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.

After the Sermon: The Jesus You Find

 

I love to listen to stories told by couples or friends who have been with each other for a long time. Generally, it goes one of two ways: the story is seamless, they riff off one another, pause for laugh lines, and bring to life their shared experiences. Or, they interrupt one another. Bicker. Challenge the facts. Both approaches, in their own way, have merit.

We have the latter today. Mark and John are the original Bickersons. Mark reports the calling of Simon and Andrew, James and John, the first four men to respond immediately to Jesus’ call to be fishers of human beings.

Last week, we considered John’s accounting of Nathanael’s call. Nathanael, who appears only in the Gospel of John, tells us a lot about John’s Jesus. He’s the things we have come to expect, having read Mark, Matthew, and Luke, called the Synoptic gospels—all of which were written before John—Messiah, Son of God, Son of Man, King of the Jews. But to John’s Nathanael, Jesus is the fulfiller of all prophecy.

According to John’s reckoning, Jesus attends the wedding at Cana, and records his first and most universally celebrated miracle, turning water into wine. But then, he goes to the Temple, an event that the Synoptics all record as happening at the end of Jesus’ ministry. John puts it in the beginning.

John also makes some other significant changes. “The Passover of the Jews was near, and Jesus went up to Jerusalem,” he reports. Seems straightforward enough. The Greek word ἀναβαίνω (“to go up”) was used in reference to religious pilgrims. But Jesus does not behave like one on a pilgrimage. Not because of the actions that he takes in the Temple, but rather for the actions he does not.

Throughout John’s gospel there are references to the “Passover of the Jews,” and central Jewish festivals like the feast of Tabernacles and the feast of Dedication do not concern Jesus and his disciples religiously. Jesus does not participate. There is no last supper in John’s gospel. In other words, John presents Jesus and the disciples as Christians for whom Jewish festivals are meaningless.

So, Jesus comes to the Temple, not as a pilgrim who then discovers his father’s house defiled but rather as one who is objecting to Jewish worship itself. According to an expert on the gospel of John, “Jesus could not have waited until the end of his ministry to effect his protest in word and deed against this kind of worship.”[1]

Here is where, were our two friends Mark and John to be sitting on the couch telling the story of Christ, the bickering would start. Jesus was Jewish, Mark would say. His mother was Jewish. His brothers and sister? Jewish, Jewish, Jewish. They were Jews who did Jewish things because in case you forgot: Jewish.

The bickering would continue after John says, “The Jews then said, ‘This temple has been under construction for forty–six years, and will you raise it up in three days?’ But he was speaking of the temple of his body.” Uhh, Mark would interject, are you trying to say that Jesus was 46 years old? He was thirty, thirty–three at the most, so check your sources!

We would most likely witness full­–on arguing after John concludes, “But Jesus on his part would not entrust himself to them, because he knew all people and needed no one to testify about anyone; for he himself knew what was in everyone.” We can imagine Mark shooting back, Jesus told people to be quiet about his identity because there were people trying to kill him. He was a human being with human emotions. He lost his temper. He got irritated with people. He had to because that is the nature of human love. But Jesus spent time with people, getting to know them, encouraging them to be their best selves. That was kind of his whole bag.

The Gospel of Mark was written first and, crudely stated, presents Jesus as a man-god. The Gospel of John was written last and presents Jesus as a God-man. They sit on opposite ends of the couch, our two friends, and see Jesus much differently. That tension (or diversity, depending on your perspective) lives in our faith tradition because it is part of life. We can love someone with whom we disagree, even vehemently.

We each of us see things differently. Sometimes these differences are picayune. Sometimes they are prominent. Sometimes we sit on the couch right next to each other, holding hands, and sometimes we are each jammed up against opposite arms, staring daggers and grinding teeth. It can be difficult when we feel that someone else’s perspective is so alien, so hostile to our own, that we don’t even want to be in the same room.

There is merit to a Jesus who is more human. This Jesus is not only relatable, but also seems necessary if we are to imitatio christi, imitate Christ in our own lives. On the other hand, a Jesus who is perfect, who is the exemplification of divinity on Earth is powerful and represents the love of God in transcendent, transformative ways. There are lots of Jesi in–between. There is a Jesus that meets us in every situation, whether we find ourselves sitting right next to him or plastered to the aforementioned couch arm.  Amen.

