What Goes Around, Comes Around: Luke 6: 27-38

As I pointed out last week, Matthew’s Sermon on the Mount and Luke’s Sermon on the Plain are different treatments of the same story, each shaped by the particular concerns and ideologies of the writer. Luke’s presentation has a directness that brings Jesus’ teaching into the tense and contested negotiations of everyday life. In particular Jesus addresses the two most intractable problems that promote competition between one person and another, between one group in society and another, between the few and the many.

If anyone strikes you on the cheek, offer the other also; and from anyone who takes away your coat do not withhold even your shirt.

Faced with this text even Christians who believe all scripture should be read as the plain meaning of the words on the page will feel the impossibility of taking these words on this page at their face meaning. Love our enemies – at least in principle is a noble aspiration, and we would expect an idealized and perfect Jesus to have said nothing less. Yet, when practiced as Jesus suggests it implies relinquishing all appropriate measures of self-defense and self-assertion.

For most of us we are forced to reject the plain meaning of the text because it’s impossible to live like this. To do so is to embrace a spiritualized form of emotional masochism, a recommendation frequently offered to women in the face of male domestic violence. This text has often been the justification for accepting one’s helplessness, one’s powerlessness.

Is Jesus asking us to give up all power and material protections in situations where another seeks to impose themselves upon us?

When everything in this section of his teaching is seen as pivoting on the line do to others as you would have them do to you, I think a clearer perspective emerges.

Between one person and another, between one section in society and another, there lies a contested ground. Our competitive society promotes self-protection and if not a spirit of strike first before you are struck, at least if struck, strike back harder. Everyday life is viewed from the competitive perspective of contested ground. Each of us must be the first to occupy the contested ground. It does not require much imagination to see what results from this.

In his commentary on Luke in the New Interpreters Bible, Alan Culpepper notes that Jesus teaching is both a repudiation of privilege based on wealth and the repudiation of retaliation that spawns violence. He notes that Jesus’ teaching is:

diametrically opposed to the assumptions of the marketplace and the media that shape American culture: The wealthy are privileged, and conflict requires that one show strength through retaliation. Our heroes, therefore, are usually neither poor nor non-violent. As a result, the power of materialism and the question for possessions have increased dramatically during this century and violence in our homes, schools, and streets is rampant.

Is the choice only between strength and weakness, invulnerability and vulnerability? If you read Jesus words in a binary fashion, black or white, true or false, then you are rather stuck in the face of this question. Remember the pivotal line in this section of the Sermon on the Plain is do to others as you would have them do to you. This line counteracts notions of competition by establishing a fundamental commonality between parties in the contested areas of everyday life.

It’s important to remember that Biblical texts have an original context and understanding this often will open up new and unforeseen possibilities of meaning.

Jesus uses the very specific language of striking on the cheek and there is a context in his world for doing this that makes his meaning here clearer. Without knowing this we either reject his words as parabolic- exaggerated and thus impossible to apply, or we think he’s telling us we need to become passive doormats in the face of others aggression.

In Jesus time the standard practice for masters disciplining slaves, fathers disciplining children, and husbands disciplining wives was to give them a good slap on the face. As far as acts of aggression go this is a relatively non injurious way of showing who is the boss. The real point of slapping someone in the face is not to injure them, but to humiliate them. If you’ve ever been slapped in the face you will know that the blood rushes to the surface of the skin, not simply because of the physical force of impact, but because of the shame of this experience. If someone punches me in the stomach, I will pull back and nurse my injury. I will look at them and ask, why? If someone slaps me in the face, I am more likely to strike back as an automatic response, spurred by the rage of the humiliation inflicted on me.

Now here is where original context comes in. Masters, fathers, and husbands struck the left cheek of the lower status person with their right hand. When Jesus says turn the other cheek, he is saying present the right side of your face to be struck. But the striker can’t slap your right cheek with his right hand. To do so he would need to use his left hand. In a society where left hands were only used for actions considered unclean, there would have been a prohibition from using the left hand in this situation because to do so would bring intense social shame to the striker.

Presenting the other cheek is not the action of becoming a doormat, a passive acceptance on another’s violence, it is to defy the aggressor with a nonviolent action of resistance.

Likewise, the requirement to give up my coat and even my shirt is a challenge to my reliance on the material protections of wealth and security within which I insulate myself from the more direct challenges of life. We live in a society that encourages the acquisition of material wealth and power as the best forms of self-protection and self-preservation. This is about our aquistive and possessive attitude to material possessions.

When Jesus tell his hearers to give up their coat and even their shirt, he is affirming God’s intention of creating a world where there is enough for all to share. A situation of my having more than I need resulting in another having less than they is a product of the injustices of distribution and inequalities of access. This is what Jesus is asking us to confront directly through our nonviolent willingness to share with others from our abundance.

Do to others as you would have them do to you.  

Attitudes and actions have a habit of interconnecting, interpenetrating in a field of complexity. Resistance is not acceptance. Where violence provokes violence, Jesus asks us to interrupt and redirect this dynamic by offering nonviolent resistance in the face of aggression.   Towards the end of this long teaching Jesus says:

Give, and it will be given to you: a good measure, having been pressed down, shaken overflowing will be given into your lap. With what measure you measure it will be measured to you.

What goes around comes around, as the old saying goes.

Are Your Ears Burning Yet? Luke 6:17-26

In last Sunday’s installment of Christian Essentials, i.e. those core understandings that underpin our identity and experience as Christians living in this present age, we engaged with the second question – Who is Jesus?

Who is Jesus? The answer first finds it’s echo in the book of Isaiah’s longed-for expectation of one arising in whom God’s promises to Israel will be fulfilled. For the early Christians Jesus is the embodiment of this Hebrew longing. In Jesus the first Christians experienced the inauguration of God’s plan of setting not only Israel, but the whole world to rights.

The writers of the New Testament present different portraits of Jesus, and I write about this in more detail in the Christian Essential series on the website. It’s enough to say here that the gospel writers are like portrait painters. Even when the subject of the portrait is the same, the interpretation of what the painter sees is always particular to the painter. The subject of the portrait emerges through the filter of the artist’s world view.

