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.

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Do You Know His Voice?

shepherd-in-wildernessIt’s undeniable that Jesus often made reference to us as “his sheep”.

Just last week, Jesus instructed Peter to take care of his sheep, and today in John’s Gospel, Jesus tells us that his sheep know him, know his voice, and they follow.

There is something of course quite troubling about this if you think about it.

It is now common in the political world to refer to those on either side of the political spectrum who are, shall we say, passionate in their feelings, “sheeple”. It is not a compliment. It refers to people who are acting like sheep, blindly following without independent thought. Think Pied Piper of Hamlin and the rats jumping off the docks into the water and their deaths.

And indeed, as I am told by those who claim to know, it was common when a shepherd came into Jerusalem that he brought his flock of sheep to a common holding area. In those times, sheep were not marked in any way to define who belonged to who. Not only was the shepherd intimately familiar with his sheep, but the sheep “knew” the shepherd’s voice, and when he called, those that were his,  they, and only they, followed and separated themselves out again.

There is some comfort in this explanation, for we believe that Jesus indeed does KNOW us that intimately. As is said in the scriptures, God knows us down to the number of hairs upon our heads.

But are we blind followers, responding only to the superficial “voice”?

Skeptics and those who refer to themselves as atheists surely do account us as “sheeple”, blinding adhering to things that are fantastical and at times conflicting and brutal. They pepper us with isolated passages of biblical fare that present a God who is merciless, arbitrary, and cruel. How can you believe such things they say as they look on with disdain?

Worse they extract stories out of context and make jokes, taunting “do you read this to your child as a bedtime story? What kind of parent are you?”

They lay our faith down to being so fearful of the specter of death that we perpetuate a created sky God to save us.

It is both troubling and painful to be portrayed this way. In that sense, the sheep metaphor is particularly unwelcome  and uncomfortable.

Again I ask, are we dumb followers? Are we so terrified of death?

A bit of thought of course resets our compass. Of course we are not. Surely, if our goal was to comfort ourselves we could come up with a story that held together much better than this! We would not be confronted with the twists and conflicts, the contradictions and real errors that exist in the collection of writings that we lump together into a “book” and call scripture.

The charge of following dumbly can be laid at the foot of some believers it is true. Some do actually think of faith as the ability to believe in a set of precepts without any wavering or any deep thinking. The idea of doubt is to them akin to slapping God across the face!

But I think that true faith is full of doubt. That doubt drives us into deeper contemplation and study. It is that practice that deepens and broadens our faith into maturity, one that is ever ongoing.

Our lives are, so we think anyway, more complicated and busy than those of people before us. We are pulled and pushed by many forces. The cacophony of life threatens to drown us at times. As a retired person, I find my life so much busier than it used to be. I now have the choice of how to spend my time each day, and the calls to do “this” or “this” or “that” or “that” are nearly overwhelming.

Yet, in the chaos that is every life, we can, if we listen carefully, hear his voice.

We indeed do recognize HIS voice. And that voice causes us to pause, and recalculate who we are, where we are going, and what matters most. It is the beacon that draws us to the path once more, and guides us to listen to the voice as we interact with the world, basing our decisions and actions on principles that HE announced to us.

Like the sheep, we can cut our way through the herd of humanity that we find ourselves in, and maintain a steady course toward the way of living that we believe is both moral and efficacious for us as humans.

Rather than following out of fear, we follow out of hope, for ourselves and for humanity. We follow, believing that this way of life, with this shepherd lead to an expansion of our humanity individually and collectively. We are not sheeple. We have the keen awareness to discriminate between our shepherd and all the others calling to us.

Do you know his voice?

Who Are You?

fishermenOne of the enduring themes of the Gospels is the degree to which the disciples misunderstand Jesus. Mark makes this a major theme in his work, pointing out time and again that the apostles are unable to grasp the truth of who Jesus is, again and again. At times we, as readers, become exasperated by their blockheadedness , for it seems to obvious to us.

Yet, we fail I think to recognize what it must have been like for them. Even in a culture steeped in some serious measure of mysticism, the things Jesus said and did, were beyond they own experiences. Is it so hard to imagine why they found it so difficult to gather in and process the true magnitude of what they were experiencing?

In today’s Sunday readings we have but another case of Jesus having to explain the obvious. The disciples, are out fishing, and the catch has been nil. They hear a voice asking, “Children, have you caught anything to eat?”

Now, who else would be calling them children? And surely they were not fishing for food to eat, for the lot of them were not necessary for that task. Yet, John claims that they did not recognize Jesus.

This might be explainable if this was their first encounter with Christ after his death, but John points out at the end of the first section of this reading that it was their third such meeting with the Risen Lord.

