Wednesday, April 27, 2011

The Rebellious Child and the New Church

Note: While Abby is away this week, you get me (Jeremy). Don't worry - it's only temporary and I'll keep it brief!

A Bible study brunch at Broadneck is a lively thing. Lots of good questions, thoughtful folks sharing ideas, and (of course) plenty of tasty food to help fuel all of this. Maybe it is these things which made me think of Passover and the Seder - a time of re-living faith stories and questions around a shared meal. As we looked at this week's passages (John 20:19-31 and Acts 2:14-32), Abby invited us to think about how these visits from the resurrected Jesus and Peter's speech to a mocking crowd might have influenced the development of the early church. Paraphrasing the rebellious child (one of the four children used as symbolic questioners during the Seder), I wondered, "What's this mean to all of you?" Or, as Jolly put it last week, "What's it to ya, bub?"

I think this is a great question that Abby raises, and it's one that Stephen (our former interim and member) raised, and I think it should be in our thoughts anytime we try to think about our life together as community. By looking at the diversity and challenges within early faith communities and churches (!) and how they were addressed, there is a lot we can/should learn and ideas that we should continue to reflect on if we are to embody Jesus in the world.

So, what do I sense in these passages about the disciples, community, and following Jesus? Quite a few things, actually, some of which might be interesting to you, some of which probably aren't, and some that might be useful in a broader context. Briefly:

1. Just as we see his humanity throughout Jesus' life, we see honesty in emotional reactions in both the Easter scriptures and in this passage in John. Joy, fear, apprehension, awe, guilt, anger, relief, and a dozen other feelings are expressed here. Everyone involved - even the initially mocking crowds - illustrates how diverse reactions were to this new angle of relationship with God. In the passage from John (and in the resurrection texts), Jesus spends quite a bit of time just trying to calm folks down and get them to really see a new reality. Peter seems to attempt to do something similiar, illustrating that Jesus is trying to free us from fear of death. Just as God didn't abandon Jesus to the Pit/Sheol/Hades, neither will God abandon you. For all our supposed enlightenment and rationality and logic, seems to me that we are just as driven by our emotions and still in need of peace in order to begin to understand the reality of life around us.

2. Connected with these emotions, we see a spectrum of faith. In my reading and experience, there's a tension between faith and a "need" for proof that, it would appear, has been pretty consistent through quite a bit of human history. Jesus appears (at least twice) in a locked room next to some already freaked out disciples and has to show them his wounds. Hearing about this from people he trusted with other vital things wasn't enough for Thomas - he has to touch to believe. Where are you on this spectrum? How and why does it change from time to time? Why are some things so easy to take "on faith," but others require tangible evidence? I don't think this tension is a bad thing, entirely - just a part of being human. But how to live with it? Last point on this issue: Not one disciple called Thomas a jerk/heathen/unbeliever for expressing his honest doubts, or kicked him out of the group. Interesting, no?

3. Peter's speech wasn't just for the culturally recognized leaders (elder men). He addressed slaves, women, men of Judea and all the various peoples of Jerusalem. This supports Jesus' message and actions of equality and of changing how we perceive and interact with and value others.

4. When Jesus' empowers the disciples here in John to forgive, is this really a new thing, or just drawing attention to the power we all hold? I invite you to read the different translations side by side of John 20:23 here. The question isn't what is retained or held, but who does the holding. The Greek tenses and words used seem to indicate a duality between continual retention and instant release (as well as who does the retaining) that isn't exactly clear in most translations. In any case, it doesn't seem to say that God cedes power of ultimate forgiveness to the disciples, and instead points out that it's up to them if they want to carry around another person's sins. Obvious a statement it may be, but I think it shows a struggle that we experience daily in how we approach forgiveness. How much do we hold onto the wrongs of others, and why? Are we going to approach forgiveness as a transaction, a "gift" that must be reciprocated, and which isn't truly a gift? (see Miroslav Volf and his book "Free of Charge" on this one, if you like, or some Marcel Mauss on "The Gift")

What's all this to you, oh rebellious child? What's this to you, oh church?