Jesus’ sermon known as the beatitudes is one of his most loved, yet also one of the most misunderstood and argued over of his teachings. That Matthew and Luke depict this incident in which Jesus teaches through the beatitudes differently only adds to the confusion.

In 2019, Epiphany 6 gives us Luke’s portrait of this event in Jesus’ teaching ministry.

The difference between the Matthean and Lucan versions of this story reminds me that in the later traditions of Western religious painting, holy scenes are set in the foreground against a deeper background that is full of highly symbolic detail. It’s the background detail that differs greatly from painter to painter. It is so with Matthew and Luke. The difference in the way each situates Jesus’ teaching against a particular topographical background alerts us to a tension that goes to the very heart of our experience as Christians in today’s world.

In your mind’s eye create the following scene: Matt 5:1: When Jesus saw his ministry drawing huge crowds, he climbed a hillside. Those who were apprenticed to him, the committed, climbed with him. Arriving at a quiet place, he sat down and taught his climbing companions. This is what he said: …. .

Now picture this: Luke 6:17: Coming down off the mountain with them, he stood on a plain surrounded by disciples, and was soon joined by a huge congregation from all over Judea and Jerusalem, even from the seaside towns of Tyre and Sidon. They had come both to hear him and to be cured of their ailments. Those disturbed by evil spirits were healed. Everyone was trying to touch him—so much energy surging from him; so many people healed! Then he spoke: …. .

The scene painted by Matthew is known as the Sermon on the Mount. Here we see Jesus emerging as the new improved Moses, delivering his new model Torah from the mountaintop only to those who constitute the new and improved community of Israel. 

Luke’s depiction of this scene is known as the Sermon on the Plain. Jesus emerges clothed in the hues of Isaiah’s universalistic figure ushering in the messianic age: Nations will come to your light, and kings to the brightness of your dawn. This is an age characterized by an expansion of God’s promises beyond Israel to include the whole world.

As well as being an embodiment of Isaiah’s messianic vision, Luke depicts Jesus as a cosmopolitan healer, an image that conveyed wide appeal to Luke’s Gentile audience.

Luke’s Jesus, having broken out of the straitjacket of Jewish expectation comes down from the lofty isolation of the mountain top to mix it up with all in sundry in an intimacy with the desperate and seething throng of humanity; promising healing to all.

Between mountain and plain lies the tension between different approaches to what living the Christian life involves; a tension that continues into our own time. There is a Matthean approach that from a lofty height emphasizes the distinction between who’s included and who is not, who’s committed, and who isn’t, where the question always is: how high do you have to jump to get into the kingdom? Then there’s the Lukan approach that assumes that none of us can be included in the kingdom while any one of us remains outside – that is, intentionally excluded from the invitation of the kingdom God.

Matthew’s portrait of Jesus delivering the Sermon on the Mount emphasizes the importance of holding firmly to spiritual values sustained by the promise of future reward. Here Jesus proclaims: blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven – a phrase that suggests some future state.

Luke’s portrait of Jesus delivering the sermon on the Plain emphasizes human experience in real time. Jesus says: Blessed are the poor, for yours is the kingdom of God –a phrase that suggest something right now in real time.

To Matthew’s: Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they will be filled, Luke says: Blessed are you who are hungry now, for you will be filled.

Matthew addresses his hearers in the third person – they, theirs leaving the hearer with a more impersonal and generalized experience. Luke uses the more direct second person address– you and yours, as in: hey you, yes you, I talking to you!

In truth, a balanced Christian life must acknowledge the Matthean emphasis on an expectation of a future fulfillment of kingdom promises through perseverance and courageous faithfulness in the face of very real present time challenge.

However, it’s the Lukan emphasis on living in the kingdom now, not looking forward to it in the future that is the greater priority for Christians in today’s world.

We need to do more than hold firm in the face of the evils of the world in the hope that all will come right in the end. We are required by Jesus to continue his work of agitating for the arrival of the kingdom of a God who is already present and active in the world, and who requires our assistance through the action we take in real time.

Although I value Matthew’s very Jewish depiction of Jesus’ message as the promise or expectation of future rewards for present fidelity, it’s those who feel comfortable with the status quo of worldly business as usual, ignoring or explaining away the systemic inequalities and injustices that characterize our present social order who will choose Matthew for support. Looking to Matthew’s spiritual emphasis for justification, they avoid the uncomfortable truth of Luke’s Jesus who counters blessing with threat as well as blessing.

But woe to you who are privileged now, for you will be subpoenaed to give account. Woe to you who are now satisfied, for you will know the hunger when self-satisfaction fails to fulfill. Woe to you who are enjoying the good life now, for disaster is always only one breath away.

Luke’s is a political message about confronting economic injustice, the self-satisfied pride of the rich, by living the kingdom’s expectation for greater social and racial inclusion as a present imperative for the Christian life.

This is a call to action, which if heard,are your ears burning yet?

Christian Essentials:3. God Jesus and the Church

Summary so far

  • God is relational or communal and not solitary or individual – evidenced by the use of we and our pronouns in Genesis 1. The Genesis creation accounts of God as Creator bringing order to the universe are set in the predawn before human history. But we also find here that the means through which the creator acts is the spirit – that hovers over the abyss. We refer to the Genesis origin accounts as myth or stories that convey timeless truth – set in the predawn before history.
  • In Exodus God’s identity is further enriched when through relationship with Moses God appears within the historical record of a particular community as the self-declared Liberator.
  • In Jesus as the Messiah God’s identity is further expanded for humanity as a God who loves acting through his appointed loving Savior. With Exodus we begin the great epic or the story of God’s relationship with Israel which the first Christians came to understand as an epic (story that unfolds within time) fulfilled in the life, death and resurrection and finally the ascension of Jesus the Messiah.
  • The early Church gropes its way to articulating through the doctrine of the Trinity its experience of a relational God as hinted at in Genesis 1.

