Sunday, January 30, 2011

Insert Witty Beatitudes-Centric Title Here.

I don't know Sarah Dylan Breuer, but her excellent Lectionary blog has, countless times, helped challenge me into seeing Scripture in new ways. I owe her a great debt for this sermon.

Micah 6:1-8

Hear what the LORD says:
Rise, plead your case before the mountains, and let the hills hear your voice.
Hear, you mountains, the controversy of the LORD, and you enduring foundations of the earth; for the LORD has a controversy with his people, and he will contend with Israel.
“O my people, what have I done to you? In what have I wearied you? Answer me!
For I brought you up from the land of Egypt, and redeemed you from the house of slavery; and I sent before you Moses, Aaron, and Miriam.
O my people, remember now what King Balak of Moab devised, what Balaam son of Beor answered him, and what happened from Shittim to Gilgal, that you may know the saving acts of the LORD.”
“With what shall I come before the LORD, and bow myself before God on high?
Shall I come before him with burnt offerings, with calves a year old? Will the LORD be pleased with thousands of rams, with ten thousands of rivers of oil?
Shall I give my firstborn for my transgression, the fruit of my body for the sin of my soul?”
He has told you, O mortal, what is good; and what does the LORD require of you
but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God?

1 Corinthians 1:18-31

For the message about the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God. For it is written,
“I will destroy the wisdom of the wise,
and the discernment of the discerning I will thwart.”
Where is the one who is wise? Where is the scribe? Where is the debater of this age? Has not God made foolish the wisdom of the world? For since, in the wisdom of God, the world did not know God through wisdom, God decided, through the foolishness of our proclamation, to save those who believe. For Jews demand signs and Greeks desire wisdom, but we proclaim Christ crucified, a stumbling block to Jews and foolishness to Gentiles, but to those who are the called, both Jews and Greeks, Christ the power of God and the wisdom of God. For God’s foolishness is wiser than human wisdom, and God’s weakness is stronger than human strength.
Consider your own call, brothers and sisters: not many of you were wise by human standards, not many were powerful, not many were of noble birth. But God chose what is foolish in the world to shame the wise; God chose what is weak in the world to shame the strong; God chose what is low and despised in the world, things that are not, to reduce to nothing things that are, so that no one might boast in the presence of God. He is the source of your life in Christ Jesus, who became for us wisdom from God, and righteousness and sanctification and redemption, in order that, as it is written, “Let the one who boasts, boast in the Lord.”

Matthew 5:1-12

When Jesus saw the crowds, he went up the mountain; and after he sat down, his disciples came to him. Then he began to speak, and taught them, saying:
“Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.
“Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted.
“Blessed are the meek, for they will inherit the earth.
“Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they will be filled.
“Blessed are the merciful, for they will receive mercy.
“Blessed are the pure in heart, for they will see God.
“Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called children of God.
“Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.
“Blessed are you when people revile you and persecute you and utter all kinds of evil against you falsely on my account. Rejoice and be glad, for your reward is great in heaven, for in the same way they persecuted the prophets who were before you.”

This is the Word of the Lord.

I think the Beatitudes have been given a bum rap for a long time. It‘s too easy, I fear, to call them what Robert Schuller called them, the “Be Happy Attitudes,” where we read them like directions for positive thinking, or poetically vapid self-help tips. We’ve filtered the Beatitudes through the lens of our Western individualism and in the process we’ve robbed of their revolutionary, scandalous, shocking character.

That’s right, the Beatitudes were revolutionary. As much as any part of the Sermon on the Mount, the Beatitudes called for a radical change in the way we view the world around us.

To understand this to see why these words are such a tectonic shift in everything we have ever known or believed, we must first understand the words, and the context in which they were spoken.

I mentioned Western individualism for a reason: in our society, being your own person is a good thing. Standing on our own two feet, making a name for ourselves, these are things we respect, and expect of ourselves. However, in first-century Palestine, the opposite was true.

In the New Testament world, the esteem you commanded was in large part a function of how important your connections -- your family members, your patrons, and your clients -- were. If you were (whether by birth, adoption, or being a slave or freedperson) part of a very important family, you were important. If your family was less important, you were less important. If you weren't connected to others, that didn't make you "your own man"; it made you nobody. That's serious stuff, because nobody wants to do business with a nobody; being pushed out of your network of social relationships could also mean being left with nothing to live on and no way to get out of that position.

That situation brought about all kinds of other hardships. The one pushed out could be destitute. The Greek is ptochos, traditionally translated “poor in spirit” in Matthew 5:3. The hunger and thirst that Matthew 5:6 talks about -- literal hunger and thirst incurred for righteousness as Jesus redefined it -- would certainly follow, as would mourning (Matthew 5:4).

