Thursday, May 25, 2017
I'm sure you remember that scene from Star Wars Episode IV, when Obi Wan, while fighting Darth Vader, turns to see young Luke Skywalker and chooses to disincorporate. He isn't dead, of course. Vader steps on the cloak, which is lying on the floor where Obi Wan once stood. Now Obi Wan is one with the Force, and his ability to assist Skywalker is enhanced. I remember a friend of my stressing the word "disincorporation" to describe what had happened. He didn't die. He didn't disappear. He became acorporal.
Today is Ascension Day, and it's worth noting that, although today is the day when we remember how Jesus disappeared from the earth in order that his death and resurrection might become efficacious for all of humanity (see below), he didn't disincorporate. His incarnate body ascended into the clouds and up into heaven (wherever that is), where he sits at the right hand of the Father, forever interceding for the sake of God's people.
I feel like there are three approaches to Ascension Day and, more generally, the doctrine of the Ascension: 1) ignore it completely, which is what most of us do, 2) celebrate it without bothering to ask what it means and why it is important, or 3) to embrace the Ascension fully and, at the same time, admit that it's one of the most puzzling things about our faith. It won't surprise you to know that this blog post is about the third option.
If Jesus really did ascend into heaven, where did he go? Did he just keep going up, up, up until he left earth's atmosphere? If so, how did he breathe? If not, to where did he disappear? Did he become pure spirit and leave behind his incarnate body? If so, was the Incarnation just a passing phase? Why didn't Jesus just ride off into the sunset? Other than a cool story that has inspired strange artwork, what difference does the Ascension make in the Christian faith? What difference does it make in my life?
I have the luxury of spending 364 days each year not worried about the Ascension, but over the past decade or so, that compilation of thought from one day out of each year, has helped me get a better sense of why the Ascension. I don't understand it--it's a mystery, which is to say unable to be understood--but the Ascension is becoming a more substantial part of my faith, and I think my faith is better because of it.
For starters, we believe in the physical resurrection. Psychologists will tell you that you aren't you without your brain. Theologians and preachers, if they're worth their degree, will tell you the same thing. We are not spirits in a mortal shell. We are human beings--mind, body, and spirit. You can't be a human being without your mind, and you can't have a mind without your brain. Everlasting life doesn't make sense without a physical resurrection. More simply, the promise that Jesus makes to us that he will come again and take us to himself, to the mansion prepared for us, is an empty lie if that experience isn't conscious at some level, and you can't have consciousness without a body. So, when Jesus ascends into heaven as the bodily resurrected person that became incarnate, he shows us that our hope is bigger than a mindless spiritual existence. And, to me, that's important.
How it all works is a bit of a problem. Don't forget that one day this universe will end. Scientists aren't sure how or when, but they're sure that either all energy (and matter and life) will eventually die out, and there will be nothing, or all energy (and matter and life) will recoalesce in a reversal of the Big Bang known as the Big Crunch. Either way, we don't exist in this universe--at least not in any real, bodily way. So, when Jesus ascends into heaven, he shows us that his body has to go somewhere where it can persist beyond the limits of this universe. He is bodily in the presence of God, but he cannot be present, therefore, in this physical universe. I trust that he is present bodily in another plane of existence that coincides with this universe but that only intersects it in moments of divine interaction (again in ways I don't understand). But my answer to the physics of the universe's eventual death is to say that I still hold onto a belief in the physical, everlasting resurrection, and the Ascension shows me how that might be possible.
Lastly (for this post), don't forget the pre-modern importance of the Ascension, which is still relevant today. Without the Ascension, we don't have access to the universal, timeless efficaciousness of the resurrection Jesus. He is incarnate, but he is powerful beyond those within his physical grasp. He is present with me in Decatur, Alabama, in real ways. Likewise, he is present with those in Sydney, Australia, in the same real ways. Without splitting Jesus in ridiculous, non-sensical ways, that's not possible without the Ascension. Also, our very real, physical needs are held before God by the one who is human just like us yet who is also divine, Jesus Christ our Great High Priest. He has entered into the real presence of God and taken us with him. If he is not incarnate and if he is not ascended, we're still stuck in the pretend world of atonement drama. Instead, as we read in Luke 24, our worship of him is fulfilled after he has ascended: "While he was blessing them, he withdrew from them and was carried up into heaven. And they worshiped him, and returned to Jerusalem with great joy; and they were continually in the temple blessing God..
