Monday, January 31, 2011

Avoiding Heresies - Docetism

This week's heresy, Docetism, isn't really a heresy at least not a single, codified heresy. Instead, it's a collection of heretical thought that shares a common thread--denying the full humanity of Jesus Christ. In some ways, this heresy is similar to Arianism, which involved denying the full divinity of Jesus Christ. This time, those who can be labelled as Docetic have swung too far in the other direction--so interested in asserting the Son's equality with the Father that they have lost touch with his humanness.

In the slide show below, we explore Docetism in general and Apollinarianism in particular. The questions behind Docetism are ones we might ask ourselves. For example, "How can Jesus Christ be both fully human and fully divine? What happened to his humanity when the divinity was united to it?" Or "Was Jesus born with all the attributes of God (omnipotent, omniscient, infinite, etc.), and, if not, what happened to those aspects of his divinity? Did he leave them behind in heaven, and, if so, doesn't that imply a change in God--whom we understand to be changeless?" Clearly, there's a lot to consider.

One of the arch-opponents of the Arian heresy was Apollinaris, a friend of Athanasius. Apollinaris was worried that splitting Jesus Christ into two distinct natures would result in a savior who was unable to save. In his mind, the only way to preserve the efficacy of JC's death & resurrection was to envision the Incarnation as the total unity of Jesus' divine and human natures, and he explained (over-explained, actually) that by attributing the "living principle" (flesh) of Jesus to his humanness and his "thinking principle" (mind) to his humanness. in other words, the Logos (Word) took the place of Jesus' human mind...because, let's be honest--how could a human being (mind and all) really contain the fullness of God? (Well, that's a heresy, and we call it Apollinarianism--a brand of Docetism). Basically, the Jesus Christ of Apollinaris was a divine mind contained in a human body--a mixture that results in an entity with hardly any humanity left at all (other than skin, bones, etc.).

Undoing the heresy of Apollinarianism (and Docetism, more generally) enables us to appreciate the Incarnation at a much deeper level. God didn't just come to earth in the form of a human. God himself became human. He took on our human nature--not just our human body. That gives us a whole new way of thinking about ourselves, about each other, and about the Eucharist.The slide show below explores that (and scriptural references) in more detail. Enjoy!

Crumbly Grace

My wife and I shot each other a look that conveyed both astonishment and humor. After throwing some of her supper onto the floor, my daughter, still young enough to sit in a high chair, had just exclaimed, “Don’t worry! Elbow will get it.” Elbow is our dog, and he had a habit of “eat[ing] the children’s crumbs” when they fell from the table. Apparently, our daughter had picked up on the fact that her parents didn’t mind so much when the family pet helped keep the kitchen clean.

Nowadays, Elbow has some competition. Our son has taken our daughter’s place in the high chair, and, like all infant/toddlers, he occasionally scatters some of his food onto the floor. But now there’s a 3-year-old sister to scavenge alongside the dog—though her tastes are somewhat more discriminate than those of her four-legged rival. Although she might pass on a mushy piece of banana, if a sizable chunk of grilled cheese makes it to the floor and neither parent is paying close attention, there’s a reasonable chance that either daughter or pet will scoop it up and eat it.

Cast-offs. Leftovers. Second chances. This morning’s gospel story from Mark (7:24-37) describes God’s grace as those crumbs that fall under the master’s table. The image suggests that even when God’s love isn’t fully received by its target, there’s enough there to spill over, producing unintended consequences. In other words, God’s grace is so big that even those who never expected to receive a gift of love can be recipients of God’s blessing.

I find it distracting, however, that Jesus frames this description of grace in shocking language that equates the Gentile woman and her ailing daughter with dogs. I don’t really know why he does that, except to challenge society’s understanding of race and class. Perhaps in Jesus’ mind, God’s love (as expressed in his earthly ministry) really was reserved for a Jewish-only audience. Some argue that Jesus was only highlighting a racial disparity that he intended to overthrow. Or maybe he was just tired and cranky—“he entered a house, and would not have any one know it”—and spoke a little too harshly to the desperate woman. I must confess that I don’t know why Jesus did what he did.

