Practicing Resurrection: Why the Shema Matters

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We Christians tend to place importance on the things Jesus said. While we argue over what he actually said and what was attributed to him by various authors many years removed from the events (and defining the term “author” is what masters degrees are made of), we generally agree that Jesus=important.  But why they are important is another source of tension among many Christians. Do we focus on the words that confirm Jesus’ identity as the Anointed One (mashiach, Hebrew; christos, Greek, from which we derive Messiah and Christ, respectively) and orient our religion (and subsequent actions) toward the next world? Or do we focus upon the passages that instruct us how to live lives of justice, meaning, compassion, love, mercy, and kindness? Obviously, a balance of the two is optimal. I believe that most Christian individuals–and every political State that has ever been led by Christianity–struggle to find that balance, often resulting in tragedy.

I do not know that happens in the next world. I have hopes. Desires. Comforting thoughts, like the possibility of encountering my brother again. Maybe it won’t be in that body, but I hope our energies will reconnect. I miss him. I love him. He was beautiful, and while I carry him with me, my world has not been the same since he left. But I do not follow Christ because I have a resurrection hope. I follow Christ not for the six hours he spent on the cross, but as a result of the thirty years he spent in the world. The imitatio christi  is kinda huge for me.

I wrote last night about practicing resurrection; I made some grandiose claims about how it is the secret of the Christian life. I hope that it was not a “Two Corinthians” moment, but I am completely serious. The concept of resurrection is something each Christian must sort out for him- or herself. For me, it is both now and not yet, much like God’s kin-dom. We see resurrection all around us; gardeners throughout the congregation are champing at the bit to see it happen before their eyes. I see it in a survivor of cancer who returned to familiar pews after an absence. I hear it in the hopeful but realistic words of a man doing time. Serious time. Time stretching before him in an uncertain path, but his hope abounds. It affects others. It affects me.

But how do you practice resurrection? Jesus let us know by grounding himself in his Jewish faith. When asked what is the most important commandment, he quoted Deuteronomy 6:4-5, known as the Great Shema (shema means “listen” or “hear” in Hebrew). “Hear, O Israel, the Lord your God is One. You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, all your mind, and all your strength.” Hebrew scholars and revered rabbis have written thousands of pages on the Great Shema. It is the core of the Jewish faith; it is the core of my own. It was certainly the core of Jesus’.

The oneness of God is fundamental to my faith; I am not a polytheist. I believe that there is a common source for all life, and that this force continues to pervade, direct, and shape the lives and experiences of all things known and unknown. I confess a Trinitarian faith, but the language falls away in the face of God’s unity and singularity.

Love is God’s gift. It gives birth to us and we give birth to it; we nurture it and direct it as it shapes and animates us. Loving God means loving life; loving life means relating with creations; relating to creation means a willingness to be vulnerable; vulnerability permits growth–sometimes through great pain–and growth creates Wisdom. Loving God means that we are immediately in relationship; with ourselves, with others, with God.

How are we to negotiate this uncertain world? Through the love God provides, we battle with false promises of love. If I’m rich, I can buy love. If I’m thin, I’ll have love. If I’m powerful, I’ll earn love. If I’m strong, I can force love. We must negotiate many experiences of love, and gauge if they are authentic. How? We feel love emotionally, but we also can conceptualize it intellectually. Through our experiences, we develop standards of behavior that comport to a healthy understanding of love. We craft language to express love, to communicate our needs and desires. We make it clear language we will not accept directed at us. We perform acts of love, and we receive acts from others. We declare acts to be unloving.

If we love God, we love ourselves; if we love ourselves, we are capable of loving others. The Great Shema lets us know that the are three components needed; love of God, self, and others; love that is of the heart, mind, and strength. Thoughts, words, deeds. The Great Shema teaches us that all must be in line.

And that is the struggle. We haven’t even talked about Jesus addition to the Shema. That’ll have to be another post. For today we’re just wrestling with this idea of resurrecting through love. A loved love. An all-encompassing love. A love that we receive and that we give. A love that is freely given and one that we should bestow extravagantly.

So keep practicing, friends. This resurrection thing is all about dying a bit so that you may life.*

*Yeah, you read that right.

 

Practicing Resurrection on the Internet

My day began with a dear friend tagging me on the above video; I’ll be honest, if this does not bring out both your inner child and your inner G, I don’t know if I want to know you. 

I think the depth of Holy Week has just hit me. On Maundy Thursday, First Presbyterian–the congregation I pastor–and the Yellow Springs United Methodist Church, embarked upon our third year of walking the Triduum together, Thursday and Good Friday in body, and Easter Sunday in spirit. From the Agape Meal on Thursday to the Easter postlude Sunday morning, I felt very deeply the emotional journey. The YSUMC pastor and I both received Communion on Maundy Thursday along with members of our congregations, served by two pastors whom we each selected. My friend, a former Catholic priest and a current interfaith pastor, served at my request and it was wonderful to share that together. Good Friday was made incredibly special by the presence of a congregant who had been struggling mightily with his health, but who gathered his spirit to sing a rousing, moving version of “Take My Mother Home.” Easter Sunday, there were quiet moments of deep connection, both with people and with God, as our choir, two guest sopranos, and instrumentalists provided offerings from Vivaldi. There was cacophonous exuberance as we sang “Trees of the Field,” a congregational favorite (except among a vocal few), before moving into the friendship hall. It was a magnificent service.

A deacon and I then brought Communion to a devout Episcopalian who is laid up with a shattered leg. The Eucharist was administered after pizza (my Lenten sacrifice for the past seven years) and soda; the words of institution were sung by Ted Neeley of Jesus Christ Superstar fame. And, just in case you don’t know, he’s my friend. Yeah. He is. And not just in my head (anymore)!

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So this Easter was a bit magical. With my piece having appeared in the Yellow Springs New, I really felt like a pastor to the Village, not just a pastor in a church. This, as I’ve written about before, is my ultimate goal. I don’t seek to win converts; I don’t even need to use Christian language to talk about God with people, I just very much appreciate being included in people’s spiritual conversations and deliberations. On Easter I gave Communion to a non-baptized Buddhist, and while I know that this could result in my being brought up on charges according to the Book of Order, I don’t care. It is not because I am looking to disrespect the tradition that I am in, it is just that I believe God has placed me in this position to be a pastor who can function both within the reasonable bounds of Presbyterianism and the parameters of a unique place like Yellow Springs. This person wanted Communion. Who am I, who is anybody to deny a child of God the sacrament. She was moved to come to the table, and I respected that by doing what I have been trained to do, administer the sacrament. There are people I know to be atheists in the pews, and I feel no less close to or spiritually responsible for them than I do for the more devout members of the congregation. Jesus did not give tests to somehow determine the worthiness of someone to have his time. Jesus just showed up and loved people. That’s what I am trying to do.

So God has been pretty amazing to me this week. I am now involved, in some way, with three different individuals who are incarcerated. The happenstance for each is different, but also private. With permission I write about my close relationship with Michael, but I don’t share details, of course. It’ll be the same with any others. But this is not a ministry I chose; it is one that has happened upon me, but has come to be very important to my sense of who I am as a pastor. Similarly, I currently have several, in-depth conversations going on through IM that range from theological inquiries to pastoral care. I feel like my Facebook page is a safe place for a wide variety of people to come together, talk about ideas, share concerns, post articles, and share a frighteningly deep love of Star Wars. 