Next steps

  • Within the divine community we can identify creative, expressive, and energetic elements which the Nicene Creed refers to these as persons- sharing the same substance. Three persons but one unified identity.
  • The expressive- communicative aspect of the divine community is known as Logos (word, reason or plan). In English we translate this rather inadequately as the Word. The Word enters into creation in the human person of the Jesus (refer back to session 2).
  • The divine person of The Word and the human person of Jesus co-exist alongside each other within a human life. The divine and the human sit in mutual relationship – healing the breach between Creator and creation.
  • Through the death and resurrection of Jesus – resurrection as understood as life, after life after death – God realizes God’s historic promise of liberation and restoration of the creation through an act of bringing the future into the present. In raising Jesus from the dead, God demonstrated ahead of time as it were, what he intends for the resurrection of a new creation at the end of time.
  • The Church sits in the time in-between the resurrection of Jesus and the resurrection of the world – the age of The Holy Spirit.
  • As in Jesus the divine and the human co-existed, so now the divine Spirit (the energetic expression of God which hovered the chaos at creation) and the human institution or organization co-exist alongside each other in the life of the Church which as the Body of Christ continues to embody the ministry of Jesus in the world.

What is the Church? The short answer is the Church is the human community that through its divine empowerment by the energetic Spirit of God continues the work begun by Jesus of setting the world to rights.

The Holy Trinity

The Trinity is the doctrine that speaks of God’s essential nature as three persons in one identity. Before the Trinity was a doctrine it was an experience of the first followers of Jesus the Messiah that gave the particular shape to their experience of God. They already knew of God the Creator. They had come to personally encounter God present in the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus – God the Logos or Word. Finally, they had the experience of God infused within them and all around them as Holy Spirit.

This three-fold experience of God was a lived one. With the passage of time, the immediacy of this experience among the followers of Jesus needed an official articulation. The influence of Greek philosophical thought grew among the successive generations of increasingly Gentile Christians so to became the language for speaking about this unique experience of God.

The Holy Trinity is a philosophical doctrine that gave the growing Christian Church the language to both speak about their experience of God. The function of doctrines is not to explain anything, but to protect the mystery that is God. The primary function of the Trinity as doctrine is not to explain God but to protect the mystery that is God from being reduced to only that which successive generations were able to understand.

In Greek thought, the term person could be used to speak about different identities that nevertheless shared one nature or substance – hence three persons in one God.

It might have been simpler for the Early Church if it had used instead of Aristotelian Logic the simple poetry of the Ancient Irish:

Three folds of the cloth, yet only one napkin is there,
Three joints of the finger, but still only one finger fair,
Three leaves of the shamrock, yet no more than one shamrock to wear,
Frost, snow-flakes and ice, all water their origin share,
Three Persons in God; to one God alone we make our prayer.

A modern reframing

Our individual sense of self – who am I, is constructed out of a complex dynamic of being in relationship with others. Who I think I am is as much a function of how I perceive others viewing me. I catch a glimpse of myself in the face of the other, looking back at me. This is a wonderful analogy for the identities or persons within the divine community of the Trinity.

You might like to visit http://www.sacredheartpullman.org/Icon explanation.htm  which expresses this concept of beholding and being beheld in the gaze of the other. Rublev’s divine persons express their individuality through their look at each other, yet they look with exactly the same face.

Relationship over Function

The Father (the lover) is the creator source of all things. The Son (the beloved) is the communicator of all things – the Logos or Word. The Holy Spirit (love sharer) is God in all things. But the main point is not their functions but their relationship. They enjoy a relationship which is the fruit of each divine person discovering themselves in the gaze of the other two.

Traditionally we used the names Father, Son, and Holy Spirit to refer to God. What’s important about these names lies not their gendered nature, but as relational terms. Sometimes we attempt to escape the gendered overtones of these traditional names for God by talking of creator, redeemer, and sanctifier. These are certainly adjectives that describe function, but they cannot express relationality. Therefore, we should avoid referring to God by use of functional adjectives and instead find other terms that denote relationship. I prefer lover, beloved and love sharer. Each term links and refers to the other two, which is the nature of relationship.

Baptism – Belonging Preceding Believing

Baptism is the ceremony of entry into the Church. Contrary to a lot of popular belief, baptism is not about individual salvation. Baptism is entry into belonging. Belonging therefore comes before believing. One Christian is no Christian. Being Christian is to belong within the community that is called Christian.

Baptism involves four key elements:

Spirit. Baptism finds an echo in the actions of God’s Spirit hovering and brooding over the void at creation in Genesis 1. It also finds echo in the Spirit breathing life into the lungs of the human being fashioned out of the elements of the earth in Genesis 2. The Spirit, which is the source of all life, is given to us through the gift of the Holy Spirit. For Christians the Holy Spirit is the sanctifying and sustaining energy of God active in the world.

Water is elemental. It sustains life and there is no life without water. In addition to nourishing, water cleanses and restores. In our baptism we find an echo to the passing of the Israelites through the waters of the Red Sea – a rite of passage. In the waters of baptism, we also die and rise to the new life in Christ and become sealed in this new life of Christ by the power of the Holy Spirit.

Covenant. In the 31st chapter of Jeremiah God speaks of a new relationship with his people in which his law is transformed from a set of commands to something written on the inside of their hearts. In baptism we are signing ourselves into the New Covenant initiated by Jesus through the cross and resurrection. Baptism is our response to God’s invitation to enter into covenant. Like a contract, a covenant is a conditional offer that requires a response of acceptance to transforms it into something potential to something realized.

Community. All of created life is sacred. Physical birth ushers us into the goodness of God’s Creation. Being created involves neither a choice nor a response from us. In this sense to be human is to be most like God. Baptism reminds us that no one drifts into the Kingdom of God by mistake. As Christians we embrace the fundamental goodness of creation by making the choice to enter into a deliberate and particular covenant with God. In this sense being Christian is to know that to be human is to be most like God. Baptism is our entry into the saving and cross bearing community we call the Church.

