Letters to Pope Francis

LetterstoPopeFrancis-cover-224x359One might start with the premise that this book, written by a former priest and Dominican to the Roman Catholic Church’s new pope, Francis, and about what is wrong with the institutional church, would appeal only to Catholics. One would be wrong, quite simply.

Matthew Fox delves into the rot at the center of the Catholic Church with the precision of a surgeon, and cuts out the cancer with deft sure hands. Yet what he speaks of, with slight alteration can be laid at the doorstep of much of Christendom. If I were more familiar with other faith systems, no doubt his criticisms would also find purchase.

Fox starts with charging that the two previous papacies, that of John Paul II and Benedict XVI were schismatic. He makes this claim since both quite obviously tried to roll back the progress of Vatican II, and as he rightly suggests, “a council takes precedence over papal directives.” In other words, to the degree that both worked to ignore or undue reforms of the Second Vatican Council, their work was illegal and should be ignored.

Fox goes on from there, and he leaves no area of the church’s dirty little secrets left unaired. From the utterly disgusting coverup by church hierarchy of the pedophilia scandal, to the Vatican bank, to the vile treatment of religious women under Benedict, they are all unmasked. Curia members buy “sainthood” and known fascists find canonization while true martyrs of the church such as Oscar Romero are “held up” due to false charges of Marxism.

Matthew Fox who is now deeply involved in his own spiritual enterprise of bringing people to the Cosmic Jesus, urges Pope Francis to return theology to true theologians, replace suspect organizations such as Opus Dei from their powerful positions, stop the war on women, end required celibacy, and the simple end of Catholic obsession with sexual matters. It is a call to recognize the basic intelligence of lay people. It is a recognition that if the Church is losing adherents at an astounding pace, it is largely because the church is failing to be relevant to today’s problems and the needs of its people.

With tenderness but with firmness, Fox employs the Pope’s own words and is relentless in drawing the parallel between today and the Pope’s chosen namesake, Francis of Assisi, who, Fox makes out the case, would dismiss the great wealth of the Vatican, converting it to food for the poor, and would speak out loudly and insistently on issues of income inequality, working conditions for workers, and our rape of the environment.

He offers real solutions, the obvious and those which deal more with the inner workings of the Vatican, a subject that many lay persons are unfamiliar with. Indeed, it is these revelations that so shake the reader. How could such evil and behavior be tolerated in the Church?

This is a call to justice. It is a call to the Pope and the Church to return to its beginnings. It is a call to return to Jesus. Relentlessly, Fox recounts that Jesus was about the poor. He was about justice. He was about speaking truth to power. He indicts the Church as becoming the very things that Jesus gave his life for, and that if we can drop the mantra of individual salvation and return to demands for justice, work for justice, this church and others like it can be saved.

This a call to recognize that religion is the not same thing as faith. Fox sees faith as alive and well, and it is religion that has lost its way. It has become part of the ruling portion of humanity. It no longer serves people. Moreover he makes it quite clear that the only way for religion to continue must come through a recognition that ecumenism is the solution. We must get off this crazy notion that there is only One way to salvation, which each and every (or most) faith traditions claiming that they are that ONE.

This is a disheartening book if you are a Catholic, but refreshing too, as we recognize that the movement to re-vision what it means to be “church” is being led, not by hierarchies within institutional structures, but among common every day people. They are the true leadership and those institutionalized “leaders” had best get on board, or be left behind to burnish their gold and buff their Prada slippers in empty cathedrals everywhere.

Read this. Read it and join the growing legions who seek Jesus and His Way, the one that was intended.

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What of This Thing Called Unity?

UnityI read a statistic some years ago. If anything, the number has probably grown larger.

At that time, there were some 35,000 different “Christian” churches throughout the world.

Think of that. In two thousand years, the Christian community has managed to splinter into so many diverse belief systems, that virtually anyone can pretty much choose their flavor of Christianity. Go into any American city, grab the Yellow Pages and see for yourself. Pages and pages of “denominations”.

What is at the basis of such a plethora of choices? Why nothing less than the honest belief on the part of each that they have “got it.” By got it, I mean, the true and correct understanding of the bible.

