Sunday, June 10, 2018

God-Breathed.

Genesis 1:1-2:4a; Matthew 6:26-29
June 10, 2018

I.

On the old TV show, Star Trek: The Next Generation, Captain Picard would occasionally retire to his cabin and instruct the replicator: “Tea, Earl Grey, Hot.”  And in about 2 seconds a piping hot cup of tea would materialize in the replicator.  

I thought I would try this with my phone.  “Hey Siri.  Tea, Earl Grey, Hot.”  [The phone says, “Coming right up.”]  The thing is, Siri is lying here.  Instead of replicating a cup of tea, she is merely repeating the correct response from the TV show.  I am going to have to wait to get my tea later.      

Just as Captain Picard spoke and tea happened, Genesis tells a story in which God speaks and, well, everything happens.  Picard was speaking to a very advanced piece of technology, sort of like a 3-d printer only a lot faster and that can make food, which was engineered to produce, I believe, a molecularly correct copy of what was asked for.  

But for God, the very act of speaking itself causes the creation to emerge into being.  Kind of like the way clouds form when moisture-laden air encounters a disturbance.  Creation is like the condensation or the precipitation of the whole universe from God’s spoken word.        

God speaks and stuff happens.  In fact, we could say that that’s who God is.  God is the One who speaks and things come into being.  Everything that exists is spoken into existence by God.  Everything is a revelation, a communication from God, and expression of God’s Word.    

All speech has two components: there is the breath, passing over vocal chords to produce sound; and there is the content, the idea, the meaning of the sound, the word.  From the very beginning, then, there is the Speaker, the breath, and the word.  The word has a different relationship to the Speaker than does the breath, but all three are integrated into a oneness, and yet each of the three is distinct.  Thus from the first few verses of the Bible, we are introduced to what Christians later identify as the Trinity, God as both one and three.  The things that emerge into being from this creative action are all good.  How could they not be, seeing as they are all born from the same action of the One God?  

What God creates, ultimately, is life.  First, God breathes into being the conditions for life by hollowing a safe space out of the formless void and darkness of the primal waters.  Then God breathes life itself into that safe space, life which gets ever more complex day by day of creation, until at last animals and humans emerge into existence.

Finally, the humans are given responsibility for this whole magnificent garden, and they are instructed to do two things: multiply and migrate.  (Multiply is not about arithmetic, by the way.)    
II.

The point of Genesis 1 is that the whole place is literally God-breathed, inspired, and a direct product of God’s action.  Even more than this, everything has its being, meaning, form, and purpose in God, and God, as the primal Speaker of everything, has left an imprint in and on everything.  Indeed, God is indirectly within everything.  Psalm 24 would later crystalize this truth in a verse I repeat almost every Sunday: “The earth is the Lord’s and the fullness thereof, the world and all who dwell therein.”  Everything and everyone belong to God, because everything and everyone are an expression of God’s creative  Word.

This is contrary to the way humans came to treat the earth, which is as an inanimate object to be disposed of as we please.  That is how the ego-centric, sinful, depraved human mind interprets the word “dominion.”  As if dominion means that we are to act now as if the earth and its fullness, the world and all who dwell therein, did not belong to God, but to us.  So we act as if every tree, every animal, every ocean, every non-human life, and even every rock were a thing that it was up to us to decide what to do with, without any reference to the expressed will of the Creator at all.

Forests are to be clear-cut.  Mountains are to have their tops blown off so we can get to the coal in them.  Oceans are to be fished and filled with plastic waste.  Animals are to be hunted or bred into factory farms for our consumption.  People who farmed land for centuries are to be driven off it so cash crops can be sold on the open market.  And of course we are to burn fossil fuels without limit, creating an atmospheric greenhouse effect which is warming the planet.      

I once mentioned this to someone in a church I was serving, and he just shrugged, saying, “God put it all there for us to use.  Why not use it?”  This is the execrable philosophy called “Dominionism.”  It basically interprets Genesis 1 as a blanket permission for the strong to oppress the weak.  It is sort of a cosmological Social Darwinism in which people dominate the planet and a few strong individuals dominate humanity.

All this can only done if we first conveniently forget the rest of Genesis 1, which insists that the whole creation is breathed into being, piece by piece, day by day, by God and therefore participates at some level in God’s being.  In order to treat the planet like something to be exploited by the strong and the privileged, humans had to pretend that God merely manufactured the earth and handed it over to us to do with as we pleased.  We would have to think of creation as something God did at a distance, something from which God was absent, indeed, something which God doesn’t even really like, instead of as something God intimately and directly speaks into being and declares to be very good.

