Ananias’ Courage: Acts 9, Letter from a Birmingham Jail, and the PC(USA) A Corp

mlk behind bars.jpg

The conversion of Saul is oft-told in Christian circles. His is the most well-known tale: Saul’s dedicated work in rooting out Jesus followers from the ranks of Jews; the appearance of the Risen Christ who asks Saul why he persecutes the Lord; his transformation from the Saul of oppression to the Paul of liberation. The story has given we Christians a penchant for the dramatic conversion tale.

Today, though, let us focus on another figure in the Acts 9 narrative. Ananias is introduced to us as a devout man living in Damascus. Later scholars will argue whether he is to be regarded as an apostle or a prophet. His call is similar to that of Abraham, Moses, and Isaiah: God appears, calling out his name, to which Ananias responds: “Here I am, Lord.” God gives him a mission, to go via the Straight Road to find Saul of Tarsus, who was physically blind but had experienced a vision of Ananias coming to lay hands upon him.

Like most prophetic calls, this one is rife with uncertainty. Ananias knows about Saul’s reputation. He has been instrumental in the stoning of Stephen, the first Christian martyr. Saul is not the type of person a Jewish Jesus-believer wants to encounter. He’s a zealot with authority. Regardless, God is explicit. “Go, for he is an instrument whom I have chosen to bring my name before Gentiles and kings and before the people of Israel. I myself will show him how much he must suffer for the sake of my name.”

Ananias overcomes his fear. He walks into the house of Judas where Saul has been for three days, reeling from his experience and blinded by the light. Ananias lays hands, which some argue was the third Christian sacrament, after baptism and the Eucharist.  The scales fall from Saul’s eyes and he goes out to be baptized by Ananias.

Tomorrow, April 16, we mark the fifty-fifth anniversary of the Letter from a Birmingham Jail, which the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. wrote to prominent white clergy who had publicly called upon King and by association the Civil Rights movement, to slow down. King secured a pen and began writing a 7,000-word epistle that is perhaps the most important in our country’s history. King was prophetic with his words. He an Ananias writing to a Church filled with Sauls. He knew the dangers but was secure in his own sense of call. The push for justice cannot be contingent upon the comfort level of the oppressor.

Within the denomination I serve, the Presbyterian Church (USA), there are currently heated discussions concerning our national restructuring. I do not pretend to understand the minutiae, but I do understand that the Advocacy Committee on Racial Ethnic Concerns (ACREC), the Advocacy Committee for Women’s Concerns, the Advisory Committee on Social Witness Policy (ACWP), and Presbyterian Women all feel discounted in the ongoing process. They are only being brought in after key decisions have been made, without their input. They are Ananias, trying to get through to Saul.

In the Church, we far too often like to think of ourselves as Paul, boldly going where God sends us, determined to preach the Gospel. But the Church is Saul to many in the Body of Christ. The Church is the white pastors who called upon King to slow down, telling him that he was an outsider upsetting the apple cart. One of the central messages of today’s passage is that sometimes we can be dangerous yet God sends people to us to help the scales fall away.

I’m a Stated Supply Pastor for a small congregation. I am not involved in the national conversations, but that does not mean that I can’t be Saul. As much as I try to reject racism in all its forms, that doesn’t mean I can’t be one of the white pastors telling King to shut up and know his place.

It really is a pivotal time for Mainline Protestant denominations. I imagine that is said every generation, but it is especially true right now. My colleague Rev. Keri Allen is an important, prophetic voice right now. She is pushing for us all, regardless of our relationship with power, to think theologically. This is great advice for any Christian, but it is especially vital when examining institutional structures that are like a legion of Sauls occupying a village of Ananiases.

May the scales fall from our eyes without the deaths of any more Stephens.

Clothed in Christ and Running Nude: My Holy Week with Hatred

day after easter.jpgResurrection consciousness is a process, not a moment. Mary’s Easter morning proclamations uttered in Aramaic were, in the coming days, whispered in Greek and Coptic, Semitic dialects and Latin. Resurrection consciousness requires both the seed finding purchase in good soil and the reaping of the harvest fruits: we must cultivate Christ in our intentions, express Christ in our speech, and manifest Christ in our actions. Resurrection consciousness is what emerges when we decrease so that God may increase (John 3:30).

However, the cultural Evangelical Christianity that has won out—a Christianity that seems to serve Mammon rather than God—puts all the Easter eggs in one theological basket: “If Christ has not been raised, then our preaching has been in vain and your faith has been in vain” (1 Corinthians 15:14b). Proponents of this view ignore Paul’s belief that the Parousia, the Second Coming, was going to happen in his lifetime (1 Thessalonians 4:15-17); it should be noted that this same text indicates that no one has ascended to heaven yet: everyone who is buried is still awaiting their bodily resurrection. Evangelicals ignore these contradictions but furiously insist that complete and total assent to the literal, bodily resurrection of Christ is necessary.