**

When I purposefully chose the Revised Common Lectionary and the Narrative Lectionary gospel portions for this Sunday’s worship, I didn’t know why I was doing so. There was just a nagging feeling in my gut. Because the information has to be sent to the paper on Monday by noon, I sometimes look back from the vantage point of Saturday and ask myself what I was thinking with a sermon title choice, or a decision to deviate from the lectionary we have been following.

This weekend has been difficult for me personally because of a recent piece that appeared in the local paper. I will pass over it without comment except to say that I understand being a public figure, I will be subject to criticism, fair or unfair. I’m a loudmouth who can have a poison pen. I know that backlash comes with the territory.  What was published is an attack piece, plain and simple.  Therefore, it is beneath my dignity to respond in print or to give a point–by–point refutation.

As someone who writes about following Christ and holding myself accountable for my actions, though, I try to reflect upon criticisms, even the ones that I feel are off–base. I think it is too my detriment if I do not, especially as someone who wishes to be a positive influence in the community.

My Christ was unrecognizable to the author of the…I don’t even know what to call it. Article is wrong, essay is too generous, and letter isn’t quite it either. But to the author, either I espouse a Jesus they’ve never seen or the implication is that I’m a hate–monger. I think it is important to get to the heart of this because it is an important issue to me. I try to be consistent and transparent in my life, perhaps too publicly but that is what I choose. And I try to emulate Christ in a way that is an ongoing mea culpa for the Church as a whole.

It is my responsibility to follow the Christ I see and feel, but always to remain humble and attentive to the experiences of others. It is important that when I use harsh words to denounce structures and systems that stand in opposition to the Gospel, those words be spoken with a genuine love that is rooted in understanding that each person bears the Imago Dei, the image of God. I believe I have been consistent in doing just that, and when I do not I have always recognized it, apologized, and worked to do better.

Just yesterday, at our community meal, I made four new friends who are exploring spirituality in vibrant and exciting ways. While none of them are Christian, their words helped me draw closer to God. In our conversation, we learned from one another and planted seeds of compassion within the fertile soils of our hearts. I still smile just thinking about the powerful energy we experienced together.

I write this addendum because it is important to me that people who read my work know that I am not someone who acts differently than he professes. People are important to me. Especially those whom Jesus tells us to prioritize. I will not help create spaces and call them safe, only to invite in and tolerate people whose ideology is based on destroying others. I’ve said it before and will again, if that makes me intolerant, so be it.

The Christianity I follow is not based on confrontation, but it is also uncompromising. Homophobia, xenophobia, misogyny, racism, transphobia: there are all grave sins that have put millions of victims in their graves. For those who wish to have transformation and healing, I offer to be on that journey. For those who want to justify prejudice, there is no relationship for us to share except that of mutual sinners who’ll have to answer to God.

I thank you for your time. Be well, do good works, and love one another. I’ll try to do the same.

[1] Ernst Haenchen, Robert Walter Funk, and Ulrich Busse, John: A Commentary on the Gospel of John, Hermeneia—a Critical and Historical Commentary on the Bible (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1984), 182.

Saint Barry of the Pilates

“But what is truth? Is truth unchanging law? We both have truths, are mine the same as yours?” —Pontius Pilate, “Trial Before Pilate,” Jesus Christ Superstar

I’ve written a lot about Jesus Christ Superstar. Our village recently experienced a second coming of Jesus—see what I did there—when we were visited by Ted Neeley, aka the Jesus who is easier to love than the one presented by the Church, at least for many people. The Little Art is the smallest venue to ever have hosted Superstar screenings with cast members present. And after this past weekend, Frank, the tour manager, told us that Yellow Springs is second only to Chicago for the total number of screenings. Ted and Frank assured us that they wish to return. They marvel at the welcome and friendliness they’ve experienced in our village.

When I spoke to Ted last in preparation for a pair of articles (click here and here) I wrote for the Yellow Springs News, Barry Dennen had just died owing to a tragic series of events. An intimacy developed in our conversation, and while I am readily aware that Ted could make a lamppost swoon from the charisma, we experienced a deep, authentic connection. It was like pastoring Jesus.

