After the Pandemic -Transformation?

Contrary to popular assumption and in many cases widespread belief, vibrant and healthy Christian communities have two key characteristics. Healthy Christian communities have a tolerance for doubt. – being communities that recognise that the seeds of faith are most often sown in the fields of doubt. Healthy Christian communities also prioritize human pastoral needs over doctrinal beliefs – communities where belonging comes before believing. To paraphrase Dietrich Bonhoeffer being Christian adds nothing to being human, being Christian puts being human into practice.

The American religious landscape is dominated by church traditions where doubt is seen as the enemy of faith and where correct believing opens the doors to belonging – where to admit to honest doubt closes the doors to membership.

The Episcopal Church and its Anglican Tradition stand in vital opposition to the prevailing expressions of both conservative and populist Christianity in America. Anglican Tradition and experience has always prioritized belonging over believing. Our experience – in tolerating doubt and prioritizing belonging – reflects the Scriptural accounts of life in the first Christian communities – depictions coming to us through the earliest N.T. accounts of early Christian community.

John the Evangelist gives us the earliest account of Christian community in his description of events taking place over two consecutive Sunday evenings following the death of the man Jesus and his resurrection as the Messiah or the Christ. He begins:

When it was evening on that day, the first day of the week, and the doors of the house where the disciples had met were locked for fear of the Temple police, Jesus came and stood among them – he showed them his hand and side and said ‘Peace be with you’. Then he puffed into them saying ‘Receive the Holy Spirit”.

It’s not doors with metal locks, but hearts barricaded by fear that Jesus penetrates. In showing them his wounds, Jesus demonstrates to them – look it’s me, Jesus, and I’m real – I’m not an apparition. Despite the obvious facts that his post resurrection body seems not to be constrained by the normal material limitations – his wounded and scarred human flesh remains the primary identifier of his resurrection body. His wounds show the continuity between before and after – joining his crucified human body with his resurrected body.

Jesus then breathes on them. John uses the Greek pneuma for which a better translation in this context is puff. Jesus puffs the Spirit into them. From pneuma we derive the English adjective pneumatic to describe the action of puffing up or inflating with breath. In Genesis, God puffed breath-wind-spirit into Adam’s nostrils. Jesus puffs the Holy Spirit – the breath-wind of God into his deflated disciples – inflating them into a pneumatic and dynamic community.

John goes on to depict Jesus’ return visit to the disciples one week later – a visit seemingly to encounter Thomas who had earlier announced his doubt – a need for physical proof before he could believe. The epithet doubting Thomas is unfair. He wasn’t the only one to doubt human hearsay. Remember the male disciples had only earlier in the day refused to take Mary and the women’s word that they had seen the risen Lord.

It seems that for Jesus doubt is no barrier to membership in him. What excludes is not honest doubt but anxious fear. We might conclude from John 20 that faith’s opposite is not doubt but fear and the seeds of faith are sown in the fields of doubt.

But it is the pneumatic inflation of the disciples into a dynamic community that is the remarkable discovery from John 20.

In Chapter 4 in Luke’s Acts we have Luke’s second vivid portrait of the community of the first followers of Jesus.

We are surprised to find that within a short space of time a community has sprung up from the band of followers which displays the signs of an incredible pneumatic vitality. We are further surprised to note their shared heartbeat -a bold generosity and willingness to risk departing from conventional ways of living – a community where belonging is an important as believing.

Everyone participates. Everyone dares to show solidarity. Because everyone belongs. Matt Skinner

Many preachers have been quick to deduce from Luke’s description of the Jerusalem community – an early blueprint for Christian socialism. The question that is hard to answer is given what we know about human nature did the Jerusalem community really live this way? The next portion of the chapter tells us of Ananias and Sapphira – who sold property but secretly squirrelled away some of the proceeds for their exclusive use – giving us a glimpse that not everyone was able to rise to demand to hold all in common.

But there is no reason to seriously doubt Luke’s overall depiction. For how else could a fledgling community of mostly poor folk survive in the midst of a wider hostile context? It’s also clear that their encounter with the risen Christ’s pneumatic inflation of the Holy Spirit into them was an every moment experience that accounts for their radical transformation of perspective. For them – as Paul’s fledgling communities continually attest – the power of the risen Christ has turned every normal expectation on its head and they are living in a radically new way.

Taking these two factors together leads us to reasonably deduce that koinonia – the common life – where each gives according to their ability and each receives according to their need – resulted from both material necessity and pneumatic empowerment.

That is then, but what about now? Despite the model of early Christian community presenting a continued challenge to us which we ignore at our peril – the point for us lies not in the simplistic demand to adopt early Christian or even later Christian socialist koinonia as a blueprint for our communal life. The question is more how might this power for transformation inherent in gospel-shaped lives bear witness among us?

Matt Skinner notes that something greater than charity and mission was operating in the community Luke depicts; believers are living out a commitment to belong to one another by addressing the impediments that get in the way of doing so.

Willie James Jennings, the current professor of theology and Africana Studies at Yale, knocks the proverbial nail on the head when speaking of Luke’s depiction of the Jerusalem community he notes that

We see money being used to destroy what money is usually used to create: distance and boundaries between people.

Coming out of the experience of the pandemic during which our world has shifted on its axis in a way that is in some sense comparable to the early Christian experience of the post resurrection Christ – we are in a moment of time when new directions open up – directions hitherto considered as only unrealistic possibilities.

The long-term learning from the pandemic – galvanized by our current experience of imposed isolation and social distancing – offers us a renewed vision of Christian belonging – We have an urgent opportunity to creatively process our guilt as those relatively unscathed who nevertheless cannot sit unchanged in the face of nakedly exposed fault lines that maintain injustice and gross inequality.

The community Luke depicts may not be exactly a workable blueprint for us, but it might be a visionary encouragement for new directions of travel as we commit to using our resources and privilege to destroy what resources and privilege usually create – impediments to belonging and believing together.

On the Friday we call Good

Cover picture: The Way of the Cross, Sadao Watanabe

Some say love it is a river that drowns the tender reed, some say love it is a razor that leaves your soul to bleed, some say love it is a hunger an endless aching need. I say love, it is a flower, and you its only seed. ….

The Rose, Bette Midler

Love hurts and our hearts have an all too familiar affinity with suffering. Yet, if we dwell on suffering, we are in danger of being little more than mere bystanders – spectators of Jesus’ suffering on his way to the Cross.