To call this a “blessed” position to be in makes no sense to our modern ears, and that’s OK, because it almost certainly struck the disciples, and those gathered to hear Jesus speak as he sat on that mountain, as utter tomfoolery… unless what Jesus was speaking of wasn’t what defines as “divinely or supremely favored; fortunate: to be blessed with a strong, healthy body; blessed with an ability to find friends,” or “blissfully happy or contented.”

More than one commentator I’ve read suggests that a better translation of ptochos would be “honored,” that is, “given of credit or distinction; high respect, as for worth, merit, or rank; high public esteem; fame; glory.” The One, of course, bestowing that honor is God. This way, these verses don't show Jesus as pop psychologist, telling people how to be happy; they show Jesus giving honor to those pushed out to the margins of their culture.

You see, two things are happening here: First, Jesus is shifting the worldview of everyone listening: for the follower of Christ, the people in the margins, the ones who are forgotten, those “less than,” are not to be made fun of, or allowed to be ignored. No, right there in front of all the crowds, Jesus ascribes honor to them, declaring that these are the people whom the God of Israel honors. They may well have been disowned, but they are children of the God who created the universe, to whom all honor belongs. Yes, Jesus makes them family. They are children of one Father, and that makes them brothers and sisters. They will never be bereft in a community that sees themselves as family, and that cares for one another in ways that show that they take that family relationship with utmost seriousness.

And that’s important, because Jesus is also preparing his followers for the persecution which lay ahead.

Christianity, lived out in that culture, was rife with things guaranteed to get people in trouble: Followers of Christ were “meek.” Now, when you hear that word, don’t confuse it as “overly submissive or compliant, spiritless, or tame.” The kind of meekness Jesus refers to is not being a doormat, it’s being specifically nonviolent, even in protests, like Ghandi or Martin Luther King Jr. In first-century culture, being “meek” in this context meant refusing to engage in contests for honor – contests whose outcomes, whose very existence, affected their entire family as much as it did the individual male who refused to "be a man" when challenged.

Followers of Christ were "merciful" and "peacemakers," seeking reconciliation with, rather than revenge on, someone who wronged them. Followers of Christ were "pure in heart," and as Jesus defines purity, that meant doing things – like eating with any who would break bread with you – bound to render them impure in others' eyes.

Looking at it from this direction, it makes sense to take the suggestion of Jerome Neyrey in his book, “Honor and Shame in the Gospel of Matthew,” and take that last Beatitude, “Blessed are you when people revile you and persecute you and utter all kinds of evil against you falsely on my account…” as the focal point.

Now, this is the point in the sermon where I’m suppose to wrap it up by saying that we need to treat the poor with honor in exactly the ways I’ve already mentioned: providing for their needs, recognizing them as humans deserving dignity as opposed to ridicule, disgust, and rejection. It’s a nice, safe, comfortable way to end a sermon: preach the Social Gospel, pray, and listen to some music.

But as much as The Beatitudes are not poetic pick-me-ups, they, like all of Scripture, hold much more depth than a single definition does justice to. If these words were only relevant to the men and women who were poor in the first century, only impacted those persecuted in the centuries leading up to Constantine, then why preach them? No, the Beatitudes speak to us today, not only challenging our worldview, not simply calling on us to turn the tables on society’s understanding of poverty and treatment of the poor, but they speak words of instruction, hope, and comfort to our spirit, in a very real way.

The Beatitudes say to us today,

“Honored are the poor in spirit, who have failed, those whose self-dependence is exhausted, and whose only recourse is grace, Those who know that, without the love of Christ they are, for all intents and purposes, bankrupt: without hope, without purpose, without a real future. The kingdom of heaven, God’s reign experienced and lived on earth, belongs – lock, stock, and barrel – to them.”

The Beatitudes say to us today,

“Honored are those who mourn, both for the things which should be better in the world, and for the things which should be better in themselves; for the relationships and triumphs they’ve lost, and those they will never have. They will be comforted, God will wipe away every tear from their eyes.”

The Beatitudes say to us today,

“Honored are the meek, who speak the truth to power, refusing to encourage or engage in violence, yet standing for truth, and for fair treatment for all inhabitants of the earth. These are the ones whose inheritance is the planet itself.”

The Beatitudes say to us today,

“Honored are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, both within themselves, and for justice in the world around them. Their hunger and thirst will certainly be satisfied!”

The Beatitudes say to us today,

“Honored are the ones who practice mercy when it matters most, and when it is least convenient. God’s grace will shower them with mercy.”

The Beatitudes say to us today,

“Honored are the pure in heart, who don’t wonder “what’s in it for me,” who love without reservation, who insist on seeing the good in others. They will see God, both in the faces of those they love… and in that now-and-coming Kingdom.”

The Beatitudes say to us today,

“Honored are the peacemakers, the finders of common ground, those who beat swords into plowshares, and spears into pruning hooks, who don’t fear conflict, but who face it and defuse it. These folks are called ‘children of God.’”