I was supposed to attend the Saturday night screening, but an incident in which my actions directly related to painful and panicky experiences for two persons I love deeply, I was devastated. I engaged in repentance and self-reflection, trying to gather myself for worship the next morning. We returned our tickets so that others could use them. I received messages from Gilah Pomeranz, who then went to Fort Wayne as the head roadie for Ted and Frank, Ted’s road manager. And I also received a message from Ted himself, expressing sympathy and regrets. Little did I realize, there were plans afoot that I had just monkeyed up.

Sure enough, when I walked into the church, there was Ted, waiting for me outside my office.

**

Did you know that Pontius Pilate is a saint in the Greek Orthodox, Coptic, and Ethiopian Churches? There are reliefs on sarcophagi picturing Pilate at the Last Supper or observing the crucifixion with sadness and disdain. In one example, Pilate is represented as being akin to Abraham while Jesus is paired with Isaac. Augustine called him a convert. And in Jesus Christ Superstar, as played by Barry and Ted, Jesus and Pilate loved and felt sympathy for one another.

And now you know the rest of the story.

**

Last Sunday evening, after a worship in which Miriam and I sang “The Rose,” at least after it took me a good 45 seconds to find my note (because that’s what you want, right, when you’re singing in front of Ted Neeley and are already horribly self-conscious about your singing voice), we met Ted, Gilah, Shep, and Frank at Tokyo restaurant in Fairborn. Once we were all settled in, Frank said, “Well, we should get this out of the way.” Everyone was looking at me.

What is about to happen? Am I being committed? Is this a food intervention?  The bipolar mind boggles.

Frank went on to explain that they were leaving relics of Barry in each of the places they visit in which Barry visited previously. He then told me to look at Ted, who had an impish grin and pulled out a bag.

“It’s Barry’s hat,” Frank said.

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Me mustering every single bit of energy I have to not burst into tears; my lip looked like a dog’s cushion. 

These are the Pilate hats sold on tour, and Barry wore his for the duration of the VIP and screening the Little Art hosted in 2015. While the one gifted to me is not the one he wore in YS, it is the one he wore in the documentary film just released about the screening tours.

Here’s a better shot of it.

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They were going to give it to me in front of the crowd on Saturday, and I know that Ted was a little disappointed, although he was gracious beyond measure because that is who Ted is in his DNA. And while that would have been a great moment, it also would have been too overwhelming for me, and I wouldn’t have been able to contain my emotions.

If you read the blog, then you know all the details about why this is such a powerful gift. Barry said that it is a club one enters into having played Pilate in Superstar. For me, I studied every gesture, every breath, every vocal intonation. When I played the part, I less played Pilate and more played Barry Dennen playing Pilate. The director herself once yelled at me, “Lose the accent, Aaron, you’re not Barry Dennen.”

I haven’t posted about this on Facebook. I haven’t even told my parents because the gesture has struck me so deeply. Words fail, and I’ve been told I can turn a phrase. I have been so deeply impacted that it shut me up.

I know, right? I’m a talking and writing fool.

Barry’s hat will find its home on a very special shelf next to Stephen’s ashes with his hat on top, Guinness’ ashes with her color on top. There will Barry’s hat will reside, until Ted and Frank return again. Then I will don the crown in honor of St. Barry of the Pilates.

 

On Christology, Part II: “But what is Truth?”

As I’ve written about beforeJesus Christ Superstar has been formative to my faith journey. My earliest memory is connected to Pilate counting the lashes and asking my sister, “Are they nailing him to the cross?” Portraying Pilate planted the seed of needing to know who Jesus is, a seed that germinated in my becoming a religion major in college. But what is Truth, is truth unchanging law? We both have truths, are mine the same as yours? 

My Christology is somewhere between “Personal Jesus” and “Losing My Religion.” A Jesus who guarantees us personal salvation but allows us to spend most of our times telling people what they cannot do or be is odious; a Christianity that permits us to do whatever we want, to engage in pleasure while simultaneously causing and contributing to suffering is equally problematic. One detail that is non-negotiable to me is that Jesus pulls us into community. I simply cannot understand how one can follow Jesus outside of being a servant of God for others. This does not have to be a church. I love the church, but I came to faith as an adult and have been lucky enough to find communities in which an others-based, radical love approach to Christianity is practiced. Many others have not been so lucky, so they have formed their own communities. That’s our hope with the Beloved Community Project. But I reject out of hand the idea that confessing faith in Christ is the alpha and omega of salvation.