Indeed, in order to act in this self-serving, dominating manner, you have to treat creation as if it were dead.  And if it’s not dead, we have to kill it.  Our laws, habits, traditions, and actions depend on having a dead creation to exploit and manipulate.  A tree is not sacred, it is lumber.  Land is not sacred, it is real estate.  Everything else from minerals to humans are not sacred, they are resources and commodities, objects to be bought and sold, used up, and thrown away.   

III.

Enter Jesus.  In him, God’s Word is made flesh in an even more direct way.  Everything is an expression of God’s Word, as breathed into being at creation; Jesus Christ is God’s Word himself, incarnate, and embodied as a living, breathing human being, living in time and space.  

In the very center of his characteristic sermon, his “stump speech,” as it were, the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus is addressing the calcified cancer of human greed and self-centeredness, which always spawns a resentful anxiety  and worry in our hearts, and which causes the kind of predatory, extractive, consumptive, hoarding approach to creation.  To draw his hearers’ attention away from themselves he does not quote Scripture at them.  For his authority he points to God’s Word in nature.

“Look at the birds of the air,” he says, looking upward.  “Consider the lilies of the field,” he suggests, casting his gaze down at the ground.  These are examples of God’s economy.  God takes care of them even though they do not work at anything humans deem productive or valuable.  They are more beautiful than anything even the richest king can buy.

It is as if he is saying, “You people have cut yourself off from the truth.  You have made a world of anxiety where people starve and wars happen.  But all around you the world as God makes it remains, and it is seen in the careless and joyful life of birds and flowers.  “Are you not of more value than they?”  Doesn’t God love you at least as much as God loves birds and flowers?  Will God not take care of you?

There is more than enough abundance in God’s creation to feed and clothe and house all of us.  It just depends on how we distribute it.  And how we distribute it depends on how we view it, imagine it, think of it.  Jesus’ prescription is to “strive first for the Kingdom of God.”  In all things, in every decision, in each choice consider and follow the teachings of Jesus who reveals to us God’s nature and plan.  

In other words, start to treat the earth with the respect and love due to something breathed into existence by God and declared very good.  Treat other people this way too.  Realize that we are all together in this, we are all united, we are all made of the same matter and energy which emerged from the speaking of the Creator.  We are all one expression of the Creator’s will.  

Realize that we already share everything: the same water, the same air, the same minerals.  Realize that hoarding and storing and keeping for yourself is killing you, and everyone else.

Realize as well, and act upon this realization, that God put us here for sharing and generosity, for mutual feeding and building up, for thanksgiving and for joy.  And if we would only submit ourselves to God’s will, revealed in Jesus, and put aside the falsehoods and fear that dominate us, we will emerge in God’s Kingdom, which is already here.
+++++++

Friday, June 8, 2018

Civil Disobedience.

Mark 2:23-3:6
June 3, 2018

I.

Early in his ministry, Jesus begins deliberately making points in his actions about the Sabbath.  In fact, one of the things he would have been known for in his own time was as a Sabbath breaker, or Sabbath reformer, depending on your perspective.

The Sabbath laws in the Torah, especially in a chapter like Leviticus 25, are about justice.  They pull people out of the economy of producing and consuming, buying and selling, owning and working, and periodically reset the system as a reminder of the One to Whom it all belongs.  The Sabbath is about liberation and life in opposition to the oppressive regime demanding constant money-making.  One day in seven, one year in seven, and every fiftieth year are set apart and dedicated to God.  These were times when people, and even the land and animals, could rest.  In the case of the fiftieth year it was called a Jubilee when wealth was redistributed downward. 

The use of Sabbath laws to oppress people is one of the things Jesus is most upset about, and he sets out making an intentional nuisance of himself over the Sabbath laws, so much so that some think he is committing acts of what we would call civil disobedience.  He is deliberately breaking the law to make a point.

Which is what is going on in these two stories.  The act of plucking heads of grain and eating them, from a field he and his disciples were passing through, is not a casual thing, anymore than if you stopped on a highway and grabbed a few ears of corn from a local farm.  It could be considered stealing.  And Jesus pointedly has his disciples do this on the Sabbath, which just adds insult to injury as far as the Pharisees are concerned.

The Pharisees had an interest here.  Their policing of religious rules was the center of their power and identity.  Because they decided what was religiously “pure,” and therefore what could be sold in the market, the Pharisees exerted a good deal of control over the poor subsistence farmers of Galilee.  Power always corrupts, and it may have been that the Pharisees used their leverage for other purposes.