The Beatitudes say to us today,

“Honored are those in Laos, Egypt, Iran, Afghanistan, Somalia, and Algeria, who are persecuted for being Christians, the kingdom of heaven belongs to them.”

The Beatitudes say to us today,

“Honored are you who live in Indonesia, China, Pakistan, Saudi Arabia, Nigeria, Libya, Turkey, Columbia, Cuba, and so many other countries, where you are imprisoned, reviled, persecuted and killed for believing in Jesus Christ. You’re in the company of all of God’s prophets, and your reward in heaven is immense.”

Allelia. Amen.

Sunday, January 23, 2011

The Chasm (Revisited)

The Epistle reading stood out to me this week, and though I've spoken about The Chasm before, it seems an appropriate metaphor for the divisions in the church.

We can argue soteriology, baptism, Eucharist... or we can love God and love people. That seems to be the choice.

Isaiah 9:1-4
But there will be no gloom for those who were in anguish. In the former time he brought into contempt the land of Zebulun and the land of Naphtali, but in the latter time he will make glorious the way of the sea, the land beyond the Jordan, Galilee of the nations.
The people who walked in darkness have seen a great light;
those who lived in a land of deep darkness — on them light has shined.
You have multiplied the nation, you have increased its joy;
they rejoice before you as with joy at the harvest,
as people exult when dividing plunder.
For the yoke of their burden, and the bar across their shoulders,
the rod of their oppressor, you have broken as on the day of Midian.

Matthew 4:12-23
Now when Jesus heard that John had been arrested, he withdrew to Galilee. He left Nazareth and made his home in Capernaum by the sea, in the territory of Zebulun and Naphtali, so that what had been spoken through the prophet Isaiah might be fulfilled:
“Land of Zebulun, land of Naphtali, on the road by the sea, across the Jordan, Galilee of the Gentiles — the people who sat in darkness have seen a great light, and for those who sat in the region and shadow of death light has dawned.”
From that time Jesus began to proclaim, “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near.”
As he walked by the Sea of Galilee, he saw two brothers, Simon, who is called Peter, and Andrew his brother, casting a net into the sea — for they were fishermen. And he said to them, “Follow me, and I will make you fish for people.” Immediately they left their nets and followed him. As he went from there, he saw two other brothers, James son of Zebedee and his brother John, in the boat with their father Zebedee, mending their nets, and he called them. Immediately they left the boat and their father, and followed him.
Jesus went throughout Galilee, teaching in their synagogues and proclaiming the good news of the kingdom and curing every disease and every sickness among the people.

1 Corinthians 1:10-18
Now I appeal to you, brothers and sisters, by the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, that all of you be in agreement and that there be no divisions among you, but that you be united in the same mind and the same purpose. For it has been reported to me by Chloe’s people that there are quarrels among you, my brothers and sisters. What I mean is that each of you says, “I belong to Paul,” or “I belong to Apollos,” or “I belong to Cephas,” or “I belong to Christ.” Has Christ been divided? Was Paul crucified for you? Or were you baptized in the name of Paul? I thank God that I baptized none of you except Crispus and Gaius, so that no one can say that you were baptized in my name. (I did baptize also the household of Stephanas; beyond that, I do not know whether I baptized anyone else.) For Christ did not send me to baptize but to proclaim the gospel, and not with eloquent wisdom, so that the cross of Christ might not be emptied of its power.
For the message about the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God.

This is the Word of the Lord.

I worked for a number of years with a nonprofit ministry whose stated purpose was to bring all Christians of every denomination together to positively impact the lives of teenagers. The organization is quite successful, and operates in cities in all fifty states, but they've never really come close to fulfilling that stated purpose.

The problem is this: the ministry was founded by a conservative Evangelical Christian, and is run on conservative Evangelical principles. As a member of a mainline, less conservative denomination, every time I would try and involve Presbyterians or Catholics or the less conservative members of the Episcopal Church in ministry activities, or suggest women as speakers for their events, I would confront what I call “The Chasm.”

The Chasm, you see, is that place created by sharp differences in theology – where, because your views on baptism are different on my views of baptism, we can't really work together in ministry. Where your views about women in ministry are different than my views, so we can't work together in ministry. Where your views on the process of salvation are different than mine, so we can't work together in ministry. Our differences are so great that there exists between us a deep hole, so wide we cannot reach across.

You may not know about The Chasm, because for most of us it doesn't really exist. We have friends and neighbors and even family members who come from a wide variety of faith traditions, and we get along just fine, thank you.

Still, most of us have seen The Chasm in operation in one way or another. Most of us have a couple of neighbors or coworkers or relatives who are really “out there,” don't we?