Additional Elements

  1. Baptism is the same for all whether you are three months-old or 30 years-old.
  2. It is a once in a lifetime event.
  3. No prior knowledge or demonstration of faith is necessary to be baptized. What is required is an intention to journey within the community of the Church. Belonging precedes believing.
  4. The importance for baptism is what happens following it. Its meaning and effect grow within us through a daily renewal of our baptismal promises of the Baptismal Covenant.
  5. There is no special status within the Christian community beyond that of being baptized. Both St Paul in Romans 12 and the writer of 1 Peter:2 speak of the community of the baptized as a royal priesthood.
  6. Even those set aside by ordination hold the same spiritual rank as all other baptized members.
  7. Ordination for ministry is recognition and empowerment by the whole body of the baptized of leaders to guide the community into becoming more fully the Body of Christ in the world

Baptism and The Eucharist

Any baptized person, no matter their age is invited to receive Holy Communion. Why? Because Baptism is the sacrament of entry into community of the Church and Eucharist is the participation in the life of that community. In the early Church each community was headed by a bishop. Bishops baptised and confirmed in the one service. As the numbers of churches grew it was less possible for each to have its own bishop. Priests became the bishop’s delegate and while they were empowered to baptise confirmation was still reserved to the bishop. Thus a time gap arose between baptism and confirmation and in the Medieval English Church the custom arose of linking later confirmation with admission to communion. This was a practical decision not a theological one. Theologically speaking, confirmation adds nothing to the effectiveness of baptism. The 1979 Prayer Book recognised this by admitting infants and children to communion following baptism. Confirmation became seen as the individual’s opportunity to confirm baptismal the vows, made on their behalf at their baptism by the godparents and not as the entry rite to communion.

What does the Church believe?

There is a funny story told about Fr. Harry Williams who was a well-known member of the Community of the Resurrection – one of the great missionary communities in the Church of England (Desmond Tutu along with a generation of South African leaders were all educated by CR.)

Over the top of each monk’s stall in the choir was a light operated by pulling a dangling cord. When the monks all stood for the recitation of the Nicene Creed, Fr. Harry would sit down and turn off his light when they came to particular lines in the creed he didn’t believe.

I am often asked do we have to believe every line of the creed? Well Fr. Harry Williams clearly didn’t. But this is an amusing anecdote because Fr. Harry should have known that we say the creed not as a statement of individual belief, but as a statement of what the Church has always believed.

The Nicene Creed represents the historic faith of the Church. We have a dynamic relationship to shared faith. Some bits we readily affirm while other bits we may have doubts about and this is a continually moving target over a lifetime. This may change from day to day as an expression of how we are feeling – hopeful or despondent.

However, the faith of the Church continues to remain the faith of the historic community. Its truth does not rely on our individual assent, nor is it invalidated by our individual doubts.

The Church has down the ages affirmed its shared belief in God as Trinity, and in Jesus as both divine and human, not in order to explain God but to protect God from being explained away.

For further reflection

  1. One Christian is no Christian. Discuss.
  2. How might a growing sense of 1. above influence the way you live and think about your membership in the Church?
  3. Trace in your mind’s eye the emergent sequence of experiences that led the first Christians to conceive of God as Trinity.
  4. How do the five vows of the Baptismal Covenant BCP pg 304-05 influence your actions and worldview?
  5. Go to the link given for the Rublev Icon of the Trinity. Gaze at it. Note the sequence of movement from Creator to Word to Spirit. Reflect on the experience of gazing at identical figures and ask yourself the question: the figures look identical, but do they feel the same to you?

Christian Essentials Who is Jesus?

Jesus in the Old Testament

The Prophets in the Old Testament look forward to the fulfilment of God’s promise to raise up a Messiah – an anointed one – whose coming will usher in a new age of fulfilment for Israel.

The book of Isaiah offers two significant images for the Messiah: that of a child and the other of a suffering servant. In First Isaiah chapter 7 we read:

Therefore the Lord Himself will give you a sign: Behold, a virgin will be with child and bear a son, and she will call His name Immanuel.

In Chapter 9 we also read:

For a child will be born to us, a son will be given to us; And the government will rest on His shoulders; And His name will be called Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Eternal Father, Prince of Peace. There will be no end to the increase of His government or of peace, On the throne of David and over his kingdom, To establish it and to uphold it with justice and righteousness From then on and forevermore. The zeal of the LORD of hosts will accomplish this.

In Chapters 42,49,50, 52-53 we find the four Servant Songs – made so familiar to our modern ears as the texts used by Mr Handel to set to music in his The Messiah. The one promised who will redeem Israel comes with strength and in hope.

How beautiful on the mountains are the feet of the messenger who announces peace, who brings good news, who announces salvation, who says to Zion, “your God reigns”. 52:7

The mood darkens however, as the Servant is also a figure who through suffering will redeem Israel.

For he grew up before him like a young plant, and like a root out of dry ground; he had no form or majesty that we should look at him, nothing in his appearance that we should desire him. He was despised and rejected by others; “a man of suffering and acquainted with grief; as one from whom others hide their faces” he was despised, and we held him of no account. Surely he has borne our infirmities and carried our diseases; … But he was wounded for our transgressions, crushed for our iniquities; upon him was the punishment that made us whole, and by his bruises we are healed. 53:2-5

Whoever, the prophets had in mind when they proclaimed their vision for the final fulfilment of Israel, the first Christians understood Jesus to be the embodied fulfilment of both kinds of Messiah, the babe who will usher in a reign of justice and the servant whose suffering will redeem not simply the community of Israel, but the whole world.

Jesus in the New Testament

In the New Testament we have five accounts identifying Jesus. They all agree that Jesus is the Messiah – the anointed promised one. But they vary widely in the details.

Mark is the first gospel to be written. Writing for a community undergoing persecution he links Jesus identity to that of Isaiah’s Suffering Servant. The Son of Man, the title Mark uses for Jesus, physically takes on the suffering and sin of the world and in doing so enables God to bring about a new beginning. Mark establishes Jesus continuity with the prophetic and the messianic strands of the O.T. Jesus first appears in Mark as an adult man coming for baptism by John. John the Baptist, because Mark roots Jesus in the OT prophecies is the embodiment of Elijah, the forerunner who will announce the arrival of the Messiah.