Jesus’ intentional act of picking and eating the grain basically thumbs his nose at the Pharisees.  The fact that he then justifies it on the basis of hunger does not necessarily mean that the disciples themselves were starving, but that the workers who grew the grain were constantly at risk of starving due to the religious hyper-vigilance of the Pharisees, not to mention all the other liabilities that go along with farming: taxes and weather and prices and labor costs and so on.

The second point Jesus makes brings up an obscure and on the surface not quite applicable, and not quite accurately recounted, story about David from 1 Samuel 21.  David is given by the priest the holy Bread of the Presence from the tabernacle to feed his men.  The fact that Jesus makes this episode the rationale for his actions indicates that he sees all grain as participating in the Bread of the Presence, and is here making the larger point that “the earth is the Lord’s and the fullness thereof,” advocating an economy of sharing, as opposed to the market-based regime the Pharisees were busy manipulating.

II.

Jesus opposes market-based economics whenever he encounters it, proposing instead an economy of “give what you have and receive what you need.”  And the Sabbath, as the time of remembering and implementing God’s justice, would be the perfect time to express this set of values.  

So in contrast to the Pharisees, who were on everyone’s case about keeping rigidly to the letter of the Torah, Jesus, following the spirit of the Torah, affirms that “The Sabbath was made for humankind, and not humankind for the Sabbath; so the Son of Man is lord even of the Sabbath.”  “Son of Man” here is ambiguous enough  a term to include its literal meaning of “human being,” as well as its theological meaning for Jesus as “the Messiah.”

Jesus’ point is that the Sabbath is not supposed to be this oppressive time of guilt and fear, repression and doing without, but a celebration of life in the face of the machinations and predations of the economy.  The Sabbath is exactly the time for the hungry to be fed, the poor to be assisted, the workers to be compensated, the sick healed, the dead raised, and the earth given rest.  Sabbath is exactly the time for sharing, even if it means, according to the arbitrary, self-serving dictates of those who interpreted the Torah, “stealing” and “breaking the Sabbath”.

Jesus enters a synagogue immediately on the same Sabbath, and makes a visible point of healing a man who is afflicted with a withered hand.  Before he does so, he asks the loaded question:  “Is it lawful to do good or to do harm on the sabbath, to save life or to kill?”  

Now the man with the withered hand’s life was not at stake.  He could have waited a few hours until the Sabbath was over at sundown to be healed.  But Jesus is not talking about life in terms of mere survival.  He doesn’t just mean the minimal food, water, air, and shelter we need to exist.  Life is way more than this!  Life is about fullness and wholeness!  Jesus doesn’t want another minute to go by before this man can enjoy that fullness and wholeness.

When the man stretches out his hand, he discovers it to be healed and whole.  Instead of being withered and inert, his hand may now open.  It may open to give to another.  It may open to receive from another what is needed.  It may open to share.

That is what the Sabbath is about!  It is not about what, and who, we can say no to in the strictness of our Biblical perfectionism.  It is about realizing God has provided more than enough for what we need if only we open our hands to each other in sharing and generosity.  

Jesus talks about how amazing and blessed and good life can be!  For Jesus, the Sabbath is a party!  It’s not a time to sit home and mourn in guilt over our transgressions.  It is not a grim patriotic and religious duty to maintain independence.  It is not to be crippled by fears of scarcity; still less is it to manufacture scarcity for the sake of profit.  It is a celebration of God’s amazing love and forgiveness!  It is a celebration of life!

III.

But the Pharisees don’t care about the man at all.  “He certainly could have survived until sunset; he wasn’t at death’s door; he wasn’t even in pain.  He should have declined to stretch out his hand when Jesus told him to.”  All the Pharisees care about is their power and influence, and that the Torah be kept according to their specifications, because that is the way the nation and their religion would be preserved.  

The Pharisees care about these abstractions — nation, religion, law.  Jesus cares about the actual person, the man who had been crippled for years.  But this is a threat to them because they control and determine the law that Jesus undermines.

The law as it was practiced and applied was not holy.  It was an interpretation of Scripture, performed in the interests of the ones doing the interpreting.  They claimed it was all handed down by God, but really it was mainly handed out by them.

They are so angry with Jesus that the Pharisees get together with the Herodians, that is, the supporters of the Roman-installed collaborationist local king, named Herod.  And they connive how to destroy Jesus.  It’s only chapter 3, and Jesus has alienated the authorities so sufficiently that they are now out to kill him, which will take them 12 more chapters to accomplish.

They are apoplectic about Jesus healing on the Sabbath because of course it makes them look bad.  It makes them look like they don’t care about the crippled man… which, of course, they don’t.  It also undermines the people’s faith in them and in their interpretation of Torah.  This is dangerous because their nation and religion could get wiped out if people don’t strictly keep the Torah.  What’s one crippled guy when national security is at stake?