The first time I ever heard Wendell Berry’s famous poem “Manifesto” was when my brilliant pastor, Rev. Dr. Mike Castle used it in the Easter sermon that marked my dedication to being a Christian and, eventually, a pastor. And the line that Pastor Mike kept returning to was “practice resurrection.” An idea that, if you allow it, will infuse you with all the purpose you’ll ever need. Because that is what it boils down to. Not ascribing to resurrection. Not debating whether it is literal or metaphorical. It comes down to doing it. Getting it wrong. Perfecting one aspect before moving on to another. Being surprised about how resurrection can change your life. Your breath. You very way of thinking.

And if this doesn’t make sense, good. Perhaps it is a koan for you. Perhaps resurrection is not something you think of as practicing. Perhaps you need to first find a place where you can allow yourself to fail. Perhaps you need to see how resurrection is already suffusing one area of your life.

Because resurrection is the basis of Christian life. And I don’t mean Jesus’ resurrection. I mean, I do. But probably not the way that you’re thinking of it. Resurrection is seventy times seventy chances to be forgiven. Resurrection is allowing someone to see you, and being seen. Resurrection is that which allows us to say no to others in order to say yes to ourselves, and in so doing saying yes to God.

So in this Eastertide, I am grateful for resurrection. Even if it happens on the internet.

But Wait, There’s More: The Three-In-One God

 

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Twenty-first century pastorates are a bit different; many of us find ourselves serving as ministers to people via Facebook or IM. I know that I have at least half a dozen people who consider me their pastor, but for various reasons cannot or do not want to attend the church where I hold the pulpit. I cherish these relationships, but they also require me to function slightly differently than I would if I could refer them to a bible study or class I lead. This leads us to today’s post: Is Jesus God? Is God Jesus? If so, how?

I imagine that my fellow pastor/professor/theologian/biblical scholar friends are laughing right now, as these questions are literally the stuff of dissertations and careers. Looking at my not insubstantial book collection, I can see no fewer than fifteen titles on the unorganized shelves that directly relate to Christology. So please know that my musings are not meant to be, nor are they, definitive. But if we pastors cannot elucidate such basic concepts in simple language, we really should not be calling ourselves preachers and teachers of the Church.

The Council(s) and the Controversies

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After the death of Jesus, the Apostle’s Creed emerged seemingly out of nowhere. Tradition holds that each of the Twelve Disciples (we assume not Judas Iscariot, but rather his replacement Matthias) contributed to the creed (or its forerunner), and Patristics note that it is mentioned throughout the writings of Church Fathers. While we are uncertain of how it emerged, it is an attempt to set forth the basics of what one needs to believe in order to be a card-carrying member of Team Jesus.*

I believe in God, the Father almighty,
creator of heaven and earth.

I believe in Jesus Christ, God’s only Son, our Lord,
who was conceived by the Holy Spirit,
born of the Virgin Mary,
suffered under Pontius Pilate,
was crucified, died, and was buried;
he descended into hell.
On the third day he rose again;
he ascended into heaven,
he is seated at the right hand of the Father,
and he will come to judge the living and the dead.

I believe in the Holy Spirit,
the holy catholic and apostolic Church,
the communion of saints,
the forgiveness of sins,
the resurrection of the body,
and the life everlasting. Amen.

Let me say that I ascribe to the Apostle’s Creed with very little nuance needed. This pretty much summarizes my faith. But let’s break it down. Notice, the divinity of Jesus (or the Holy Spirit) is not set forth in the creed; this, according to some historians, opened the door for later controversies, most especially Arianism. Also notice that this seems to be saying that we believe in one God, one person, and one spirit. So, are we pantheists? Are we polytheists? Are we Jewish plus? Questioned abound.

The Niceno-Constantinopolitan Creed

Arianism arises from the ideas of Arius, a Libyan theologian who was dead set against emerging Trinitarianism (discussed below). The foundation of his ideas was threefold: God the Father and the Logos (John’s term for the second person of the Trinity; “Word” that becomes flesh as Jesus Christ) were not of the same substance or essence (ousia); that the Son (Logos) was a created being; and as a created being, there was a time in which the Logos did not exist. Arius referred to the Logos as a “creature,” a being that was divine in that it was created ex nihilo, and was a participant in the creation of the universes, but a being that is not coequal with God. Seem complicated? It kinda is. But it boils down to this question: Are Jesus and God the same thing? Arius said no. And he was excommunicated.

In fact, when the Council of Nicaea met in 325 C.E. to address the divinity of Christ, they formed a creed that many people think they know. But most don’t. Why? Because there is an entire section dedicated to refuting Arianism that was later pulled out in the Council of Constantinople (381). Imagine hearing this recited in St. Peter’s Basilica each week:

But those who say: ‘There was a time when he was not;’ and ‘He was not before he was made;’ and ‘He was made out of nothing,’ or ‘He is of another substance’ or ‘essence,’ or ‘The Son of God is created,’ or ‘changeable,’ or ‘alterable’—they are condemned by the holy catholic and apostolic Church.

Arianism has never fully been put down in Christian circles–Unitarians by and large accept the Apostle’s Creed and agree with Arius, but have issues with subsequent creeds–but it has been a heresy since the 4th century, for whatever that is worth. Needless to say, the issue of Jesus’ divinity was not settled in 381 C.E., with the Niceno-Constantinopolitan Creed. (And, again, apologies to all my friends who are early Church historians for glossing over so many details that it is just simpler for me to say that there is much, much more to the story.)

I believe in one God, the Father Almighty, Maker of heaven and earth, and of all things visible and invisible; And in one Lord, Jesus Christ, the Son of God, the Only-begotten, Begotten of the Father before all ages, Light of Light, True God of True God, Begotten, not made, of one essence with the Father, by Whom all things were made; Who for us men and for our salvation came down from heaven, and was incarnate of the Holy Spirit and the Virgin Mary, and was made man; And was crucified also for us under Pontius Pilate, and suffered and was buried; And the third day He rose again, according to the Scriptures; And ascended into heaven, and sitteth at the right hand of the Father; And He shall come again with glory to judge the living and the dead, Whose kingdom shall have no end. And I believe in the Holy Spirit, the Lord, and Giver of Life, Who proceedeth from the Father, Who with the Father and the Son together is worshipped and glorified, Who spoke by the Prophets; And I believe in One, Holy, Catholic and Apostolic Church. I acknowledge one Baptism for the remission of sins. I look for the Resurrection of the dead, And the Life of the age to come. Amen.

Those who are interested in minutia should research the filoque controversy  or how the statement “not one iota’s difference” emerged from the Council of Nicaea. What we can say, though, is that there were early and very violent disagreements among followers of Christ regarding his divinity and relationship with the Trinity. In fact, there is no explicit biblical statement supporting a Trinitarian view of God. The term first emerged through the writings of Tertullian , a second century theologian who wrote about three persons (tres personae) united in one substance (substantia); the unity he called tri-unity, or Trinitas. While Tertullian’s particular vision of the Trinity was adapted and altered over the years, his contribution became the foundation for orthodox thinking regarding the relationship of the persons within the Godhead.