But I can see that her response to his harshness reveals something surprising—for her, for the onlookers, for me, and maybe even for Jesus. God’s love, no matter whom we think is its object, is bigger than we expect. It filters down. It spills over. It makes a mess—like crumbs that collect under a table. God’s love isn’t a valentine stuffed in an envelope with a specific addressee written on the outside. God’s love is an all-you-can-eat buffet. If I think of myself as elite, I find it offensive that everyone gets to partake. But if I’m famished and wasn’t sure if I was invited to the party, the banquet is almost more than I can handle.

Friday, January 28, 2011

Run-ins with God

Yesterday morning, before I left Fairhope, Alabama, for EFM Mentor Training in Pensacola, Florida, I went for a run. As I started down the hill towards the Mobile Bay, I could feel a fairly stiff breeze blowing up from where the water is. Although I couldn’t see the bay yet, I could already picture what the water looked like. Given the path and pace that I run, it took me a while to the waterfront, but, when I did, I was very surprised. I had pictured a choppy, brownish seascape, dotted with whitecaps, which the wind had whipped up. Instead, I discovered a blue-gray mirror so still and calm that the sky above was reflected with almost no distortion.

Not long after I saw that magnificent surprise, I stumbled onto another one: two good friends, whom I knew from my days at Birmingham-Southern College, were walking their dogs along the bay. Although I should have remembered that they had retired to Fairhope a few years ago, I still associate them that chapter of my life that took place two-hundred-fifty miles north of the coast. As a result, I nearly ran past them without realizing who they were. Once I figured it out, I stopped for a chat, but they, too, needed a minute to figure out who this oddly dressed and out-of-place stranger was.

In this morning’s Gospel lesson from the Daily Office (Mark 6:47-56), Jesus walks out on the wind-whipped sea to meet his disciples, who were struggling against the waves. He almost passed them by, but, when they saw him and were frightened by the unexpected apparition, he stopped and hopped into the boat. And as soon as he climbed into the boat, the wind ceased, and the sea became still.

Even more remarkable to me is what happens when Jesus and the disciples make it to the other side: “And when they got out of the boat, immediately the people recognized him, and ran about the whole neighborhood and began to bring sick people on their pallets to any place where they heard he was.” The disciples, who supposedly knew Jesus well, didn’t recognize him when he walked passed them on the sea. The crowds, many of whom may have only heard about Jesus, dropped everything they were doing to bring their sick friends and relatives in a confident expectation of healing. It seems that the disciples didn’t expect to see their master while they were struggling against the wind, but the crowds were able to recognize a healer even though they hadn’t ever seen him before.

What I expect to see usually limits my ability to see what’s really happening. When I have something in mind and then encounter something different, I either get distracted by the unexpected sight or miss it altogether. Occasionally, like the disciples, my reaction is fear of the surprise. More often, as with my chance-run-in with two old friends, I almost pass it by completely. In my experience, however, God usually works through those unanticipated avenues that I’m not looking for. When I realize what’s happening, I am sometimes gripped by fear, but often I’m so focused on what I expect to see that I can’t even see how God is working in my life. Why can’t I be more like the people of Gennesaret? Why can’t I be ready for the unexpected? What must I do to open myself up to recognizing and embracing God’s surprising work in my life?

Thursday, January 27, 2011

Faith to Move Mountains

One of St. Paul’s favorite verses in the Hebrew Bible seems to have been Genesis 15:6—“Abram believed the Lord, and he reckoned it to him as righteousness.” Paul quotes that verse a couple of times—once in this morning’s New Testament lesson (Galatians 3:1-14)—and writes about it extensively. For many contemporary Christians, that verse represents a summary of Pauline theology—salvation through faith.

From where I sit, I agree wholeheartedly—it’s a great verse. And it does encapsulate much of Paul’s theology of grace and faith. But I think many contemporary Christians miss the message behind that verse. In our recent Sunday-morning class on Romans, we used Kathy Grieb’s book, The Story of Romans, and her take on Paul’s emphasis on faith was enlightening for me. Yes, it is all about faith, but faith isn’t an easy thing.