It’s so easy to stand and watch from a safe distance – comforted by an image of Jesus as the noble hero valiantly travelling the route God has set for him – seemingly heedless of the costs because after all – he has the comfort of knowing ahead of time how things will end – or that’s the way we like to view him.

But we must go deeper than this if we are to move from spectators to participants with Jesus in his Passion. This requires us to choose a different focus – viewing him through a different lens.

We need Jesus to be more like us than not. We are not noble heroes passing through the drama of our lives unscathed. Walking with Jesus on the Via Dolorosa – his road of sorrows – we need to reconnect with the pain of our own losses and sorrows. When we do so – we do not imagine ourselves to be heroes, somehow valiantly marching on – unscathed. We do not imagine our own suffering to be heroic. Suffering is only heroic when it is viewed from outside – through the lens of the onlooker.

Our commonality with Jesus – is that like him – we too know sorrow and are acquainted with grief. He treads his road, a road he nevertheless chooses to accept – and like us, he knows little more than what is revealed as he takes each step putting one foot in front of the other, one breath at a time.

As onlookers of his Passion – what do we feel? Maybe admiration for someone who has more courage than we; maybe gratitude – as if his suffering has relieved us of the necessity of ours. If this is all, then we fail to see that the way of the Cross is God’s invitation to become transformed not by suffering, but by the power of love. Jesus is no noble victim – coerced into sacrificing his life for the sins of the world. Jesus chooses to tread not the road of suffering but the road of God’s transforming love.

The Way of the Cross requires of us nothing short of a transformation in our whole (moral, emotional, and spiritual) way of being. In Jesus, God’s hands get dirty as Jesus takes the initiative and leads us through example. Our acceptance, our entry into the way of love involves risking as Jesus risked. Risk is the raw material for transformation, for:

It’s the heart afraid of breaking, that never learns to dance
It’s the dream afraid of waking, that never takes the chance
It’s the one who won’t be taken, –  who cannot seem to give
And the soul afraid of dying, that never learns to live …

Entering into the way of love leads us to more than a new perspective on our own suffering. Entering into the way of love leads us to a new perspective on the world’s suffering. When we enter into solidarity with the suffering of others – those near us – our neighbors, our family and friends; when we feel a connection with the suffering of those far from us – unseen by us except through the screens of our TV’s or online – we cannot remain unmoved by the necessity of love. For us as a community, the way of love means uncovering and facing-down the cosmic forces of dehumanization woven into the very DNA of our culture and our collective memory. It means risking loving and taking hurt’s risk.

Entering upon the way of love – above all else means accepting an invitation to become transformed into a new way of seeing – transformed by a new way of being, one step at a time –  transformed from timid and grateful onlookers – into willing collaborators with God in the vision of putting the world to rights.

From mere spectators to active participants with Jesus on the road to the cross is a movement through belonging-into-believing; a movement from fear-into-loving – from protected isolation into being loved.

This is not a hero’s path.  Jesus shows us that it is a very human path. On the  Friday we call Good, God shows us the way of love, motivated not by an abhorrence of sin, but by the necessity to love – for God – the impossibility is of not loving enough!

When the night has been too lonely and the road has been too long
And you think that love is only for the lucky and the strong
Just remember in the winter, far beneath the bitter snows
Lies the seed, that with the sun’s love in the spring becomes the rose.

The Rose, Bette Midler

The Clash of Storylines

For a perspective on the events beginning on Palm Sunday I can do no better than to paraphrase Mark Twain: History does not [exactly] repeat itself but it [certainly] rhymes.

Jesus is coming to Jerusalem to celebrate the Passover. Travelling from the house of his friends Lazarus, Martha, and Mary at Bethany – a stone’s throw from the city – Jesus enters Jerusalem through one of its eastern gates as a dangerous rumor takes hold among the pilgrims and citizens overcrowding the city. The crowds are awaiting his arrival with dangerous anticipation.

Jesus could slip unnoticed into the city. Instead, he is choosing to announce his arrival in a tableau – a vivid and dramatic reenactment from the prophet Zechariah:

Rejoice greatly, O Daughter of Zion! Shout aloud, O Daughter of Jerusalem behold, your king is coming to you; righteous and having salvation is He, humble and mounted on a donkey, on a colt, the foal of a donkey.” 9:9

Surely this is a dangerous play – feeding into the growing ecstatic expectations among those carpeting his way with palm fronds stripped from the date palm groves surrounding the city.

The waving of palms is a significant echo in the crowd’s Jewish collective memory – a particular echo that tells us most about their expectations. For some 160 years before, the triumphant Judas Maccabeus, the last leader of a successful Jewish rebellion against foreign domination, led his victorious partisans into the Temple – defiled by the statue that the Syrian tyrant Antiochus Epiphanes had placed of himself in the Holy of Holies. Using palm branches, the Maccabean partisans cleansed and rededicated the sanctuary after its defilement – an event Jews, today, commemorate in the festival of Hanukkah.

A question remains for us however. Is it not curious that Jesus seems to play into the false expectations the crowds have of him as a latter day Judas Maccabeus – a liberator king come finally to lead an overthrow of the hated Roman occupation? Continuing in the mold of Judas, Jesus’ first action after entry to the Holy City will be to cleanse the Temple of the forces of exploitation – those who motivated by greed exploited the necessity of the people – an action of Temple rededication – no longer a den of robbers but restored as the house of God.

The question remains unanswered. Jesus’ consistent stance on his own messiahship has been to play down conventional Jewish expectations – and in the end – only a week away at this stage – to dramatically frustrate and disappoint the crowds who like modern fickle voters inflict their disappointment on him with a vengeance.

History does not exactly repeat itself, but it certainly rhymes.

At the same time as Jesus was entering from the East, another triumphal entry procession wound its way into the city from the West. The Roman Procurator, Pontius Pilate, at the head of his Roman Legion had also come up to Jerusalem for the Passover.

Pilate did not live in Jerusalem – preferring the sea breezes and all mod-con conveniences of Herod the Great’s former capital at Caesarea Maritima, now the administrative center of the Roman occupation of Judea. Pilate loathed and feared Jerusalem’s ancient rabbit warrens seething with civil and religious discontent. He most feared the pilgrim throng crowding into the city for the Passover- which required him to come up to the city with a show of preemptive force in order to forestall the potential for insurrection.