Maybe it's someone who is a dedicated Conservative Christian, horrified at the thought of you attending a church where not only are women included in the leadership of the church, but allowed to preach and to pastor! Aghast at the idea of baptizing infants! Dubious about your relationship with God because your church doesn't have an invitation at the end of every service!

Or maybe it's the person who is a dedicated Liberal Christian, who writes in Green Party candidates for any and every election, no matter what, refers to God as “She,” is aghast that you don't eat organically grown foods, horrified that you shop at Wal-Mart, dubious about your worship service because it doesn't include a time for spontaneous interpretive dance, and is still angry that the PC(USA) stopped boycotting Taco Bell!

Imagine all of those people, and a few in-between, all in the same church building. Paul had been hearing about the conflicts for some time now: first from Apollos, who Paul had left in charge of the church at Corinth, then from members of Chloe’s household, and finally from Stephanas and his two friends who were passing through Ephesus, where Paul was staying. From the sound of it, things in that church were bad, and getting worse.

It was a lot like the story I heard this week about a young rabbi who found a serious problem in his new congregation. During the Friday service, half the congregation stood for the prayers and half remained seated, and each side shouted at the other, insisting that theirs was the true tradition. Nothing the rabbi said or did made any difference. Finally, in desperation, the young rabbi sought out the synagogue's 99-year-old founder. He met the old rabbi in the nursing home and poured out his troubles. "So tell me," he pleaded, "was it the tradition for the congregation to stand during the prayers?" "No," answered the old rabbi." Ah," responded the younger man, "then it was the tradition to sit during the prayers?"

"No," answered the old rabbi. "Well," the young rabbi responded, "what we have is complete chaos! Half the people stand and shout, and the other half sit and scream." "Ah," said the old man, "that was the tradition."

Part of the members claimed to be on the right path because they followed Paul. Others claimed to be on the right path because they followed Apollos. Still others insisted that these first two groups had it all wrong, that the correct teaching was found in Simon Peter’s words. And of course there was the group which loudly proclaimed that they, alone, were following Christ.

So what Paul has to confront in this letter to the Corinthian church is factionalism – a factionalism based on a difference in teaching and doctrine.

You see, theology and doctrine in their purest forms are meant to bring the Body of Christ together under a commonality of purpose, a unity of focus, a culture of the now-and-yet-to-come Kingdom of God. In Corinth, the ideal of theological purity has turned putrid. The details of doctrine have overwhelmed the Corinthian church and have become the focus of faith.. Being right has become far more important than righteousness. The rules – and the constant battle over whose rules are the right rules – has smothered love.

It sounds childish, it sounds very unlike the way a church should operate, and it sounds very familiar.

There are, right now, worldwide, some thirty-four thousand Christian denominations, and twelve hundred in the United States alone. Each of these denominations differs to greater or lesser degrees from the others in things like what the Lord’s Supper means, what baptism means – not to mention when someone should be baptized, and how wet they should get when it’s done – matters of polity, ordination, the structure of the worship service, the proper response to social issues, and on and on and on.

Even within denominations, churches split over such important issues as the color of the hymnals, carpet, or roof shingles, the spelling of the word “hallelujah,” or the retirement of a pastor.

Earlier in the week, I read Paul’s rhetorical, sarcastic question to the Corinthians, “Is Christ divided?” and I confess that, in light of all of these factors, I wanted to answer, “Yes.” At least as far as the Body of Christ, the community of believers is concerned, Christ is as divided, and there doesn’t seem to be any hope of repairing the broken places.

Yet despite everything that makes us different, despite all the problems and disagreements which set us apart from one another, there is a common, beautiful thread which binds us together. Paul’s message to that fractured Corinthian church is relevant today: the central focus of the church, whichever name might be on the sign out front, cannot be how we worship, or how we baptize, or what form of church government we adhere to, or whether or not we take the offering before or after the sermon. The central focus, our common message, must be the cross of Christ.

It’s interesting that, despite the fact that Paul’s evangelism and preaching had established the Corinthian church, despite the fact that he himself had placed Apollos as the leader of the church, and despite the fact that, more than once in the New Testament, Paul butts heads with Peter over important matters of doctrine and salvation, he spends no time at all in our reading this morning weighing the merits of those who claim allegiance to his teaching, or Apollos’ leadership, over against those who claim to follow Simon Peter (or Cephas) and those who seem to think that they, alone, have it all figured out and are the singular followers of Christ.

Because when the Body is at odds with itself, when members are so involved fighting that they pay no attention to the real and pressing needs about them, who is right and who is wrong no longer matter. When theology and doctrine get in the way of justice and mercy and faithfulness, that theology and doctrine become irrelevant.

Through our Epistle reading this morning, God calls on us to set aside these factions and arguments, look past the name over the doorway and finally act as if we are a family, because that’s what we have been created to be. It is Christ who was crucified for us, and it is in Christ’s name that we are baptized.