Add to that the incredible number of people, who (given the above) with some ( and I mean only some) justification, feel that they can cut to the chase so to speak and go to no “organized” church at all. If there are that many ways of interpreting scripture, then who is to say that I can’t do as well all by myself. Thus is born the non-denominational phenomenon, churches aligned to no recognized Protestant “church”, those that arise around the charismatic leadership of a single pastor and his/her personal interpretation, or the greatest non-denominational of all, the “unchurched,” but “spiritual” category.

The waters continue to muddy as the non-denominationals become mega churches themselves. In the end, a miasma of variety is offered to the average person that belies any “true” Christian faith at all. We truly are a Baskin and Robbins affair, replete with our own 31 + thousand flavors.

To be fair, any serious look at the early church shows pretty much the same picture. The Roman Catholic Church became the “winner” of the heresy wars, able in the end to define heresy as anything that we agree is wrong doctrine. All the others who had been arguing that they preached the “true” faith, faded into the history of doctrine that failed to win the day.

Truly, from the start, we have never agreed about what Christian doctrine is. This fact is recorded first in Acts when we learn that Paul and his followers had a much different idea of what Christianity consisted of than did Peter and those in Jerusalem. We are assured that  all was worked out amicably, but of course the bible we read today avoids the Gnostic “problem” and others. All those “other” Gospels float around from those earliest of days to suggest that there was always plenty of dissension among the believers that never got ironed out amicably or otherwise.

Yet Jesus talks to us of unity.

Lifting up his eyes to heaven, Jesus prayed saying:
“Holy Father, I pray not only for them,
but also for those who will believe in me through their word,
so that they may all be one,
as you, Father, are in me and I in you,
that they also may be in us,
that the world may believe that you sent me.
And I have given them the glory you gave me,
so that they may be one, as we are one,
I in them and you in me,
that they may be brought to perfection as one,
that the world may know that you sent me,
and that you loved them even as you loved me.
Father, they are your gift to me.
I wish that where I am they also may be with me,
that they may see my glory that you gave me,
because you loved me before the foundation of the world.
Righteous Father, the world also does not know you,
but I know you, and they know that you sent me.
I made known to them your name and I will make it known,
that the love with which you loved me
may be in them and I in them.”

Jesus knew, as we all intuitively do, that in unity is power. Not the power of dominion and rule, but the power of persuasion. In their unity, they would illustrate forcefully that indeed the Father had sent Jesus to “save” us from ourselves. Save us, not in the unhealthy way of dying for our sins in some atonement sense, but save us from our own petty selfish selves by teaching us to live rightly.

We all know that the most powerful convincing tool in any arsenal is living the life one is preaching. Jesus really tried to teach us how to live. That convinces other more than anything we say. How do we live? How do we project the love that we know through this Jesus who lived and died so long ago? If our lives reflect a way of being that is attractive to others, then we truly preach the Gospel.

That is the unity. That is the template we should be seeking.

Instead we argue about doctrine all day and every day. We do this of course under the guise of proving that we are rightly interpreting this Jesus. It has never been and will never be about this thing we call a bible. That is a collection of human writings. It is and will always be about trying to live out the way of life as the Master announced to us. And quite frankly, much of that is pretty well understood by even the most limited of us.

Love God. Love each other. Take care of each other.

It’s all so very simply. All the rest, is as someone said,  is mere commentary.

What a powerful force we “Christians” could be, if only we simply lived as Jesus asked us to–in love.

The Lesson of Thomas

doubting_bigThe story of “Doubting Thomas” is pretty clear, framed as it is with the stories of the marvelous healing abilities of the apostles following the death of Jesus. We can see it as a directive of the church–believe in the message. In other words, trust that what we have said is true.

This is a necessity of course since Jesus was no longer physically among them. On what basis would people believe in the fantastical story that they were beginning to tell. Why indeed should we believe?

Thomas’s conversion at the feet of the risen Lord assures us that the stories of the bible are true and can be believed. Don’t be like Thomas we are told, believe in the Word!

As I said, this was a necessity to the fledgling group of Jesus followers who found themselves in not only dangerous lands where death could be pronounced on those who preached this anti-power message, but telling a story that was difficult for anyone to swallow on its face. A man travels around preaching a new doctrine quite apart from normative Judaism, allegedly curing the sick and outcast of society, eating and drinking with these misbegottens, and then is hanged on a tree in the dump outside Jerusalem with other common criminals? Really?