But perhaps more importantly — and I wonder if this isn’t why the lectionary puts these two passages together — they are afraid of what will happen if people listen to Jesus and follow his example of what they see as stealing grain from the fields.  The economy based on markets and prices, owners and employees, supply and demand, with Pharisees helpfully overseeing the whole process to make sure it is done with religious propriety… that whole regime is in jeopardy if people stop playing their part.  If people start sharing with each other directly?  If people start realizing that all creation is God’s Temple and all bread is the Bread of the Presence, available now to the hungry and to all?  If that happens?  It’s all over.  

IV.

The message for us is that we have to follow Jesus, even if that means going against the laws.  Because laws are not holy or sacred.  They’re developed by a bunch of lawyers, politicians, judges, and the people and corporations who give them money.  These are not particularly moral, smart, wise, or good people.  They do what’s best for themselves.  And they are happy to keep others crippled and withered, if it means their profitable gig is maintained.               

But following Jesus has to mean living according to the values of his Kingdom, values of generosity, sharing, forgiveness, compassion, and equality.  Give what you have, take what you need.  For it all belongs to God.  And God intends for us all to live together in peace — shalom. 

+++++++

"Heirs of God."

Romans 8:1–17
May 27, 2018 + Trinity Sunday

I.

The apostle Paul insists, here and in many other places, that human nature is torn between two influences or impulses.  One he calls the “flesh,” and connects very strongly to our physical bodies.  The other he identifies as the Spirit, by Whom we are integrated into God through Christ.

In our blind, unconscious, sleepwalking existence, the shallow excuse for life we normally know from birth, we automatically “walk according to the flesh.”  That is, we follow the dictates of our ego-centric impulses, informed merely by the abilities and senses of our physical bodies.  We see ourselves as tiny, vulnerable, at-risk, individual, separated entities, thrust into a large, uncaring  and even dangerous world.  Thus we are driven by negative emotions — shame, anger, and especially fear — to generate mechanisms for our defense, and to get what we need to survive.  

All of us doing this together spawns the world as we experience it, a place riven by fear, violence, threats, scarcity, competition, hostility, and rage, characterized more than anything by a universal selfishness in which everyone is basically at war with everyone else.  

The tragedy of this situation is that it doesn’t have to be this way.  Indeed, it isn’t this way at all… we have all just made it this way by reacting according to the limitations of our own bodies, senses, and consciousness.  The word for these limitations and their consequences is “sin.”  It means we are off the mark of who we truly are and don’t perceive the world the way it truly is.

God responds to this catastrophe first by liberating the people from bondage in Egypt, which is intended as a metaphor for the liberation God brings into all our our lives in which we are carried by grace from this situation of bondage to sinfulness and self-destruction.  God then gives the people a written Law, the Torah, to reshape their lives according to God’s truth.  The Torah is about community, equality, humility, forgiveness, and shalom or peace.  Preaching and teaching the Torah had been Paul’s whole career.

The problem was that this didn’t work in actually opening people up to the truth.  People found ingenious ways to use the Bible as a way to do just the opposite of what it is about: to keep people in bondage to their own ego-centric selfishness, and to unscrupulous, unenlightened leaders.  The Torah didn’t necessarily make people any better, and it didn’t open their consciousness to the truth of who God really is and what the world is really like.

Albert Einstein once said that a problem is never solved at the level of consciousness that created it.  In other words, it’s not thinking different things that makes a difference, it is thinking differently.  Paul sees that simple, literal, technical obedience to the words of the Torah, as implemented by the priests, rabbis, and scribes of his time, were being twisted to serve the same corrosive nationalism, elitism, cruelty, wealth, and power that had kept people enslaved in Egypt, that is to say, in sin.  The Torah had been coopted as a tool to keep people in oppression.

II.

Paul comes to see that God sends the Son to deal with sin by the offering of his own flesh on the cross, thus showing us that forgiveness is won through a suffering that absorbs, neutralizes, and negates the violence of the world.  Once that happens, and we see that we are not limited, but that we are actually connected to and in everything by our union with the One who made all things, we find ourselves free from fear and therefore suddenly open to the Spirit.  

So it is not about punishing and causing pain to our physical bodies.  But it is about seeing beyond them, not being limited by them, and becoming aware of how our bodies connect us to others, the whole creation, and to God, rather than cutting us off from them.  That’s why authentic Christianity immediately follows Jesus into the service of people’s bodies, through ministries of healing, liberation, and justice with those who are suffering or in need.