Paul wrote that without the empty tomb Christians are of all people the most to be pitied. Given the science of the twenty-first century, I'd add the Ascension to that statement. If we lose our grasp on our belief in the Ascension of Jesus, we give up on a Christianity that makes sense in the contemporary world as well as the ancient world. No, I don't understand it. How can anyone? It doesn't make sense, but it is beautiful. Today, stop and consider the Ascension of our Lord. How is it making a difference in your life and faith? Don't give up on it. I think it is as important to our hope as Easter--not dissecting it but believing it. Our hope is larger that the future of this planet and this universe. Our access to God is bigger than one place, one time. And all of that is true because of what we remember today.
Wednesday, May 24, 2017
Audio of this sermon can be heard here.
At Ridley Hall, where I trained for ministry, there is a plaque on the side of the chapel with the names of the missionaries who had graduated from there and who, during their ministry, had died while on an overseas mission. All things considered, it is a pretty long list. I can't quite remember how many names are on the list, but I do remember well being startled at the number of men (they were all men) who were ordained in the Church of England and who essentially gave their careers and lives for the sake of spreading the gospel overseas. I also remembering being startled at how long it had been since someone's name had been added to the list. There was quite a clump of people from the nineteenth century, but no Ridlean had been commemorated for dying while on an overseas mission in a long, long time.
The Chapel at Ridley Hall in Cambridge, UK
One day, when I remarked to a member of the faculty how impressive I thought the list was, he nodded in agreement and said, "Back then, when people went out as missionaries, they didn't expect to come back." Those words stuck with me. Back then, people went to a foreign land expecting to die among the people to whom they shared the good news of Jesus. I was hoping to be ordained to serve in a church in the mission-field of Montgomery, Alabama, and, unless I got hit by a bus, I knew I wasn't going to die there. What a difference in perspective! Why is that? Why has it been over a hundred years (I think) since a name was added to that plaque at Ridley? Why don't missionaries expect to live so fully in community with their targets that they assume they will die among them? Is it because international travel is so much easier with airplanes? Is it because vaccines mean someone can live in the jungles of Africa without succumbing to malaria or some other death-inducing malady? Is it because clergypersons just aren't as committed to the gospel as we used to be? Or maybe it's because there aren't as many places for missionaries to go and live and die for the sake of the gospel. Or are there?
In Matthew 28:16-20, Jesus said to his disciples, "Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything that I have commanded you." Back then, when Jesus bid farewell to his disciples, this was a radical instruction. All nations? This was the moment (in Matthew's telling of the gospel) when the focus of Jesus' ministry spread from an exclusively Jewish movement to an international, interracial, interreligious operation. The disciples were commissioned by Jesus to share the way of their master with all peoples and to bring them into his fellowship by baptizing them in the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.
Off and on, that strategy worked for almost two thousand years. As new lands were reached by the disciples and their successors, the gospel spread. As western civilization discovered new places, the gospel went with them--Marco Polo, Columbus, Magellan, Pizarro, Drake. In the nineteenth century, as American "conquered" the frontier, missionaries like the bishop we remember today, Jackson Kemper, took the gospel with them across this continent. (There's a legacy of tragedy associated with these efforts, as many "barbarians" were "civilized," which is to say that their people and culture were obliterated by westerns, but that's another sermon.)