As Grieb explored the faithfulness of God and humanity’s response of faithfulness, she points out that we are called to have faith like that of Abraham (and faith like that of Christ). Although our faith might be reckoned to us as righteousness, that’s harder than it sounds. What faith? Usually, in the bible, we get stories of humanity’s faithlessness—how Israel doubted that God could keep his promises, how Peter denied Jesus, how Thomas doubted the resurrection. Abraham demonstrates a level of faith that exceeds anything I can usually muster. He trusted that God would make him the father of a great nation despite his age (and that of his wife). He believed when there was no reason to believe. And that’s the kind of faith I’m supposed to have.

What do you believe in? Do you have the kind of faith that believes in the face of enormous difficulty? Can you hold firm to God’s promises of redemption when salvation seems all but impossible? Abraham’s faith (and the faith we are called to have) is a willingness to remain confident in God’s plan of salvation no matter what. Sure, all it takes is faith, but where does faith like that come from?

Wednesday, January 26, 2011

Too Light a Thing

One of my favorite lines from the Old Testament is found in this morning’s lesson (Isaiah 49:1-12): “It is too light a thing that you should be my servant to raise up the tribes of Jacob and to restore the preserved of Israel; I will give you as a light to the nations, that my salvation may reach to the end of the earth.” It is too light a thing… In that verse, I hear God saying, “That which you thought was important is far more significant than you could have ever imagined. My plan is even bigger than you dreamed it would be.”

Countless moments in my life pass by without me ever grasping their significance—either before or after they occur. But other moments come along that I realize are important—a conversation with a grieving widow, an assistance check to help pay someone’s mortgage, a hug for a tired friend on a bad day. When those instances present themselves, I unconsciously prepare for them. “This is a big moment,” I don’t actually say to myself, but I feel it. “Don’t let this opportunity go by without making the most of it.” A little kick of adrenaline or an extra shot of sympathy help me approach the moment with the right attitude.

But in truth, I have absolutely no idea what’s really going on in those instances. I pretend that I do. I operate under the illusion that I have knowledge of how everything will play out and what role I play in fulfilling God’s plan for that moment, but I don’t. I’m not even close. I might, on occasion, be an important actor in a particular situation, but I rarely—if ever—am able to appreciate that before or during the event in question. After it’s over, someone might come to me and help connect the dots by confessing how a conversation or a sermon or an otherwise passing moment left a lasting impression in their lives, but I can’t anticipate that. I can’t plan for it.

As God’s chosen and beloved people, Israel was being delivered from their captivity as part of God’s repeated plan of salvation. But there was more to it than that. In the moment, being set free from their oppressors felt like enough. That alone was sufficient to merit labels like “important” and “substantial.” Yet, even in the midst of the miraculous, God had something else in mind. “It is too light a thing…” Something else was going on whether anyone could see it at the time. That’s true time and time again.

Monday, January 24, 2011

Fiery Communication

Every once in a while, I get an e-mail that I don’t really want to open. In those cases, it’s not a virus or offensive content that I’m worried about. Instead, I hesitate because I don’t want to read what that person has written me. When that happens, it’s usually because I’ve said something or done something that I regret. Perhaps, in a moment of carelessness, I’ve fired off an e-mail that quipped a little too frankly my displeasure at someone or something. Inevitably, the unavoidability of my mistake comes back to haunt me in the form of a reply e-mail. When the inbox shows me whom that message is from, I’m afraid to open it because I can imagine just how bad the damage might be.

Eventually, after swallowing hard and gritting my teeth, I click on the message. (Trust me: it won’t go away by itself.) Usually, however, I discover that I didn’t really have anything to worry about after all. People are typically more gracious than I give them credit for. I have usually blown out of proportion any brokenness that I might have been feeling in our relationship. In fact, almost always I’m relieved to have opened the message, read it, and let go of my anxiety.

In this morning’s New Testament lesson (Galatians 1:1-17), Paul begins his letter to the churches in Galatia with the kind of language that might have made them wish they hadn’t opened the message: “I am astonished that you are so quickly deserting him who called you in the grace of Christ and turning to a different gospel…” Usually, letters like this start with some words of thanksgiving, but, in the place where an author would normally praise his addressee, Paul hits the Galatians over the head with their own failures. With particularly strong language, Paul wastes no time in calling out the Galatians for their mistakes, writing, “As we have said before, so now I say again: If any one is preaching to you a gospel contrary to that which you received, let him be accursed.” At that point, I might have put down his letter for a little while—unable to handle that much criticism all at once.