Jesus instructs them to cast their nets on the far side of the boat. This they do, even though as of yet, they have no idea who has given the order. It falls to the “disciple whom Jesus loved” to identify him. Peter in his exuberance, plunges into the waters and swims ashore, only to find Jesus tending the fire and cooking fish!

The rest come ashore with their massive catch, and come to eat.

Now John relates the most amazing statement of all: “None of the disciples dared to ask him, ‘Who are you’, because they recognized it was the Lord.”

What in the world is going on here? They have seen the Risen Lord twice before. The beloved disciple announces that it is Jesus. Peter, so excited, swims to shore ahead of the boat in order to see Jesus, and they are afraid to ask, “who are you?”

It is one of those mysterious statements that confound us. What is meant here?

I suggest that it relates not at all to the actual mechanics of facial recognition, but rather the continuing fog that seems to envelope this group of men and women when faced with what can only be a supernatural event.

They keep having this “vision” of the man they have lived with intimately for three years. They had ate and slept with him, traveled the roads with him, listened to him preach. They had seem him joyous, sad, pensive, angry, all the emotions that they were prone to. He had become all too human to them, albeit he was strange in his talking and behaving at times. He had bled on the cross and he had died. He did what any human would do.

Yet, in their sorrow and confusion about what to “do now”, they kept having these experiences of him. He was there, and then not there. He spoke, he was “touchable”. Yet suddenly he was gone again. They whispered among themselves, reassuring each other that they had in fact all felt his presence, yet all too soon, things returned to normal.

Imagine in those moments of his presence–how everything must have become surreal–the air must have shimmered, the smells sharp and piercing, the sounds muted, echoing, searing the mind. And then suddenly, as if in a second, a shudder passes over the landscape and all returns to normal. The room is stifling hot, the odors of animals and human sweat return, the cacophony of human transactions outside, the dust.

From a moment of euphoria, suddenly the stark reality of nothing has changed, returns. They try to reassure each other that what transpired was real, but as we learned last week, they could not convince even Thomas of the first encounter. And slowly their minds convince them that it was not really real at all, but figments of their desires and pain.

By this third encounter, this one where Jesus eats with them in such a normal human fashion, their perplexity once again rushes at them. This is the Lord they are convinced. But he is not as before.  Who and more importantly what is he? Who is this man/God who disrupts them again and again, refusing to leave them in their grief and desire to just get back to life as they knew it before Him.

Who is this Man?

Indeed.

Each of us is called upon to lose  our complacency of who Jesus is.

Each of us is called to ponder more and more deeply what this Jesus is.

Each of us is called to decide how this realization changes us, and changes everything about our lives.

Are we not all continually asking “who is he?”

Our answers, as we journey along will change, grow, and develop. That is what conversion is, a continually evolving thing.

That is what the disciples were learning in those days following the crucifixion.

Amen.

 

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.

 

Are You Being Fed?

Almost all are familiar with the Gospel story from John of Jesus feeding the five thousand. It is one that even non-believers know.

Most of the time, the we get into discussions about whether this “actually” happened or whether the story serves as metaphor for a deeper “feeding.” The metaphor is indeed a powerful teaching.

Imagine the time. You are going about your daily business when word is spread throughout the village that that powerful speaker, the one some call prophet, has been spotted nearby. You and perhaps members of your family decide to go and see for yourselves if what they say about him is at all true.

You see a crowd gathering and as you forward, you spot this rather ordinary looking man who is speaking. You begin to listen, and soon you have lost track of all time as his words stir something deep within you.

As he moves, so do you. You are not thinking of the fact that you have missed a meal, you simply find this man compelling and want to hear more.

This story is not one of simple-minded folk who are so incompetent they forgot to pack a lunch for their excursion to “see the healer”. They are folks who merely decided to take a few moments to go and “take a look” and got hooked by man who turned out to be far more than they could imagine. It is not about food. It is about ideas.

There is a scene in The Jungle by Upton Sinclair, where the beaten down and literally emotionally destroyed Lithuanian, Jurgis goes into a political meeting to get warm from the winter cold. He suddenly is so mesmerized by the speaker who seems to understand his entire life history that he forgets everything else but the need to learn more. Once having given up all hope in life, he finds his purpose once more. He finds the answers he needs to make life worth living again.

We are all like Jurgis in some degree. Since the first human being raised her eyes to the heavens at the mouth of some cave and looked upon the stars and wondered, “who am I, where did I come from, and how did this all come to be?” we have asked the same basic questions. We long to understand, we long for meaning. We long to have a reason to go on in a world that seems arbitrarily mean and cruel all too often. Bad things happen to good people and that is a fact.

Those who forgot their own hunger in pursuit of this man who offered them answers, were only doing what humans have done throughout the ages.