Where does that leave us now? I'm sure that somewhere there is a village in the Amazon or a hamlet in the Congo where no Christian missionary has ever been. I'm sure there's someone out there that has never had the opportunity to learn about the good news of Jesus Christ. But following Jesus commandment--the Great Commission--doesn't depend on geography anymore. The commission is the same--go and make disciple of all nations--but one doesn't need to travel to a place with an unpronounceable name to bring the gospel to an unchurched people. In fact, I think that if our understanding of the Great Commission and the evangelism that goes with it is restricted to those in foreign lands who have never head the gospel, we're missing an opportunity to respond to Jesus by living and dying for the sake of the good news.
"Evangelism is hard for us," a colleague remarked at a meeting yesterday. She's right, of course, in the sense that we find the thought of being a missionary in our own community intimidating. But what is evangelism? It's sharing the good news of God with another person. It's telling a friend how God has answered your prayers. It's inviting someone new in town to come and volunteer with you at a soup kitchen. It's telling a neighbor about a ministry in your church that helps you know what it means to be a disciple of Jesus. It's reminding someone that the story of Jesus' death and resurrection gives us hope even in our darkest moments. I don't have to go very far before I am sure to meet someone who wants to hear that kind of good news.
In 1835, the General Convention of Episcopal Church did something a little cheeky. They decided to legislate that all members of the Episcopal Church would also be members of the Domestic and Foreign Missionary Society, which is still the operating entity for the Episcopal Church. If you work as a church-wide employee and get a paycheck from the denomination, it comes from the DFMS. When I travel to a church-wide meeting and get reimbursed for my expenses, the check comes from the DFMS. You and I are all members of a missionary society. In 1835, that was a reflection of the church's desire to carry the gospel to all people as the Episcopal Church spread to places like Wisconsin, New Mexico, and Iowa. Nowadays, we are missionaries in places like Montgomery and Decatur and Trussville. That is our frontier. We have an opportunity to embrace a call to missionary work not as something that is commemorated on a plaque or expressed as a week-long trip to developing countries but as a lifetime spent sharing good news with those who need to hear it--with our neighbors, friends, and family.
Monday, May 22, 2017
Easter lasts for fifty days. It begins with the Day of Resurrection and lasts through (and including) Pentecost. That means two more Sundays of Easter. In several ways, whether the preacher mentions it or not, the congregation is clued in on this fact as we continue to begin the liturgy with "Alleluia. Christ is risen" and (except when there is a baptism on Pentecost) sing the Gloria. In our parish, we will continue to use an Easter-themed fraction anthem (the singing of "God's Paschal lamb is sacrificed for us...") and keep the same Communion hymns as a sign of continuity. But there's one liturgical detail that, depending on your parish, may show a sign of discontinuity with the rest of the Easter season.
In some parishes, the Paschal Candle is extinguished at the Ascension Day liturgy as a symbol of Christ's physical, bodily presence leaving earth and ascending into heaven. Other parishes leave it burning. The rubrics in the Book of Common Prayer suggest that "it is customary that the Paschal Candle burn at all services from Easter Day through the Day of Pentecost" (p. 287), but, as this seemingly authoritative response on a Roman Catholic website states, in the Catholic tradition the Candle is extinguished after the reading of the Gospel at mass on Ascension Day since "it symbolizes the presence of the glorified risen Christ" (though it is left unlit in the church through Pentecost). I have heard of parishes doing both. Ours keeps it burning, and, although I don't have strong feelings about which way is right, I do appreciate how extinguishing the candle helps the congregation sense that something different is happening between Ascension Day and Pentecost.
This Thursday will be the fortieth day of Easter. As a parish, we will celebration Ascension Day with a Eucharist that ends with the release of some biodegradable balloons with words of hope attached to them. Then, when we gather in church this Sunday, something will be different. Like the first Thanksgiving after the matriarch of a family dies, at this Sunday's Eucharistic feast, someone will be missing. Well, Jesus will be with us in the same way that he was with us every Sunday for the last two thousand years, but, liturgically speaking, this is the Sunday in between the departure of Jesus and the arrival of the Holy Spirit. It's an odd time theologically speaking, and it's appropriate for things to feel a little weird.