History does not exactly repeat itself, but it certainly rhymes.

For Passover was Israel’s collective memory of liberation from an earlier period of slavery. Pilate’s arrival was indeed a wise move, for the crowds that hailed Jesus’ arrival were in insurrection mood.

Holy Week commemorates the events beginning on Palm Sunday of Jesus’ last week in Jerusalem before the Passover. This is a week in which conflicting narratives or storylines intersect and clash with alarming result.

  1. There’s the storyline of worldly oppression and political violence intersecting with a storyline of populist resistance and nationalist longing.
  2. Both are confronted by the storyline concerning the next installment in the epic narrative of God’s love and vision for the world-through-Israel.

This clash of storylines leads events take an unexpected turn – and rapidly spiral out of control.

Things come to a head  on the eve of the Passover (Maundy Thursday) when Jesus celebrating the Passover meal with his disciples graphically demonstrates the kind of messiah God, not the people, hs in mind.  Turning hierarchy on its head he washes his disciples’ feet. Taking the Passover bread and wine he associates them with his body and blood – soon to be broken and poured out. He leaves them with his simple mandate – maundy in Middle English: love one another as I have loved you; by this shall all know that you are my disciples.  Jesus’ kind of love has consequences: arrest, show trial, and crucifixion – the actions of a loving God’s costly confrontation with a sinful world.

History does not exactly repeat itself, but it certainly rhymes.

Holy Week is the week during which we accompany Jesus on the way of his passion. For some of us, this can be an intensely personal experience as our own experiences of loss and suffering – our passion – surfaces in identification with that of Jesus’. For most of us, however, the nature of our Holy Week experience is less personal and more communal. After the shutdowns of 2020 this year we are relieved to return once again – if somewhat piecemeal – to an experience of Holy Week and Easter as a communal celebration.

For we journey with Jesus as a community journeying to the cross – bearing within us not only our own individual maladies and sufferings but the overwhelming maladies and sufferings of the world around us. Liturgy is the form this journey takes. Liturgy is the transport – taking us together through sacred time. In sacred time – where there is no past and no future only the eternal now – we move beyond memory, becoming in present time – participants in the timeless events that engulf Jesus.

History does not exactly repeat itself, but it certainly rhymes.

Like the crowds praising Jesus as he entered the Holy City, we enthusiastically hail our next political savior until that is, – he or she no longer is.

We long to do the brave thing – until that is, the moment when we don’t.

In sacred time we become participants with Jesus – as if we too are part of his band of disciples during this eventful last week.

With the disciples, we will share in the breaking of Jesus’ Passover bread and drink from his Passover cup – actions that constitute us a community that ministers to the world.

With the disciples, we will accompany Jesus to the Garden of Gethsemane where we too will fight sleep to keep watch with him.

With the disciples we will follow Jesus on the way of his suffering and we will long do the brave thing – until the moment when we won’t.

History does not exactly repeat itself, but it certainly rhymes.

History’s associations trigger memory in real time – uncannily echoing within our contemporary tensions. You see, human beings don’t change much.

Like the crowds praising Jesus as he entered the Holy City, we enthusiastically hail our next political savior – until that is, he or she no longer is. We long to do the brave thing – until that is, the moment when we don’t.

Visit our full Holy Week and Easter schedule here.

Problematic Questions

On the 5th Sunday of Lent, we begin a period known as Passiontide. Passiontide prepares us to move into Holy Week, which for us will begin next Saturday afternoon with an outdoor celebration of the Liturgy of the Palms followed by a livestream celebration on Palm Sunday.

This year we enter this more solemn season troubled by increasing societal division – marked in particular this last week by another shooting atrocity. If any shooting atrocity is not bad enough, this week we have been reminded again of the violence of an emboldened white, male supremacy, which in addition to its traditional targets of blacks and Jews – fanned by the former President’s reckless and mendacious racial tagging of the Coronavirus has over this last year become increasingly focused against the Asian American community.  

The recent shootings across Atlanta should also focus our attention on the sex industry and the vulnerability of the many women of color and in particular of Asian ethnicity who predominate in this industry. Race and anti racism is once more on the national agenda. White supremacist violence and the creed of white supremacy is now something that approaches a national law and order crisis in the face of homegrown terrorism threats. We see a nationwide legislative advocacy of voter suppression bills that have been recently described as Jim Crow in suits. We have witnessed a sharp increase in anti semitic rhetoric and threats against Jews and Jewish property. This is the national atmosphere as we approach Easter 2021.

Holy Week and Easter each year raise an uncomfortable question for Christians – to what extent does the scriptural language we read and hear as part and parcel of our celebration of Holy Week and Easter unintentionally affirm the deep vein of Western antisemitism?

To what extent does the scriptural language we read and hear as part and parcel of our celebration of Holy Week and Easter unintentionally affirm the deep vein of Western Anti-semitism?

It’s important to distinguish this question from another question often asked: are the Evangelists – the writers of the gospels, anti semitic? These are two different questions and have two different answers. Within the context of the 1st-century, the gospel drumbeat of the Jews, the Jews as the catchall phrase identifying the opposition to Jesus can be best understood as expressing a quarrel between two emerging Jewish movements following the destruction of the Temple in 70AD.

The gospel writers were Jews themselves, writing for mixed Jewish and increasingly Jewish-Gentile communities – who as followers of Jesus had been expelled from an equally young and still emerging Rabbinical Judaism. The gospels express a resentment that is a typical Jewish resentment against an opposing Jewish faction. Church and synagogue now face each other on opposite sides of the street – each with competing versions of Israel’s story.

The roots of antisemitism do not lie here but in the later emergence among Christians of the belief that in Christ God had rejected the covenant with Old Israel in favor of the new covenant with the Church as a New Israel. Despite Paul’s vehement rejection of this idea, this belief nonetheless took root and down the centuries grew into the doctrine of supercessionalism o replacement theology. I believe the roots of Western antisemitism can be found in this later development of supercessionalism or replacement theology and not in the attitudes of the gospel authors. Once launched, antisemitism has found any number of historical narratives of envy and resentment quite unrelated to erroneous Christian theology.

In the 20th-century, mainstream Protestant Churches together with the Roman Catholic Church emphatically rejected supercessionalism. Current Church teaching affirms St. Paul’s teaching. As the earliest Christian writer Paul taught that Christians were not subject to the Jewish law but that God nevertheless remained faithful to the covenant he had made with Israel.