As I wrote yesterday, my aim here is to set forth a working Christology. There are two goals: the first is presenting a cohesive vision of Jesus, the second is that in so doing I will create a starting point for conversations with others that are not initiated by me. Over the next several years, I will write an entire systematic theology but I gots to get that doctorate first. So, if I am working with someone else and they want to know what I think of Jesus, we can start with this and then talk in person. Enough qualifications, let’s get into it.

“Be you angels? Nay, we are but men.” –Tenacious D

One of the biggest intellectual stumbling blocks I’ve had even post-conversion is the divinity of Christ. The doctrine of “fully human, fully divine” took several centuries to develop, and a not insignificant number of lives were cut short for daring to hold contrary views. And while I have always been fascinated with theology and the study of religion, I grew up outside the Church. I was not indoctrinated, I was not abused. So while I have been and continue to be disgusted with how supposed followers of Christ have used God to justify horrendous things, I believe in a Jesus who has helped me battle demons while growing in love. Still, one cannot claim to know Jesus and not have a biblically-based understanding of the man from Nazareth.

I am not intending to inundate the reader with lots of biblical references and theological jargon. I have other writings for that if people are interested. When I do use specialist language, I will define it but this obviously is not meant to be the Christology section of an ordination paper. This is honest reflections on a vastly complicated subject.

The first thing to establish is Jesus’ relationship to God. There are myriad texts that present him as a preacher, a teacher, a miracle worker, a revolutionary, as one predicted by the prophets, a Son of God, and even as God himself. I have found that those who take Scripture literally rarely emphasize the various aspects equally. To be fair, that is true for me as well. The difference is that I emphasize the things that will help me be a servant to others while far too much of Christian history has been filled with and those by who emphasize the things that make others afraid. Vulnerable. Subject to persecution. A person who is willing to wield violence unto death in order to extract a confession that Jesus is fully divine does not seem like the sort of person who really knows Jesus Christ. But what do I mean by that?

For most of human history, people lived in a comfortable gray area as it concerns human-divine hybridity. Across cultures and time, it has been reported that heavenly beings came to earth, often using rape as a tactic, to impregnate. An early documented accounting of Haley’s comet postulated that the streaking across the sky was the soul of Julius Caesar becoming fully divine. Comic books are filled with modern examples of ancient cosmogony. Full humanity and full divinity became a modern sticky wicket, though, especially for monotheism. How can corporeal flesh, with all its attenuating limitations and imperfections, contain the fullness of the divine, which is the ur-perfection of all things? This rabbit hole is interesting, but it is filled with sub chambers that burrow to the center of the earth. We’re aiming with a bird’s eye view.

My Christology began in and with Buddhism. Siddhartha taught that we are the cause of our own suffering, which we perpetuate as a result of constructing and defending ego. I read widely and deeply on the Four Noble Truths, particularly the Eightfold Path. I examined myself regularly to untangle the web of ego within myself, an ongoing process. I began to understand that this is what Paul writes about in Romans 6-8. When I am feeling anger or I’m engaged in envy, I remind myself that such feelings more often than not are rooted in egotism. Dying to that self and being clothed in Christ, to me, means that love, compassion, mercy, and grace are always abundant, but only if I commit to seeing them. If I am not able to love even as the temporary situation elicits other emotions, I have some dying to do. This does not mean allowing oneself to be trod upon as if a doormat; rather, it means that in this walk of life, one steps mindfully and aware of how the footfall impacts others. Jesus has helped me understand that sometimes we need to love people from a distance, as their toxicity cannot be addressed by anyone but themselves.

Buddhism also helped me to wrestle with the human-divine conundrum. From the beginning, Christianity has been home to metaphorical and allegorical hermeneutics. In other words, interpretations of Jesus Christ have always included symbolism. Jesus used parables to teach; does it change the truth of the stories if factually there was no prodigal son? Of course not, so how does it follow that the evangelists wrote only what is literally true? Jesus used stories, so did the evangelists, and so do we as followers of Christ. There’s a Buddhist teaching that I have consulted much over the past 15 years. The unenlightened person is like one who will ask the master about the location of the moon, only to stare at the pointing finger rather than the object in the sky.