There are other ways to capture that "where did he go?" feeling. The proper preface doesn't do a very good job. It focuses on the doctrine of the ascension--how Jesus went to prepare a place for us (BCP p. 379). The gospel lesson get us closer as it conveys Jesus' words of promise that he will come again to them and prayer that the Father would care for them in his absence (John 17:1-11). Maybe the cover of our bulletin could have an image of Jesus' feet barely sticking out from the bottom of some clouds like so many paintings of the ascension represent.
We could extinguish the Paschal Candle, but I think we'll keep it burning. I'm not preaching, but I suspect the sermon will convey at least a sense of this stuck in between. It might be a theologically odd time, but this liminal place is where I spend most of my life. It's what the name of this blog attempts to convey. Yes, we have the Holy Spirit. Yes, we live in the post-Pentecost era. But, like the disciples in Acts 1, we often find ourselves looking up into heaven, wondering when he's going to come back. Still, there's work to do. As the men in white robes (could they be coats?) say to the disciples, we can't get stuck in that place of waiting. We must keep going. But we need to name that instinctive cloud-gazing as part of the human response. There's a lot of complex emotion in this Sunday. I hope in one way or another that our worship gives our congregation the chance to experience some of it.
May 21, 2017 – The 6th Sunday of Easter
© 2017 Evan D. Garner
Audio of this sermon can be heard here.
The hardest part about unconditional love is the unconditional part. As an absolute, unconditional love crumbles into dust as soon as we put any limits or restrictions on it. You can’t love someone unconditionally as long as he loves you back. You can’t pledge someone your unconditional love if there’s ever a chance that she’ll do something to make you change your mind. You can’t tell your children that you love them unconditionally and then show them with your actions that your love is something that disappears as soon as they screw up. Well, you can tell them that you love them unconditionally, but they’ll know better.
I believe that God loves us and the whole world unconditionally. I believe that there is nothing that we can do to make God love us any more and that there’s nothing we can do to make God love us any less. God doesn’t love us because of the prayers we say, because the good deeds we do, or because of the faith we hold in our heart. God loves us because that’s who God is. And Jesus Christ, the one whom humanity crucified yet whom God raised from the dead for our sakes, is the ultimate expression of that unconditional love. Even when we actively refuse God’s love and do our very best to thwart it, God still loves us exactly the same.
Because I believe in God’s unconditional love, I have had a hard time this week with the opening line of today’s gospel lesson: “If you love me, you will keep my commandments.” Even a single “if” has the power to eviscerate unconditional love. As a fragile, anxious, ego-centered human being, I crave unconditional love, yet I spend most of my time inventing ifs that threaten to undo it. If I were a better husband, my wife would be happier. If I were a better father, my children would be more likely to reach their full potential. If I were a better priest, think of how great this church could be! If I were a better friend… If I were a better boss… If I were a better son… When I hear Jesus say, “If…,” I go into a panic. Not him, too! What if this truly unlosable love somehow depends on me and my faithfulness? I’ve spent the whole week reading and rereading these words, continually reminding myself to pay attention to what Jesus actually says and not what my fears have invented. Jesus doesn’t say, “If you keep my commandments, I will love you.” He says, “If you love me, you will keep my commandments.”
If you love me, you will keep my commandments. For what it’s worth, I think we should take Jesus at his word. Not only does the conditional part of that statement have nothing to do with whether Jesus will love us, it also doesn’t have anything to do with whether we do the kinds of things that would make Jesus smile. The keeping of the commandments is the conclusion. It’s the part that is always true as long as the condition is met. And, in this case, the condition is as simple as love. If we love Jesus, we will keep his commandments. And that sounds to me like we’d be better off spending less time worrying about whether we’re doing what Jesus wants us to do and more time focused on whether we’re loving him the way he invites us to. If we love Jesus, we will keep his commandments.