Paul’s point is that Jesus Christ has exploded our narrow, limited, distorted, blind, fearful focus on our physical nature.  Instead of the flesh, we now see by the Spirit.  The Spirit reveals that Christ, by his cross and resurrection, proves that we are much larger and more integrated into all of life.  Even the inevitable wearing out of our physical bodies does not mean that we perish or are no more.  It simply means we are welcomed — adopted, is Paul’s word — into the fullness of our larger true nature as “children of God.”

Therefore, we may live now according to the Spirit of God, whom we perceive as active and present everywhere and in everything.  Don’t live according to the flesh, he says, which is a mindless swirl down a dark drain to death.  Do not live according to fear, shame, or anger; do not live according to the demands of selfish sinfulness making you enemies of each other, in competition for scarce resources.  You don’t have to live that way because Christ reveals that who we truly are is not limited by the boundaries of our skin.

We may “put to death the deeds of the body,” which is to say, not act according to our small-minded limitations and by our fear, hostility, and violence.  Instead, we truly live in relationship with God and with all.  We are, he says, nothing less than “heirs of God and joint heirs with Christ.”  We inherit the Kingdom of God. 

Jesus gives us a particular way to activate all this: the Sacrament of the Lord’s Supper.  In this way we remember and participate in his self-offering, receiving his life into our bodies, and become one with him.  In this way we affirm our place at the Lord’s Table, as God’s children, with all the benefits and requirements thereof.

III.

Finally, Paul says that all this happens only “if.”  “If, in fact, we suffer with him so that we may also be glorified with him.”

Historically, some concluded from this that we are obligated as followers of Jesus to do intentional harm to ourselves.  As if “suffering with him” meant causing ourselves physical pain and discomfort.

But Jesus himself does nothing of the sort.  With the possible exception of his severe fasting in the wilderness after his baptism, Jesus nowhere deliberately afflicts himself.  In fact, his ministry is known for just the opposite.  His enemies accuse him of being a glutton and a drunkard.  He is known for not engaging in acts of rigorous asceticism like other rabbis and spiritual teachers.  His disciples are known for not fasting as much as other groups.  

If anything, it is his reticence about such practices, and the consequent perception that he and his disciples are kind of hedonistic libertines, that contributes to the circumstances that get the authorities angry enough with him to arrest and execute him.  That is what Paul is talking about.  We don’t need to deliberately cause ourselves physical pain.  Following Jesus’ example of love and service, equality and compassion, justice and peace is inherently countercultural enough that the suffering will likely come by itself.  The authorities and elites, and often even a majority of normal people, will often feel themselves obliged to make that happen to some degree.  That’s what it means to “suffer with him.”  

There are places in this country where it is actually illegal to feed a homeless person!  If we really dedicate ourselves to living by the Spirit of Christ and therefore welcoming the weak, the sick, the lost, the marginalized, the despised, and the condemned, we will run afoul of the armies of people who still live according to the flesh, under the sway of fear, sin, and death.   

We see how it works for Jesus.  On the one hand he gets himself crucified for his transgressions against the accepted authorities, norms, and traditions.  On the other hand — and the whole point is — he is resurrected from the dead by God who vindicates his life of reconciling, inclusive love.  Paul is saying we get the resurrection and we get to be called God’s children… to the degree that we accept for ourselves the cost accepted by God’s Son, the cross of unpopularity, rejection, mockery, suffering, and even sometimes death. 

“You did not receive a spirit of slavery,” Paul writes.  God is not calling us to “fall back into fear.”  If God is our Father, and we are God’s adoptive children in Christ, then we cannot fall back into bondage.  We cannot fall back into blindness.  We cannot fall back into the fear, anger, and shame, the sinfulness that characterizes normal sub-human, in-human existence.  

IV.

For we have been welcomed by God and this changes everything.  The Spirit calls us to a life above what is normal, with its loyalties and allegiances, its habits and traditions, its in-groups and outsiders, what it values and what it condemns.  The Spirit calls us to life in a holy and beloved community utterly distinct from a pit of hostile and competing individuals where only bullies thrive.  The Spirit calls us to a better way of life than selfish consumerism, mindless nationalism, and cynical inequality.  

The Spirit calls on us to realize now, today, in our lives and relationships, the blessings of justice and love, the glory of forgiveness and peace, and the joy of communion.  For in Jesus Christ, we have been made God’s children and heirs, the gentle peacemakers who inherit the earth.    

+++++++  

Proving the World Wrong.

John 15:26-27; 16:4b-15
May 20, 2018
The Day of Pentecost

I.