Peace to you all from a rebellious child,


Friday, April 22, 2011

Some Reflections on Good Friday

I have decided to use the blog a little differently this week. There are a couple of reasons for this: first, it seems a little strange to me to blog on Resurrection texts in the days that mark Jesus' death, days when an outcome of resurrection was far from certain. Second, since we are not "officially" gathering as a faith community on Good Friday (though I hope those of you who are able will join us for the Community Crosswalk beginning at Noon at Broadneck, rain or shine), I thought that it could be useful to reflect on the story and meaning of this day instead of moving to our Sunday Sermon Scriptures (which I hope you will still read ahead of time here--we'll be using the Matthew Gospel text, the Jeremiah reading and the Acts reading). So here are some reflections for your Good Friday:

Last year, I spent Good Friday in France, believe it or not. While visiting family in Germany, I took the train across the border to spend the day in the picturesque village of Strasbourg. After visiting a Catholic cathedral with powerful depictions of the crucifixion and a Lutheran church that dated back to the days of...well...Luther, I sort of accidentally stumbled into a Good Friday service taking place in a Protestant church not far from the center of town. I crept into the back and took my place in a pew, hoping I could be a worshipper and not a tourist. One of the congregants handed me a bulletin, and I graciously accepted it as I settled in to listen.

Now, I took French in high school, but that was a loooong time ago. Hence, most of the words of songs and prayers in this service were lost on me. But as various people got up to read the words of the Passion story from Matthew's gospel...I found that I recognized every word. Even when I didn't know the exact meaning of the language, I understood the exact meaning of their message--the agony, abandonment, hopelessness, and derision portrayed in every syllable. It was one of the most powerful experiences of hearing the Good Friday narrative I've ever had, and rather than continuing my village wanderings I sat in that chapel for a long time afterwards reflecting on it.

Hearing the story in a language foreign to me and yet recognizing every word of it made me wonder--is such deep comprehension part of what makes this story of Jesus' death so powerful? A demonstration of love unto death is something that can be understood across time, across cultures. Suffering is something with which anyone who has lived more than a few years, no matter their background, is well acquainted. Is this why we keep crosses in our sanctuaries and hang them around our necks even though they are gruesome instruments of death--because somehow, in that sharing in Jesus' suffering and reminder of it, we are brought closer to Jesus than at any other time? That this is God's love made visible in a way that we cannot understand, yet at the same time understand deeply as people who, too, have suffered?

I also have often wondered, if Easter is the central event of the Christian faith, why we don't put empty tombs in our churches or on our jewelry. I wonder if this is because death is something far more tangible for us, more comprehensible, than the tremendous mystery that is resurrection. We've all known suffering; but we have not all known resurrection. Most of us, in spite of the fact that we now live in what Walter Brueggeman called an "Eastered World", live in places that look more like Friday or Saturday than Sunday: places marked with disappointment, with brokenness, with suffering. I think this was true even for the early church: after all, the Gospel writers devoted dozens of verses to Jesus' death but struggled to come up with more than a few words to describe the resurrection. How can such a mystery that none of use have yet experienced be named? There were many witnesses to the crucifixion...but no one, as best as we can tell, saw Jesus rising with their own eyes. A select few saw him post-resurrection, but the rest of us were left to depend on the fearful and joyful witness of those few to this unknown.

I am not sure where all these somewhat rambling wonderings lead...but perhaps this is what Easter faith is, at its heart: living into the mystery of God with the full spectrum of our wonder. In this day, however, I continue to ask: what does it mean to have as the core, universal symbol of our faith a story of intense suffering? As we gaze upon a day of pain that cuts to our souls, how might we begin to imagine an Easter morning that points beyond any adequate description? How might we learn to see and receive the sudden, surprising and never-before-seen gift of incomprehensible life beyond our visible and all-too-real knowledge of death?

Thursday, April 14, 2011

Overwhelming Shifts

The lectionary texts for this Palm/Passion Sunday are myriad--it is the only day of the church year that recommends two totally different sets of readings in the same time of worship. This week, we will be focusing on the Gospel readings--Matthew 21:1-11 and Matthew 27:11-54--with an assist from the Epistle reading, Philippians 2:5-11. They are full, full, full, so spend some time with the first set of readings as well as the second set before we gather around them and delve into them on Sunday.

Palm/Passion Sunday, the final Sunday of the Lenten season, is full of shifts, shifts that can quickly overwhelm even those of us familiar with the stories and events that mark this day. I think the shift is supposed to feel abrupt--because what will happen in this Holy Week is harsh and abrupt, no matter how much Jesus' entire life and ministry seems to have been tending towards this showdown in Jerusalem. But I thought I would help us lean into Palm Sunday by highlighting just a few of the shifts that happen here:

1) In terms of our lectionary-guided journey, we move from John's account of the Gospel story which we have been immersed in for the past four weeks back to Matthew's account. Though both writers tell the same story, their accounts sound radically different in our ears. John's language of seeing and hearing and belief is replaced by Matthew's language of kingdoms and Old Testament fulfillment and Messiahs, linking the Jesus story more strongly back to its Jewish roots and the way Jesus came into radical conflict with the secular and religious powers of his day. If John is the lofty gospel that helps us make divine connections, Matthew brings us strongly back to earth, showing Jesus in his very particular social and political context and making some statements with his words and life that end up getting him killed.