For far too long we have stood at the precipice of this chasm, looking across at one another, flinging mud back and forth, waving our arms and yelling about how the people on the other side have it wrong, the other side is evil and corrupt and apostate and heretical and doesn’t bathe regularly. Deep below, covered ever more deeply by the angry mud we have slung, stand the poor, the marginalized, the sick, the theologically imperfect, and the enslaved.

The thing is, none of them care which side is right. They need help.

It’s time to get down into the chasm with them. The message of the Cross, the message of the centrality and pre-eminence of Christ, does not consist of which denominational label we wear, or whose theology we find most speaks to our spirit about the nature of God. The prophet Micah wrote, “He has shown you, O mortal, what is good. And what does the LORD require of you? To act justly and to love mercy and to walk humbly with your God.” Jesus’ teaching about The Greatest Commandment is similar: “Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind.” and “Love your neighbor as yourself.”

Our guide cannot be the latest sermon series by this television preacher or the last radio show from that commentator. For us the one non-negotiable standard must be the Greatest Commandment: to love God and love our neighbor. As a result, we bracket our day in prayer and Scripture reading, and we trust the Holy Spirit as our guide and teacher, and do not ignore our common sense.

We are about the business of leading people out of the chasm, and into new life. This makes us neither Fundamentalist Evangelicals or Liberals, or whatever other label someone wants to slap on us. Rather, we are the Body of Christ, in action daily. And though we do so in our imperfect, human, Chasm-dwelling way, we strive to act justly, to love mercy, and to walk on our spiritual journey both humbly, and ever closer, with our God.

Sunday, January 16, 2011

Come and See!

I owe a debt of gratitude to René Girard and the folks at "Girardian Reflections on the Lectionary" for giving me much to think about concerning this week's Gospel passage. Also, a shout of appreciation goes to Peter Woods, whose words I used to close my sermon.

I don't know if I'm wallowing in heresy or not, but it's a fascinating way to view atonement...

Isaiah 49:1-7
Listen to me, O coastlands,
pay attention, you peoples from far away!
The LORD called me before I was born,
while I was in my mother’s womb he named me.
He made my mouth like a sharp sword,
in the shadow of his hand he hid me;
he made me a polished arrow,
in his quiver he hid me away.
And he said to me, “You are my servant,
Israel, in whom I will be glorified.”
But I said, “I have labored in vain,
I have spent my strength for nothing and vanity;
yet surely my cause is with the LORD,
and my reward with my God.”
And now the LORD says,
who formed me in the womb to be his servant,
to bring Jacob back to him,
and that Israel might be gathered to him,
for I am honored in the sight of the LORD,
and my God has become my strength —
he says,
“It is too light a thing that you should be my servant
to raise up the tribes of Jacob
and to restore the survivors of Israel;
I will give you as a light to the nations,
that my salvation may reach to the end of the earth.”
Thus says the LORD,
the Redeemer of Israel and his Holy One,
to one deeply despised, abhorred by the nations,
the slave of rulers,
“Kings shall see and stand up, princes,
and they shall prostrate themselves,
because of the LORD, who is faithful,
the Holy One of Israel, who has chosen you.”

1 Corinthians 1:1-9
Paul, called to be an apostle of Christ Jesus by the will of God, and our brother Sosthenes,
To the church of God that is in Corinth, to those who are sanctified in Christ Jesus, called to be saints, together with all those who in every place call on the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, both their Lord and ours:
Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ.
I give thanks to my God always for you because of the grace of God that has been given you in Christ Jesus, for in every way you have been enriched in him, in speech and knowledge of every kind — just as the testimony of Christ has been strengthened among you — so that you are not lacking in any spiritual gift as you wait for the revealing of our Lord Jesus Christ. He will also strengthen you to the end, so that you may be blameless on the day of our Lord Jesus Christ. God is faithful; by him you were called into the fellowship of his Son, Jesus Christ our Lord.

John 1:29-42
The next day he saw Jesus coming toward him and declared, “Here is the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world! This is he of whom I said, ‘After me comes a man who ranks ahead of me because he was before me.’ I myself did not know him; but I came baptizing with water for this reason, that he might be revealed to Israel.” And John testified, “I saw the Spirit descending from heaven like a dove, and it remained on him. I myself did not know him, but the one who sent me to baptize with water said to me, ‘He on whom you see the Spirit descend and remain is the one who baptizes with the Holy Spirit.’ And I myself have seen and have testified that this is the Son of God.”
The next day John again was standing with two of his disciples, and as he watched Jesus walk by, he exclaimed, “Look, here is the Lamb of God!” The two disciples heard him say this, and they followed Jesus. When Jesus turned and saw them following, he said to them, “What are you looking for?” They said to him, “Rabbi” (which translated means Teacher), “where are you staying?” He said to them, “Come and see.” They came and saw where he was staying, and they remained with him that day. It was about four o’clock in the afternoon. One of the two who heard John speak and followed him was Andrew, Simon Peter’s brother. He first found his brother Simon and said to him, “We have found the Messiah” (which is translated Anointed). He brought Simon to Jesus, who looked at him and said, “You are Simon son of John. You are to be called Cephas” (which is translated Peter).