But can it really be as simple as that? What about the parent whose last words to her teenage daughter when she drops her off at college are, “If you really love me, you’ll behave yourself?” Is that really a no-strings-attached kind of offer? Does that mother really mean that if her daughter loves her then she’ll stay out of trouble? Well, I think it depends on whether that mom is inviting her daughter into the kind of mutual, self-giving love that Jesus has for the world or merely using love as a poor disguise for her parental expectations for “lady-like” conduct. With Jesus, however, the offer is genuine. He knows that if we love him—and the word here for “love” is “ἀγαπᾶτέ”—we will have given ourselves over to the kind of transformative, selfless love that has the power to change us and the world.
Maybe it’s worth stopping for a moment to review just what those commandments are anyway. What are those commandments that Jesus has given to his disciples—the commandments the completion of which seems automatic for anyone who truly loves Jesus? In John’s gospel, there is really only one commandment that Jesus gives to his disciples, though in chapters 13, 14, and 15, he gives it to them several different times in a few different ways. We hear of this commandment when he is sharing his final meal with his closest friends. After he washes their feet, he says to them, “For I have set you an example, that you also should do as I have done to you…I give you a new commandment, that you love one another. Just as I have loved you, you also should love one another.” That’s it. Even the commandment itself is an invitation to love. (Yes, it’s worth noting that Jesus tells Nicodemus that he must be born again, but that seems like the kind of new, Spirit-led life that he envisions when he tells his disciples to love each other just as he has loved them.)
If we love Jesus, we will love others just as Jesus himself has loved us. And why? Because that kind of love automatically begets more of itself. It’s as automatic as the if-then statements that tell our computers and smartphones how to operate. Jesus has loved us, and he has invited us to share in that love. And we cannot participate in that love without reflecting it back to everyone else in our lives. You can’t encounter unconditional, no-strings-attached, self-giving love without feeling the pull to enter into that love, and, once you’ve shared that love with the one who first gave it to you, it changes you. Love without limits is the single most powerful force in the universe. Once it grabs a hold of your heart and mind and soul, it sets you free to love other people recklessly, vulnerably, without conditions, and without limits. If you learn to love Jesus, you will learn to love others with that same love. It always happens.
Most relationships in this world are built upon the logic of quid pro quo. If you do this for me, I will give you that in return. But that’s not how unconditional love works. Unconditional love says I have something to give you no matter what you will give me in return. Think about that. Think about how powerful that is. Think of all the ills in this world that are ripe for the precise transformation that only unconditional love can give. That is the work that Jesus has given us to do. But we’ll never get any of it done if we place our emphasis on the wrong side of the equation. If we spend all our energy trying to do the thing that Jesus has commanded us to do, we’ll always come up short. That’s because unconditional love can’t start with an agenda. It always starts as a response to love. Our job is simply to love Jesus. We must love him as much as he has loved us. We must let his love awaken in us a reciprocal love that spills out in ways that change the world. Unconditional love is the only thing that has the power to make that possible, and that is exactly what we have been given by God in Jesus Christ. May his love shape us into the love-filled, love-sharing people whom God has made us to be.
Thursday, May 18, 2017
If you were going to create a piece of art to represent God, how would you make it? Would you use humble materials like mud and berries on a piece of scrap plywood? Would you incorporate the finest resources like gold and platinum and diamonds? Would your art be a painting? A sculpture? Something entirely different? For millennia, human beings have felt the urge to express their understanding of the divine through different media. Art, song, drama, literature, and architecture are all ways that people have attempted to encapsulate God. Some of these succeed in disclosing an aspect of God's transcendence and become well-known representations. Others don't work so well and disappear from memory.
Image from Russian Orthodox Cathedral of Christ the Savior in Moscow
Taken from http://www.newliturgicalmovement.org/2010/10/god-father-at-russian-orthodox.html#.WR2Ym2eGOM8
There is a two-fold problem with creating any representation of God: 1) it can never do God justice and 2) we always forget that. God is always more beautiful, always more grand, always more powerful, always more other than anything we can create. That shouldn't surprise us, of course, not only because we are not God but, more importantly, because God is not created. God is the uncreated one, the source of all being. With the surreal exception of MC Escher's "Drawing Hands," the creation cannot create the creator. God cannot be comprehended much less encapsulated in a work of human hands. Any attempt to represent the creator is doomed to fail. But that's only half of the problem.