The Councils of Constantinople and Chalcedon

But controversies continued. At the Council of Constantinople, the bishops rejected Apollinarianism, the idea that the divine Logos overtook the mind and soul of the human Jesus. In other words, Jesus was more divine than human. This was rejected because, according to atonement theology, Jesus must be fully human and fully divine to achieve the salvation of humankind. This gave way to what is known as Hypostatic Union, the two natures (human and divine) united perfectly in one person. A few decades later, in response to Hypostatic Union, another controversy, this one called Nestorianism, which argued that Christ has two natures, but that there is no union. He would go from “mode to mode.” Again, problems with needing to adhere to atonement theology prevented Nestorianism from being a viable, orthodox Christology.

All of this came to a head with the Council of Chalcedon in 451 C.E., and the resulting creed, which again solidified the dual nature of Christ united in one person, and present in tri-unity within the Godhead.

We, then, following the holy Fathers, all with one consent, teach men to confess one and the same Son, our Lord Jesus Christ, the same perfect in Godhead and also perfect in manhood; truly God and truly man, of a reasonable [rational] soul and body; consubstantial [co-essential] with the Father according to the Godhead, and consubstantial with us according to the Manhood; in all things like unto us, without sin; begotten before all ages of the Father according to the Godhead, and in these latter days, for us and for our salvation, born of the Virgin Mary, the Mother of God, according to the Manhood; one and the same Christ, Son, Lord, only begotten, to be acknowledged in two natures, inconfusedly, unchangeably, indivisibly, inseparably; the distinction of natures being by no means taken away by the union, but rather the property of each nature being preserved, and concurring in one Person and one Subsistence, not parted or divided into two persons, but one and the same Son, and only begotten, God the Word, the Lord Jesus Christ; as the prophets from the beginning [have declared] concerning Him, and the Lord Jesus Christ Himself has taught us, and the Creed of the holy Fathers has handed down to us.    

We describe this as “fully human, fully divine.” If you push most theologians to his or her limit, we would have to defer to the divine mysterium. Somehow, Jesus is fully God but also fully like us, except for the sin part. This is the view that won out. At least until the Protestant Reformation.

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So what does all of this mean? That the question is not simple and is not without controversy. Orthodox theology would say, “Yes. Jesus is God. Jesus is human. Jesus is both fully and completely, and is so because his death on the cross must atone for original sin.” If you don’t believe in original sin or if you do not accept atonement theology, the nature of Christ becomes more difficult. Or easier, depending on your viewpoint.

I always tell congregants that I don’t necessarily think that I am correct, but I will always explain how I have alighted upon my own decisions regarding central issues in our faith tradition. I have spent a goodly amount of time assembling a quick journey through the history regarding Christ’s nature, and I affirm that this is what we historically have believed regarding Jesus. He is unlike anyone or anything else; he is truly God, truly human, truly the Messiah, and truly perfect. And if that works for you, awesome. Great.

But if it doesn’t, does that mean you are out in the cold? Not at all. The truth is, what we have within the canonical scriptures are a selection of ideas about Jesus, but not the full picture. Texts such as the Gospel of Peter, the Gospel of Mary Magdalene, the Gospel of Judas, the Sayings Gospel of Thomas, the Infancy of James, and a whole host of other gospels were written at the same time that Church Fathers were wrestling with these questions. The Gospel of Thomas, for example, sets forth the idea that salvation is achieved through Wisdom, and that the divine nature is within human beings other than Jesus. We see from the earliest levels until today the notion of the “moral influence” of Jesus’ life on followers; the notion that Jesus is the finger pointing toward the moon, but is not the moon itself. Scores of scholars and theologians have argued that the greatest mistake Christianity made was worshiping Jesus rather than following him. Luckily, we do not burn people at the stake anymore for daring to question orthodoxy.

I find that there are generally two types of people who seriously consider religion: those who want certainty and those who want direction. Those who want certainty are very comfortable in orthodoxy. Questions are answered clearly and definitively. There is a right way and a wrong way. There does not need to be debate because the debates have already occurred and the Holy Spirit has spoken. The other type of people–and here is where I place myself–are those who like that religion gives direction, but want the autonomy and ability to puzzle things out for themselves.

I do not believe that Jesus had to die in order for God to be satisfied for the debt we owe as a result of original sin. I do believe that Jesus died as a result of sins, but the sins of arrogance, fear, greed, indifference, and the need for power. I believe that through his life, Jesus definitively (yet not exclusively) revealed the mind of God, providing human beings a template on how to lead an existence that brings forth love, peace, justice, compassion, and joy. I attest to the resurrection of Christ–this will need to be another post unto itself–and believe that the Holy Spirit is God’s gift to human persons, but the Holy Spirit has been called countless names throughout time. I attest completely to the existence of a creator God, to whom Jesus was intimately connected and for whose sake Jesus gave his life in order to bring hope to those cast aside by humankind.

Is Jesus God? Well, let me ask you a question. What do you mean by God?

*Credit for “Team Jesus” must be given to Deacon Gilah Pomeranz.

The NSFW Easter (A sermon blog)

empty tomb mafa

Early on the first day of the week, while it was still dark, Mary Magdalene came to the tomb and saw that the stone had been removed from the tomb. So she ran and went to Simon Peter and the other disciple, the one whom Jesus loved, and said to them, “They have taken the Lord out of the tomb, and we do not know where they have laid him.” Then Peter and the other disciple set out and went toward the tomb. The two were running together, but the other disciple outran Peter and reached the tomb first. He bent down to look in and saw the linen wrappings lying there, but he did not go in. Then Simon Peter came, following him, and went into the tomb. He saw the linen wrappings lying there, and the cloth that had been on Jesus’ head, not lying with the linen wrappings but rolled up in a place by itself. Then the other disciple, who reached the tomb first, also went in, and he saw and believed; for as yet they did not understand the scripture, that he must rise from the dead. 10 Then the disciples returned to their home.11 But Mary stood weeping outside the tomb. As she wept, she bent over to look into the tomb; 12 and she saw two angels in white, sitting where the body of Jesus had been lying, one at the head and the other at the feet. 13 They said to her, “Woman, why are you weeping?” She said to them, “They have taken away my Lord, and I do not know where they have laid him.” 14 When she had said this, she turned around and saw Jesus standing there, but she did not know that it was Jesus.15 Jesus said to her, “Woman, why are you weeping? Whom are you looking for?” Supposing him to be the gardener, she said to him, “Sir, if you have carried him away, tell me where you have laid him, and I will take him away.” 16 Jesus said to her, “Mary!” She turned and said to him in Hebrew, “Rabbouni!” (which means Teacher). 17 Jesus said to her, “Do not hold on to me, because I have not yet ascended to the Father. But go to my brothers and say to them, ‘I am ascending to my Father and your Father, to my God and your God.’” 18 Mary Magdalene went and announced to the disciples, “I have seen the Lord”; and she told them that he had said these things to her. (John 20:1-18)