This is the Word of the Lord.

“Here is the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world!”

If you’ve spent more than fifteen minutes inside a church, you’ve heard Jesus referred to as the “Lamb of God” more than once.

But have you ever wondered what that phrase, “the Lamb of God,” means? Well, come on, everyone knows what that phrase means, right? Jesus is the new Passover, a spotless sacrifice, removing the sins of the world and reconciling us to God.

The reason I ask the question is that I’ve come across some intriguing thoughts in my study resources this week. You see, I’ve always been under the impression that Jesus’ sacrifice was something God required in order to reconcile humankind to God’s self. The idea is that, in order for humankind to be worthy of relationship with God, blood must be shed. Our separation, by way of sin, is so great that a sacrifice must be offered. We are so depraved and dirty that, in order for God to look upon us with favor, someone has to die.

I mean, church folks usually say it in prettier ways, of course, but it comes down to the same thing.

In order to appease God, who was angry with the sins of humanity and poised, at any moment, to bring disease, famine, and conquest raining down on all of Creation, Jesus had to come to Earth and get nailed to the cross. God’s son was the only acceptable sacrifice for such corruption.

What if God is not like that, though?

I began to think about this a few years back, actually, during my training as a Commissioned Lay Pastor. You see, Reformed Theology, which defines the way Presbyterians struggle to understand God, has at its core John Calvin’s idea that man did nothing – can do nothing – to reconcile to God. God did everything necessary to reconcile humankind to God’s self.

Now, taking it a step further, we have to look at the Reformed understanding of the doctrine of the Trinity: Father, Son, Holy Spirit. We’ve talked before about how the Triune God is one God, a singular, and though our human interaction with our singular Creator understands three “persons,” we risk falling into pantheism if we do not understand that every act of any “person” of the Trinity is participated in by every part of the Trinity – all of God is directly involved with every act of the Father, every act of the Son, every act of the Holy Spirit. We can say with as much confidence as we can about any point of theological thought that God does not operate any other way.

As I began to understand these kinds of concepts, the idea of Jesus volunteering to sacrifice Himself in order to appease a wrathful Father, bent on annihilating everyone, began to make less and less sense.

Author and lecturer Gil Bailie suggests that the phrase “Lamb of God” means something wholly different than what I had become accustomed to. He says that if God had demanded the sacrifice of Jesus, then Jesus would have been the lamb of the human community given to God.

I’m almost certain I will get this wrong, but I’m going to do my best to explain what he suggests: Over the millennia, humankind developed a scapegoat mentality: quoting him here, “All archaic religions existed to take away the sins of the world. How did they do it? Every once in a while they dumped all these sins on someone and ran them out, or strung them up -- and felt righteous about it.”

Commenting on Gil Bailie’s words, Michael Hardin says, “We have [misunderstood what it means for Jesus to be the ‘Lamb of God’] largely by failing to attribute the demand for blood to the correct party, us. In the now-overused words of Pogo, ‘We have met the enemy, and he is us!’ Jesus’ sacrifice was designed to expose our bloodthirstiness, our enslavement to the sacrificial mechanism, not to satisfy a God who sits on the throne demanding yet another scapegoat. By making our sacrificial system and its falseness visible, Jesus takes away our ‘sin,’ our ‘missing-of-the-mark’ and leaves us without a viable victim.”

We are left, in other words, without someone to blame. We can no longer blame it on God. We can no longer say God wanted that sacrifice. What’s more, we can no longer look around and point at another, saying “your sin killed Christ,” because if we are human, we must realize that we are as responsible as any other human for the sacrifice. There are no more victims, there is no one left to blame. All of our excuses, our deflections, our justifications have been torn away by the violence of the Cross.

If you’ve spent more than fifteen minutes inside a church, you’ve heard the phrase “God is love.” If we dare to view Jesus as the Lamb of God, and understand it in a way that removes the responsibility for the sacrifice from God, do we not begin to glimpse the staggering, breathtaking breadth and depth of that love?

God loves you, personally and individually, without reservation, without hesitation, without limits! What’s more, if Jesus is the Lamb of God given to us, then it becomes glaringly obvious that God has always loved us! There truly is no depth we can sink to, no far country we can travel to, no philosophy we can hide behind, which will remove us from the love of God!

John says to his disciples, “Look, here is the Lamb of God!” And Jesus invites them to “Come and see.”