Matthew, writing for a beleaguered Jewish Christian community recently expelled from the synagogues present Jesus as the new Moses, the bringer of the new law. Matthew offers the first birth narrative in which his opening words are:

An account of the genealogy of Jesus the Messiah, the son of David and son of Abraham.

We need explore no further to understand Matthew’s image for Jesus as the new Moses, the bringer of the new law, in effect condensing Moses’ Ten Commandments into two Great Commandments: Love God and love your neighbor as yourself. Matthew has an exalted sense of Jesus and so prefers the title Son of God, a title which also has deep Jewish roots.

Luke is the internationalist of the New Testament. Luke’s audience is not primarily a Christian community, but the wider Roman and Greek world. He also provides a birth narrative more closely tied to Isaiah 7. Where the focus of Matthew is on Joseph as the conduit for transmitting Jesus’ Davidic heritage, Luke’s attention is on Mary, and his message is of Jesus as the healing reconciler of divisions and the herald of a vision of divine inclusion.

If Matthew’s image of Jesus is a rebuke to newly forming Rabbinic Judaism after the fall of the temple in 70 AD, Luke’s image of Jesus is that of healer and reconciler, champion of the downtrodden. His image is tailored to a wider Roman and Greek readership with the intent of presenting Jesus and Christianity as not threat.

Both Matthew and Luke use the title Son of God in its historical Jewish sense – meaning one chosen by God. We have to wait for John to give its characteristically Christian meaning of God the Son.

John’s Jesus harkens back to the Genesis stories of creation we looked at last week. Jesus is God the Son, the logos, or the Word, the communicative element of the divine community, present with God since before the creation of the world.

In the beginning was the Word, and Word was with God and the Word was God. … The Word was made flesh and lived among us. John’s image of Jesus is as the embodiment of love.

Incarnation, or adoption, or preexistence, and Christ of Faith?

If Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John all agree on who Jesus is, they differ on how Jesus comes to be who he is. For Matthew and Luke, Jesus’ unique relationship with God is through birth. For Mark it’s through adoption and baptism. For John, it’s through preexistence as the second person of the divine community, the embodied bringer of God’s love into the world.

Paul, the most influential of early Christian writers communicates a mystical vision of Jesus the Christ of faith. While on route to Damascus to arrest the Christians there, the Pharisee of Pharisees Saul encounters Jesus in a blinding experience. For Saul-Paul this is- a vision of God appearing with the face and voice of Jesus. Paul does not explore the biography of Jesus of Nazareth. However, steeped in the study of the Torah and the Prophets, Paul’s Jesus the Messiah, the promised one, the Lord, in whom the hopes and dreams of Israel have been fulfilled by God. Where as the main picture the gospel writers draw is that of Jesus of Nazareth, the pre Easter Jesus, although with the exception of Mark the other three end their gospels with the post resurrection Jesus.

For Paul who had no personal connection with the pre-resurrection Jesus of Nazareth, the emphasis is on the early Christians experience of the Christ of Faith who comes alive or continues to live on in the lives of the Christian Community. His emphasis is not on who Jesus was and what he did in his earthly ministry, but who the living Christ is and what he is doing now in the world manifested in the lives of the early Christian communities to whom he writes and visits.

Who Jesus is and how he comes to be who he is hangs on two baffling and confusing questions.

The Conundrum of the Incarnation

So, is Jesus God’s Son in the Ancient Jewish sense of one anointed by God as Messiah? Or, is he God the Son, the divine nature in human form? And if so, is he more divine or more human? Is he really a divinity masquerading as a human being? Or is he a human being who enjoys a special level of conscious awareness of connection with God? Or is he a mixture of both divine and human in a uniquely new way?

The Church struggled with these question for the first five centuries of its life. Much blood was spilled in the process. Although ‘officially’ settled, the tension in these questions still bedevils us today. Eventually, the official or orthodox position emerged which in the words of the Nicene Creed holds that Jesus is both human and divine, that in him both natures sit alongside each other; neither taking precedence over the other. We might say that in Jesus the divine and human sit in a mutual relationship of equals.

This belief is crucial to Christian faith. But it is not an attempt to actually describe the nature of Jesus as it is to protect the two truths we do know:

  • That Jesus is in a unique sense connected with God,
  • That in Jesus God proclaims that to be most fully human is to be most like the divine. Discuss

The Conundrum of the Resurrection

How are we to understand Jesus being raised by God three days after his attested physical death? There are two possibilities: Resurrection could mean life after death? Or it could mean life, after life, after death? Resurrection is commonly misconceived of as a two-step process as in life after death. But it’s a three-step process. First comes life, then comes death, then comes life after physical death. Discuss!!

In a personal reflection on this session, the following statements are in tension. Notice the one that speaks more to you and reflect on why this might be. What does this tell you about yourself and who Jesus is for you?

a. I can relate to Jesus because he was God’s Son and this makes him special, divine, more than human.

b. I can relate Jesus because he was subject to the same limitations and struggles I experience, and this makes him human like me.

c. Resurrection is a spiritual experience that the disciples had of a mystical presence of Jesus still with them after his death.

d. Resurrection is Jesus’ return to physical life after death as the beginning of a process that will finally end with the physical making new the whole creation.

e. My Christian goal in life is to see resurrection as my eventual get out of jail card so that at the end I too my go to heaven to be with Jesus and God.

f.My Christian goal is to live the life of the resurrection in the here and now – working with God in real time in the timeless work of the healing of the world.

h. To believe the right things in the right way is what is important to me.

i. To live in the right way with right relationship with others is more important to me than believing the right things.

Who will go?

An observation: how many of us make the connection between the scene depicted in Isaiah 6:1-8 and the atmospheric tone of our Anglican tradition of worship in the Episcopal Church? Some of us are fortunate to worship in churches where the craftsmen of a past generation have employed stone and wood, color and iconography, glass, tile and rich fabric to create a context rich in the symbolism and atmosphere of Isaiah’s description of his experience in the Temple at Jerusalem.