We may not know who actually wrote the Gospel of John, but I can assure you that it was a man. I say this not to be sexist, but there is simply no way that a woman wrote the gospel. Why? Think about what you just read. Without question, this is the most important story that Christians have; Paul, who never met the historical Jesus but went on to shape the whole of Christian history with his epistles, wrote:

Now if Christ is proclaimed as raised from the dead, how can some of you say there is no resurrection of the dead? 13 If there is no resurrection of the dead, then Christ has not been raised; 14 and if Christ has not been raised, then our proclamation has been in vain and your faith has been in vain. 15 We are even found to be misrepresenting God, because we testified of God that he raised Christ—whom he did not raise if it is true that the dead are not raised. 16 For if the dead are not raised, then Christ has not been raised. 17 If Christ has not been raised, your faith is futile and you are still in your sins. 18 Then those also who have died in Christ have perished.  If for this life only we have hoped in Christ, we are of all people most to be pitied. (1 Corinthians 15:12-19)

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It is a big fucking deal. It is the biggest story in Christianity; the claim to end all claims. And what does the author focus on for six verses? A footrace. A footrace between Peter and the disciple whom Jesus loved. I’m sorry, but this just seems like a very “boy” thing to do. The author goes to great pains to let us to know that the disciple whom Jesus loved was faster, but was second in the tomb; even though he arrived there first, Peter went in before him. We don’t know why. Maybe he was scared. Maybe he was winded. Maybe he pushed Peter over during the run. We don’t know. We’re not told. We don’t get the skinny. Eventually, though, they both look in and we are assured that they believed. And then they go home.

On second thought, maybe a woman did write it to show how silly men can be sometimes. It just seems like such a stereotypical male thing. Empty tomb? Huh. Well how about that; I’m pretty sure this was God. Cool. Yeah. Really cool. I’m hungry. You hungry? Let’s get a bite at my house. Wanna race? Now one can argue that the two male disciples simply understand what has happened and they know what they are to do next; perhaps, but I wonder what it was they believed? Did they believe that Jesus had been resurrected? Did they just expect to be visited and decide, Well, he’s gonna have to find me because I ain’t sticking around here? Because in contrast to this seeming disinterest is Mary. Mary Magdalene weeping as she is bent over, looking into the tomb. Mary in despair and confusion. And because she sticks around for more than 30 seconds she gets a helluva lot more than do the disciples.

Think about that. Because she does not withdraw her presence, she witnesses a heavenly sight. Two angels ask her why she is weeping and she does not speak of her own sadness; she does not remark on her confusion. They do not have to be assured to not be afraid. She just wants to know where Jesus is. This concern is not shown by the disciples, but again we have to ask what it is that they believed? It seems to me that sticking around the empty tomb might be a good idea. I dunno. I’ve never happened upon a resurrection. Perhaps they were afraid that Roman guards might happen along and think they stole the body; maybe they were running home to tell everyone. We don’t know. We’re not informed. We don’t get the skinny. We know more about the footrace than we do the disciples’ reaction to Jesus’ body being gone.

But we know that Mary stayed. And we know that Mary becomes the first among the disciples to see the resurrected Christ. I refer you again to Vice President Biden. So overwhelmed by her concern for Jesus she does not even recognize that he is standing right in front of her. She pleas with the man whom she thinks is a gardener, begs him to to take her to where Jesus has been moved. Finally, in an intimate act of speaking her name, Jesus helps remove the scales from her eyes. She sees clearly; she comprehends fully. She goes to embrace him but–again, keep in mind that I am as new to the rules of resurrection as are you–there is no hugging before ascension.

What Mary does is clear. We’re told. We get the skinny. We’re given the low down. She informs the disciples. She does not seek to compete with her companions. She does not keep count of who did what first. She reports, out of love and compassion, she reports. So that others may known the glorious work that God has done, she reports.

Resurrection talk is never easy. It goes against our better judgments and reason to say that a body once dead can be revivified. We are fascinated with zombies but we are uncomfortable with a living Christ; we marvel at the chaos that would come with an apocalypse, but  we too often shy away from the promises of the kin-dom. Today’s story is very much a Where’s Waldo opportunity, only Waldo is you. Where are you? Are you in a footrace or are you taking your time to experience what God is offering? Are you keeping track of who’s first, or are you joyfully telling people what God has revealed? Are you showing compassion and concern, or are you convinced that you have everything figured out?

With all respect to Paul, the necessity of Christ’s literal resurrection does not rank number one on my list of most important things required in order for my faith to not be in vain. Christ gives us hope, not certainty. Faith is a commitment to aspire, a promise to have core ideas that animate and motivate our lives. And in God’s work through Jesus, in the story of Christ’s resurrection we have an assurance that death is not the final word; we have the promise that oppression and violence are not the most powerful forces in existence. Through resurrection talk and belief we situate ourselves by saying that this lifetime matters; the decisions we make, the stands we take, the chains we break, all matter.

Today we proclaim that he is risen, he is risen indeed. It is the center of our faith tradition. It is a big deal. But it is only a big deal in how we let it work in our lives. I fear that too much of Christianity has been like the disciples running off. They have what they need, and there is no bother for anyone else. At least, right after the receive the news. But not for Mary. She stays. She has concerns. And God responds. God sends a sign. God tells her what she needs to know. Why? Do that she can tell others. So that she can serve. And that, dearly beloved, is a miracle I can get behind. Amen.

WTF is Good About It?

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John 18:1-1942

Crucifixion is perhaps the most brutal and barbaric form of torturous execution ever devised by humans. Contrary to popular belief, the Romans did not invent it, but they did perfect it. The Jews outlawed it–except for a practice known as dead-crucifixion, but the body had to be placed in a tomb before the sun set on Israel–and the Romans reserved it for non-citizens. Given Drumpf’s recent claims that he wants to Make America Torture Again, we should pray that he does not alight upon the painful wonder that is crucifixion. Seeing that he never steps into a church, I think we are safe.

As a child I was obsessed with Jesus, which is kinda weird since I was raised as an atheist. But whenever the Jesus films came on around Easter time, I would insist on watching. But I could never make it through a crucifixion scene. Inevitably, I would end up crying and wondering why anybody would subject another human being to such horrors. In graduate school I was required to read Martin Hengel’s classic work Crucifixion, and suddenly I knew more about crucifixion than a human being should. Details like, it generally takes a day or two to die, but the longest crucifixion lasted a week; breaking the legs of the crucified is a favor, as it weakens the core and allows for asphyxiation to occur more quickly; nails go through the wrists and ankles, not hands and feet; birds of the air and beasts of the field come and make snacks of the bloody, exposed flesh and juicy eyeballs. I think you get it. This ain’t pretty. In fact, Mel Gibson made a snuff film about it.

Every year we Christians gather on the recognized (but not necessarily historically accurate) anniversary on Jesus execution, what is ironically called Good Friday. And while I may be slipping into an Alanis Morissette-like misunderstanding of irony (really, rain on your wedding day is ironic only if you are a meteorologist or Poseidon), I have to say that forcing us to confess that this event is “good” is perhaps one of the greatest accomplishments in double-think ever devised by humankind.