The Holy Spirit, the Spirit of Truth, the Advocate, is the way Jesus is present with us even now.  Jesus insists that this mode of presence is to our advantage, which is to say, even better for us now than when he was with his disciples in the flesh.  It is better because by the Spirit he is within and among us forever, always available to us, always there.

The work of the Spirit, he says, is “to prove the world wrong” about three things: sin, righteousness or justice, and judgment.  Proving the world wrong means demonstrating that the way “the world,” which is to say the normal, standard, conventional way of thinking and acting, is wrong.  That is, the way we usually act is simply at a variance with the truth.  It is mistaken.  It is wrong in the sense of being false and inaccurate.  

The world thinks and acts in certain, self-centered, ego-driven, fearful, violent ways that are based on a kind of spiritual and moral blindness.  The inevitable result of moving through the world with a false and incomplete understanding is that we do unspeakable damage to ourselves, others, and God’s whole creation.  Our actions are twisted by sin, injustice, and condemnation.  We bring wanton destruction upon nearly everything we touch.  This is the way the-world-as-we-know-it operates.

II.

The first thing he says that the Spirit will prove the world wrong about is sin.  The world and those who are privileged to rule in the world have their own definition of sin.  They have decided that sin is any transgression of the rules designed to keep these rulers in power by dividing us and making us fearful of our own gifts and desires.

In fact, in the world’s view, sin is almost anything that appeals to our desires, especially when they get in the way of the agenda of the rulers.  Sin in this sense is very selective.  Bob Dylan once sang: “Steal a little and they throw you in jail; steal a lot and they make you king.”  It means that the bigger and richer and more powerful you are, the more immune you are to any kind of accountability.  And conversely, the less wealthy and powerful you are, the more you are liable to be arrested and jailed, if not worse, for the smallest, even nonexistent, infraction.  

Jesus says the world is wrong “about sin, because they do not believe in me.”  To believe or trust in Jesus is to follow him in his Way of compassion and equality.  To follow Jesus is to act as if we were all one, which we are, instead of under the delusion that we are each independent, separate, competing adversaries, fighting over scarce and depleting resources.  

Jesus is unity and reconciliation.  He does not play favorites; he heals and serves wherever there is need and pain.  His approach to sin is not to punish it, but to love it back non-existence, overcoming it with his embrace of boundless compassion.  He takes away the sin of the world by suffering sin’s gruesome consequences on the cross, thus neutralizing it and removing its power over us.

The world uses sin as a weapon of social control; Jesus abolishes it in the ocean of his reconciling love.

III.

The second thing the Holy Spirit proves the world wrong about is righteousness or justice (they are the same word in Greek).  We are very confused about justice because we automatically think it is retributive and punitive.  That’s certainly the way we talk about things like “criminal justice.”  For us, justice means somebody is made to pay in some way for what they have done wrong.  

If we think of this in terms of righteousness, we are confused about that as well because we have made it into a way to rationalize and justify our enthusiasm for this kind of justice.  As in the “righteous indignation” we feel when we seek vindication.  Righteousness has devolved into the personal pride we feel about our own personal and private morality.  It is our sense of justification as we administer some awful punishment upon those we have decided are bad.

Jesus says that the Spirit will prove the world wrong “about righteousness [justice], because I am going to the Father and you will see me no longer.”  In other words, his ascension is what convicts the world about its misunderstanding of justice and righteousness.  Let’s not forget that it was the rulers of the world who arrest, try, convict, and execute him for the twin sins of blasphemy and sedition.  They were administering the world’s swift and sure justice against what they had defined as wrongdoing.  Everything that happened to Jesus was done correctly according to the law and the will of those administering the law.

But his resurrection and ascension overturn that whole regime.  Instead of being punished as a deterring example, he is rewarded by God!  God vindicates him!  God neutralizes the world’s power by showing its complete ineffectiveness in administering justice.  God turns the world’s excuse for justice upside down by revealing it to be the grossest most murderous injustice, to support which is the sourest unrighteousness.

The essence of the good news is that the Roman excuse for justice and righteousness is over, and that God’s justice and God’s righteousness will triumph in the end, and that we can trust in that truth as we live our lives now.

IV.

Finally, the Lord says that the Holy Spirit will prove the world wrong “about judgement, because the ruler of this world has been condemned.”  The world calcifies and expands its power by judgment and condemnation.  This is exactly what Jesus himself experiences.  But by his resurrection, judgment and judgment have themselves been judged and condemned.  Thus they are neutralized and revealed to be the evil and destructive forces they are.