Even to a people more inclined to believe in the supernatural than we, it’s a stretch isn’t it?

We are today of course, encouraged not to be doubting Thomas’s ourselves, and for some believers, it becomes almost a mainstay of their faith lives. It becomes the banner of those who refuse to consider any deviation from “absolute and total” faith as some dark weakness that may lead to eternal damnation. Stop your ears! Cover you eyes! Do not doubt for one second lest you lose the kingdom!

But of course a reading of the story in John suggests nothing of the sort. Jesus calls Thomas to him, shows him the evidence. Thomas, now convinced, falls at the feet of the Master and proclaims him Lord and God.

While Jesus does bless those who have not doubted, (or the Church inserts such language to bolster its argument), Jesus does not condemn Thomas in any way, or lay any penalty upon him for his reluctance to believe based on the words of his friends, the other apostles.

Perhaps then we can draw a bit of a different lesson from all this.

Is it not interesting that Thomas was unprepared to simply acquiesce from the claims of his friends? After all, Thomas had been with these men and women for some three years. Did he not find them trustworthy? Apparently he did not. Perhaps it was the lack of faith they themselves had expressed and evidenced with the arrest and trial and murder of their leader. Perhaps his own willingness to hide himself from the authorities caused him to be skeptical of the new-found “faith” of the others. Were they not all too human, susceptible to fear and confusion to be trusted with such a revelation?

Was not Thomas’s doubt a good thing?

Should we invest our time and our fragile psyches to unquestioning faith just because “somebody” assures us that we should?

If you spend time talking with atheists, most especially the “new atheists” (some call them evangelical atheists since they exhibit some of the same unflinching dogmatic surety of the fundamentalist), you will assuredly find that a good many of them, if not most, are former believers. And they were not ordinary believers for the most part, but fundamentalist believers, the most rabid, the most “sure” believers among us.

Ask a fundamentalist if she has any doubt about the truth of  Christianity, and you will get a swift assurance that her belief is total. She will regale you with stony firmness that there is NO doubt in her mind that the bible is indeed the literal word of God.

As we know, when such persons finally, if ever, discover that indeed this is not, cannot, be true, their faith is usually shattered beyond repair. Their faith is based upon the Good Book, not the working out of a philosophical foundation which makes faith reasonable and thus believable. If the book is shown to be faulty in ANY manner, then the foundation cracks and crumbles into dust.

Thomas reminds us that faith, to be enduring, and I would add, mature,  must be based on something more than the claims that some words in a book are absolutely true and beyond question. Questions are good. Some Jewish scholars would argue that the bible is to be read on four levels, and among them, the first–literalism–amounts to the understanding of a child.

Questions force us to confront the internal conflicts and contradictions of immature faith. If faith is to be mature and thus lead to a real conversion of spirit and growth into a “better” way of being human, it must confront and work through these issues. The bible thus becomes the place to uncover these very conflicts and becomes the basis of our truest conversion.

If our passion for truth and desire to believe and know this God is real, then we are compelled to reconcile the contradictions that exist within the Bible (for they are surely there if one honestly looks). By the reconciliation we uncover a God far greater, far more impressive, and far more loving, than the deity portrayed in the superficial reading at the literal level.

Jesus was the teacher we should emulate–for he told us to set aside all the Pharisaic rules of faith and seek the simple loving presence of God. He cut through the red tape. Unknowingly perhaps the early church gave us the means to do that, in the guise of Thomas.

 

Where Will You Sit?

As I listened to Mark 10: 35-45 this morning, a number of thoughts flooded my mind. I am reminded of the Republicans and their meme on the President’s approach to foreign policy:

“He leads from behind,” they charge, and they don’t mean it as a compliment.

Recently I reviewed a book here called Alone with a Jihadist, in which the author posited rather convincingly that the attempt by the evangelical religious right to secure political power in order to further the aims of their version of God’s will, was unbiblical and certainly anti-Jesus.

