “in whose light,” as the Psalmist says, “we see light” (Psalm 36:9)—in whose light we see more light, who gives us ever more to see.  The Risen Christ still meets us along the way and astounds us and changes us. This is the good news: the Risen Christ wants to meet us along the road, wants to open up our eyes, wants to awaken life within us and make something of our lives, lives that glorify God! That’s why it is a privilege, honor, and joy to be part of the Church, serving as fellow-laborers in this holy work, God’s holy work transforming people, transforming the world.

[1] David Buttrick, The Mystery and the Passion: A Homiletic Reading of the Gospel Traditions (Minneapolis:  Fortress Press, 1992), 25.
[2] Buttrick, 25.
[3] Buttrick’s, 26.
[4] Anne Lamott, Traveling Mercies:  Some Thoughts on Faith (New York: Pantheon Books, 1999).
[5] See Acts 9:2, the name given to the early followers of Jesus.
[6] This quote is attributed to Einstein, but also to the physicist James Clerk Maxwell (1831-1879), who had a profound influence upon Einstein’s work, as well as social psychologist, Kurt Lewin (1890-1947).
[7] Alasdair MacIntyre, Whose Justice? Which Rationality? (Duckworth, 1988), 357.
[8] Trevor Hart writes:  “Facts, then, are not the pre-theoretical, value-free, pure units of given ‘public’ experience that popular mythology would have us believe. . . .  Real facts are already theory-laden, quarried from the mass of our experience via a complex process of interpretation, in reliance upon tools to which we entrust ourselves and through the exercise of skills upon the performance of which the success of our quest for knowledge depends.”  Faith Thinking:  The Dynamics of Christian Theology (London:  SPCK, 1995), 56.
[9] Bryan Burrough, Evgenia Peretz, David Rose, and David Wise, “The Path to War,” Vanity Fair (May 2004), 232.
[10] "Man stays concealed in his secure hiding place, secreted behind the walls of his I-castle; and nothing can really entice him out until one meets him who overcomes all the mistrust and anxiety about his very existence which drives him into self-security and there imprisons him.  Man remains imprisoned within himself until the one meets him who can free him, who can break down his system of defenses, so that he can surrender himself, and in this surrender of self receive what he needs to enable him to abandon his securities; that is to say, until that one comes who gives man the life for which he was created." Emil Brunner, The Divine-Human Encounter (London: SCM Press, 1944), 51.     

About the image: I'm grateful to Brian "Doc" Reed for his rendering of Acts 9, "The Road to Damascus."  And I'm grateful to Jim LePage of the Old and New Project for permission to use this image. "The Old and New Project provides a platform for contemporary graphic artists to exhibit works themed on Biblical stories and passages.  It also aims to introduce a new online audience to Biblical art, attempting to replace popular, yet sometimes low-quality, contemporary Biblical art work with the kind of accessible and honorable work that has historically been associated with the Bible." 

03 August 2014

Bless, Break, Give

Matthew 14: 13-21

8th Sunday after Pentecost/ 3rd August 2014
Sacrament of the Lord's Supper

There’s a deep logic in this text, a deep pattern, a fundamental insight into the laws of God’s economy. We’ve probably heard this story countless times before. It’s one of Jesus’ most famous miracles. It’s in all four gospels; that’s how central it was to the early church.  Thousands fed on the lakeshore with five loaves of bread, two fish. There were so many broken pieces of bread leftover that it filled twelve baskets full.  Now, we can try to wrap our minds around how something like this might happen. We can try to figure how this was possible, come up with some rational explanation. All of that would miss the point. There’s more than math and miracles at work here.

Pay close attention to the verbs used to describe Jesus’ actions.  Jesus invited the people to sit down so that they can be served.  That’s what a gracious host does. Here, sit down…. With everyone seated, Jesus took five loaves and two fish, he looked up to heaven, he blessed them, then broke them, and then gave them to the crowds. And all were fed.

Blessed-broke-gave. That’s the deep logic, the deep pattern, the archetypal undergirding of God’s kingdom. It’s the secret, hidden way of God.  Blessed-broke-gave. This, my friends, is the basic, fundamental law of God’s economy.