Despite the countless layers of encrusted doctrine, dogma and determined identities that the Church has put onto Jesus as well as the requirements so many communities put on prospective followers before they even begin, Jesus simply invites you and I to come and see. Come and see, come and experience a life where we don’t have to worry about being good enough, where we don’t have to make sure we’re always doing the right things at the right times. Come and experience a world where we sacrifice not because we are trying to gain God’s favor, but because someone else is in need. Come and experience a world where we don’t have to obsess over who is “in” and who is “out” when it comes to the love and grace of God.

No, we can be like Andrew, sharing the Good News with confidence bordering on abandon, because we know that, since the Lamb of God takes away the sins of the world, then by definition God loves everyone, and everyone deserves to know that love, to be welcomed into the family, into relationship with God!

Christ’s invitation to us, and to everyone, is simply to experience. Come and see.

It is an adventure where the disciple and the teacher are in real relationship.

It is the path to life.

Sunday, January 9, 2011

Al Fadr and the Baptism of Jesus

I'm posting this in the hours after a horrific shooting in Arizona, where a nine-year-old girl was murdered for no reason at all.

Perhaps we're in the twilight before dawn, but it still seems far too dark sometimes.

Isaiah 42:1-9
Here is my servant, whom I uphold, my chosen, in whom my soul delights; I have put my spirit upon him; he will bring forth justice to the nations. He will not cry or lift up his voice, or make it heard in the street; a bruised reed he will not break, and a dimly burning wick he will not quench; he will faithfully bring forth justice. He will not grow faint or be crushed until he has established justice in the earth; and the coastlands wait for his teaching.
Thus says God, the LORD, who created the heavens and stretched them out, who spread out the earth and what comes from it, who gives breath to the people upon it and spirit to those who walk in it: I am the LORD, I have called you in righteousness, I have taken you by the hand and kept you; I have given you as a covenant to the people, a light to the nations, to open the eyes that are blind, to bring out the prisoners from the dungeon, from the prison those who sit in darkness. I am the LORD, that is my name; my glory I give to no other, nor my praise to idols. See, the former things have come to pass, and new things I now declare; before they spring forth, I tell you of them.

Acts 10:34-43
Then Peter began to speak to them: "I truly understand that God shows no partiality, but in every nation anyone who fears him and does what is right is acceptable to him. You know the message he sent to the people of Israel, preaching peace by Jesus Christ-he is Lord of all. That message spread throughout Judea, beginning in Galilee after the baptism that John announced: how God anointed Jesus of Nazareth with the Holy Spirit and with power; how he went about doing good and healing all who were oppressed by the devil, for God was with him. We are witnesses to all that he did both in Judea and in Jerusalem. They put him to death by hanging him on a tree; but God raised him on the third day and allowed him to appear, not to all the people but to us who were chosen by God as witnesses, and who ate and drank with him after he rose from the dead. He commanded us to preach to the people and to testify that he is the one ordained by God as judge of the living and the dead. All the prophets testify about him that everyone who believes in him receives forgiveness of sins through his name."

Matthew 3:13-17
1Then Jesus came from Galilee to John at the Jordan, to be baptized by him. John would have prevented him, saying, "I need to be baptized by you, and do you come to me?" But Jesus answered him, "Let it be so now; for it is proper for us in this way to fulfill all righteousness." Then he consented. And when Jesus had been baptized, just as he came up from the water, suddenly the heavens were opened to him and he saw the Spirit of God descending like a dove and alighting on him. And a voice from heaven said, "This is my Son, the Beloved, with whom I am well pleased."

This is the Word of the Lord.

One of the things that has confused me all along about the baptism of Jesus is, quite simply, “why?” If, as John the Baptist proclaimed, the baptism he offered was for the remission of sin, then it follows that, for the sinless Messiah, such a thing would be unnecessary. If it was, as some think, merely to serve as an example for us, then what was with the dove of the Holy Spirit, and the voice from heaven? I don’t know about you, but I’ve never seen anyone else get the dove-and-voice treatment when they got baptized, so I can’t buy into the idea that the baptism of Jesus was just for show. There was more going on there. There are people, called “Adoptionists,‘ who believe that Jesus did not become Christ, the Messiah, God’s only son, until he was baptized, and frankly I cannot agree with that either. Like we discussed last week, Jesus was and is and shall be eternally God. In that light, the idea that it all began there in the Jordan River is nonsensical.

But this week, a conversation with a Muslim helped me see the baptism of Jesus in a different light. This man moved to Alabama from Bagdad. Of course I had a million questions, and he was more than happy to engage me in conversation. Along the way, we talked about our children and such, and he told me that one of his daughters is named “Fajer.” Since I don’t speak Arabic, this name meant nothing to me… until he explained.