Jesus, certainly in the passage from Mark, and generally throughout the Gospels, presents a picture of leadership that is not directed at power and authority. Jesus seeks no power much to the chagrin occasionally of his followers. He seeks no authority over others, and certainly not over his enemies of the day.

He seeks to serve. And he teaches service.

To lead from behind is in a sense very Jesus-like. Such an idea of course would drive the religious right insane at the mere thought because they have decided to believe and push the idea that the President is the antithesis of a Godly man. Many argue that he is in the arms of Satan himself, and is in the process destroying all that is Godly about America.

But Jesus led from behind. What I mean by that is that Jesus taught that the essence of love of God was service to God’s children. And the essence of service is empowerment. It is helping others to help themselves by raising up their value and abilities to equality with those around them. When Jesus cures and forgives, he do so to return people to their rightful place as equals within their society. He empowers them to take their place in the world with their heads up once again.

He does not empower them in the sense that he gives them tools to rule over others. That is not what the Kingdom of God is about. He gives them the tools by his example, that they are to express to everyone they meet from that day forward. The Kingdom has nothing to do with power exerted OVER people, but rather it lifts people up to be fully functioning people of God.

Similarly, Aaron Taylor, when he suggests that it is not the place of a true Christian to seize political power for the purpose of bringing into existence some man-made government in their image of God, he is merely restating what Jesus announced to poor John and James when they asked Jesus to recognize their importance in the coming Kingdom. Jesus said, no, this is not what my Kingdom is about. You will suffer for my sake, but your reward is not honor and power over others, but the continuing opportunity to serve all those in need.

One can argue whether Jesus intended to set up a new church and if John and James and the rest of the disciples were being instructed on how that church was to be organized. I personally don’t believe, based on my examination of the literature regarding this issue, that Jesus had any such intention to set up a new church. He was and remained a Jew in the Jewish faith until his death. What he wished to do, was to bring Judaism back to its true focus, and that was the one he preached to everyone who would listen.

But he certainly was aware that those he left behind had a message to continue to share, and he made sure that his followers understood his teaching in all its revolutionary significance. You lead by serving.

Where will you sit?

 

I Myself Am Also a Human Being

Having settled all the immediate issues of moving to a new state, I decided that it was time to get to Mass. Here in Las Cruces, which is overwhelmingly Roman Catholic, I figured I wouldn’t have much trouble finding an appropriate parish church. I settled on the Cathedral known as the Immaculate Heart of Mary.

But this is not about that, it merely sets the stage for the operation of the Holy Spirit. My experience with the Spirit, is that it usually surprises me. It pops up when I least expect it. I read the readings yesterday and was fairly certain that I would speak about Jesus’ radical statements in Jn 15: 9-17. In it Jesus sets a shocking standard–love others as GOD loves you. Since God loves with pure and complete unconditionality, it is far beyond the standard of loving others as we love ourselves.

But as I heard the first reading from Acts read this morning, I was struck by it in a way that had not been clear upon the first reading. It perhaps speaks to my ongoing tension with Mother Church–its determination to make decisions about who is and who is not welcome at the table of Christ.

In Acts 10: 25-26, 34-35, 44-48:

When Peter entered, Cornelius met him
and, falling at his feet, paid him homage.
Peter, however, raised him up, saying,
“Get up. I myself am also a human being.”

Then Peter proceeded to speak and said,
“In truth, I see that God shows no partiality.
Rather, in every nation whoever fears him and acts uprightly
is acceptable to him.”

While Peter was still speaking these things,
the Holy Spirit fell upon all who were listening to the word.
The circumcised believers who had accompanied Peter
were astounded that the gift of the Holy Spirit
should have been poured out on the Gentiles also,
for they could hear them speaking in tongues and glorifying God.
Then Peter responded,
“Can anyone withhold the water for baptizing these people,
who have received the Holy Spirit even as we have?”
He ordered them to be baptized in the name of Jesus Christ.

Most Christians would agree that Peter was given “custody” of the religious movement that Jesus instituted. He was the Lord’s most trusted disciple, the one, presumably that he shared the most with and taught in the fullest. Certainly the other disciples were privy to most of all this knowledge as well. The Gospels report, individually and collectively, those issues and teachings that they thought were the most important, those things Jesus stressed the most.