Today’s reading from the Prophet Jeremiah on the fifth Sunday in Lent throws and interesting light on the question to what extent does the scriptural language we read and hear as part and parcel of our celebration of Holy Week and Easter affirm the deep vein of Western antisemitism?

In the 31st chapter of the prophet Jeremiah he proclaims:

The days are coming,” declares the Lord,
    “when I will make a new covenant
with the people of Israel
    and with the people of Judah.
 It will not be like the covenant
    I made with their ancestors
when I took them by the hand
    to lead them out of Egypt.
   “This is the covenant I will make with the people of Israel
    after that time,” declares the Lord.
“I will put my law in their minds
    and write it on their hearts.

These beautiful words are uttered against a background of national disaster. Jeremiah is speaking in the immediate crisis of 586-7 following the fall of Jerusalem and the exile of the remaining tribes of Judah and Benjamin to captivity in Babylon. In response to this catastrophe, he offers words of comfort – prophesying an eventual restoration after a period of suffering. So far so good. However, the startling significance in Jeremiah’s prophecy lies not in the promise of return and restoration but in the way he is signaling the emergence of a profound shift in the psychology that would eventually underpin Jewish religious life.

The promise of a new covenant marks a turning point in the spiritual development from religion as a set of external laws to be communally obeyed and collectively observed to religion as a matter of the individual heart – focused on internal intention and loving acceptance within each individual. This development signals an emergence within Jewish understanding of a relationship with God as a mutual knowing that directly paves the way for the eventual arrival of a messiah whose primary focus of teaching will emphasize a personal response of the heart to God -experienced not as a demand to obey but as a call to love.

The first followers of Jesus heard Jeremiah’s words as a direct reference to the spiritual revolution that was reshaping their religious lives. Through our more accurate historical perspective, we know that Jeremiah was not speaking of the coming of Jesus as Messiah but of a shift in Jewish understanding about what relationship with God involved. Henceforth, Torah would cease to be simply a system of laws and duties and would become an internal guide to shaping religious observance as a matter of a heart-felt personal experience of God.

The first Christians, viewing Jeremiah through the Jesus lens understandably saw themselves as the people of the promised new covenant – and of course they were. But the new covenant of which Jeremiah speaks was a process that emerged from within Jewish religious consciousness prior to Jesus. Jeremiah’s words signaled a shift in Jewish religious consciousness as a prerequisite for Jesus- and without which the coming of a messiah like Jesus could not have happened.

Personally I would like us to replace the reference to the Jews in the passion narratives. When referring to a large body of Jews we should say the people. When referring to the religious authorities prosecuting Jesus why not simply name them as the authorities.

We enter Passiontide in 2021, particularly aware of the nature of so much suffering in the world around us, yet also mindful of the power of faith, hope, and love to lead us through darkness into light. As Christians we live beneath the shadow of the cross. In the shadow of the cross, we find ourselves wriggling, often feeling daunted and overwhelmed by the scale of the work God calls us to – a work of naming and rendering evil homeless through truth telling, justice making, and the spiritual restoration that disembodies evil – one truth, one heart, one act of compassion at a time. We are empowered in this task because in the shadow of the cross we also discover it a place of homeopathic transformation – where evil and death are transformed by love into new life.

May our celebration of Holy Week and Easter this year be illumined by the realization that without the psychological shift in Jewish religious consciousness that Jeremiah proclaims to the exiles in Babylon, God’s entry into human history in the life of Jesus; God’s acceptance of Jesus as the Messiah and his raising Jesus from the dead; these mighty acts in human history might have been further delayed.

Resetting the Discipleship Compass

Mark 8:31-38

If faith is to deepen, hope to strengthen, and love to flower in our lives and to flow through us abundantly into our world, Mark 8 is where the journey begins.

I struggle with this text from Mark 8. Feeling stumped over several days, out of curiosity I looked back on how I addressed this text in 2015.

Then, I avoided my current struggle by writing on verse 35 –For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake, and the sake of the gospel, will save it. Back then I wrote somewhat eloquently, if I do say so myself, on the psychological distinction between soul and persona; between living from the expansiveness of our soul which bears the imprint of the divine dream upon us – in contrast to lives dominated by our small individual personal stories constructed from neuronal misfiring of memory.

But times change. 2021 is not 2015. To repeat my 2015 message in 2021 feels to me like an intellectual luxury none of us can currently afford. 2021 asks a different question of Mark’s text – question much closer to the ones Mark wanted his readers to hear.

In 2021 I have to ask – is there anything remotely honest to say to a community like ours in the face of Jesus’ words predicting his passion and death?

Can there be anything more comfortable, more smug than being middleclass Episcopalians? Ours is a Christianity that exacts of us little if any cost at all. Our sense of discipleship – if we even think in these terms – meshes seamlessly with – and offers little challenge to the prevailing materialist worldview of our society.

I could stand here and expound on the costs of discipleship as Mark shows Jesus beginning to explain to the disciples. But by what authority would I do so? My fear is by the authority all hypocrites claim – to be holier than thou.

When it comes to following Jesus on the road of his passion – we are milk toast disciples at best. It’s not that we lack conviction, it’s that our convictions mostly come at no cost to us. That like the disciples as Mark depicts them – we think we can say yes to Jesus but dictate our own terms and reset the direction of travel for our discipleship’s direction.

Get behind me Satan! For you are setting your mind not on divine things but on human things.

In 2021 I feel compelled to address the bruising encounter between Jesus and Simon Peter.

To fully appreciate the searing impact of the encounter between Jesus and Simon Peter we need to go back to verse 27 where Mark reports that Jesus on his way to Caesarea Philippi asked his disciples about what people were saying about him? Reporting the general gossip – the disciples tell him: Well Rabbi, some say this, and some say that. To which Jesus asks: But you – who do you say I am? His question provokes Simon Peter to declare: We know who you are, you are the Messiah! But giving the correct answer doesn’t necessarily mean understanding what that answer means.

Today’s text picks up at verse 31 with: Then he began to teach them —. What Jesus has to teach them is not what they want to hear. Simon Peter – from his culturally conditioned misunderstanding of messiahship speaks up and taking Jesus aside rebukes him with what I imagine probably went like this: What on earth are you talking about, Jesus. What nonsense are you spouting about suffering and death. You are the Messiah – the great king sent by God to get us out of this mess of Roman occupation and restore us to our status of a great and free nation. So, let’s hear no more of this defeatist nonsense about suffering and death. Can’t you see the undermining effect on morale you’re having on the others when you speak like this?