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One thing I think people outside of the Christian tradition misunderstand is that our religion is about contradictions. People have no problems conceptualizing Buddhist quandaries; misquoted and misunderstood koans litter our popular imagination, and every day sayings of Confucius are muttered in racist accents from sea to shining sea. But we Christians have illogical claims at the most basic levels of our faith: in order to save your life you must lose it; power comes through humility, and victory through nonviolence; money is not wealth, but riches are buried in our hearts; God has been made flesh, so that we may be spirits. For God so loved the world, be tortured his Son. Jesus on the cross is not a victim, but a victor.

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This one. This is the one that is difficult. So often I see Christians point to the cross and say, “This is what love looks like,” and I cringe a bit. I don’t cringe because I disagree, I don’t. It is what love looks like. But I always feel like I should ask some clarifying questions before saying “Amen.” (Just so you know, if I ever say Amen to something you’ve said, that’s about the highest compliment I can give.) The love is not in the blood, at least for me. If that is your theology, God bless. I get it. If it works for you, just ignore me and go about your day. But for many of us, the sight of Jesus tortured on the cross as some sort of debt relief initiated by God seems…barbaric. Its a theology that leads a person to love the sinner but hate the sin, a contradiction I just cannot reconcile. So where is the love?

Jesus did not die for nothing. And I don’t mean “he did not die in vain.” I mean that he stirred the pot, he garnered attention, he transgressed limits, he spoke truth to power, he found people whom nobody loved and he loved them. He refused to know his place and he backed up his words with actions. So, yes. Jesus on the cross is what love looks like. But let us now make his death about us; let us not just say that Jesus suffers on the cross so that our original sin is washed away. (Again, if this works for you, please know I am not judging your theology.)  But for me, blood atonement makes us just passive recipients of God’s grace. It drops salvation at our feet and then walks away. Jesus on the cross is what love looks like because Jesus, despite the consequences, says that love wins. Jesus knows the limits and he blasts through them, bringing sinners and unclean persons along with him. Jesus overturns tables and lives, be brings hearts back to God and frightens away fear. He shows us what a life well-lived looks like.

So what is good about today? That God, through the life of Jesus, shows us that despite the costs of love, it is always on the right side. Today is good because we can rest assured that if we stand for justice and compassion, mercy and goodness, God will be with us, even through the most painful of times. And it also lets us know that human structures which result in the oppression and alienation of people are antithetical to God’s desires for us. It is good because once a year we are forced to look at our own lives, our own behaviors, our own priorities and ask ourselves, “what’s love got to do (got to do) with it?

I Don’t Know How to Love Him

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Now before the festival of the Passover, Jesus knew that his hour had come to depart from this world and go to the Father. Having loved his own who were in the world, he loved them to the end. The devil had already put it into the heart of Judas son of Simon Iscariot to betray him. And during supper Jesus, knowing that the Father had given all things into his hands, and that he had come from God and was going to God, got up from the table, took off his outer robe, and tied a towel around himself. Then he poured water into a basin and began to wash the disciples’ feet and to wipe them with the towel that was tied around him. He came to Simon Peter, who said to him, “Lord, are you going to wash my feet?” Jesus answered, “You do not know now what I am doing, but later you will understand.” Peter said to him, “You will never wash my feet.” Jesus answered, “Unless I wash you, you have no share with me.” Simon Peter said to him, “Lord, not my feet only but also my hands and my head!” 10 Jesus said to him, “One who has bathed does not need to wash, except for the feet, but is entirely clean. And you are clean, though not all of you.” 11 For he knew who was to betray him; for this reason he said, “Not all of you are clean.”

12 After he had washed their feet, had put on his robe, and had returned to the table, he said to them, “Do you know what I have done to you?13 You call me Teacher and Lord—and you are right, for that is what I am. 14 So if I, your Lord and Teacher, have washed your feet, you also ought to wash one another’s feet. 15 For I have set you an example, that you also should do as I have done to you. 16 Very truly, I tell you, servants are not greater than their master, nor are messengers greater than the one who sent them. 17 If you know these things, you are blessed if you do them.

31 When he had gone out, Jesus said, “Now the Son of Man has been glorified, and God has been glorified in him. 32 If God has been glorified in him, God will also glorify him in himself and will glorify him at once.33 Little children, I am with you only a little longer. You will look for me; and as I said to the Jews so now I say to you, ‘Where I am going, you cannot come.’ 34 I give you a new commandment, that you love one another. Just as I have loved you, you also should love one another.35 By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.” (John 13:1-17, 31-35)

I just don’t get how Peter is the good disciple here. I would have made a terrible Catholic because I just don’t like Peter very much, at least how he is portrayed in the Gospels. Give me Judas any day of the week; he’s a man I can sympathize with, a tortured soul who feels compelled to do the right thing, but is worried that the whole thing has gotten twisted. And I know that this is a personal projection. I know that I am making the late, great Carl Anderson into the historical Judas because Carl has been with me since the beginning. Before I ever loved Jesus I loved Carl Anderson. It is probably safe to say that he was one of my first crushes. He was beautiful, and that voice. My good GOD that voice. He was a blessing to us all.

But I also know what it is like to be on the outside looking in. I am a late-comer to Christianity. The suicide of my schizophrenic brother led me to a saving knowledge of Jesus Christ. Once again, I’ll plug my book.

It goes beyond personal obsession of projection, though. I think many people are troubled by how Judas is portrayed. I have spent the last ten years talking and lecturing about Judas, and I have been overwhelmed by the number of people who don’t hate Judas. The number of people who actually like Judas and feel sorry for him. And many of these people agree that it seems like Judas has a mission; he has been set to task by Jesus. The Gospel of Mark lends itself very well to this; Matthew, too, as Judas’s suicide is most likely an act of contrition according to Jewish law. (Curious? I refer you to Jay Sherman above.) Luke’s handling of Judas is in line with emphasizing the codes of behavior that will govern the newly-formed Jesus movement (see the parallels between Judas’ death in Acts 1 and what happens to Ananias and Sapphira in Acts 5). But John. That pesky John. I covered much of this in yesterday’s blog, suffice it to say that John is a sticky wicket.

What I present is a resistant-reading of the text. I am not neutral. The name of my blog is “Rescuing Judas,” so I clearly have an agenda.  But it is not duplicitous. Rather, it is aimed at moving us away from the vilification of Judas. While we are in John’s gospel this Holy Week, in other years we are in Matthew‘s or Luke’s, both of which feature death narratives (Luke by way of Acts, of course). John doesn’t kill off Judas, but he does make him Satan. He does insinuate that we should wash our hands of Judas as Jesus washes our feet. Too often we display glee at the prospect of Judas’ demise. We might be bad, but we’re not Judas bad.

We’re none of us clean. And while Peter comes across as somewhat of a petulant child asking for his head and hands to be cleansed, he is not the one singled out for bad behavior. Judas is the whipping boy. The bad disciple. The one without access to grace. Dante names the innermost circle of Hell after Judas (and the Jews, sadly, another perfidious outgrowth of Judas-shaming). Here’s my fat face talking about Judas in a 2008 documentary.