We don’t always search in the same place however. Some search in science and hope that its answers will give meaning to life. But scientists, I think, in the end confess that human understanding can only proceed so far back. Ultimate answers may never be knowable. Some find meaning in creating their own universe of family and possessions. Others find meaning in experiencing as much of life as they can squeeze into a normal lifetime. Some wish to create something that will stand as their legacy, either material or in service.

We are creatures who crave meaning. Tell us that life is nothing more than a series of accidents and arbitrary events and we go away sorely disappointed. The reason is obvious. Life is often not easy. It is sometimes difficult, and sometimes mean. If there is no reason for it all, then the question becomes, why do we bother at all?

Because this question is so important to us, we are easily victimized by those whose purpose is to gain something from us. Power and money are strong incentives to deceive. We are all too susceptible to the grifter and  the false prophet.

Jesus, with his simple message, was believed. Perhaps it was the simplicity, the honesty with which it was orated. Perhaps it was as Paul points out in his letter to the Ephesians, because Jesus and his followers lived as they preached. They were different. They lived simply, consorted with common people, did not ask for “contributions” to assist the “ongoing mission.”

It is said, you will know them by their fruits. In other words, no one need proclaim their allegiance to Jesus. It will be obvious by the way one lives and interacts with the world.  Those who have been given meaning will give meaning. Those would have indeed been fed, will feed.

Have you been fed?

Amen.

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. 

Who is This Baptist?

I have always found John the Baptist a bit troubling.

That is, in spite of the fact that I find him most appealing.

He has that rogue contrarian eccentricity about him that I find compelling.

Everyone knows somebody in their family who is like that. Someone who is a non-conformist. Who speaks their mind, who is unconventional.

John surely fits that bill.

His parents were alerted both before and after his birth that he was special, and that he had a special place in the future of the Jewish people. Read Luke’s early chapters if you have any doubt.

He was “different” from day one.

And, in most of the scriptures, he was quick to recognize Jesus as the one for whom he had come. There is little doubt of that either.

In today’s Gospel, he merely says, “Behold, the lamb of God,” and Andrew, son of Peter, follows without question. John’s voice is powerful, his announcement carries weight. It is no different from in other parts of Luke and Matthew. John knows Jesus for who he is, and proclaims him without question or hesitation.

That is until later in Luke when John sends two of his disciples to Jesus to inquire: “Are you the one who is to come, or are we to expect someone else?” (Lk 7:19).

What? Is John now confused?

Or is John simply mirroring us?

We all, somewhere along the line of our faith journey, create a vision of who this Jesus is. We define him and his mission. We are assisted or hindered in that creation by a plethora of others, mostly well-meaning if often horribly wrong. They tell us who Jesus was and is for us today. To hear some, he was against socialism and unions, and for self-reliance. It gets a bit confusing.

But, in the end, we are left with this mosaic of Jesus, compiled, erroneously or not, in part or in full, of all of our learnings and experiences.

Is it any wonder that we wonder sometimes? “Are you the one who is to come, or are we to expect someone else?”

John, it seems to me, was reflective of this.

He had notions of who Jesus was supposed to be, and however that was, certain reports must have come to him about the Lord that were not what he expected. And so he began to doubt.

This man whom I touted as THE one, the one I sent others to, perhaps, just perhaps, I was wrong. Perhaps this Jesus is not the one my parents told me I was to herald.

So too do we wonder. Not so much about whether “this is the one” as whether we have a clue who this One is.

From time to time, he acts not at all like we would wish or expect. We are called upon to rethink the whole thing.

And as we do so, it seems to me, that most of the time we are called upon to let go of our self-serving definitions and explanations. We find that this savior is not an easy man to know or to follow. He demands of us a good deal more than we expect, and in ways wholly different from we thought.

And yet, or so it seems to me, we find this savior more worthy of following as we chip away our self-imposed lacquer. We find Him radically different from we had supposed, and we are again and again stunned with the brilliance of his light. If anything we find Him more compelling, rather than less as we discard the childish simple veneer we have so simplistically applied to Him.

One wonders what John thought as he discovered, if he did, that his vision of Jesus was quite different from the reality of the Lord.

Amen.

Hark! Good News!

There aren’t many people who can’t tell you exactly how many days there are left before Christmas. That’s because time is running, and there is still so much to do. Menus to be finalized, food to be bought, baking to get done, presents to be bought and wrapped, cards to address, decorating to finish.

And so we limp into our places of worship this Sunday, and what an uplifting message we get. Just exactly when we need it.

And it comes, with a fanfare of trumpets blaring.

Listen. You can hear them.

Just like in movies of the times of merry old England, and certainly in those times in Rome when the Emperor was about to arrive, the trumpets were heard upon the ramparts.