I began with understanding Jesus as the master pointing to the sky, showing the way to the moon (God), but not as the moon itself. This is not unique or original to me, and in fact, stretches back to primitive Christianity.

This intellectual conception of God allowed me to engage more confidently in following Christ and working for Christ within both Christian and non-Christian circles. I came to God through Jesus, which satisfies a basic requirement for those who wish to seek ordination. But more importantly, it propelled me into relationships with others while focusing on service and genuine community. Jesus transgressed cultural and religious lines, proclaiming as the Beloved those especially who had been abused and shut out by prevailing powers. Following Jesus means loving your enemies, and not just saying that you do. It means not looking at others as inferior or less-than; again, this does not mean anything goes. It does not mean that people aren’t held responsible here and now for what they do. It means, though, that God doesn’t say, “take care of those who think like you, look like you, and only those whom you feel deserve it.” God says that we are our siblings’ keeper. And everyone is a child of God. Following Jesus means abhorring the argument that everyone who cannot meet all of their needs is lazy, asking for a handout, is holding others back, or is asking for special treatment. It means that you are more disgusted by a society that has failed to clothe, feed, affirm, and protect all people than you are by the needy people themselves.

Jesus being fully human means that we do not lack an example of how to live an authentic life. The fully human Jesus does not have anything extra or lack anything necessary; he is one of us.

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The trite expression “What Would Jesus Do?” sadly was more marketing tool than ministry truth, but there is a kernel of usefulness present. Knowing what I know about Jesus, where would he see God in this situation and what would be his response as a servant of God to and for others?

Beginning with the fully human aspect of Jesus helped me explore the divine. I don’t say “fully divine” because I think the phrase is overused by those who don’t fully understand what it entails beyond being a litmus test for those who want to be card-carrying members of Team Jesus. Right now, I believe this: through his life, Jesus was filled with the Spirit of God. His manner of life led him to an execution at the hands of religious and civil authorities who saw his message as inherently dangerous. Jesus submitted himself to judgment because he knew no other way to live a genuine life, and if this world wouldn’t let him he would simply leave. He did all things in love. I remain agnostic as to whether Jesus is ontologically God–that is, eternally and absolutely divine–or if Jesus experienced an awakening that, like others across time and space, propelled him to perfect union with God. In other words, I can make arguments that Jesus’ identity was an evolutionary process, just as it is for all other humans. I’m a modified Gnostic (or perhaps a Gentile Hasidic) in that I believe there is a spark of divinity in all of us; the purpose of our lives is to identify the spark, and allow the Spirit to stoke it into an all-consuming flame.

Through following Jesus, submitting to the Gospel, orientating myself toward the priorities Jesus identified, I have grown closer and closer to God. I’ve done a shit-ton of drugs and drank oceans of booze, but the all-encompassing feeling of being connected to the source of Love is beyond the high produced by anything I ever put into my body. The more I live the Gospel, the more I am able to let go of the false self. I know that there are some things worth dying for, and while I do not wish to perish I know that the spiritual death of being a slave to capitalism and American nationalism will be far worse than even crucifixion. We turn to Rome to sentence Nazareth. 

Is Jesus God? In my mind, there is no separation between Jesus and God. I refuse, though, to participate in theological-purity witch hunts. A fully-human Jesus who reveals God, but whose resurrection is symbolic is still a very powerful cat. A Jesus who provides us the perfect paradigm for how to live an authentic life? Why would we want to shut that out? How does that understanding prevent someone from following the Gospel? I’ve Hindu and Buddhist acquaintances who see Jesus as an istadevata (a figure to whom one dedicates one’s religious life in exchange for divine benefits) or as a great teacher. The respect they accord to him and the ways in which they live their lives is far preferable to the hateful destruction I’ve seen from Christological purists.

For me, Jesus is the way, the truth, and the light. But I believe in a God much bigger than one interpretation or even one religion.

In the next installment, we will consider how Jesus does or does not alter human anthropology. Please share this with friends!

On Christology, Part I: Eyerollers Welcome

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I love Jesus.