While the Gospel today reminds us that Jesus said that our love for each other must be radical and extreme–as God’s love for us is, still we learn that the disciples were often surprised and found themselves in disagreement on many issues as the fledgling church gathered itself and became a church in fact.

Peter of course, reminds the pagan centurion, Cornelius, that he, Peter is a mortal and not to be bowed to. Peter hears Cornelius’s story about how an angel told him to locate Peter and listen to him. When he has finished describing this vision, Peter realizes that God must speak to all nations, not just the Jewish one.

And when the Holy Spirit descends indiscriminately upon the Jewish followers and the Gentiles, he realizes and proclaims:

“Can anyone without the water for baptizing these people, who have received the Holy Spirit even as we have?”

This is something apparently that had not occurred to Peter beforehand, and this is confirmed when we recall the arguments held between himself and the Jewish community and Paul and his new community of Gentiles. The question was, to what extent these Gentiles were required to take on the Jewish faith in order to be these new Christians.

So what is my point?

Peter and the other disciples, male and female had spent three years with the Lord. They had lived with him almost day and night. They had been privy to his every thought, his every expression. He explained the parables to them, he taught them as carefully and fully as he deemed necessary. No one could claim to know more than they.

And yet, they almost to a man and woman were not prepared to understand the breadth and depth of what Jesus taught. The fullest and deepest meaning still escaped them.

Are we to assume any more ability than they? Are we as Church, able to discern without error who is welcome at the Lord’s table?

As we are instructed to accept this or that teaching as “given”, as we are instructed not to discuss this or that rule, as we are instructed who is in sin and who is not, and how to be “reconciled”, should we not  question these limitations? For Jesus placed no limitations–love others in the radical unconditional way that God loves you. Make no distinctions, make no judgement–love period.

Peter, the disciple we trust without question to be the titular head of the Church, thereby living in perfect understanding of Jesus’ teachings, proved to not have that perfect understanding. Are our bishops and priests to be given more faith in truth than him?

Truly the Spirit seems to teach the lesson that every time you think you have loved enough, double, and triple it. Every time you think you have reached the goal, look toward the horizon and see Me beckoning you further.

God’s love is all-encompassing. Can we turn anyone away from the table except at our peril? I think not.

Amen. 

*Gasp* They Were Communists!

Indeed, it’s true. I’m not sure how some of our conservative friends explain this wonderful uplifting section of Acts.

The community of believers was of one heart and mind,
and no one claimed that any of his possessions was his own,
but they had everything in common.
With great power the apostles bore witness
to the resurrection of the Lord Jesus,
and great favor was accorded them all.
There was no needy person among them,
for those who owned property or houses would sell them,
bring the proceeds of the sale,
and put them at the feet of the apostles,
and they were distributed to each according to need. (Acts 4: 32-35)

It doesn’t get more Marxist than that. Imagine, being of “one heart and mind”. Imagine there being “no needy person among them”.  Imagine everything distributed “to each according to need”.

It is a beautiful model of how we should be. Sure, we can agree that room should be made for those who wish, because of their own personality, to work with greater effort. Sure, we can give them a bigger house, or a car with more accessories. That is, as long as there is “no needy person among (us)”.  For we should be of “one heart and mind” that no one should desire or receive the yacht of their dreams while one person lives in squalor.

How did we get so far afield? How did that model fail almost as soon as it was instituted?

Perhaps it was because it functioned within a small environment, among a subset of a larger community. Perhaps it was because it had at its base a sufficiently large wealthy group who could sustain the poor within their ranks. Perhaps it was because they were not yet actively engaged in surviving persecution. Any number of reasons might be advanced, and surely it was a composite of many that led to the end of the “to each according to need” philosophy.

We can see that this was true in Paul’s efforts to raise money for the “church in Jerusalem”, and surely throughout his letters we find efforts being made to raise funds to support various fledgling communities of faith throughout the Empire.

But there was something more, that is clear from the Gospel reading in John. By the time John wrote his Gospel, the church is under much more stress. Persecution is a real thing. And what to do about it no doubt engendered much discussion and difference of opinion. John speaks to this church which is in some disarray and under threat. He tells them this story about Thomas.