Jesus’ response could not have been stronger. He fixes Simon with a steely gaze and with a heart stopping authority commands: Get behind me Satan! For you are setting your mind not on divine things but on human things.

Flashback to Jesus experience in the wilderness. During his 40 days in the wilderness, faced with hunger, Jesus realizes that stuffing his face and filling his stomach will not provide the satiation for the real hunger within him. Faced with the prospect of ultimate power over earthly things, Jesus understands that justice is not the fruit of omnipotent power. Faced with an invitation to use his superman-messiah powers and jump off the panicle of the Temple and fly, Jesus reaffirms his humanity. For he has only a human body that will be smashed and broken upon the paving stones below. Jesus passes his time in the wilderness – a kind of messiah confirmation hearing by rejecting human desire for mastery and acknowledging his human dependence on God; proclaiming that he will not question his ultimate trust in God.

In the wilderness, Jesus rebuffed Satan’s temptations by calling out the all too human desire for self-protection through the possession and exercise of power. Now, as he tries to open the disciples’ minds to the cost of discipleship he’s confronted by Satan – this time insinuating with the face and voice of Simon Peter.

Is there anything remotely honest to say in a community like ours about our response in the face of Jesus’ prediction of suffering and death? Like Simon Peter, these are not words we want to hear. But unlike Peter we don’t even have the courage to protest. We just tune out – preferring to think the choice is ours whether or not to follow along with Jesus on our own terms and with no cost to us.

Our temptations tend to come cloaked in very ordinary disguise. We enter upon the journey of another Lent – a season in which we are called to face down our temptations through bringing a particular intentionality, a mindful consciousness, to the task of disciplining our addictive appetites, our unruly wills, and distracted minds. We are faced with having to acknowledge the buried sorrows that often find their way to the surface of the mind as anger feeding a legion of envious resentments and grievances. In some instances, the acknowledgment of sorrow demands of us a spirit of repentance for intensions and actions that have hurt others. But there again, it might require what is even more difficult – the offering of forgiveness to those who have hurt us.

All of this is costly enough on the personal and interpersonal level. But what about our connivance with benefiting from the evils of a society in which we still continue to deny that racism, gender identity oppression, sexual identity persecution, not to mention the really big ones – of pandemic and environmental injustice from which all social injustices flow and become magnified – have anything to do with us. Oh, we decry these evils, but are we willing to pay the cost of doing something about them?

What will it take for us to discover what the disciples eventually came to understand – that the fruits of discipleship cannot be separated from the costs?

What will it cost us to be agents with God in the healing of the world? This is Jesus’ 21st century discipleship question. What will it take for us to discover what the disciples eventually came to understand – that the fruits of discipleship cannot be separated from the costs.

My message is not entirely a counsel of despair with a focus on the cost of discipleship along the road of suffering and death. Living on the far side of the resurrection we know that the discipleship path opens us to undreamed fruitfulness of living. But if faith is to deepen, hope to strengthen, and love to flower in our lives and to flow through us abundantly into our world, Mark 8 is where the journey begins. It’s from here we reset our compass needle towards the resurrection.

The Shame of Love

In those daysJesus came from Nazareth in Galilee and was baptized by John in the Jordan. And just as he was coming up out of the water, he saw the heavens torn apart and the Spirit descending like a dove on him. And a voice came from heaven, “You are my beloved Son, with you, I am well pleased.” Mark 1:9-11

Notice how in Mark, God speaks directly to Jesus: “You are my son, the Beloved, with you, I am well pleased”. Compare with Matthew’s account where God says “This is my son, the Beloved,” as if speaking not to Jesus but to a wider audience. For Mark God’s address to Jesus is deeply personal: You are my son, the beloved!

At Jesus’ baptism, God claims Jesus as the be-loved one. At our baptism God likewise claims us as be-loved.

Now I know I am loved by God, but do I experience myself being loved by God? My answer is mixed and equivocal – a yes and no. I know that God loves me. Looking back on my life I can see that God has deeply loved me. Looking to my future I know that God will always love me.  Yet, in the present moment, I often feel very detached from the direct experience of God’s love.

The real challenge of my spiritual journey has been – and remains – to experience the reality that God loves me with an unconditional love in the present moment – a love that has nothing to do with how much or how little I love God in return.

There’s love and then there’s shame. It is tempting for me to put my lack of a sense experience of being loved in the present moment by God down to two sources of shame. Firstly, there is my inability to love God as much as I feel I should. If I loved God more I might feel more of God’s love for me. Secondly, I feel myself to be both unworthy of and certainly ungrateful for God’s love. Despite my longing to more powerfully feel God’s love of me, the sorry truth is shame leads me to shy away from the experience of being loved. Being the one who does the loving – no matter how imperfectly – is easier than being the one who is loved. The lover is always in control while the beloved has no control over being loved. There’s a paradox for in being loved unconditionally exposes me to my sense of shame.

In his poem Love III, George Herbert describes my experience of shying away when God tells me he loves me. I too want to cry out with Herbert: I, the unkind the ungrateful? Ah, my dear, I cannot look on thee. It’s as if I want to tell God: thank you, but no thank you! To be beloved of God is too intrusive and potentially demanding, too intimate an experience. Being loved exposes me to my vulnerability and shame. Between humility and humiliation – there lies the finest of lines.

We are in a continual negotiation around the shame of loving and being loved. As the lover, God pursues us and has no intention of allowing us to set the comfort level for intimacy.

In Love III, George Herbert describes our struggle with the shame that causes us to shy away from the fullest experience of being loved by God.  

 I, the unkind the ungrateful? Ah, my dear, I cannot look on thee.
 Love takes my hand and smiling did reply, ‘Who made the eyes but I?’
 Truth Lord, but I have marred them, let my shame go where it doth deserve. 
 And know you not, says Love, who bore the blame?
 Ah, my dear, then I will serve.

 You must sit down, says Love, and taste my meat,
 So I did sit and eat.  

Yet, in the end, we must capitulate in the face of God’s relentless pursuit to love us. 

