Thursday, May 26, 2011

One Small Step for Jesus' Disciples, One Giant Leap for the Early Church...

Our readings for this sixth Sunday in Eastertide come from Acts 17:22-31 (though I would recommend expanding this to include verses 16-21 and 32--we will do this on Sunday!), 1 Peter 3:13-22, and John 14:15-21. They can be read here.

It doesn't take much for us to jump from last week's Gospel reading in John 14:1-14 to this week's in John 14:15-21; in fact, in our last Bible study at church I heard one person express frustration that these passages were divided at all--like much of John's Gospel, they flow into one another and need one another to be fully heard! John 14:15-21 continues Jesus' farewell discourse to his disciples, giving them another reason to trust him--that another Advocate will be sent to them so they will not have to journey alone even after his imminent bodily departure from them. It's a nice appendix to Jesus' words of reassurance from last week.

The Acts reading, however, requires a giant leap of time, imagination, and context for us to enter into. Last week, a man named Saul approved of the death of Stephen, outside of the gates of Jerusalem; this week he stands in Athens, Greece, with a new name and a new mission--to take up the work of proclamation for which Stephen had been killed. While all of our other readings from Acts this lectionary year come from chapters 1-7 this one randomly propels us all the way to chapter 17. While all our other stories from Acts the past few weeks (and in the next two) took/will take place in Jerusalem, this one puts us nearly a thousand miles northwest of there. Previously the Gospel has been proclaimed to Jews or, at least, people who knew Jewish ways; now we find the Gospel being proclaimed to Stoics and Epicureans, to people who fill their marketplace with idols to every imaginable God, for whom Socrates was more familiar than Moses. We have leaped forward with the Gospel into a whole new world, one that's far from the home base out of which we've been operating.

Since we'll be operating in a new cultural landscape with this portion of Acts this week, I thought we could have a quick lesson on some of the strange terms in this passage which help us understand where Paul wasas he carried the news of Jesus somewhere it had likely never been before. So, here's a quick vocab lesson (I am indebted to the New Interpreter's Bible for much of this info):

Among those Paul meets in Athens are “Epicurean and Stoic philosophers." Who were these guys? Here are a couple of incredibly oversimplified intros:

Epicureans believed that the avoidance of pain and suffering is the true aim of this life. They felt that a personal, provident god–a god who could make a practical difference in the outcome of a happy life–simply does not exist, so religious devotion does not matter as much as living a life of simple pleasures. Epicureans would not have thought much of all the idols in Athens, most likely, since they didn't expect any of these gods was expected to intervene and make a difference.

Stoics, meanwhile, were guided by their analytical observations and careful reasoning. They sought to live in harmony with the cosmos because they believed the deity was in all things--the "live and move and have our being" reference that Paul drops would have made them cheer and nod in agreement, it probably came from one of their writers! Yet the idea that God could be personalized in someone like Jesus would have been deeply troubling to them and, like the Epicureans, the idea of any life beyond this one seemed a ludicrous concept.

Paul's encounter with these groups led him to the Aeropagus--an elevated, open-air site just to the west of the acropolis in Athens (see picture at right--anyone want to join me on a field trip?). The Areopagus was the equivalent of a city assembly or council that would hear public debates and give verdicts. Paul may well have been taken there to determine whether he has the credentials to bring his “strange teaching” into a place as sophisticated and learned as Athens, where he wanders as a strange curiosity but not necessarily one with any credibility.

Paul's trip to Athens is a bit overwhelming, especially when it takes us so far out of the context we've been in before, into a world of strange new terms and unfamiliar settings. It makes me wonder how Paul's engagement of this whole new context might challenge us as Christ's church to not just move in logical, linear ways, but be willing to immerse ourselves in places totally foreign to us--to deeply encounter and hear what our neighbors think, to open ourselves up to their judgment rather than passing judgment on them, to speak with conviction what we believe even if people look at us like we've grown approximately seventeen heads. To continue our "Growing up" theme from last week, where might this text challenge us to move from tentative baby steps to giant leaps for the sake of living out Jesus' commandment to love our neighbors as ourselves?

Thursday, May 19, 2011

The Way

For this fifth Sunday of Eastertide, as we continue to consider the implications of a risen Christ for our life together as God's people on this earth, the passages that will guide our reflection come from Acts 7:55-60 (though this is among the lectionary's more absurd choices; you really need to read the whole of chapters 6 and 7 to have any sense of what these 6 verses are about!); 1 Peter 2:2-10; and John 14:1-14, which can be read here.

There are about 1,000 things I either want to say or feel need to be said (or, at least, discussed) about this Sunday's Gospel reading--parts of which are among the most familiar things Jesus ever said, parts of which sound like they are still in the original Greek and lacking a clear translation for all the sense they make. After spending some time last Sunday dwelling in Jesus' beautiful image provided in his statement, "I am the gate," however...I wondered if it would be more fruitful this week to continue a visual approach to the Gospel and to consider what we picture when Jesus offers another of his "I am" declarations here: "I am the way."