I’m being intentional here in stressing the use of the word economy.  The English word economy has its origins in the Greek word oikonomia, which means, not high finance, but literally, “household.”  Oikos is Greek for “house;” oikonomia refers to the habits or ways of the household.  The word is found throughout the New Testament.  It’s related to another New Testament word oikoumene meaning “the whole inhabited world,” from which we get the word ecumenical.  In God’s oikonomia, in God’s household, in the ordering of God’s people in the realm of God’s kingdom the world works from a different set of rules, values, and expectations, not the values and rules of the prevailing oikonomia, the household of Caesar.  Life in God’s kingdom is different from Caesar’s kingdom.  God’s economy follows the pattern of blessed, broke, gave. 

This is the foundational law of God’s economy, the way of life in God’s household. In God’s household this is the way the world really works; indeed, this is the way the world is supposed to work. This is the way Christians are to live. And this is the way the church bears witness to the gospel—blessing-breaking-giving. 

This is how it works. We bless.  That is, we give thanks to God for everything—everything, all that we have received, everything gifted to us, including existence itself, everything that provides for our nourishment and nurture, such as some fish and a piece of bread. We bless or thank God for what we have received. All that we have is a gift. What we have doesn’t really belong to us, it’s not ours—nothing is.  (Did you know that in Gaelic there is no possessive form? You can’t say, “This glass of water is mine.” You would say, “This glass of water is at me.”) Because nothing it truly ours and because we are responsible for our neighbor, whoever our neighbor might be, we take what God has given us and we break it—we fracture it, we tear it apart, we rip it apart, we divide it, we break it up into two or three pieces or more. And then we give it away. We share it. We pass it on. Then someone else, your neighbor or a stranger, the stranger who is now your friend, finds himself or herself on the receiving end of a gift. In doing so you’ve given that person an occasion to give thanks and to bless God for what was received. Then after the blessing he or she gets to break it and to give it away. And so the cycle continues. 

This is how God’s household, God’s economy, works. It all begins with blessing, with thanksgiving. It all centers on eucharisteo, the Greek word for “thanksgiving.” Eucharist. We simply call it Communion or the Lord’s Supper.  This table, this meal, this sacrament is a symbol, a witness of God’s kingdom economy enacted through bread. That’s what going on here at the Table of the Lord, in bread that we bless-break-share.

When we live Eucharistically—blessing, breaking, sharing—we soon discover there’s more than enough to go around for everyone. Thousands are fed.  Jim Wallis, founder of the Sojourner’s community in DC, an evangelical Christian who, because he is an evangelical, is passionately concerned about social justice, is really one of our contemporary prophets. In a book that came out several years ago, Rediscovering Values: On Wall St., Main Street, and Your Street, Wallis calls the church and the nation to give an account for the way it lives its life. He makes this simple point: “God’s economy, [God’s household] has two basic points: 1. There is enough; 2. If we share it.”[1] 

Unless we share what we have there’s never going to be enough for anyone, which is precisely Jesus’ point.  Jesus isn’t saying here give away everything you have (at least not here), he’s saying share what you have. Stop hoarding it.  Share it—break it, divide it up.  And we’re free to share what we have when we know that we have more than we need.  That’s the tricky part, because there are many who have been seduced into thinking that they don’t have very much, that they don’t have enough.  Time and again Jesus makes the point that it’s extremely destructive to live with a sense of scarcity, whether it’s money or food or time or talent or even love—scarcity destroys individual lives, families, communities, churches, nations.

Jesus wants his people to live from a sense of abundance, not from a sense of scarcity. Trusting there’s enough and then sharing what we have we discover there’s more than enough to go around. It allows everyone to be fed. This is why the church has a rich history of being so generous—and why the Church of Jesus Christ, I believe, should be one of the most generous institutions on the face of the earth. The Church should be known to the world for its generosity. Because we know what it’s like to be on the receiving end of God’s love in Jesus Christ, we are free to be generous. We give from our abundance, not our lack.  When we know just how much we have received, we’re then free to break it—not because we have to, but because we want to—and then to give it away, freely, sharing it with others so that blessing upon blessing and grace upon grace may fall upon our neighbors.