Why do I bring this up? Because for the first time in my practicing Christian life, I went through Holy Week feeling pretty disconnected from God. I was also called into some very challenging ministry situations and preached three sermons. It was a shitty time for God and me not to be clicking on all cylinders. Now that we’re past Resurrection Sunday, here’s why I’m disillusioned:

How did Holy Week gain national attention this week, other than the actions of the Pope? A Fox News commentator used Christianity as a shield to deflect criticism, and the occupier of the Oval Office cynically delivered one of the most uncomfortable Easter and Passover addresses I have ever watched, unloaded a tweetstorm, and then barked out ignorant lies before going in to worship.

Yet, the one they call forty-five sees his approval numbers grow, supported largely by white, Evangelical voters. The seminary I attend has a number of self-identified white Evangelicals; for them, this is primarily a theological identifier. Evangelical theology largely is rooted in having a born-again experience, attesting to the inerrancy of the Bible, believing that Jesus is the only way to God, preparing for a coming judgment, and spreading the message. To be sure, there are more nuances but in the main, these are the core beliefs. (I don’t know a single theologically-serious Evangelical who supports the current Administration, by the way.)

Attenuating the theology, though, is all manner of political and cultural flotsam awash in hypocritical and demagogical jetsom. It is what allows someone to claim that God has anointed as divine leader a man who is incapable of summarizing the Easter story  I watched this week as white, self-proclaimed Christians made threats against survivors of school shootings, who ridiculed and victim-blamed as more names were added to the growing number of people of color who are shot and killed by police. Metaphorically, I looked around and saw people who look like me and claim the same God as me and they were screaming for Barabbas and supporting Herod. I was overcome with hatred.

I know that hatred solves nothing.  I know that it is a poison that harms only me. I know that I should not have approached the altar with hatred in my heart, that I should’ve prayed (I did) and fasted (medically, I can’t) and loved (I really tried). Believe me, I know all these things.

Resurrection consciousness is a process, not a moment. Paul writes in Galatians 3:27 that through our baptisms we are clothed in Christ. Well, this past week, I have been like the mystery man in Mark’s gospel who shows up at the arrest wearing only a loincloth, which is ripped off before he runs away nude (Mark 14:51-2). It has been hard for me to feel resurrection hope.

To be sure, I am not questioning my faith. I am just being honest that this year I was locked much more within Good Friday. I am questioning what it is I represent. Do I really believe that the Body of Christ is manifest in Church? Who is the Risen Christ the Church proclaims, and does he have any relationship with Jesus? Perhaps more than ever, I have felt the anguish and anger and hatred empire can produce.

Comfort comes, methinks, in the fact that resurrection happens without our assent; transformation occurs whether we notice or affirm; the feelings of hatred and anger I have are subsiding because I have not shamed them or guilted them, but rather have examined them, experienced them, and soon will discard them, as new emotions and experiences arise.

I slept with the window wide open last night, only to awake with snow covering the ground and trees. Now, the snow is melted, save the pockets of shade and secret corners, where flashes of white stand out against the deepening greens and bright purples. If we reduce resurrection to a single moment, there is so very much we miss.

An Easter Sermon: Running home scared is a perfectly good response to rumors of resurrection

 

empty tomb mafa
“Empty Tomb” by Anonymous, c. 1970s

Our first scripture reading this Easter morning comes from the Gospel of Mark, which contains the earliest intact account of Jesus’ resurrection. Interestingly, it reports a rumor from an unknown character rather than an actual resurrection appearance. We don’t see the Risen Christ, we just hear about him from someone we’ve never met and never encounter again.

 

As the story goes, Mary Magdalene, Salome, and Mary, mother of James set out for Jesus’ tomb at the first light after the Sabbath, fretting about the large stone they will have to move in order to prepare Jesus’ body for burial. They arrive, only to find the stone moved. In the tomb is a man dressed in a white robe.

Who is he? Could he be the mysterious man who appeared at Jesus’ arrest clad only in a loincloth, who was stripped nude and ran away? Could it be the author of Mark’s gospel? Scholars have speculated wildly, but in the end, we just don’t know.

Mystery man tells the women to not be afraid, which is both logical—fear seems a reasonable response on their part—and is reminiscent of Jesus’ own words spoken frequently. Do not be afraid. Mystery man then tells them a fantastical tale: Jesus, who was crucified, has been raised. His body is gone, evidence enough, it seems, at least for the time, that what the man says is true; he orders the women to tell the disciples, even Peter, who denied Jesus and ran, to get to Galilee, where Jesus will meet them.

The women flee the tomb, the account tells us, and say nothing, for they are afraid.

End of story.

Our second scripture reading contains a resurrection account written decades later; this one, from the Gospel of John, contains an actual appearance of the Risen Christ. It shares some details with the narrative from Mark, though. Both take place after the Sabbath has drawn to a close, although in John, morning has not yet broken. Both feature the stone having been rolled away. Both detail the absence of Jesus’ body. Both feature dumbfounded people trying to make sense of a bizarre situation.