I’ve had the courage to speak honestly and in very personal terms because my experience is not an isolated one, unique to me. We all know that when it comes to God’s love, it is not about earning and deserving but believing and receiving. Yet, so much of our identity is predicated on being worthy – which is just a way of dressing up the fact that we want to remain in control. If we are deserving of God’s love, we tell ourselves, it can only be to the extent of having somehow, earned it. What a ridiculous notion!  

The truth is we are be-loved. We are all be-loved because God’s love is a gift – gifted to us without strings. Capitulation to being loved is the only healthy response we can make.

As we move into Lent, let us look more deeply into our own experience of temptation and struggle. In particular, let us face the greatest temptation of all – to allow our shame to come between us and the experience of being loved by God. This is for many of us hard to do and comes only with the practice of prayer and the discipline self-examination – the purpose of which is to let: our shame go where it doth deserve.

Mark ends this section with Jesus returning from his time of preparation in the wilderness to find John has been arrested. The time he says has come, the Kingdom of God has come near, repent and believe the good news! For us Lent is a time remind ourselves that for us also, there’s no time to lose!

[We will be familiar with Love as part of a series of metaphysical poems written by the 17-cenutry Anglican priest, George Herbert. Less familiar to some may be that in 1911, the composer Ralph Vaughan Williams took love together with four others of Herbert’s poems setting them as his Five Mystical Songs within which the poem Love is the third in sequence. You might like to listen here.]

Love (III)
George Herbert - 1593-1633
Love bade me welcome: yet my soul drew back,
            Guilty of dust and sin.
But quick-eyed Love, observing me grow slack
            From my first entrance in,
Drew nearer to me, sweetly questioning
            If I lacked anything.
"A guest," I answered, "worthy to be here":
            Love said, "You shall be he."
"I, the unkind, ungrateful? Ah, my dear,
            I cannot look on thee."
Love took my hand, and smiling did reply,
            "Who made the eyes but I?"
"Truth, Lord; but I have marred them; let my shame
            Go where it doth deserve."
"And know you not," says Love, "who bore the blame?"
            "My dear, then I will serve."
"You must sit down," says Love, "and taste my meat."
            So I did sit and eat.

Journeying!

Last Sunday in Epiphany Mark 9:2-9

We stand in the shadow of the cross – wriggling.

We’ve arrived at the last Sunday in the Epiphany season. Epiphany as a season is a series of showings – of revealings – each one stripping away the filters that prevent us from seeing that which is hidden in plain sight, that is, who Jesus really is. But more significantly – and I want you to hold onto this – the series of revealings not only strips our filters from seeing who Jesus standing in plain sight as the Christ, but also strip away the filters that hide seeing who we are are as opposed to who we want to think we are.

There is a cumulative effect in this season of showings, beginning with the Visit of the Magi to the infant Jesus. Mark does not record this event but takes up the epiphany theme with the Baptism of Jesus, and then in the course of his first chapter to focus the revealing of Jesus true identity through his encounter with the demonic.

It would pay dividends to revisit the sermons for the last two Sunday’s. Two weeks ago, I drew attention to the way Jesus confronts the demonic – not by destroying it but by disembodying it – in effect rendering it homeless. Evil manifests in human bodies, in human hearts, in individual lives – and by extension collectively, in human society.

Last week Linda+ reminded us that:

The vocation of the people of God as healers of the world requires that we not turn away from the evil that manifests itself in humanity’s brokenness and suffering. Seeing it, we must name it and defeat it every time, in whatever form it takes.

We name evil and defeat evil rendering it homeless through truth telling, justice making, and the spiritual restoration that disembodies evil – one truth, one heart, one act of compassion at a time.

We leave the season of Epiphany with the story of the Transfiguration – the final filter stripping event revealing that which is hidden in plain sight. Remember that what is hidden in plain sight is not only who Jesus really is but who we really are. From here, we journey down the mountain of transfiguration to begin the slow Lenten journey of discipline and learning discipleship.

When the filters fall from our eyes we come to see that what is hidden in plain sight – we see ourselves standing in the shadow of the cross – squirming and wriggling.

Of the Evangelists, it is Mark who most graphically depicts this journey that Jesus begins after coming down the mountain. This is the journey that will lead him to his ultimate destination – to Jerusalem and the reality of the cross.

He called the crowd with his disciples, and said to them, 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, and for the sake of the gospel, will save it. (Mark 8: 34-5)

Who in their right mind would want to follow Jesus along this road? Actually, if we were in our right minds this is exactly what we would do. The problem is that we hear this invitation clothed in our wrong minds. Minds shrouded by a preoccupation with our own self interests.

The disciples heard Jesus invitation clothed in their wrong minds which caused them to play dumb, to resist through continually misunderstanding Jesus, and to accept his invitation thinking that they could dictate the terms and set the direction of travel. Mark continually slams the disciples for their willful resistance to the reality of Jesus invitation to follow him. He offers four clear instances of the disciples’ resistance to the true nature of Jesus’s discipleship call from the very outset of the journey from this point of transfiguration:

  1. Peter refuses to accept Jesus’ political fate (8: 31-3)
  2. Peter misinterprets the transfiguration vision (9: 5-7)
  3. The disciples discuss who will be greatest among them (9: 33ff)
  4. James and John try to secure the highest rank (10: 35ff)

In these refusals do we not hear the echo of our own self preoccupations? Like the disciples, we also think we can follow Jesus by resetting the directions of his roadmap and dictating the terms of travel. Like the disciples we stand clothed in our wrong minds. When that which is hidden in plain sight is revealed we find ourselves standing in the shadow of the cross – wriggling.

Think back to how you looked at and felt about the world this time last year. Now ask yourself -how are you different today and what is it that’s made you different? Over this past year we have been buffeted by a prolonged experience of epiphany that has stripped the filters from our eyes – filters of willful and self-protective blindness.

Even though the temptation is to think we can accept Jesus invitation to follow him on the road to the cross in the mistaken belief that we can somehow dictate the terms, do we have a choice? As Christians in some shape or form, we are on the road with Jesus whether we like it or not. The question becomes what kind of experience will we allow this to be?

This Lent the extended pandemic has given us a gift of time – time to be more reflective – time to cultivate a deeper awareness and practice of being in God’s presence – or to put it another way – letting God be more present on our lives. In 2021 we enter Lent with the advantage that we have had a year of buffeting that has worn away our glossy illusions about ourselves and the world we have created.