There are, indeed, contemporary churches where in a different way the architectural purity of unadorned line and spaciousness of dimension recaptures the grandeur of Isaiah’s experience. Yet, even when our church building may seem rather pedestrian and ordinary by comparison with great cathedrals and churches, care is never-the-less taken to make the sanctuary a fitting place for the worship of God.

For the worship of God is what Episcopalians do first and foremost when they meet together on Sunday morning. No matter the building we happen to find ourselves in, the structure of the liturgy communicates the very essence of Isaiah’s experience. At the climax of the Great Prayer of Thanksgiving, the congregation loudly proclaims the Seraphs’ cry:

Holy, holy, holy is the Lord of hosts; heaven and earth are full of your glory.

Isaiah 6:1-8 has created the imaginative template for Christian liturgical worship. Sometimes this template translates as a physical space, but always as an internal space, independent of physical environment in which the members of the worshiping congregation are drawn into a collective experience facilitated by the heartbeat of the liturgy. For worship offers us a collective experience that is greater than the sum total of our individual parts. Whether celebrated with pomp and circumstance or with a simple and quiet dignity by a priest and a handful of faithful worshipers.

A second observation about this passage is that it is one of the most powerful if not the most powerful account of a call or conversion experience to be found anywhere in scripture. Overwhelmed with sensory overload, the young Isaiah in response to the Seraphim song ejaculates: Woe is me! I am lost, for I am a man of unclean lips, and I live among a people of unclean lips: yet my eyes gave seen the king, the Lord of hosts!  Extending the metaphor of unclean lips, a seraph takes a burning coal from the incense stand and seers his lips as absolution is pronounced.

I had a rather facetious thought that I should always have a brazier of burning coals to hand when I hear individual confessions – but I guess that this is not a good way to encourage privatized Episcopalians to avail themselves of this spiritual remedy for a troubled conscience.

My third observation concerning this passage is that immediately the deal has been sealed between Isaiah and the Lord, the Lord makes a request in the form of the question: Whom shall I send, and who will go for us?

I am struck by the fact that God asks instead of simply assuming; for relationship of the sort God seeks with Isaiah requires the giving of consent. Isaiah consents: Here am I; send me!

In his first letter to the Corinthians the Apostle, Paul hints at his own conversion experience, which compares well alongside that of Isaiah’s. Saul as he was then known, while travelling to Damascus in pursuit of the followers of Jesus whom he – Pharisees of the strictest party of the Pharisees was persecuting, he is struck down by a vision that leaves him disoriented and blind for several days.

Saul, would have been extremely familiar with Isaiah’s account of his call in the Temple. Many times his meditation upon the text may well have convinced him of his divinely appointed mission to bring the renegade followers of Jesus to book. Perhaps it was his meditation on Isaiah 6 that as his mind sought to fill the time as he travelled on the hot and dusty road, Saul suddenly saw more than the hem of the Lord’s garment. Did Saul gaze upon the very face of God and see the face of Jesus asking him: Saul, Saul, why are you persecuting me? Saul, the Pharisee, driven by a jealous longing for the fulfilment of God’s promise to Israel was confronted with the realization that the promise that motivated his waking hours and haunted his dreams had come to fulfilment already in the death and resurrection of Jesus.

So far, we have two examples of fairly mystical and somewhat ecstatic conversion experiences. The account of being called that Luke offers us in Chapter 5 is set in the context of everyday activity. Peter and his companions are small boat owners. They are tired after a hard night fishing and frustrated with little to show for it. Who is this guy sitting in a boat talking nonsense about throwing out the nest again?

In most translations Simon addresses Jesus as Master when he protests that they have been at it all night. While grammatically correct, Richard Swanson suggest a more idiomatic choice of boss, suggesting something of a facetious edge underneath Simon’s outward respect to this itinerant teacher who is, frankly, just making a nuisance of himself. In to Jesus suggestion the spirit of Simon’s response seems to convey the meaning of:

Hey boss, you’re the expert – which when it comes to fishing both Simon and Jesus knew was not true.

It’s all a big surprise when the nets are so full of fish they can’t be hauled in without help. In that moment, whatever it is that Simon recognizes, it causes him to fall at Jesus feet exclaiming: Go away from me for I am not worthy enough to draw your attention to me. We hear the echo of Isaiah’s words: I am a man with unclean lips, and I live among a people with unclean lips.

Jesus in effect says: Never mind, there’s nothing to be afraid of because from now on you will be catching people. Luke tells us, Simon and his partners James and John left everything in that moment and followed Jesus.

Do you have a recollection of a call or conversion experience? For most of us the growth into faith is gradual and allowing for some ups and downs, coming to faith is a steady process over time. And yet, can we recall a memory of a moment in time – when looking back – we now see a turning point when we set out on a new path towards faith?

Mine came at the age of 15 when I attended the service of Evensong for the first time in the beautiful stone church of St Barnabas, in Fendalton, the East Side of my home town of Christchurch, New Zealand. As I gazed at the altar – alight with two tall candles burning below the great East Window through which the last of the summer twilight filtered, I became enthralled by the sung rhythm of the suffrages – the call and answer responses that are intoned, alternating back and forth between officiant, choir, and congregation. I heard the words in my head: how come I never knew there was anything as beautiful as this?

This memory is more a testament to my internal experience rather than to any extraordinary uniqueness of this particular Evensong; for this is the nature of call or conversion experience. Sometimes, the moment of call comes with dramatic special effects, but mostly it comes through ordinary events that for the individual take on extraordinary significance.

I went home that evening, outwardly unchanged. But looking back, sitting in that church, on that particular evening, I set out upon a different path. It took many years for me to be able to say: here am I, Lord, send me.

We are all people with unclean lips, and we too find in us the echo of Simon Peter’s words: go away from me Lord, for I am not worthy. Yet, the Lord calls uncovers the trustworthiness that is in us.

We certainly live among a people with unclean lips, and it’s clear that the purpose of God’s call to each of us is to advance the expectations of the kingdom identifying and challenging the evils of the human societal status quo which always favors power and wealth in the fight for justice and liberation from all forms of oppression. But we also have seen the Lord of hosts.