Is the purpose of this story to make us feel better about ourselves? Does hating Judas get us any closer to Christ? Are we contented to be like Peter, misunderstanding Jesus’ foot washing action? Do we not understand that Jesus is “lowering” himself to the level of a slave, here placed in scare quotes because I do not think Jesus would see such an action as lowering himself at all, which is kinda the point. Jesus performs an act that is typically reserved for slaves and women. I lament–a much more biblical word than hate–that John has painted the scene in such a way that Jesus lowers himself just enough that he still hovers over Judas. Ah, forget it. I’ll say it. I hate it. I hate that our tradition has this detail. And that it is followed by a commandment to love. Right. Love everyone except Judas.

So over time Judas has become the Jews, supposed perfidy itself. He has been people who committed suicide. And today? Judas is Muslims. Love everyone, but not them. Fear them. Ostracize them. Patrol their neighborhoods. Don’t let them in the country. Send spies into their mosques.

This is blasphemy. It goes against the message of Jesus Christ. And I’m going to go there. I don’t believe it. I don’t believe John. I don’t think this happened. I don’t think that Judas was Satan. I don’t think Jesus put Judas outside of the bounds of forgiveness. I think that Judas–if he even existed; again, buy the book–was part of God’s plan and had a role to play. And I don’t know how to love a Jesus who turns his back on Iscariot.

How then do we wrest meaning and spiritual significance from this day? We have to look for the Judases in our midst and see how we are failing to love as fully and as deeply as did Jesus. It means that we need to be careful that we are not drawing boundaries and forbidding people to come in. Of course there is evil in the world. Of course there are people who have lost the right to share our spaces (child molesters; rapists; perpetually violent people). Our call to love is not a call to be careless or gullible. What it does mean, though, is that we do not fall into the false idea that somehow we are better. It means we do not think of Judas as being representative of a group (Jews; suicides; Muslims); and if a feeling of moral superiority sweeps over us when we allow ourselves to look down upon others, we should probably examine that with a quickness.

Love each other. Jesus did not hesitate. And, dammit. That means Judas, too.

“He Forgot My Bread”

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21 After saying this Jesus was troubled in spirit, and declared, “Very truly, I tell you, one of you will betray me.” 22 The disciples looked at one another, uncertain of whom he was speaking. 23 One of his disciples—the one whom Jesus loved—was reclining next to him; 24 Simon Peter therefore motioned to him to ask Jesus of whom he was speaking. 25 So while reclining next to Jesus, he asked him, “Lord, who is it?” 26 Jesus answered, “It is the one to whom I give this piece of bread when I have dipped it in the dish.” So when he had dipped the piece of bread, he gave it to Judas son of Simon Iscariot. 27 After he received the piece of bread,[c] Satan entered into him. Jesus said to him, “Do quickly what you are going to do.” 28 Now no one at the table knew why he said this to him. 29 Some thought that, because Judas had the common purse, Jesus was telling him, “Buy what we need for the festival”; or, that he should give something to the poor. 30 So, after receiving the piece of bread, he immediately went out. And it was night. 31 When he had gone out, Jesus said, “Now the Son of Man has been glorified, and God has been glorified in him. 32 If God has been glorified in him, God will also glorify him in himself and will glorify him at once. (John 13:21-32)

The Gospel of John draws stark lines, and catapults the reader into the heavens and back down to earth throughout the narrative. We are presented with the most elevated vision of Christ within the canonical gospels; the Synoptics vacillate between Jesus as a god-man and a man-god. But John? John presents Jesus as God, in ways that are undeniable. This is both good–we are presented with a beautiful representation of incarnational theology–and bad–Jesus is almost emotionless and seems so wholly unlike the rest of us who inhabit bodies. The Johannine Jesus is a mixed bag, at least for me.

And a lot of that has to do with Judas. My affinity for the only unsainted member of the original twelve is well-known. I’ve been plugging my book for so long I sound like a broken record, but it is easier than telling the story all over again. Judas, without question, led me to Christ, though, and I feel compelled every Holy Week to mention that early and often. We cannot and should not allow ourselves to hate or vilify during this time in our spiritual lives. It goes against the very nature of Jesus’ ministry, which is why I struggle with this passage. For years I hated it because, even though there is no Last Supper scene in John’s gospel, Judas is summarily dismissed. John claims that Judas allows Satan to enter him; the intimation is that Judas is evil itself. This is still the prominent view, despite Lady Gaga’s attempt to resurrect him.

It fits into John’s view of the world. Jesus is God. Judas is Satan. We have a choice to make. Satan can be alluring, can trick us, reside among us, even seem to be good. And while I do not doubt that evil is seductive and manipulative, I just cannot accept the idea that Judas is beyond God’s grace. It has always been important to me that Jesus allows Judas to receive the Eucharist. It has always been foundational to my own theology that there be no one outside the power of grace, and that we can receive it even in the midst of costly mistakes. And while I want to jump down the rabbit hole concerning the necessity of Judas’ action, I will wait until Maundy Thursday to do so. Right now, we’re in John’s gospel and the grace might be hard to see, at least at it pertains to Judas.

But is it? This bread narrative is really odd. If you notice, in the Synoptics Jesus says that someone who is dipping will be the one to hand over Jesus, but the dipping isn’t described in Mark’s gospel, which serves as the template for the other two; in fact, all the disciples are implicated in the action, in that they all question if they are the ones who will commit the deed. This has always struck me as odd. I mean, if someone were to walk into a room full of people and say, “In the next thirty seconds, someone is going to pull out a gun,” I certainly wouldn’t ask, Is it me, Lord. I’d be looking at the other fools to see who is packing heat. John takes care of this discrepancy, laying the blame clearly on Judas. Jesus hands Judas the bread that indicates his coming “betrayal” (grrr; the Greek text NEVER calls it this). Judas takes the bread and goes out into the night. Jesus then makes his proclamation about being glorified and glorifying.

This is a curious narrative, friends. And while I admit that I am trying to wrest from this complicated morass a reading that rescues Judas, I think that it is right there for the taking. Jesus gives Judas his body; it is ridiculous to think that the writer of John was not familiar with the Eucharistic formula concerning communion. Attaching Jesus’ body to bread, especially in the final days of his life, is rife and ripe with potent associations. We may not know why John does not give a reporting of the Last Supper, we can hypothesize regarding why John has made the offending bread so clearly fall in the hands of Judas. I think it is too easy to say that it is simply to make clear the guilt of Judas. And, frankly, that’s probably the biblically responsible reading. But Jesus connects the handing over of the bread to Judas to his own glorifying; is it too far of a stretch to say that Judas handing over Jesus is also a glorifying act? Judas receives the Body of Christ right before he hands over the body of Christ.

Spy Wednesday is dedicated to Judas going out and figuring a way to get Jesus into the hands of the authorities. For John, Jesus’ death on the cross is crucial. It is fundamental. It is a theology of the cross that we find throughout the pages of John’s gospel. Today, though, let us think on Judas’ reasons. Thief? Maybe. It has multiple attestation of sources (although not the earliest one). Disciple, undoubtedly. Part of God’s plan?

We will wait and see.

You Know, the Lines?