Lent is a time for discipline. Discipline does not mean punishment. Discipline describes the practices of discipleship-making.

Whatever we decide to do this Lent by way of a different spiritual practice – the key is to to strip away the filters that prevent us from seeing ourselves revealed as we are in plain sight making the disciplines of our Anglican spiritual tradition part of our own daily and weekly experience. These are namely:

  • Prayer – making space in our day for God.
  • Study – deepening our understanding of God’s call to be agents for the healing of a broken world through one truth telling, one heart turning, one act of compassion at a time.
  • Repentance through – making room for sorrow through self-examination, – voicing a lament for the painful journey of loss and suffering we see all  around us, – self-denial as the practice of listening to and privileging others first
  • Worship – journeying to God – not alone – but in the company of others.

Who in their right mind would want to follow Jesus along this discipleship road? Actually, if when we become clothed in our right minds this is exactly what we would do. There is no shame in acknowledging discomfort – to acknowledge our wriggling. Our shame is when we hide our doubts and discomfort from ourselves and from God. So, this Lent, let’s learn to see ourselves standing in the shadow of the cross – wriggling. At least that’s a beginning.

A Fight Scene

Chapter 1 of Mark’s gospel moves at a breath-taking pace. For Mark there is not a moment too soon; there is no time to lose. In verses 21-28, he ushers us into a scene of some significance. Matt Skinner notes that: Possessed by the Holy Spirit, fresh from successfully confronting Satan in the wilderness, preaching the reign of God, and now in the company of at least four followers, it’s time for Jesus’ public ministry to gather momentum. In other words, it’s time for a fight scene. The scene takes place in the synagogue where we find Jesus preaching to the gathered congregation. Within the congregation Mark tells us there are two different sets of ears who receive Jesus message very differently.

Mark describes Jesus as teaching with authority and he uses the word exousia to describe the effect of Jesus’ teaching upon his hearers. In the ears of the congregation Jesus’ teaching provokes utter astonishment causing them to exclaim – what is this? A new teaching – and with authority.  Stephen Hultgren sums it up nicely when he says that in other words, exousia is the “sovereign freedom” of one who acts without hindrance. Immediately they hear in Jesus’ teaching a breaking free of the constraints imposed by the conventional scribal hedging – their umming and aahing of Torah interpretation.

From exousia we get our English word exorcism – which means to bind with authority. The ears of the demons inhabiting the man with an unclean spirit(s) are provoked by Jesus teaching to cry out -What have you to do with us Jesus of Nazareth? Have you come to destroy us? We know who you are the Holy One of God. Matt Skinner notes that the teaching and the exorcism are connected since both result in amazement and acclamations about Jesus’ authority.

However, there is a third set of ears to consider. How do we hear Jesus teaching in Mark 1:21-28? This immediately raises the thorny question of what are we to make of the many biblical stories of exorcism as in Mark 1:21-28?

For us, biblical stories about demon possession echo a pre-scientific mindset in which physical affliction is credited to the action of spiritual forces. We, on the other hand, understand these afflictions as the result of physical or psychological causes. As the heirs of Enlightenment rationalism, we no longer believe in demons or resort to demonology as a causal explanation for human behavior or suffering. By and large we think this is a good thing too!

But even from our seemingly confident 21st-century world view things are not so simple. We are increasingly living into a world that is well and truly beyond the modern-rationalist reductionism that dominated 20th-century thought which arrogantly assumed that given time, all challenges could be brought under human control. We are truly experiencing life in a post-modern world – a world of pandemic and the return of the dynamics and phobias of a global plague; a world which confronts us with a host of issues – spiritual, sociological, anthropological, habitual, political, biological, climatological; issues so interconnected that we are not even capable of so neatly dividing them into such categories. The common feature of all these issues is that they appear to remain stubbornly beyond our ability to control. 

In Mark’s story we should notice that the demons are not free-floating spirits, but are embodied spirits. Jesus does not destroy them, he disembodies them.

It is no accident that Mark chooses an exorcism to inaugurate Jesus public ministry. The importance of such a story for us lies not in its cause-and-effect attribution to evil forces.

Mark relates and event that still speaks to us of our experience of forces that are beyond our control -because- they are embodied within us.

So here’s the point about the host of issues – spiritual, sociological, anthropological, habitual, political, biological, climatological; issues so interconnected that we are not even capable of so neatly dividing them into such categories – is not just that they remain stubbornly beyond our ability to control but that they continue to exercise power over us through their embodiment within us.

In binding evil, Jesus strips the spirits of their human embodiment denying them the capability to have a settled place or entrenched influence in the world. Jesus confronts the power of evil not by eliminating it but by banishing its individual and systemic embodiment from human affairs. As his followers we are called to likewise confront and bind – banish all those isms of race, ethnicity, gender, identity, privilege, and environmental denial; to strip these evil spirits from their embodiment in our individual and social lives. At the heart of this host of isms we find enthroned the most corrosive isms of all – skepticism and cynicism.

Of all the gospel writers, within the scope of his first chapter Mark most concisely and clearly declares the priorities with which Jesus inaugurates his announcement of the kingdom. After calling others to join him and to share his ministry he initiates a confrontation with the forces of evil – denying them embodiment from which they draw the power to hold ultimate sway over our lives.

Can there be any confusion in our minds about what it means to hear the call to come: come follow me and to go and do likewise?

No Time To Lose

Mark 1:14-20, I Cor. 7:29-31

You are sitting minding your own business by the water’s edge, just getting on with the work at hand when this rather interesting guy appears in your peripheral and calls out hey you, yes you, come follow me! So, what would you do? If you get up to follow, what might be going through your mind? If you ignore him, again what might be going through your mind?

I would hope that I might be at least curious – let my curiosity get the better of me and find out what this guy’s about. Of course, Galilee is a small place and I may already know this guy by his reputation -which is doing the rounds on the local gossip grapevine.

Yet, if I acted true to form, my natural suspicion coupled with a sense of not wanting to complicate my life any more than it already is – would have me weighing up the pros and cons of a yes or no response. Like most of the people I know, I’m not a spontaneous – throw caution to the wind – kind of person. A big con – as in contrary indicator would be what’s it going to cost me to get involved? After all, anything for a quiet life.