MC Escher's "Drawing Hands" from https://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/en/thumb/b/ba/DrawingHands.jpg/300px-DrawingHands.jpg
The other half is that human beings so quickly become enamored with something they can see that they forget that it isn't actually the thing that they can't see. The Israelites have known for thousands of years that, as soon as someone creates any sort of image, statue, or other physical representation of anything human beings are doomed to worship it--to ascribe to the image properties of the transcendent. This is the golden calf in the wilderness. This is the idol worship that the prophets condemned. This is the abomination that the pagan rulers set up in the Jerusalem temple.
Why do we do it? It's complicated and subtle. The root desire for idolatry is not to create something we can worship in the place of God but to get closer to the God we worship. God cannot be seen. God cannot be imagined. But wouldn't it be easier to pray if we could picture some bearded old guy in the clouds who is listening to our prayers? In our moment of deepest fear, wouldn't it be comforting to have something to hold onto to make God's ethereal presence with us something we can see and touch? In that time when we are so consumed by awe and wonder at the magnitude of God and God's creation, wouldn't it be a good idea for the worshipful artist to pour out her heart and soul into a creation that responds to God's greatness with her absolute best? All of that sounds good and right, but, of course, it's the first step to creating an inadequate substitute for the irrepresentable God.
In our reading from Acts 17 on Sunday, Paul confronts the Athenians' tendency to worship idols first by appealing to the philosophical absurdity that such worship represents and them offering them a glimpse at the real, true God as shown in Jesus Christ. He flatters them by mock-praising their religiosity: "I found among them an altar with the inscription, 'To an unknown god.'" And then he eviscerates their empty practices: "The God who made the world and everything in it, he who is Lord of heaven and earth, does not live in shrines made by human hands, nor is he served by human hands, as though he needed anything, since he himself gives to all mortals life and breath and all things." Finally, in the last few words of the reading, Paul appeals to the resurrection as confirmation that the only true God, who will one day judge all things, has given that authority--that God-only identity--to the one whom he has raised: "[God] has fixed a day on which he will have the world judged in righteousness by a man whom he has appointed, and of this he has given assurance to all by raising him from the dead."
For all of human history, we have wanted to see our creator. In Jesus, we do see that creator. For all of human history, we have wanted a real and clear encounter with the one who will make all things right. In Jesus, we encounter that judge. Paul's logic, presented in this moment to the Athenians, rests on his conclusion that the resurrection shows God's unique affirmation that the only one who has truly escaped death must be the one to judge the living and the dead. Jesus, therefore, shows us god. As Jesus proclaimed to the Samaritan woman, we worship what we know. There is no reason to create an image for it. God has given himself to us--not as an image but as God himself, the Incarnate Son.
Maybe I'm making this up, but it seems to me that the people who have the deepest practice of maintaining a relationship with God through Jesus Christ are the ones who least need something tangible to see or hold on to. For those whose connection with God is made real in Jesus, the need to attempt to make it real in other ways fades away. What about us? What about the church? What idols have we created as an attempt to get closer to God? In what ways have they become a substitute for God? How might a deeper discovery of Jesus--God given to us--remind the church that we worship what we know, what we have seen, what has been shown to us once and for all?
Wednesday, May 17, 2017
Wednesday in Easter 5 - May 17, 2017
Acts 15:1–6; John 15:1–8
Is Jesus really God?
Can Christians who sin after baptism be forgiven?
Is the God of the Old Testament the same as the God of the New Testament?
Do Christians believe that the Old Testament is the Word of God?
These are some of the questions and controversies that the church encountered in its early history. What about more recently?
Should the church accept same-sex marriage?
May homosexuals serve as bishops or as other clergy?
Should women be allowed to serve as bishops and priests?