Judgment is the opposite of forgiveness.  It divides and kills rather than including and healing.  It places one person over another as executioner, rather than seeing people meet as equals under one God.  

And just as forgiveness is a field in which we don’t receive it unless we are giving it, so also with judgment.  To judge another, to put yourself over and above them, to dispose of them as if they were an inanimate object, this is to invite and bring down the same judgment upon yourself.  In judging another we become the inanimate objects.  We judge and condemn ourselves.  We choose death over life. 

Jesus calls on us to create, by the power of the Holy Spirit, communities of welcome, acceptance, forgiveness, and healing, where we lift one another up in mutual support and encouragement, where we are able honestly to confess our own wrongdoing and shortcomings to each other, and so receive  grace and pardon in our shared humanness, from each other and from God.

V.

Jesus says that the new gatherings that the Spirit will birth will be fed by his life and teachings.  The Spirit “will take what is mine and declare it to you,” he says.  But we’re going to have to let go of the world’s ways of thinking and acting.  We’re going to have to let go of our fear, anger, and hatreds.  We’re going to have to let go of self-righteous, self-serving, self-centered approaches, and broaden our vision.  We have to start seeing things and people from the perspective of Jesus, who looked on the world with nothing but love and compassion, and who lived in the world in humility and service.

To be people of the Holy Spirit is to be people of Jesus Christ, subject only and always to him, finding in obedience to him our hope, our confidence, and our joy.

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Saturday, May 12, 2018

Because He Lives.

Acts 1:6-11
May 13, 2018

I.

My favorite part of this passage is when the mysterious “two men in white robes” appear by the disciples as Jesus is taken into heaven.  And they first ask why they are standing there looking up into the sky.  Then they state that Jesus will return in the same way he was taken, that is, from heaven.

They are saying that, on the one hand, these disciples will be Jesus’ witnesses, and they can’t do that if they are spending all their time gazing into the sky.  On the other hand, they do say that Jesus will come from the sky.  So the manner of their waiting for Jesus to return is by committing themselves to the work that needs to be done down here.  

This is not going to be a faith that has to do with measuring or counting out “the times or the periods” before Jesus comes back.  That is a form of this fruitless and pointless “looking up towards heaven,” that these two men in white are critical of, and it is not the job that Jesus has left the disciples to do.  We are not like dogs who sit looking anxiously out the window all day until their master comes home.  Jesus has promised that he will be with us “always, even to the end of the age.”  

At the same time, this story does seem to be saying that he goes away to heaven, leaving us alone here on earth, waiting for him to come back the same way he went.  In the meantime, Jesus’ presence will be known in the Holy Spirit, who is about to come upon the disciples, empowering them to be his witnesses “to the ends of the earth.”

So the disciples are implicitly instructed not to waste their time looking up into the sky where Jesus appears to have gone, but to realize that even though he is “lifted up” until “a cloud took him out of their sight,” which means that he is no longer visible or perceptible to their 5 senses, and his physical, tangible, mortal, temporal presence is no more, he is at the same time, by the Spirit even more directly present with them than he was before his crucifixion.  

His having gone into “heaven,” then, is way to say, not that he has abandoned the disciples.  For heaven is the place of highest and most inclusive and comprehensive vision.  From heaven everything is seen and known, inside and out.  Heaven is the eternity that is within, around, among, beneath, and above the time/space continuum that we experience.  There is, then, a sense in which “heaven” is everywhere, embedded in and penetrating everything, yet at the same time, because of our limitations, unknown to and remote from our perceptions and experience.  Therefore, to say that Jesus has gone into heaven is really to say that he has emerged into everything

The Holy Spirit is our interface with that eternity, the breath of God by which all things are created, which has left God’s imprint on and in everything.

The Ascension means that Jesus is with us, as he promised, to the end of the age, always, by the mediating power of the Holy Spirit.  Jesus is still here, with us in an even more intimate and direct form, than he had been when he was, for 33 or so years, with the disciples as a “historical” figure.

II.

So Jesus is actually closer to us now.  But, as we know, this creates other problems.  Jesus is so close to us that we often confuse him with ourselves.  That is, it is easy to imagine that the voice of our ego is actually the voice of God telling us what is best to do.  Discerning and distinguishing God’s voice in our hearts from our own becomes a primary task of Christian spirituality.  

This is why the church eventually came to rely on the gospels.  Let’s not forget that the church lived and grew for many years, perhaps even a century or more, before any of the written gospels were relatively widely available.  All of Paul’s letters are written to churches that did not possess copies of the gospels — because they hadn’t even been written yet.  Aside from the cross and resurrection, Paul almost never refers to anything Jesus does or says during his historical life.