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20 Now among those who went up to worship at the festival were some Greeks. 21 They came to Philip, who was from Bethsaida in Galilee, and said to him, “Sir, we wish to see Jesus.” 22 Philip went and told Andrew; then Andrew and Philip went and told Jesus. 23 Jesus answered them, “The hour has come for the Son of Man to be glorified. 24 Very truly, I tell you, unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains just a single grain; but if it dies, it bears much fruit. 25 Those who love their life lose it, and those who hate their life in this world will keep it for eternal life. 26 Whoever serves me must follow me, and where I am, there will my servant be also. Whoever serves me, the Father will honor. 27 “Now my soul is troubled. And what should I say—‘Father, save me from this hour’? No, it is for this reason that I have come to this hour.28 Father, glorify your name.” Then a voice came from heaven, “I have glorified it, and I will glorify it again.” 29 The crowd standing there heard it and said that it was thunder. Others said, “An angel has spoken to him.” 30 Jesus answered, “This voice has come for your sake, not for mine. 31 Now is the judgment of this world; now the ruler of this world will be driven out. 32 And I, when I am lifted up from the earth, will draw all people[a] to myself.” 33 He said this to indicate the kind of death he was to die. 34 The crowd answered him, “We have heard from the law that the Messiah[b] remains forever. How can you say that the Son of Man must be lifted up? Who is this Son of Man?” 35 Jesus said to them, “The light is with you for a little longer. Walk while you have the light, so that the darkness may not overtake you. If you walk in the darkness, you do not know where you are going. 36 While you have the light, believe in the light, so that you may become children of light.” (John 12:20-36)

 

A theology of the cross can be difficult for some of us. Progressive Christian pastors often have congregations that feature–if not heavily–congregants who have been abused by religion. Congregants who are giving religion and God one last chance. Congregants who recall the blood of Christ being thrown upon them with words of derision, splattering them with judgment and calls to repentance for being who God made them to be. A theology of the cross sometimes elevates a bloodthirsty God, a God in search of atonement that can only be wrought by God alone. A frightening God that an increasingly diminishing few want to worship or know.

We cannot remove the cross from our theology, though. And we cannot shove it to the side. We might make our theology cross-adjacent, but we cannot have a Christian faith that is not rooted in the cross. It is a paradox that many of us in the Progressive movement live each day. We acknowledge that the cross is our symbol, our avatar, our universally recognizable sign. But what does it mean for us? The signal communicates, but what?

The Gospel of John does not feature the agony in Gethsemane. Rather, there is an almost stream-of-consciousness monologue by Jesus that gives way to a dialogue with God, who answers in thunder or in the tongue of angels. God’s message is always up for interpretation, it seems. God speaks to humans, but Jesus has to interpret. Not just in word, but in deed. Like the seed that falls to the ground so that it may be lifted up, Jesus directs himself to the cross.  In the midst of darkness, Jesus on the cross is the light. The three uses of the Greek word hysoo (to lift up) let us know very clearly that Jesus is connecting his going to the cross with human salvation. Grains fall down, fruit rises up. Jesus goes down in the underworld, ascends into the heavens.

So this passage goes toward our soteriologies, regardless of who we are as Christians. Theories of salvation may come from us grudgingly, but come they must. Historically, there are three ways to fit within atonement theology. The first is the classic ransom theory: Jesus pays our debt to be released for sin and death; the second is substitutionary atonement, holding that Jesus goes to the cross for us as God’s sacrificial offering; and the third, which resonates most deeply with me and is prevalent in Eastern Christianity, is the “moral influence of atonement” theology, which sets forth the idea that Jesus’ sacrifice on the cross provides a model of behavior and reveals the depth of God’s love for us. But none of those really seem to fit with John’s passage.

We should remember that at the basis of the Judeo-Christian-Islamic experience is the idea that the relationship between God and humans has been ruptured. It is in need of repair. There is hurt on both sides, and reconciliation is hard. The break-up was messy. Accusations have flown across space and time; misunderstandings have abounded. But we want to get it right. We want this relationship. So does God. As hard as it might be for some to accept, God has made some mistakes. God has changed God’s mind. God has made some promises not to do certain things again. John’s vision of the cross points us toward mending the fences, patching the holes, putting new wine in new wineskins.

That sounds pretty, but what does it really mean? It means that we see Jesus as that single grain of wheat that falls to the ground so that it might lift up much fruit. We are the fruit; we who gather together in this crazy thing called community, who pledge ourselves to love and compassion, to walking together through the travails of life. It also means that we have the responsibility of deciding where our line is; you know, the lines? The line that if we cross we know we must be willing to die. That line that defines what we will accept on one side and what we will not on the other. That line that triggers in us a dedicated response to be willing to put our lives at risk.

Now this sort of language can be terrifying, especially in the wake of another terrorist attack and growing rates of religious fundamentalism throughout faith traditions. John is not rallying us to take up arms. But John is asking us to know who we are, to know who Jesus is. Jesus, who loved so radically and fully that it became a threat to the ruling powers. Jesus who transgressed lines both social and religious to live in relationships with everyone, most especially those who are cast aside by the ruling interests. Because it was that which ultimately killed him; the commitment to be in solidarity with others.

We have to face the cross at some point, and not just one day a year. We have to face the cross in significant ways before we can be lifted up. The cross is a not-so-gentle reminder that there are important issues at stake. The whole of our theology as Christians hangs in the balance. Who is this God we serve? Who is this Jesus we follow? What is the point of this brutal death? And how do we discover love as a result. We must know this before heading to the cross on Friday. We must know this to get us through the hours until Easter morning. We must know this when we cry out that he is risen, he is risen indeed. There’s a lot at stake.

So let us pray.

 

 

Daryl Dixon is not a Disciple; a Death Mark is a Hard Thing

 

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Six days before the Passover Jesus came to Bethany, the home of Lazarus, whom he had raised from the dead. There they gave a dinner for him. Martha served, and Lazarus was one of those at the table with him. Mary took a pound of costly perfume made of pure nard, anointed Jesus’ feet, and wiped them with her hair. The house was filled with the fragrance of the perfume. But Judas Iscariot, one of his disciples (the one who was about to betray him), said, “Why was this perfume not sold for three hundred denarii and the money given to the poor?”(He said this not because he cared about the poor, but because he was a thief; he kept the common purse and used to steal what was put into it.) Jesus said, “Leave her alone. She bought it so that she might keep it for the day of my burial. You always have the poor with you, but you do not always have me.” When the great crowd of the Jews learned that he was there, they came not only because of Jesus but also to see Lazarus, whom he had raised from the dead. 10 So the chief priests planned to put Lazarus to death as well, 11 since it was on account of him that many of the Jews were deserting and were believing in Jesus. (John 12:1-11)

For those of us who follow the lectionary, the second day of Holy Week is rather disappointing. We are in Year C, so Luke is the controlling gospel. And we just had Luke’s version of the anointing two weeks ago. So it feels kinda strange, being asked to grapple with the text once again. “Haven’t we already milked this one for all its worth?” I want to ask the lectionary editors. “Couldn’t we have done a bit better for first steps into the most holy of Christian weeks?”