Each week we come to worship, where we hear and receive God in the dignity of the liturgy and in the faces of those with whom we worship. We take God into our mouths, and we feed on him in our hearts. We too have seen the Lord of hosts and we are ready, if we will but know it, to take hold of the opportunities and meet head-on the challenges that lie ahead. Yet, one more thing is needed. Our consent. God still asks: Whom shall I send, who will go for us? Do we have the courage to say: here am I, here are we, Lord, I/we will go.

Christian Essentials 1. What or Who is God?

What is God?, is question set in mythological time – that is, taking place before the dawn of historical time.

Genesis 1: the first story of creation from which we learn the following:

  1. The Creator exists as the prime mover of creation, existing before the act of creation itself.
  2. In the act of creation, the Creator brings order to the chaotic, swirling elements ordering them in the structures of creation.
  3. The created order is built up layer upon layer.
  4. The final layer of creation is human. All the elements of creation are expressions of the Creator’s desire to make something lovely. But humanity is different – how?
  5. Like all artists each layer of the creation in some vital way is Creator’s self-expression.
  6. However, humanity is the layer of creation that is most like God – able to behold the goodness of creation and to know the Creator of the beautiful ordering of creation – humans are given a quality that only God has up to this point – awareness and self-awareness.

In Gen 1 we learn that God as Creator is relational by nature. God uses the pronouns we and us and our, not I, me or mine -let us make humanity in our own image; male and female God created them.In humanity God’s intention is to make a layer of creation that directly reflects back to God the attributes of the divine – the divine as a relational community.

Genesis 2: a second story of creation from which we learn:

  1. That creating humanity is God’s first and the last action of creation. Between the first human being – Adam and the last human being to be created – Eve, we find the other layers of creation established.
  2. Genesis 2 also has a central theme of relationship; each layer of creation is made with the intention of providing Adam with company so that he won’t live in the garden all alone. We can deduce that relationality is a central attribute of the divine community of God.
  3. God waits to see what Adam names each new element in creation – again there is an expression of a desire for intimacy to be an essential attribute in creation.
  4. Finally, God sees that animals are not quite right as true companions for Adam. God realizes he needs a complementary blueprint of being human to provide a true companion for the human Adam.
  5. God takes an element of Adam’s body and separates it out into a separate created being; a true companion who embodies complementarity – the same and yet different;  to Adam’s masculinity comes Eve’s femininity.
  6. Chapter 2 ends with the hint about a special type of relationship – a relationship that expresses the notions of companionship based on both similarity and complementarity.

Where might God’s deep desire for human beings to experience relationship come from if not as an expression of God’s essential nature. Harking back to the ending of Gen:1  –let us make humanity in our own image; male and female God created themAdam and Eve come to mirror the relational and communal character of God.

What can we deduce here?

  1. God is communal – relational and not solitary.
  2. The Divine is neither male nor female but expresses a complementarity of masculine and feminine principles.
  3. We are made to reflect back to God and into the rest of the creation God.
  4. To be fully human is in this sense to be most like God

God and gender – a side note.

God is energetic – in whose nature can be found the creative energies of the masculine and feminine – yin and yang – animus and anima. 

A further question: Is maleness only an expression of masculine energy? Is femaleness only and expression of femininity? If God is neither male nor female then biological gender is not an essential characteristic of God. But in human identity, despite the procreative function of biological gender, identity as it seems to be within God, is a reflection of a variety of energetic combination and recombination of animus and anima, masculine and feminine, rather than a simple biological binary of male and female.

Genesis 3: a third creation story from which we learn about the tensions and interplay between free will, awareness and self-awareness as essential divine elements reflected in human beings.

So far, we have been building up a picture of God through the idea of humanity being an image of God. An essential element of the Creator’s nature is that God is free. Therefore, God must also intend humanity to be more than lovely puppets to be played with and adored. God intends humans to be truly free to know our own mind through the exercise of choice.

In Gen 3 we see the tensions played out when the creation exercises the full rights given to it by the Creator It becomes messy. Did not God foresee this? It seems not.

No relationship can exist if one party is not free to choose. God seems to understand this from the very beginning but also seems strangely unprepared for what happens when humans do what humans are created to do – make choices as an expression of free will.

In the 3rd creation story humanity comes of age, maybe a little sooner than God intended and sooner than Adam and Eve seemed able to cope with, like children prematurely thrust into the responsibilities of adulthood.

What is God? This is a back-to-front way of really asking, who are we or what does it mean to be human? The answer to this is that to be human is to be made in the image of God. To be fully human is to be most like God. We are made for relationship with one another and with God.

Who is God? God is Liberator

Who is God?, is a question set in epic time. – that is, unfolding within human historical time.

So far by exploring how our human identity as a reflection or image of God reveals some essential aspects to what God is – What is God, God is creator.

The question: who is God takes us into epic time recounted in Exodus 3. Here we find a different kind of question to explore namely who is God, that is who is God in human history?

In the story of the call of Moses we encounter God operating within human history, building a relationship with the man Moses. In Exod 3 we have a completely new question and a new answer. It’s no longer what is God, but who is God?

In revealing [himself] to Moses God identifies as:

The God of his ancestors, Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob
Furthermore, I am the one who has heard the cry of my people who are in Egypt and I have come down to deliver them.

Who is God?

God is the liberator who hears the cry of the oppressed and frees them from bondage. 

To be fully human is to be most like God.

Who is God? God is love

Revelation occurs when God breaks into history with a final and complete self-identification.

John’s Prologue speaks of God as Logos or Word. The Word is in the beginning with God and is God. The Word is identified with Jesus, who was with God at the beginning of creation and has now finally come into the world – full of grace and truth. 

In the human face of Jesus we find God’s final and fullest self-revelation – the ultimate answer to the question: who is God? The Creator moves from outside the creation to become one with the creation. The Creator becomes by choice, subject to the conditions of creation as an expression of profound love. We will take this up more fully in the next session Who is Jesus?

Questions to ponder.