On the evening of that first day of the week,
when the doors were locked, where the disciples were,
for fear of the Jews,
Jesus came and stood in their midst
and said to them, “Peace be with you.” (Jn 20: 19)

This is the state of the community–locked behind doors, fearful. Jesus appears, and as someone pointed out to me, his first words are PEACE. “Peace be with you” he says. These are people he knew, people he lived with, ate and slept with, prayed with. And the first word he says is peace. Can this mean that already the squabbling and arguing was afoot? I suspect so.

One has but to look at the history of the church down through the ages to realize that we are a contentious lot. We have managed to divide ourselves into tens of thousands of various sects, each claiming that it has the true, original, and correct interpretation of the three-year ministry of Jesus Christ. When Jesus returns to us again, more than likely the first word from his mouth will be peace.

I have no clue how conservative Christians explain the communism of the early church, or why at least it’s point: there was no needy person among them, isn’t upheld as the overriding standard. Should we not all, as Christians, demand that nothing less than this be the true state of affairs in our land before we talk of free markets and punishing people for being successful?

How do we get to prosperity gospels and such when millions of our brothers and sisters still live in squalor? How do we enjoy our cappuchinos when babies cry from hunger? How do we shrink in horror when government tries to step into the gap between the enormously wealthy and the terribly poor and provide minimum assistance? How dare we claim that this is the province of church–to take care of the poor.

How dare we use this language, when it is our province and when we have failed to do so. For 2,000 years we have tried, but we have failed. How dare we vilify the governments around the world who choose to step into that gap and fill it? They are only doing what the early church actually did aren’t they?

Aren’t they?

Amen.

 

Blessed Are Those Who Have Not Seen, Yet Believe

I had a good friend years ago who belonged to Christian denomination that did not celebrate the usual holidays of the Church. No Christmas, no Easter, no Lent.

Her church argued that none of the actual dates were known, and that in any case, we should celebrate the events the holidays signify, everyday.

Point one, I totally agree. We don’t know the actual date of Jesus’ birth. We are a bit more certain of his death, since it is tied (at least in three Gospels) to the Passover, John disagreeing.

Yet, I disagree about the second, though laudable claim, that we should celebrate these events daily. We should. We don’t.

Our readings today speak eloquently to this fact. In the Gospel of John, the risen Christ has appeared to most of the twelve, and to certain of the women. They are ecstatic and joyous. Yet Thomas, who was not present, doubts. He has to see the risen Lord with his own eyes before he is prepared to believe in the resurrection.

This brings forth one of the most piercing of statements from Jesus:

“Happy are those who have not seen and yet believe.”

I challenge you to read that and not slightly cringe and your own times of lack of faith and of doubt.

We see how that “first hand” knowing played out in the early community. Luke tells us in Acts that the community, remained faithful. They lived in communal equality, (communism actually) and were generous in their sharing. They attended church faithfully, and they were “looked up to” by everyone.

Yet, several decades later, this is not the case. We find “Peter” (probably not the apostle), writing in the later part (we think) of the first century, exhorting his followers to remain faithful in times of great stress and trial. It is thought perhaps that this was a time in Rome of persecution under Domitian or Trajan.

In any case, the writer reminds the community of all the things that have been promised, and what their reward will be. He commends them for their faith throughout the trials of the day. He notes that they have not seen the risen Lord, yet they believe.

Reading between the lines, we conclude that the writer is trying to buck up a stressed community, shoring up their perhaps weakening faith. “. . .you are sure of the end to which your faith looks forward, that is, the salvation of your souls.”

These readings remind us, still fresh from the resurrection, that we too are subject to falling away. We are still filled with the excitement of Easter after our long sojourn in the desert. We are joyful.

Yet all too soon our everyday concerns will interrupt upon our joy. We will return to the mundane and all the attendant troubles and trials that life visits upon us all.

Our doubts, now we think forever eradicated, will return, if not as outright questions, at least as lukewarm attendance to God and our faith.

The problem with “ordinary” time is that it is all too ordinary. We get too busy with barbecues and lawn mowing, of concerts in the park and farmer’s markets. Our God-time shrinks to an occasional formulaic prayer each day, and an hour squeezed in on Sunday.