Devout Muslims pray five times a day, and the first prayer, offered before dawn, is called al Fajer. What caught my attention is that the prayer is named for when it takes place -- in the twilight before the dawn.

We’ve talked before about how we, as Resurrection people, live in the twilight before dawn. A dark time, yes, but not the kind of dark where the long, cold, featureless night stretches before us, empty and hopeless, but the twilight before the dawn, when we can see the first vague outlines of the coming day, and we know that the darkness is coming to an end. This kind of twilight is the definition of hope. Talking to this man, I finally had a name for that!

But there’s another way in which the word “fajer” is used, and this really excited me. It signifies the start of a new life.

This isn’t a foreign concept to Westerners, if you think about it. Baby showers and birth announcements are a kind of fajer. Proms and diplomas are another kind; wedding rings yet another, and the list could go on: items or events which remind us of passages from one point in our life’s journey into another.

Ted Williams of Columbus, Ohio can tell us all about the concept of “fajer,” of breaking out of the long twilight, of starting a new life. Years of drug and alcohol abuse had left Ted homeless, just another panhandler on the side of the road. Despite having overcome his addiction over two years ago, Ted couldn’t drag himself out of the hole.

Now, I have to tell you that Ted had a little something that most of the folks who stand by the roadside with cardboard signs don’t have. Aside from an uncanny resemblance to Jimi Hendrix, Ted had a deep, sonorous radio verse with a pitch-perfect announcer’s delivery. Motorists would stop and give him money simply to hear him introduce an imaginary song or announce a baseball score.

One afternoon a reporter with the local newspaper took a video camera with him to tape Ted; first announcing an upcoming concert in return for a donation, then standing on a sidewalk later, talking about his life and his dreams.

The reporter posted the video on YouTube, and something amazing happened. A few people happened upon it, and shared the webpage link with others. People were fascinated! Ted’s video flooded FaceBook, Twitter, Stumbleupon and other sharing sites. In the terminology of Internet fads, it had “gone viral.” In almost no time at all, millions of people had seen the video of Ted Williams, the Panhandler with the Golden Voice.

Something else happened, though. Ted Williams got job offers. He was given a house to live in and a car. Appearing on ABC’s Morning Show after accepting a job at a major radio station, Ted wept openly at the turn his life had taken… all because someone had taken the time to take an interest in him. A simple video on a website paved the way for Ted Williams’ fajer.

We’ve just celebrated the miracle of Jesus’ birth. This past Thursday was Epiphany, which celebrates the visit of the Magi to the Christ Child. But following that event, except for a brief glimpse of Christ at twelve years old, we know nothing of Jesus from the time the gold, frankincense, and myrrh is given until the moment he shows up on the banks of the Jordan River.

I imagine John the Baptist busily baptizing person after person, all the while yelling to the crowds gathered on the bank, “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near!” Perhaps he doesn’t even notice his cousin until he’s standing right there in front of him, next in line to receive baptism. John stands there, gape mouthed in shock, for a long moment before he says, “I need to be baptized by you, and do you come to me?”

You see, John knows who Jesus is. John knows that, of all the people standing on the bank now, of all the people he has baptized and of all the people he will ever baptize, the one person who has nothing to repent of is this man – Jesus!

And yes, Jesus says that he wants to be baptized because “it is proper for us in this way to fulfill all righteousness,” as odd as that sounds. Though John doesn’t understand it, he proceeds with the baptism… and the most amazing thing happens!

The sky opens up! The Spirit, like a dove, settles on Jesus, and God speaks: “This is my Son, the Beloved, with whom I am well pleased.”

Now, while I am careful to affirm that I do not think that Jesus was baptized merely to mark the beginning of his ministry, nor do I go to the other extreme and claim that he was not God until he was baptized, I think that part of what happened for Jesus at the baptism was his “fajer,” the start of a new life.

Think of it: from this point forward, everything changes for Jesus. No longer will he stand in that carpenter’s shop in Nazareth, breathing in the aroma of the sawdust as he builds a cabinet; no longer will he sit quietly in the synagogue as the scribes read the Torah. This thing he was born to do, this mission that’s been coursing through his veins since he was old enough to understand it, starts now!

For all of us in the Christian faith, whether we practice infant baptism or what is commonly referred to as “”believer’s baptism,” that event serves as a point of reference for our passage into a new life, a fajer.

Because Jesus took this first step in the journey, because he was faithful to “fulfill all righteousness,” because that faithfulness led Jesus to the cross and the Resurrection, we can say with the Apostle Paul, “I have been crucified with Christ and I no longer live, but Christ lives in me. The life I now live in the body, I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me.”

Whatever events define our past, whatever future once lay before us, all of that is changed. Whoever we were, whatever darkness we were groping around in, now the dawn is coming, our new life has begun! We have become part of the family of God, and the reality for us has become this: in life, in death, in life beyond death, we belong to God!