Chapter 1 of Mark’s gospel moves at a breath-taking pace. It opens on the grand panorama of Jesus’ descent from the hill country into the valley of the Jordan to join the crowded throng of those streaming out from Jerusalem to listen to John the Baptizer and be baptized by him in the river Jordan. There follows Jesus’ own baptism – the occasion for a second epiphany as the heavens are torn apart as God loudly adopts Jesus as his son.

For Mark there is not a moment too soon; there is no time to lose. In the encompass of Mark’s first chapter Jesus is baptized and tested. John is arrested and Jesus calls his first disciples. He preaches in the synagogue provoking the unclean spirits to cry out in fearful protest, and there’s astonishment among the congregation at the authority of his teaching. He heals Simon’s mother-in-law and the whole city gathers at Simon’s door. An exhausted Jesus seeks solitude during the small hours of the night, only to be hunted and hounded by his disciples’ panic as they desperately look for him. The day no sooner begins, when a leper comes begging to be healed. Things are moving very fast, indeed. The chapter ends with the healed man broadcasting Jesus’ fame far and wide – specifically against Jesus’ instruction to keep things on the down-low.

At verse 14 mark begins: Now after John was arrested Jesus came to Galilee, proclaiming the good news of God, and saying the time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near; repent and believe the good news.

His sense of urgency does not allow Mark to dwell on too much detail in the telling of his Jesus biography. Intent on keeping up a sense of urgency he adds nothing that would cushion the impact between decision and action. Mark wants to present Jesus as someone of such charismatic presence and authority that it never occurs to these busy fishermen not to follow him.

Perhaps there have been times in our lives when we have had a similar experience of being arrested by another’s charismatic request – that so excited us, had our heart pounding, blood pressure rising that saying no was an option that just didn’t occur to us. Whether such an experience has happened to us or not – it’s hard to put ourselves in the shoes of the disciples as Mark depicts them. We live lives of such caution – deeply formed by a culture of suspicion – continually preoccupied with the prospect of loss following hasty ill thought through action. Our actions are preceded by solemn deliberation, habitually weighing the pros and cons before acting as a buffer insulating us from the experience of urgency.

Who among us do not at some level desire to be a part of something greater than ourselves – to be caught up in a greater cause bringing to ordinary lives marked by frustration and limitation a sense of greater purpose and direction?

With equal measure of trepidation and desire I suspect we might secretly desire encountering the kind of hey you, yes you – kind of call – wrenching us out of the mind-numbing mundanity of our lives – filling us with passion and conviction. Perhaps this was the experience of so many who heeded the former-President’s call to mount an insurrection. The desire to respond to a call to action -triggering passions born of disillusion and dissatisfaction – is a moment of intoxicating liberation – a sense of being part of something so much greater than our small selves.

Who among us do not at some level desire to be a part of something greater than ourselves – to be caught up in a greater cause bringing to ordinary lives marked by frustration and limitation a sense of greater purpose and direction?

In answer to my opening question – so, what would you do? The likelihood of getting up and following Jesus is slim. We are not the kind of people who take this kind of risk – perhaps more’s the pity! Because despite whatever secret desire we harbor in the deeper regions of our hearts, our kind of faith works to insulate us from the urgency of the kingdom’s expectations. Do we even recognize kingdom expectations in the first place? For instance, take the call for repentance. Repentance is mostly a noble notion to be attained to rather than a pressing concern driving us at the level of daily urgency.

If we are likely to be unmoved by a hey you – yes you call to discipleship what might move us from complacency to urgency?  I think we need to take a second look at Mark 1:14.

The first thing Mark does is to set the stage with: Now after John was arrested. Mark sees John’s arrest as the catalyst moment for Jesus to launch onto the public stage with his proclamation manifesto – listen up, the kingdom of God has arrived!

Last Sunday I announced that we find ourselves in a liminal season defined as the sweet spot between the known and unknown where originality happens. Simon, Andrew, James and John get up to follow Jesus without a second backwards glance because they’ve little to lose given their predicament as itinerant fisherman struggling to make ends meet under a Roman occupation – an economic system in which everything was stacked against them. In short they are propelled by a sense of urgency for change.

Jesus announces the arrival of a window of time between the known that has ceased to work and the unknown yet to be tested.

Jesus announces the arrival of a window of time between the known that has ceased to work and the unknown yet to be tested. Jesus announces the arrival of  a liminal time in which the past remembered pivots towards the future reshaped. His call to the disciples is an invitation that reverberates through every cell of their bodies – every fiber of their being.

St Paul clearly understood the vibrant urgency of the kingdom’s call when in 1 Corinthians 7 he writes: I mean, brothers and sisters, the appointed time has grown short – for the present form of this world is passing away.

We need to think about repentance not so much as sack cloth and ashes but as our wholehearted support for change. Discipleship for us means in the words of a somewhat overused yet important phrase – EMBRACING with fear and trembling, sorrow and remorse, the very change we long to see.

But what of us? Do we hear God calling us to a recognition that the time has grown short the form of this world is passing away. The call to discipleship for us is less of a personal charismatic rapture and more an urgent recognition of the need for repentance. We need to think about repentance not so much as sack cloth and ashes but as our wholehearted support for change. Discipleship for us means in the words of a somewhat overused yet important phrase – embracing with fear and trembling, sorrow and remorse, the very change we long to see.

For Mark there is not a moment too soon; there is no time to lose. For Paul the form of this world – the pall of injustice and greed that cloaks a deeper view of creation’s possibilities – is passing away.

A modern paraphrasing of Mark 1:14 – an announcement of a liminal time – might read as follows: Now after the onslaught of the pandemic laying bare all that is wrong in our world and bringing the specter of death to Americans numbering in the hundreds of thousands; after decades of the powerful sowing the seeds of division and suspicion for power and profit leading to an attempt to overthrow the Constitution incited by a sitting president desperate to cling to power; we are rudely awakened to:

Lift our gazes not to what stands between us
but what stands before us
We close the divide because we know, to put our future first,
we must first put our differences aside
We lay down our arms
so we can reach out our arms to one another
We seek harm to none and harmony for all
Let the globe, if nothing else, say this is true:
That even as we grieved, we grew
That even as we hurt, we hoped
That even as we tired, we tried
That we’ll forever be tied together, victorious
Not because we will never again know defeat
but because we will never again sow division. Amanda Gorman.
 
There really isn’t a moment too soon, there’s not time left to lose. Amen.

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