For those of us who are on a knowing and deliberate path, this is a time for vigilance. If we are to progress (and isn’t that our goal?) we need to maintain our seeking, our dedication to all those practices that have so far proven useful to our growth.

We, each of us, must plumb the depths of our being and discover what direction God is drawing us to. Is it more study of scripture? Or is it more meditation? Is it more church attendance? Or is it more study of the mystics? Are we finding God in something we do? Or something we enjoy with our senses? Is it nature? Or art? Or music? Is it service?

These are the questions we need be asking, lest we become stale and as unbelieving as Thomas was before he met the risen Lord. Blessed are those who have not seen, yet believe.

Amen.

** readings are from:

Acts 2:42-47;  1Pet 1:3-9;  Jn 20:19-31

Calm at the Center of the Storm

One stop on the road to enlightenment, or so I’m told, is when we can be an internal witness to our thoughts, disengaged from them, simply watching them go by. We neither want them nor hold them. We are indifferent.

Something like that sometimes happens to me, usually in social situations. I feel disengaged from my body. I am fully aware, yet I see myself as witness to the conversations and activities surrounding me. I feel in a sense invisible, able to just watch the action.

I’ve been feeling that a lot these last couple of days as regards the mass readings leading up to the crucifixion. I can see in my mind’s eye that time of long ago, after Jesus had entered Jerusalem. The messengers running through the street to inform the Sanhedrin that “he is here.”  The flurry of meetings, discussions, and decisions.

The streets were awash with talk. “He is here.”

“Who?”

“You know, Jesus of Nazareth, the healer, the one some call the Messiah.”

“Where is he?”

“No one knows, he’s disappeared somewhere in the city.”

Arguments ensue between those who follow the Master and those who don’t. Rumors are rampant.

Depending on which story you attend to, Judas is going through a crisis of his own. Jesus has not turned out to be what Judas expected. There are whispers among the disciples, arguments even. Some were against this entry into the city, some were fearful. Others were simply confused. Some trusted the Master’s decision.

Jesus, remains the calm center as all about him is arush with all this confusion. He sees the fear in the eyes of Peter, the anger in Judas eyes. His mother is quiet as is Mary the Magdala. They tend to the preparation of the rooms where they are staying. Hauling water, setting up bedding.

The Roman soldiers are on high alert. They’ve been told that there is unrest, arguing, meetings, and groups gathering around the Temple. They have heard of this itinerant preacher who is causing dissention among the Jews. The Pharisees are speaking out in the Temple and  around the city. Crowds listen, some cheering and others jeering. The soldiers are nervous.

Jesus is aware of all of it. And he knows how it will end. He cannot and would not stop it if he could. It must be this way. They must see this new way of God, and the only way is this way. This perfect and complete offering of self–only this will jar them out of their complacency.

Jesus is the calm within the maelstrom, all moving inexorably toward this one apex of exquisite pain and offering.

I can sit and see it all. And somehow there is comfort in it all. Somehow there is. I sit in the calm with my Lord.

Amen.

At What Price?

Yesterday Jesus said that if his works were works of God, then everyone should believe that God was in him and that he was in God.  Yet this was not the case for many.

Today John tells us that many did not believe and continued to inform the High Council  of the  “signs” Jesus was performing.

Caiaphas and the priests sat about discussing the “problem.” I find it most interesting that the problem was that all these signs would “cause people to believe in him.” And if this happened, Rome would move in and take over, crushing the nation.

A couple of things seem at work here. First it is unlikely that Rome would have had any interest in Jesus at all but for the fact that the Council was framing him as the claimed Messiah–a military threat to Rome for sure.  Of course we know that Jesus was no such thing, his Messiahship was something entirely new and beyond the narrow thinking of the Pharisees and Sanhedrin.

Second, the High Council saw the end of their control, their positions of power if you will, as the direct result of Jesus’ ascendency, and this they were not prepared to tolerate. Sure, they couched it in terms of blasphemy and other such charges, but reading between the lines, we recognize the desire to preserve their positions within the community and with Rome.

This makes it easy for Caiaphas to declare that it is better for one man to die for the nation than for the nation to be destroyed. [Jn 11:50] Of course Caiaphas had no idea just how prophetic he was. Jesus indeed would die for a nation–the nation of humanity!