  1. What does it mean to me that I am made in the image of God and how might this realization change my view of God and or my view of myself?
  2. Is it important to me to discover that God is relational and a community rather than solitary and individual? If so how does this change relating to God for me? How might this affect how I relate to other people?
  3. Understanding that I have free will – freedom to respond or not to respond to God – how might this help me in the experience of life – day by day?
  4. What implications flow for us from God as the one who hears, is concerned for, and who is the agent of liberation?

…And the Greatest of These…

  1 Corinthians 13 A Sermon from The Rev. Linda Mackie Griggs

As I was listening to the Epistle passage from Corinthians I half expected to look out at the congregation and see a bride and groom, gathered families and friends, and a phalanx of groomsmen and bridesmaids. I’m taking a poll: How many of you had this passage read at your wedding? How many have heard it at another person’s wedding?

This is The Wedding Passage. Which would have been quite a surprise to Paul—I can imagine him snorting in Pauline derision. He wasn’t writing with the attitude of a kind old guy offering avuncular advice to a happy dewy-eyed young couple. It was more like, “Don’t make me come down there.”

The Paul’s “first” letter to the Corinthians was his lengthy reply to a litany of questions that the Church had sent to him in response to an earlier letter that he’d written, now apparently lost.

According to New Testament scholar Douglas A. Campbell, the Church at Corinth was, to use a technical term, a mess. It was located in a socially, economically and culturally diverse city in south central Greece, and it was that diversity combined with the success of Paul’s mission that was the core of the problem.  The conflicts that the Corinthians presented to Paul were a toxic combination of rivalry and infighting among factions, conflicts between haves and have-nots, backstabbing and gossip; sexual immorality, real and perceived; and of course there was holier-than-thou in spades. A mess, indeed.

If you’ve seen Rembrandt’s painting, Saint Paul, it depicts the Apostle perfectly for this moment: seated at a writing desk with his pen drooping unheeded at his side, and his head cradled rather sadly in his hand. It’s easy to imagine him trying to figure out what to write next; how to untie the knots of discord that threaten to strangle his young church.

His letter, especially chapters 12 and 13, which we’ve been hearing for the past couple of weeks, is a call to his flock to come into right relationship with one another and to focus on God. In chapter 12 he urges them to embrace the diversity of their spiritual gifts and not to prize one gift above another. He offers them the image of the human body, with its many members, all of value to the One Body, as they are each of value to the Body of Christ. And today, in what is arguably the high point of the letter, he describes the foundation of the Christian faith: and that is Love. Not just any love, but THE Love. The kind of love that is vulnerable, humble, sacrificial, and that was completely countercultural to the Corinthian milieu.

I can’t overemphasize how serious Paul was about this. It really is time to rehear this passage without the preconceptions of over-repetition and weddings dulling its original meaning for the community at the time.

Listen: “If I give away all of my possessions…if I hand over my body…but do not have love, I gain nothing.” Without love, nothing matters.  Nothing. Love never ends. Prophecies, tongues, all of knowledge, for heaven’s sake, will end before Love does.

There is only one thing that is eternal beyond everything. God. The Love that is grounded in God is the foundation for all of Creation, because Love is what God is.

This isn’t sentimental; this is powerful. And Paul knew that his flock couldn’t wrap their heads around it—he writes, “we see in a mirror dimly”—think of how a reflection is distorted in polished silver or brass. Paul asks his church to trust that they would ultimately be able to understand—when they knew God face to face—when they knew Love face to face—they would ultimately understand that to truly love is to participate in God’s very Self.

News Flash: The church today isn’t so different from the Corinthians. I know, it’s hard to believe, but we do have some experience with infighting, gossip, sexual immorality (and conflicts over how to define it), factionalism, elitism, and, yes, holier-than-thou-ism. Shocking, I know, but there it is.

Paul’s urgent message to the church then and now is a call to follow the One who showed the Way of compassion, healing and justice; the One who gave himself—handed over his body—out of love for a broken world. That’s a lot of love– the Love that springs forth from the Source of all that is.

It’s not that we are devoid of Love. It’s not that we have never experienced it in our lives or seen it glimmer in the face of another. But as a society and as a church we have yet to fully realize the power and magnetism of what it is to follow Jesus’ Way of Love. If we were to do this we would become a community that others would look to and say, “What is it about them that draws people in?” and “Can I be a part of that too?” And not because it is a fashionable group to join but because it’s a community that is changing the world.

As I meditated on that painting of Paul at his writing desk (you’ll find it on our website), I imagined that his list of qualities of Love was incomplete—that as verbose as Paul could be, even he could have said more. Think about it. Yes, love is patient and kind and humble and faithful. In what other ways might you describe Love for a community changing the world?

Love is courageous. Love is energetic. Love is creative. Love is trusting and trustworthy. Love leads with compassion and wisdom. Love is just. Love goes to the edges, builds bridges, and loves those whom the world finds unlovable.

Love transforms the Lover and the Beloved.

As I wrote in my epistle in the E-News this week, and as you’ll see in today’s bulletin insert, the Presiding Bishop has launched an initiative that seeks to make the Way of Love into a way of living; incorporating a series of seven spiritual disciplines into a rule of life—a spiritual framework that guides and supports us as individuals and in community. I won’t repeat what is already in front of you, and what is very well articulated on the website  (https://www.episcopalchurch.org/way-of-love ), but I do encourage and invite you to participate in the Diocesan-wide kickoff of The Way of Love on February 16 at St. Mary’s Portsmouth. We’ll begin to explore what it means to Turn, Learn, Pray, Worship, Bless, Go, and Rest as part of our lives, and how we can encourage others to join the journey.

If some of these terms seem somewhat nebulous as spiritual practices, (“Go” as a spiritual practice?)that’s okay—it’s meant to pique your curiosity.This session on the 16th is intended as an opportunity for creativity, worship, fellowship, and inspiration to help us begin to build the framework of these practices in community.

This is for everyone—clergy, lay, ministry leaders and so-called church mice who cannot imagine that the Spirit could ever call them to lead or initiate anything. Who knows? Never say never; let the Spirit surprise you.

I hope you’ll join us on the 16th.

“…And now, faith, hope, and love abide, these three… “ God is calling us to abide—in the Way of Love.

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