2) We've spent the past four weeks with Jesus in very intimate settings, looking at individuals working out their understanding of Jesus in one-on-one dialogue and interaction. Jesus has had some of the longest conversations we see from him in scripture with folks ranging from an old Pharisee to an isolated woman to a formerly blind man cast out of the synagogue to a grieving sister. This week, such intimate conversations are a thing of the past; we are thrust into the crowds, shoulder to shoulder with other palm-waving pilgrims, moved along by the tide of the crowd like revelers in Times Square on New Year's Eve, a tide that carries us through Pilate's courts and ultimately up a hill from which we will all scatter. How does the way we interact with Jesus and view him change as the formerly chatty Jesus falls eerily silent and the voices that fill our ears are those of the crowd around us?

3) The readings for this day take us from shouts of praise to shouts of does this happen so quickly? How can people so sure of Jesus' identity one day want to crucify him for it barely a few hours later? What happens in that gap between palms and passion to provoke such a turn?

I'd encourage you, if you have time this week, to read not just the two Matthew bookends appointed for this day, but the entire narrative that unfolds from Matthew 21 to Matthew 27. This is the overwhelming narrative that shifts Christ's future from acclaimed Messiah to crucified criminal...and as we let it wash over us, it just may shift our futures as well.

Thursday, April 7, 2011

Something Worth Dying For

Our Lectionary texts for this fifth Sunday in Lent are Ezekiel 37:1-14, Psalm 130, and John 11:1-8, 14-48, and 53. This selection from John differs slightly from the listed Lectionary, so you may want to go here and read it as we will be reading it. The rest of the passages, as usual, are here.

What is worth dying for?

This is among the many questions this week's Gospel passage raises for me. You see, in the other Gospel stories, it is Jesus' cleansing of the Temple that is the straw that breaks the Pharisees' backs, so to speak. In Mark and Luke, it is stated explicitly that this is the act of Jesus (usually seen as happening the day after Palm Sunday) that makes the Pharisees determined to kill him by the end of the week (see Mark 11:15-18, Luke 19:45-48), and in Matthew it is certainly implied by the mounting anger of the religious leaders as Jesus invades their space and turns over the tables of their work and their beliefs that it is his Temple presence that gets him killed.

John, however, sees things incredibly differently. John has Jesus cleansing the Temple earlier in his ministry; and though Jesus has some serious brushes with death after that time (see especially John 10:31, 39), the Pharisees are not yet set in their plan to kill him. In John's Gospel, the act that ultimately gets Jesus killed is his decision to raise Lazarus. This is part of why we have adjusted the scope of the lectionary reading, for it is in verse 53 that we find the fear the disciples had of Jesus being killed if he returned to Judea and raised Lazarus early in the chapter confirmed at its end: "So from that day on they determined to put him to death." How could a joyful, colorful scene of resurrection like the one above merit death?

It's a question worth pondering on a couple of levels. First, why did Jesus choose this to be the thing worth dying for--or, at least, worth setting his death in motion? After all, though Lazarus got a few more years on earth, perhaps, he would die again--he was not resurrected to eternal life, as best as we can tell, but simply raised to continue life on this earth for a while. And this is heightened by the fact that the authorites not only want to kill Jesus for raising Lazarus, but Lazarus himself so evidence can be erased (John 12:9-11). What if Jesus getting killed for raising Lazarus only results in Lazarus getting killed as well--perhaps by a much more torturous, painful death than he'd suffered in the first place? What sort of statement was Jesus trying to make here--I mean, if he was really trying to save the sisters from the pain of losing their brother whom they all loved, wouldn't he have not allowed the death to happen in the first place? What is Jesus' motivation here?

Then there's this layer of the question: why would the Pharisees choose to kill someone for bringing life? Wouldn't this be a person it would be amazing to have around--one who could undo even physical death? Wouldn't you want them on your side rather than snuffing them out? What of this act motivated the Pharisees to see it as the final nail in Jesus' coffin? I think there are probably layered answers to this one. One possible key emerges in Eugene Peterson's translation of verse 48:"If we let him go on, pretty soon everyone will be believing in him and the Romans will come and remove what little power and privilege we still have." our needs for power and control really run that deep...that they could compel us to take a life, and to reject life springing forth right before our eyes?

In John's telling of the story, Jesus chose to perform this miracle with full knowledge that it would probably lead to his death. Why was this act of raising Lazarus worth dying for in Jesus' eyes? And in the Pharisees' eyes, why did bringing about life make Jesus worthy of death? Questions worthy of our wrestling as we continue this Lenten journey of coming clean with hard questions and even harder realities.