This is because the church has always relied, not on people’s memories of the historical Jesus, but on his direct, living presence, with them by the power of the Holy Spirit.  We, of course, have the inestimable benefit of the gospels.  But my point is that we should, in theory, be able to thrive in mission even without a New Testament, as the earliest church did, and just depend on the indwelling presence of the ascended Lord Jesus, by the Spirit.  That is, in fact, the story that Luke is about to tell in the rest of the book of Acts.

Before he does ascend, the disciples ask the risen Jesus if he is going to “restore the kingdom to Israel” now, a question which he ignores because it indicates stubborn cluelessness on the part of the disciples.  They still, even now, imagine that he is about something as small as bringing back Israel as an independent kingdom under Davidic rule.  Jesus is requiring them to expand their imaginations exponentially.  He doesn’t mention “Israel” again, but tells them to start their mission in Jerusalem, and “Judea and Samaria.”  Judea and Samaria were the two regions representing the old divided Israelite kingdoms from centuries before, but currently under Roman administration, whose respective peoples still hated each other.  

The Lord says that on the one hand this mission is to the whole world, but that on the other hand it has to start locally and spread from there.  If this good news of God’s reconciling love revealed in Jesus the Messiah can take root in Jerusalem, Judea, and Samaria — places of crushing oppression by a foreign power and bitterly divided internally — it will surely be able to work in other places as well.  If the disciples can bear witness to God’s love and justice in such an inhospitable place, then  It’s like Jesus is saying, “if you can make it here, you can make it anywhere.”

The story of the church will be this spreading throughout an oppressed, conquered, colonized, exploited, divided, conflicted world, the Roman Empire.  And the message, the truth to which they bear witness, the basic, bottom line, essence of the good news, is Jesus: the Romans crucified him for sedition, but he did not stay dead.  He rose!  He’s still alive with, within, and among his people, which means that a whole new future, a future not under the yoke of a cruel empire, is now open to anyone who follows him.

III.     

Jesus gives the disciples instructions to be his witnesses in the whole world.  In other words, they are to retell this fundamental and very simple story.  It is the elevator pitch of the new movement, a brief summary easily memorized and repeatable by anyone in less than a minute.  

There’s this man named Jesus, the promised anointed King of the Jews.  The Romans crucified him for treason.  But he rose from the dead and now he lives forever with us.  Visit us on Sunday morning and we’ll show you!  

Anyone hearing this would have immediately understood that if there was someone the Romans couldn’t kill, their whole gig was over.  It’s a new world.  We’re free!  Jesus is Lord!  If we get together to follow Jesus, we don’t have be jerked around by Caesar anymore.  And there is nothing Caesar and all his wealth and power can do about it.  Because, even if they do kill your physical body, Jesus proves that that simply gets you closer to him.  Joining this movement is a win-win.

If we truly understand his cross and resurrection, the church is inherently and necessarily an alternative and subversive gathering loyal to Jesus Christ  alone, which means it is radically disloyal to any and all other political, economic, or social powers, people, or philosophies.  

And this whole movement depends, in the end, on the Ascension.  Otherwise, Jesus’ death and resurrection are interesting and perhaps very attractive stories that we remember, admire, and support… but they have nothing directly to do with us and how we live our lives.  There is no necessary “now what?”  

The real energy in the Jesus movement is in the knowledge that Jesus still lives and remains present with, within, and among his followers, who still participate in his life, ministry, blessings, and truth.  He lives, not just out there, not just far away in heaven, not just long ago, not just when he returns in the far future.  He lives now.  He lives here.  He makes a difference.

The early church understands and lives within the absolute connection between Jesus’ death at the hands of the world’s mightiest superpower, his resurrection negating and neutralizing that power, and his ascension by which he continues to live in and among his disciples, by the Holy Spirit.  The early church knows itself to be an alternative Way of living together trusting in Jesus and practicing his values of humility, non-violence, forgiveness, compassion, and equality, and in opposition to the demands of a regime based on arrogance, violence, selfishness, and inequality.

IV.

The church cannot be about standing around, looking up towards heaven.  We have work to do down here.  The Ascension means Jesus is with us down here.  His death and resurrection identifies him and therefore us with those who are real victims of violence and injustice, exclusion and colonization, exploitation and bondage.  And we start here and now, where we are, and move out to all the world.  

And it is only and because we in Christ identify with the broken and oppressed of the world that the words of William Gaither’s now classic song make sense as an affirmation of the Ascension:

Because He lives, I can face tomorrow
Because He lives, all fear is gone
Because I know He holds the future
And life is worth the living, 
just because He lives.

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