The Good News is on its way! Rejoice, we hear again and again. Rejoice. We have been blessed with a God who listens and who responds to our call.

From Isaiah we are told that glad tidings come to the poor, the brokenhearted will be healed, the prisoners will be released. In the Magnificat, Mary rejoices that God will fill the hungry with good things and will have mercy on every generation. Paul says we all will be made perfect because our God is faithful and it will be accomplished.

John reminds us that we may believe all this because John the Baptist told us so. He told us that he was the one coming to announce the coming of the Light.

Such an important word “the Light.”

Such a word was known to Jews. Light was knowledge of the Lord, yet here it is used in a new way. Light is God and that God is coming among us to perfect us, and to heal and to have mercy. God as Light will teach us.

John the Baptist may indeed be a prophet of the Good News. But Paul warns, “test everything, retain what is good”. Paul is of course speaking after the fact, and is reminding us that we know what Jesus taught. Examine all that is given by so-called prophets in that light. Retain what is good. In other words, lay everything that is preached to you alongside the teaching of the Light, and keep only that which aligns with the Master’s teaching.

Would that that occurred today.

Today, we unfortunately have a plethora of spokespersons for the Light. And too many of them, sad so say, have messages that in the end serve to further other agendas. They seek to serve political parties or perceived ingrained beliefs that may have little or in some cases, nothing to do with what our Master taught.

When someone tries to tell you that Jesus would be for a certain economic ideology, by twisting a parable or taking a sentence all too literally, beware. Test everything. When someone attempts to  tell you that Jesus would be of this or that position in regards some sexual moray, beware. Test everything.

Prophets abound even today. And some are indeed listening to God, but some are not. Retain what is good.

Test against what the Light proclaims. What is warm and life-giving? What opens up for all to see? What offers hope, healing, mercy? What on the other hand is dark, divisive, and fearful? Reject it as not light.

Indeed, this is GOOD NEWS!

It is this good news that will carry us through the days and hours to come. It is this which sustains us through real and perceived obstacles and the dark. A new day is dawning. Come to the Light!

Amen.

Is 61:1-2a, 10-11
Lk 1: 46-48, 49-50, 53-54
1Thes 5: 16-24
Jn 1: 6-8, 19-28

 

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

Ye Are gods!

John writes:

“We are stoning you, not for doing a good work, but for blasphemy; though you are only a man, ou claim to be God.”

Jesus answered:

Is it not written in your law: I said you are gods? [see Ps 58]. . .[but] if I am doing it [the work of my Father] , then you will known for certain that the Father is in me and I am in the Father [Jn 10:33-34, 37-38]

Any claim that humans are divine is sure to set off an argument among certain groups. Some disclaim that at all, reading this passage as simply Jesus claiming to be who he was, the only begotten Son.  But much more is alluded to.

First, Jesus’ quotes from Psalm 58, where the psalmist asks of the Jewish judges of the people, “divine as you are. . . .” and of course the serpent in Genesis says to the woman as regards the tree, “God knows in fact that the day you eat it your eyes will be opened and you will be like gods.” [Gen 3:5]

In ancient folklore from which much of Genesis and Exodus were taken, even among the Jews, there was no question that there were many gods. Over the centuries  Yahweh became the chief God, presiding as chief God at the heavenly council. Eventually he supplanted all gods, and finally the Jewish faith took on its now chief characteristic–true monotheism.

To be in the image of God suggests that we are in some ways at least like God–I have always concluded that this meant that our thinking was like God, allowing us to contemplate Him and of course communicate with Him.

But Jesus, I think makes it quite clear in this discourse that we are divine creatures, holding within us the spark of God as our central being.  The translation (New Jerusalem Bible) lower cases the word god when referring to humans and uppercases it when referring to the Creator.

I have no expertise as to whether or not this is discernible in some way in the original manuscripts or not. As it is, it suggests  that saying we are divine in no way bridges the chasm that still exists between God and ourselves. We may have attributes of God, both apparent and still hidden (many believe  we have psychic senses as yet mostly untapped for instance), yet we are in no way equal to God.

This makes perfect sense to me, for Jesus makes this most clear when he tells the Jews, that they need not believe he is the Son of God by what he says, but surely if  he “does the Father’s work” it must be proof that “the Father is in me, and I am in the Father.”

And can that not also be true of us? Certainly. For we are forever praying that we too may do the Father’s will. We say it in the Lord’s prayer, and we are mindful of Jesus in the Garden when he said, “and yet let your will prevail.” Thus Jesus has said that when the works we do are clearly the work of the Father, that the proof is clear.

So I take from Jesus that we too are divine, able to do the Father’s will, and in so doing, proving that the divine is in us, and is our truest “self”.

Amen.

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