In John, though, Mary Magdalene comes to the tomb alone. Upon seeing that the stone has been removed she runs to find Simon Peter and the enigmatic Beloved Disciple. Mary, at least it seems to me, assumes that Jesus’ body has been stolen and has been taken to an undisclosed location, which will prevent him from having an honorable, religious burial. This seems to cause Mary no small degree of distress, as she is the one tasked with preparing Jesus’ corpse, or, perhaps, given the early hour, Mary has secreted herself away before anyone else can undertake it themselves.

Seeing the stone rolled away is in itself too much for Mary to face alone. We can hardly blame her.

Freshly alerted, a race is afoot between Peter and the Beloved Disciple. The disciple whom Jesus loves arrives at the tomb first, we are told, but is stopped short by the sight of the linens, limply laying where Jesus once was; funeral clothes without a corpse can be unsettling.

Upon arriving, Peter blows past the disciple whom Jesus loves, making it into the tomb itself before coming to a halt. He, too, sees the linens, but it is the cloth which had covered Jesus’ head now rolled up and set aside that commands his attention.

Doesn’t the relating of this detail seem so intimate, as though that little act is what stops Peter in his tracks?

The Beloved Disciple comes in and, the author tells us, believes. What he believes we’re not sure because we’re told specifically that they, both of them together, do not yet understand the fullness of the events, that Jesus’ resurrection is the fulfillment of scripture. What the Beloved Disciple believes we know not; what strikes Peter about the cloth neatly folded remains a mystery as well. But there they are, these details that changed lives.

Overcome, they run.

John’s narrative continues. Mary, alone at the tomb again, is crying. We can only imagine the depth of her trauma, having been, by all accounts, one of the few who witnessed the totality of the crucifixion and now discovers the empty tomb. Have bandits taken his body? Religious or Roman enemies?  We should take a moment to enter her sense of loss, her confusion: her rabbi is dead, and the avenue through which she can religiously and culturally mourn and honor him, preparing his body for burial, has suddenly been denied her.

The chaos of the last week, the heady entry into Jerusalem followed by the events in the Temple, the unexpected revelations in the Upper Room, the arrest, trials, crucifixion, death, and vigil must have left Mary raw. We can imagine that coming to the tomb she was expecting to have some moments of mooring, to be with Jesus’ body, to honor and love him. Imagine the trauma of having that, too, ripped away.

So, I think we can forgive Mary that she is so overcome with grief and distress that she does not even bat an eye when two angels appear and ask her what is wrong.

“They have taken away my Lord, and I do not know where they have laid him,” she says.

Suddenly, Jesus appears, but Mary does not recognize him, mistaking him for a gardener. We can speculate why this is the case: his resurrected form is different than his earthly one; Mary is an emotional, spiritual, and mental wreck and it takes her a few beats to catch up; she is so focused on locating the body she is not aware of her surroundings; perhaps Jesus as a gardener is meant to be a play on images, reminding us of Jesus’ parables of seeds and harvests. Regardless, when Jesus says her name and she turns around, Mary recognizes him and goes to hug him, which he does not allow because he has not yet ascended.

I’m gonna go ahead and punt that last detail until next Easter’s sermon.

The Gospel of John is clear about what happens next, though: Mary becomes the chief apostle, the one sent out to deliver the good news of the resurrection: she tells the disciples of what she has seen and heard. The post-Easter story begins with Mary. It’s sad that this has ever been a controversial observation.

But what I take from both of these narratives is that running home scared is a perfectly good response to rumors of resurrection.

The story of Jesus being raised from the dead defies logic, to such an extent that for some it is the ultimate stumbling block of faith, especially since it has been placed at the center of Christian confession, thanks largely to Paul. If Christ is not raised, he wrote, our faith is in vain.

It seems that the further we have gotten away from the historical resurrection, the more we Christians have required each other to believe it completely and entirely, proclaiming it as the alpha and omega of following Jesus. Yet, with today’s passages, in both the earliest and latest canonical resurrection stories, we see confusion, fear, and very human concerns preventing people from understanding immediately and fully.

To be sure, as a pastor and as a devout Christian, I proclaim with every fiber of my being, “He is risen, he is risen, indeed!” But as I preached on Good Friday, I believe that one of the central, beautiful truths of Christianity is that God, through the Incarnation, came to understand that we can still have faith while being confused and scared. There’s room for questions in the resurrection story.

Sometimes we’re Mary looking for Jesus’ body to bury, sometimes we’re Mary proclaiming that Christ has been raised. Sometimes we’re racing to the tomb to get there first, sometimes we’re high-tailing it home to hide away in fear.

The pain of Good Friday is still there on the original Easter morning. It lingers for others in the weeks and months ahead as they each puzzle out what this whole, “raised from the dead” thing means. For some of us, resurrection joy may come quickly and easily. Understanding and living an Easter faith may be foundational to who we are, and that it a true blessing.

For others, it may be an ongoing process. A cyclical journey in which we annually race to and fro, from cross to tomb, from despair to assurance. The great comfort is that our sacred Scriptures make room for us. He is risen, he is risen indeed, even if we are hiding under the bed uncertain of what to do. Amen.