This story in Matthew, which is more like a parable, is designed to remind us, to teach us, to inspire, to equip us to remember how God’s world is ordered—or should be ordered. Jesus wants his people to live from abundance, not scarcity. There’s enough if we share it. 

In his extraordinary book God the Economist, M. Douglas Meeks makes this central claim: “If the righteousness of God is present, there is always enough to go around.”[2]  This quote is helpful here because the concept of righteousness stands at the heart of the gospel. The meaning of the word stands behind Matthew’s narrative and grounds the meaning of the text. Meeks puts it simply: the “economy of God…is the distribution of God’s righteousness.” It’s important to hear this and to get this point. Biblically speaking, righteousness is not a moral term, nor is it a human characteristic.  Unfortunately, it’s often associated with the English word righteous, as in being morally right or virtuous.  Righteousness refers to God, “the righteous one,” the One who does “steadfast love, justice, righteousness in the earth.” It’s an expression of God’s being, what God does. Righteousness can be translated this way, as: “God’s power for life.”[3]

If God’s righteousness—God’s power for life—is active in our lives, in the church, in the kingdom, in our households and communities, then this power will bring people to life, it will secure one’s livelihood, that is one’s ability to live. This means that when this “power for life” is present and real the hungry get fed and the homeless are given shelter and sanctuary, it means reconciliation and peace will be real. For how can human life flourish in times of alienation, exile, bombardments, terror, and war? When the power for life is not evident, when we stand in the way of God’s righteousness, when we hinder and obstruct God’s will for the world—often by doing nothing, often by minding our own business, often by not caring or not caring enough—then we know we are far from God’s kingdom.  However, when this “power for life” is manifest within our hearts, within our relationships and families, within our communities and churches, we’ll know it and we’ll feel it because people will be given an opportunity to live, to thrive, and to flourish. “There’s always enough to go around” because God’s desire is that everyone be fed. Indeed, “the work of...the Holy Spirit…subverts any [economy] oikonomia based on scarcity. The reason for this is that scarcity as a starting point will always produce an oikos, [a house] in which some are excluded from the means of life.”[4]  That's never God’s will.

All of this is what we affirm and claim every time we gather around the Lord’s Table. Abundance. Come eat. Be fed. Be filled. This is more than just a memorial meal, done “in remembrance of him,” merely remembering what took place long ago. It’s the embodiment of God’s promise to be with us and provide for us. This is why John Calvin (1509-1564) insisted that the Lord’s Supper be included in every Sunday worship service.  
(Calvin was overruled by the elders in Geneva, essentially because that would appear too “Catholic.” Appearing too “Catholic” is not a theological argument for abstaining from Communion.)  Why is this so important?  Because when we approach the meal this way, as the real presence of Christ, the pattern of this meal informs and shapes our lives and ministry. The more we enact the blessing-breaking-giving of the bread, the more our lives enact blessing and breaking and giving. Our lives become Christomorphic, that is, they take the shape of Christ, our lives become formed and reformed by the image of Christ—blessing, breaking, giving—working deep within our psyches.  This, then, is what it means to be Christlike.  

Let us bless the Lord for the abundance in our lives.  Then let us break what we have received; divide it up, in order to share it, to give it away, in order that others, too, may know God’s abundant “power for life.” May the meal show us how it’s done.

[1] Jim Wallis, Rediscovering Values: On Wall St., Main Street, and Your Street (Howard Books, 2010), 120.
[2] M. Douglas Meeks, God the Economist: The Doctrine of God and Political Economy (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1989), 12.
[3] Meeks, 94. “The oikos [house] of God is a gracious gift of God’s righteousness, God’s power for life. God’s gracious goodness gives enough, more than enough, for everyone in the household to live abundantly. The question of economics, will everyone in the household get what it takes to live? is referenced not to scarcity but to the righteousness of God which makes possible the sharing of the household’s store.
[4] Meeks, 94.