Perhaps. But the text is here, albeit John’s version, and as a dogged supporter of lectionary preaching and lectionary congregational consciousness, I submit myself–and you, my faithful readers–to the tale once again. We’re in Lazarus’ house and once again we are reminded that Jesus has raised him from the dead. Now that’s gotta be an awkward dinner party, doesn’t it? I mean, how do you talk to a dead man who is no longer dead? And it’s not like Lazarus is a Walker; Daryl Dixon is not a disciple. We are faced with the living specter of death. We wonder is that spilled perfume is more intentional than Mary is letting on. Lazarus was in that tomb for four days. There was no embalming fluid then, and the Jews did not mummify. The elements would have taken their toll on Lazarus’ body. Yet, Jesus is there, eating and talking as always. Jesus does not let small things like body odor get in the way of a meaningful relationship.

And, of course, we have to tackle the Mary/Martha dichotomy again. That tired trope that too oft was repeated to women of past generations: you are either a Mary or a Martha, a nun or a housewife. You tend to the men or to the Body of Christ. But I want something more. Something deeper. Something more significant. I want the chutzpah of Mary. A Mary who, without any forewarning, takes an obscene amount of nard and pours it extravagantly at Jesus’ feet. Without permission, without deferring, without thinking of the possible waster, she pours and pours and pours. She pours so much that it becomes and affront. A sign of irresponsibility. It is an action of a woman living on the brink, so overtaken with love and compassion that she shuns the prohibitions regarding her hair, loosening it upon Jesus’ bared feet in front of man and God. A sensual act. A bold act. An act that Jesus does not shun but accepts and defends when detractors speak up.

There he is. Judas. Our old friend. (Click the link for the genius that is Yvonne Elman, Carl Anderson, and Ted Neely.) A man remembered as a traitor, although the Greek text never calls him that; described as a thief by Luke and John, but not Matthew and Mark; a man who yells at Mary, although the scene is described as being between an unnamed woman and all of the disciples in Mark. Judas who becomes the whipping boy and the incarnation of evil in the later gospels, but is depicted as a concerned disciple in the first, and even given his own gospel by the Gnostic traditions. Judas, who will create so many problems for us on Thursday–notice that we never mourn his death? in fact we celebrate it, a detail discussed by me in a 2008 documentary–stands now as one who seeks to control the extension of grace. He uses the plight of the poor as justification for his own desire to control the distribution of goods. Sadly, Judas stands as a stark reminder of how our own charity can sometimes be acts of appropriation and control. No, poor people. We’ll tell you what you’ll eat, where you’ll sleep, and what you are allowed to do. Our money gives us power, and out power allows us to control money. Judas is here with us on our second day of Holy Week. He’s not going anywhere yet.

Our beloved Jesus reminds us that the poor will always be around, a line that far too often is mistaken to be a tacit assent to a stratification of classes. I do not read it that way (to be sure, my reading is informed by so many other sources that I can’t even begin to link them all, so just know that I am not claiming a unique reading). Jesus is reminding us of Deuteronomy 15, in which God’s covenant people are charged to not allow poverty in their midst. If there are those who go hungry, or have no homes, or lack clothing, that is not God’s failure. That is ours. God has given us all we need to care and provide for one another. The discrepancies between the rich and the poor or not the result of God’s will, but rather an ignoring of God’s commandments. We are our brother’s and sister’s keepers.

But all of this was covered a few weeks ago, God! What is it you want us to see?

Ah. There it is. That passage that was left out last time. That little detail that comes to mean so much to us as we get deeper into the week. Poor Lazarus has a death mark on his head. He should be getting into the Falcon and heading to another galaxy. A death mark is not an easy thing to live with. (Yeah, I’m a really, really big dork.) Lazarus is a walking example of what radical grace can do. A grace that is like the perfume that Mary cascades over Jesus’ feet. A grace that fills the room with a sweet smell and attaches onto clothes and hair and skin; a smell that won’t wash off, and that carries with you for days. Weeks. Months. A grace that begins to rub off on others and impacts them as well. That kinda grace, that can make you a target. People often don’t know what to do with a person who was dead but now is alive. We’re almost more comfortable with living zombies. We’re more used to slowly dying rather than fully living. Lazarus is an indictment upon the choices of others. His chutzpah is almost as great as Mary’s. Just who does he think he is, this Lazarus. Walking around all resurrected and filled with grace.

There is a cost. In order to be resurrected you must first die. Death is not easy. Death is not comfortable. But a meaningful death can lead to a significant life. Amen.

 

Cloak Sunday Somehow Doesn’t Have the Same Ring

Cloak Sunday Somehow Doesn’t Have the Same Ring

  

28-31 After saying these things, Jesus headed straight up to Jerusalem. When he got near Bethphage and Bethany at the mountain called Olives, he sent off two of the disciples with instructions: “Go to the village across from you. As soon as you enter, you’ll find a colt tethered, one that has never been ridden. Untie it and bring it. If anyone says anything, asks, ‘What are you doing?’ say, ‘His Master needs him.’” 32-33 The two left and found it just as he said. As they were untying the colt, its owners said, “What are you doing untying the colt?” 34 They said, “His Master needs him.” 35-36 They brought the colt to Jesus. Then, throwing their coats on its back, they helped Jesus get on. As he rode, the people gave him a grand welcome, throwing their coats on the street.
37-38 Right at the crest, where Mount Olives begins its descent, the whole crowd of disciples burst into enthusiastic praise over all the mighty works they had witnessed:

Blessed is he who comes,

the king in God’s name!

All’s well in heaven!

    Glory in the high places!

39 Some Pharisees from the crowd told him, “Teacher, get your disciples under control!”

40 But he said, “If they kept quiet, the stones would do it for them, shouting praise.” (Luke 19:28-40; The Message)
Did you catch it? Or rather, did you catch the lack of it? The very thing for which this day is named is missing. No palms? No palms!!

Some scholars actually take umbrage to the mention of palms in the first place; only John makes the waved fronds from palms (likely Judean Date Palms) and the waving of palms is associated with Sukkot, not Passover. Perhaps picayune issues go the average reader, but I mention them only because we’re in fraught territory. 

So no palms. Just cloaks. But think of that; a garment that was central to ancient life. A garment that provided warmth, that folded could serve as a bag or a tarpaulin; a garment that could make a tent or a makeshift pillow. For those present, it is a sign of fealty. Of recognition. Of joy.

John Dominic Cossan and Marcus Borg, in their excellent book The Last Week, paint a potent picture: Jesus riding in on a colt and being heralded as the king of peace; on the other side of Jerusalem, Pilate arrives amidst forced cries of acclamation from the oppressed and the sounds of marching Roman centurions prepped for a week of increased presence. 

The joy that spontaneously arises from the earth stands in tension. The stones have no cloaks but they shan’t be silenced. Creation itself sings forth, silencing the blaring trumpets of the strutting, conquering powers.

In the shadow of the cross God demands we first see light. Yes, a difficult week awaits us. It is patient, looming like a specter and growing more insistent with each fleeting minute. 

But not yet. Now, joy. Songs. Waving and laying, marching and affirming. 

Thanks be to God.