Does the "new" prayer book and its theology of baptismal regeneration abandon our Anglican theology and identity?
These are some of the controversies that we have encountered in the last few decades. Of course, there are more controversies still ahead of us.
Will we revise the prayer book yet again?
Will we allow unbaptized individuals to receive Communion?
Will we permit lay people to preside at the Eucharist?
Will we reunite with the Methodists? The Presbyterians?
Will there even be a church in another century? How must the church adapt to ensure its survival?
Right now, some of these feel substantial and even threatening. Others seem small and even petty. At one time or another, each of them has (or will) cause considerable consternation for some within the church. And there are always a few in the church for whom a particular controversy is "no big deal."
In today's reading from Acts 15, we encounter what perhaps has been the single biggest and most determinative controversy that the church has ever encountered. (And it has nothing to do with sex!) "Certain individuals...were teaching the brothers, 'Unless you are circumcised according to the custom of Moses, you cannot be saved.'" Paul and Barnabas, on the other hand, "had no small dissention and debate with them," and, if you remember anything of what Paul wrote in his letter to the Galatians or his letter to the Romans or the Colossians or Titus, then you know that Paul thought this was a pretty big deal and that he made preaching against it part of his mission for the rest of his life.
But why circumcision? Nowadays, when doctors require parents to sign a release form before a non-necessary medical procedure is carried out on their newborn sons, we've largely lost sight of what circumcision represented. It was the sign of the covenant between God and God's people, the children of Abraham. Ever since God made that covenant with Abraham, all males in the Israelite tradition have been circumcised. Even those foreigners who come to live with them were to be circumcised. To this day, although I'm not sure this rule is universally enforced, you're not allowed to eat the Passover meal with Jews unless you've been circumcised. In Jewish conversions, males are either circumcised or, if they were circumcised in a non-ritual way at birth, another small cut is made and blood is drawn as a ritual sign of the conversion by circumcision. It is, therefore, essentially Jewish. In all the generations in which the Temple Mount has been unavailable for centralized ritual worship, circumcision and the other observances that go with it (honoring Shabbat, keeping kosher, observing the festivals) have taken the place of the sacrificial cultus.
Jesus, of course, was circumcised. All of his disciples were circumcised. In the beginning, Jesus' ministry was a thoroughly Jewish ministry. He may have rejected the centralized religious practices of his day, but the core Jewish beliefs and practices, symbolized in part by circumcision, were very much a part of his life and ministry. What it meant to be a follower of Jesus was to be Jewish--a very particular, peculiar brand of Judaism but Judaism without a doubt. And then things started to change.
Early on in the post-Pentecost era, as we read about in the Acts of the Apostles beginning with the conversion of the Ethiopian eunuch in Acts 8, the Jesus Movement became a religion for non-Israelites. Within a generation, the primary makeup of the Christian community had become Gentile. The appeal of this radical offshoot of Judaism had waned in the Jewish community, and Gentiles, whose in-grafting into the family of Abraham was enabled by Jesus, had picked up the cause. But how would they be included in the religion of Jesus the Jew? Would a Gentile convert need to become thoroughly Jewish before walking the Way of Christianity?
Even if we've lost our sensitivity to the controversy itself, we know how everything worked out. Paul and Barnabas and those who were convinced that the Way of Jesus was a way of liberation from the restrictions of the Old Covenant persuaded the leaders in the Jerusalem Council to remove any expectation that converts would be circumcised. Although the church still has its Jewish roots, it's hard to imagine Christianity as a denomination of Judaism. Although it's logically conceivable, it's culturally baffling to think of converting to Judaism before being baptized into the Christian faith. A doctrine of unconditional love isn't unique to the Christian faith, but the distinctiveness of the gospel of grace has developed to the point where any sort of hurdle for admission like circumcision seems contrary to the principles of the faith. Or does it?