So we see two evils at work here, a closed mindedness coupled with self-preservation in it’s most evil manifestation. 

Most of us of course know the end of this story. While many in Jerusalem talked and wondered about whether Jesus would enter Jerusalem, the High Council prepared for that eventuality. And Jesus, always sure of what would happen, prepared to enter the City in a way that would leave little doubt as to claims of Messiahship that swirled about the city and countryside.

Although Caiaphas and the Sanhedrin thought they were in control of events opening before them, of course they were not. All would be as Jesus had said long before.  All would be done to offer humanity a new way of seeing, a new way of hearing, a new way of being.

Amen.

Oh What of Lazarus?

One of the enduring lessons of law is not really about law at all. Rather it’s about psychology, which finds voice in some instructions to juries as they begin their deliberations, especially in criminal cases.

The instruction relates to the fact that eye-witness testimony is to be treated with great care. The human being, in the excitement of the moment, often misses important facts, and often, unbeknownst to them, mentally “fill in the blanks.” In other words, we often “see” what experience tells us we should see, rather than what is actually there.

Numerous testing of this proposition are well known. Students, sitting passively in a class are suddenly subjected to a masked person who bursts into the room and then quickly leaves. When questioned separately, a variety of “differences” between the observers always occurs.  A famous one of  a person in a gorilla suit wandering through a basketball game illustrates that people don’t always see what is there, when it is not something they “expect” to see.

I think about this sometimes when I read the story of the resurrection of Lazarus. John masterfully tells the story in great detail, weaving in and out the expectations of his disciples, the fullness of faith exampled in Martha, and the limitations of Mary’s faith.

Then, seeing all this distress, Jesus performs the miracle of miracles, he calls Lazarus from the tomb where he has lain dead for four days. Not only his disciples and Martha and Mary witness this, but also many “Jews”  who have come from Jerusalem to “sit Shiva” with the sisters.

And yet, the reading leaves off with this:

Many of the Jews who had come to visit Mary, and had seen what he did, believed in him, but some of them went to the Pharisees to tell them what Jesus had done. (Jn 11:45 emphasis added)

Many? Isn’t this amazing? I ask you, if you witnessed such a thing, would you not believe? Yet, some did not, or at least went to the leaders in their religious community to relate what they had seen and get their opinion.

What could they have witnessed that left them in doubt? Were they confused? Were they troubled that perhaps as had been charged against Jesus before, that he was the disciple of Satan? of Beelzebub?

We cannot know of course, and if we proceed further into the discussion by the Pharisees we see that is may not have been so much about “by whose power” he did what he did, but rather the consequences of there being such a power within the community. How would Rome respond to such a one as Jesus whose power rivaled theirs?

I guess the point is, that we need to approach scripture carefully. We need to turn it upside down and inside out occasionally, if only to be careful that we  are simply reading into it what our experiences tell us “should” be there in terms of meaning and direction.

This is perhaps where biblical scholarship comes in most handy. It allows us to “see” the text through the eyes of those who were it’s first hearers. And we are forced to ask ourselves new questions.

John’s gospel was written in the 90’s of the first century, perhaps as late as 100. His gospel is quite openly anti-Jewish. Earlier gospel accounts are not nearly so. We learn that John’s community was under a lot of pressure from other Jesus’ related groups, especially those who still maintained a strong ties to the Jewish Temple.

Members of John’s community may have included elements of Samaritans, traditionally enemies of the Jews of Jerusalem. Other Jewish Christians were trying to maintain their life within the synagogue. The situation at Ephesus, where this gospel was likely written, was roiling with hostility and distrust.

Understanding this, we can look upon John’s story of the almost intentional disregard for the powers of Jesus in a very different light. I suspect very few if any of the “witnesses” to the resurrection of Lazarus failed to believe in what they had seen with their own eyes. I suspect that no one ran to “tell”.

What the authorities within the synagogue and later in the Temple thought of all these rumors of miracle resurrections is another story, one John perhaps does not know. He does however craft a story to give his people, his community, fortitude to deal with the pressures they are facing from an increasingly hostile Jewish leadership.

Amen.

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