I did a Google Images search for pictures that come up when you type in "I am the way, the truth, and the life", and the myriad pictures of different ways that came up were fascinating to me. You got a lot of pictures that are similar to this in genre and content:

A lot of words are added to Jesus' declaration in this picture...loaded words, interpretive words....words which may not have been Jesus' intention in offering us this image. Yet other accounts offer a similar theological interpretation without words. I found this one particularly interesting...and disturbing, the more I look at it:

Bridges seem a common motif to depict "the way," whether starkly photographed or whimsically imagined:

Artists have been captured by this description of Jesus, finding a wide variety of ways to sketch and paint representations of the way:

Then there's this, a way that looks like there is within it, ironically, no way through at all:
There are some images of the way that look common enough that they could be found in our neighborhood, even in our own backyard:

And then there are some ways that take a different shape than any road or path we've ever thought about before:

As I scrolled through all of these and many more images, looking for a concept of what it might mean to think of Jesus as "way," (which can also be translated "road" or "path", in case you wondered!), I found some interesting, but none that were like, "Yes! That's it!" So my question to you is...based upon what YOU know of Jesus...if you were to photograph, draw, or depict what sort of way you think Jesus is...what might you contribute to this series of images? Which images draw you in, if any? Which appall you, if any? Is there only one way to picture this way, or many?

A picture does indeed paint a thousand words...or, in this case, at least, those ten vivid words shared by Jesus: "I am the way, and the truth, and the life." May we all enter into the mysterious imagination of the fullness of what those rich words might convey and invite us into.

Thursday, May 12, 2011

Does Jesus Really Know Us?

Our scripture texts this week are Acts 2:42-47, 1 Peter 2:19-25, and John 10:1-10, which you can read in full here.

The fourth Sunday in Eastertide is traditionally "Good Shepherd Sunday," a time for us to contemplate the idea of the risen Christ as "the shepherd and guardian of our souls," as Peter's epistle describes him, or as the One who calls the sheep by name and leads them out that they may find pasture, as John's Gospel describes him.

Our Wednesday night prayer and meditation group spent some time with the Gospel text last night, and though this is a text I have read innumerable times (because I find John 10:10 one of the most significant and mystifying verses in all of scripture), I was struck by something I had never been struck by before. I'm still turning it over in my head this morning, so as I shared it with the group last night I will share it now with you:

In verse 8, Jesus says, "All who came before me are thieves and bandits; but the sheep did not listen to them." This is in a similar vein to the claim Jesus made back in verse 5 about his sheep: "They will not follow a stranger, but they will run from him because they do not know the voice of strangers." I read this last night, and alarms began to go off in my head for what now seems a ridiculously obvious reason: Um, Jesus...I don't know if you've noticed or not, but we listen to thieves and bandits constantly. We run after strangers like it's our job, if it seems like they'll lead us somewhere that will satisfy our needs. So how can you say we have not done this in the past and will not do it in the future? You claim to know us...but these two verses make me wonder if you really do.

So what is Jesus doing here? Is this the power of positive thinking? Does Jesus think that if he plants seeds of a different way in our minds, we'll begin to realize there is another way and live into his words? This makes sense for the passage about our future...but what about what he said about our past? Is this a statement of forgiveness--that Jesus is just not even going to remember that we listened to the thieves in the past, is giving us a fresh start, clean slate, new way to live?

What do you think? I really am intrigued by this. I'd encourage you to read another blog post I ran across last night that asks some of these questions at The Hardest Question, a lectionary site whose honesty I really appreciate. Then join us on Sunday as we seek to know better this Shepherd who claims to know us intimately, to figure out how to shape our futures together in a way that reflects His character in our matter how wayward and misled we may have been in the past.

Thursday, May 5, 2011

Wondering Again

On this third Sunday in Eastertide--the season we have been given in which to continue to celebrate the resurrection and to enter into its mystery, trying to figure out what a risen Christ means for the life we live NOW--our texts are Acts 2:36-41 (though I will be including 32 and 33, just for context), 1 Peter 1:17-23, and Luke 24:13-35. You can read them here.

A couple of months back, I wrote in a blog about the power of "wondering" questions--questions that do not have clear-cut answers but that invite us deeper into the mystery of the story. I find this week's stories full of mystery--a mysterious companion on a journey, a mysterious disappearance, mysterious languages spoken that draw a crowd that by some great mystery hears truth and joins the fellowship of Jesus' followers. So it seemed like this might be a good time to offer some more "wondering" questions about our passages.

Though I will be focusing more on the Acts readings than the Gospel readings in this Eastertide season (though, as Jeremy pointed out last week, this will be with the intention of seeing how the early church was shaped by these resurrection Gospel stories--so really we'll be reading the stories in conversation with one another!), it is Jesus' mysterious appearance in Luke that makes me wonder most this week:

  • I wonder why the two travelers were headed to Emmaus. It seems like the messages from Jesus on that Easter morning were either to head to Galilee or to remain in Jerusalem...what are these folks doing heading to this random village that we know little about besides the fact that it was seven miles from Jerusalem?
  • I wonder why we only learn the name of one of the disciples on the road to Emmaus...and why this is a disciple we have never heard from before, nor hear from after.
  • I wonder why, even though they can tell the story of Jesus' death and resurrection with accuracy and clarity, the two on the road remain sad even as they speak what is good news.
  • I wonder what Jesus said to interpret the scriptures from Moses to the prophets to the recent events in, don't you wish we'd gotten than conversation recorded??
  • I wonder why Jesus walked ahead as if he was going on...did he really intend to continue, and if so, to where? If not, I wonder why he made it look as if he was going on?
  • I wonder why the two disciples were so intent on forcing him to stay...the verb used here means literally "to twist one's arm."
  • I wonder why Jesus vanished as soon as they recognized him...and where he went!
A couple of wondering questions from Acts as well:
  • I wonder what the "many other arguments" were that Peter used that brought about such an incredible change in that crowd gathered in Jerusalem, that turned them from mocking the disciples to joining their ranks?
  • I wonder why it was Peter--the one who denied Jesus!--who gave this first sermon of the church, who could speak with such conviction and certainty.
As we wonder, may we find our hearts burning within us in the days to come as we consider the wonder-fullness of the resurrection story and the ways it reshapes the story we live this day.