If Paul and Barnabas looked around today's church, what would they see? What new barriers to entry have we created? The remarkable thing about the Jerusalem Council is that experience won the day. Peter stood up and explained how uncircumcised, unbaptized Gentiles had shown evidence of the Holy Spirit's work. Paul and Barnabas explained how their work in the frontier had proven to them that God is working through Gentiles to spread the gospel of Jesus to the ends of the earth. James then stood up and quoted the prophet Simeon, who had identified Jesus as the "light to enlighten the Gentiles." And before long it was settled, and the decision was made because of what the leaders of the church could see: that God would not and could not be stopped by ethnic, cultural, religious, or ritualistic barriers.
What about us? For the most part, I think we've moved past the expectation that men will come to church in a nice suit and that women will cover their heads during worship. (Thanks be to God!) But what are the new ritual hurdles for admission? I readily and enthusiastically admit I fully subscribe to the practice of Baptism before Communion, but, to the extent that Baptism has become a ritual act instead of a conversion moment, can we say that it has become the new circumcision? Surely we see that God is doing something new and different and holy when it comes to lifelong expressions of monogamous sexual fidelity. Even a church polity geek like me can recognize that there is fruit in sharing full communion with a non-episcopal tradition like Methodists or Presbyterians. How do we know where the Spirit is leading us? We begin be acknowledging that that which could never have been anticipated--the inclusion of uncircumcised Gentiles in the family and faith of Abraham--was brought about by the church's willingness to trust what the Spirit was showing them, tested in prayer, tried in theological debate, and grounded in scripture. Is that our posture still today, or should we go back to the Jerusalem Council and start all over with the campaign to circumcise all believers?
This Sunday, we will hear Jesus say to his disciples, "If you love me, you will keep my commandments." At least that's what we'll hear if we're reading the NRSV. If your church uses the NIV, you'll hear Jesus say something close but, as I would argue, substantially different: "If you love me, keep my commandments." To look at a side-by-side comparison of John 14:15-21 in the NRSV and NIV, click here.
The Greek word in question is "τηρήσετε," which is the second-person plural future active indicative form of the verb "τηρέω," which means "to watch over" or "to guard." The NRSV (and most English translations) render that word as "you (pl.) will keep" or, as we say down south, "y'all will keep." The NIV (and a few other translations like the KJV) change the verb from the future tense and indicative mood ("will keep") to the present tense and imperative mood ("keep"). One is a description, and the other is a command. That seems like a substantial difference to me.
I must confess, however, that I don't know Greek very well. With some help, I can translate the Greek text into English, but I my ability to convey nuance is severely lacking. I do understand, however, that there is no such thing as a future imperative. You can't tell someone to do something in the future tense. Think about it: how do you tell someone to buy a loaf of bread without telling him or her to buy it now? How do you temporally restrict that request to the future? How? Well, I suppose you use the indicative instead: "When you get to the store, you will buy a loaf of bread." That's not imperative. It's future indicative, and one might well ask what the difference is.
Well, to my ear, there's a huge difference. Although it might only be in the way I hear it, the indicative seems like a description of the beloved life, and the imperative seems like a prescription for it. The "if" looms large here. Note that Jesus doesn't say, "If you keep my commandments, I will love you." The condition depends on the love not the action. But when that is translated in the imperative, it sounds like an offer of love with strings attached: "If you love me, [you'd better] keep my commandments." Maybe I'm making more of this than I should, but I know how easy it is for me to invent conditions on God's love that don't actually exist. I crave that unconditional, "I will love you no matter what," and that's easier for me to hear when the Greek text is left the way it is--indicative instead of imperative.
As I work toward Sunday's sermon, I'm working from the outside in. The first and last sentences in this gospel lesson are the conditional statements of the beloved life. The end essentially repeats the beginning: those who love me will keep my commandments. But our liturgical focus is on the middle part--Jesus' promise of sending the Advocate to his disciples. I want to hear those comforting words. I want my sermon to be a proclamation of hope in the midst of challenge. But I have to get past the "if-then" bookends that bracket that message. Hearing the "you will keep my commandments" as a description of a love-inspired relationship with Jesus helps me get there.