I also understand that the statement makes a good number of people cringe. This makes sense, given that it so often is followed by judgmental statements meant to describe the flaws of those on the receiving end of the invective. I don’t love that Jesus. I don’t even want to know him.

But if you want to understand me you’ll come to understand that I love Jesus. My well-known conversion story–schizophrenic brother committed suicide and I began my fifteen-year path to the pastorate–is part of it. I wrestled intellectually with the Jesus I believed in for years; my doctrine was sound, but my life was not. The process of submitting to God unfolded over the course of years and would be as tedious to read as it would be to write; suffice it to say, after I was diagnosed with bipolar disorder I was able to take the necessary steps to create a life that allows me to live with health issues: Therapy with an amazing doctor; a medication protocol that strikes a good balance between managing the most troublesome aspects of bipolar and not so heavily altering my mental state that I lose a sense of self; recognizing and actualizing the need to work exclusively in the village; communicating clearly (and apologizing when I don’t) my needs when bipolar is winning; and myriad other issues.

But the biggest change has been quitting drinking. I tried for years to quit. I would make promises to myself and others that I would break. I let my alcoholism impact all areas of life, dragging others into it as well. My first marriage ended for many reasons, but the biggest was I chose alcohol over everything else, even when I acted like that was not the case. I didn’t do it maliciously–few drunks do–but as soon as I was able to regulate the need to drink because of mental health issues, the final piece necessary to quit was in place.

I attribute all of that to Jesus.

Christology literally means “words about Christ.” In seminary, all students are required to take at least one course in systematic theology, which involves writing a synthesized explanation for the major questions that arise when talking about belief in the Christian God. It is impossible to write a cohesive systematic theology by compartmentalizing each aspect. What one believes about Jesus informs what one believes about the sacraments, the means of grace and salvation, theological anthropology, and the ends of existence. I had this sorted out intellectually, but four years ago I began to feel the need to no longer just preach and teach, but rather to live the principles embodied in and through Jesus Christ.

Regular readers of the blog or those who know me irl will know about the Beloved Community Project. I have thrown myself into the life of the village because I believe that God has provided me the milieu in which I can preach the gospel through the work I do, most often without even saying the name of Jesus. As we’ll talk about in this series, I believe the statement, “I am the Way, the Truth, and the Life.” But I do not believe that it indicates the exclusive passage a spiritual life. In following Jesus, I have discovered that the truth is almost always found by following love. I have discovered that a rich, meaningful life is, as Jesus says, understanding that “the Son of Man came not to be served, but to serve.” I am a Son of Man, the male offspring of a male father–there are multiple ways in which the term is used in biblical documents; in the book of Ezekiel, we see the example I employ above–and by trying to serve various communities, I feel more alive than ever.

But I don’t think everyone will necessarily experience this, nor do I think that my approach is superior to others simply because I believe in Jee-suhs.

I have been a biblical scholar for most of my career; I wrestle with the Bible each and every week I am in the pulpit, which is most Sundays. I take the Bible seriously, but not so I can condemn others to hell while ignoring my own legion of sin. I read the Bible because it helps me in this deconstruction of a false self and the taking on of Christ, like a warm cloak over my cold flesh. I preach to share history, theory, words of comfort, and to issue loving commandments to take Christ into the community with us, ears opened and mouths shut. St. Francis is ever my pastor: Preach the gospel at all times, Aaron, and for God’s sake shut up unless words are absolutely necessary. 

This project will reflect the tangy mix that is Pastor Aaron (PA). I love theology and sharing ideas with people; I’m a pastoral theologian. I have little use for theology that does not help us live the gospel in our lives, as we are able and as we discern; the Jesus I know helps me to view situations with a long view toward love, he gives me a nudge when I’m acting selfishly or Iif  am benefitting from myriad privileges because it is just easier to remain quiet; and he, in ways I will explain, brings me the greatest and most overwhelming joy in life.

I know, I used to roll my eyes, too. And I totally understand if you just did. Christians and Christianity deserve the disdain and skepticisms many hold. I never run away from that here, which is easy because I do not have the “goal” of converting anyone. I plan to explicate my working Christology here, so when I go out into the world I can focus on being a servant in the ways that people need. I hope that you’ll come on the journey, and please feel free to share with anyone you think might be interested.