When I read passages from the bible, I easily forget the passions with which the original authors penned their works. Paul wrote so sternly because he loved the Galatians. He had invested a great deal of emotional, spiritual, and physical energy in building up their community. He had helped them realize God’s love for them in a new, grace-filled way. When he learned how his beloved community had forgotten all that he had taught them and returned to their infighting, he was devastated. And his pain and disappointment come through in his letter.

Usually, when I send or receive an e-mail that is laced with heated emotion, it’s because I love someone or because they love me. People who get by dander up with a stupid comment or a thoughtless letter are easy to dismiss or ignore completely if they aren’t people I care for deeply. When someone dear to me says or does something to hurt me, I’m likely to fire off a defensive reply. It’s not the right thing to do, but it does reflect a relationship that’s important to me. Perhaps, when my inbox “dings” with another e-mail that I’m not eager to open, I’ll remember that there’s more love to it than I might think.

Avoiding Heresies - Arianism

In this second installment of the class on heresies, we look at Arianism. Named for Arius, a presbyter from Alexandria in the early 4th century, this heresy focuses on the origin and nature of Christ. Is the Son of God eternal? Was the Son created by the Father? Do the Son and the Father share the same nature? Are they of the same substance ("homoousios") or are they of like substance ("homoiousios")? Although those questions may seem to belong more in a seminary lecture hall than in a Sunday school classroom, I argue that contemporary Christians struggle with Arianism as much as the Church did in 325 CE.

The heresy took form when Arius heard his bishop, Alexander, give a sermon on the Trinity (always dangerous), and, unsatisfied with some of Alexander's explanations of how God was three persons yet one God, then wrote a letter critiquing his bishop (even more dangerous). At that point, the Church had already dispensed with Sabellianism (the heresy that Father, Son and Spirit are three different modes of the same person and not three distinct persons of the Trinity). Alexander's emphasis on the unity of the three persons reminded Arius of that other heresy, and he reacted to his bishop's teaching by questioning whether the Son and Father could both be eternal, equal, and of the same substance if the Son became incarnate. In other words, he asked, "How can God be one (monotheism) and identical with God's self (unity) if one of the persons of the Trinity became man?" Given God's unchanging nature, Arius concluded that the Son must not be eternal and, therefore, must not be equal with the Father. The seeds of controversy were sown, and, since Arius was a gifted preacher and teacher and the presbyter of an important church in an important city, his message quickly spread through the Church.

At that point, the Church didn't have any collectively defined Creeds...yet. But in 325 CE, in response to Arius' teaching, the first great ecumenical council was convened at Nicaea. Out of that meeting came the first Nicene Creed, which is found in the slide show video below. The text of the Creed shows that the early Church wasn't quite ready to define exactly who Jesus Christ was (and certainly wasn't ready to say much about the Spirit), but the Church was certain (or appeared to be) about what they didn't believe. Thus, the teachings of Arius and his followers were anathematized (see the end of the Creed). Actually, as so often happens in the church, it took a while for this orthodox position to take hold, and the consubstantiality of the Son and Father (and Spirit) wasn't secured until the next ecumenical council at Constantinople in 381 CE.

All settled, right? Well, maybe not. I still hear people say things about Jesus Christ that sound a lot like Arianism.
  1. "Jesus was a great teacher. He taught us how to live." That's Arianism. If Jesus Christ isn't fully God (equal and consubstantial with the Father), then he's no more than a wise man who had a lasting (though limited) impact on history. 
  2. "Jesus came to show us how to live so that, following his example, we might go to heaven." Again, that's Arianism. If Jesus isn't fully God, then his death and resurrection don't do anything for us other than show us what true selflessness looks like. But we can't get to heaven by being nice (even nice enough to die for someone else). Jesus' death on the cross isn't an example to be repeated; it's a moment when all sin is put to death so that we might share in the new life of the resurrection.
  3. "God the Father sending his Son to die on the cross isn't love; it's brutal violence." Surprised that's Arianism? Well, if God the Father and Son aren't equal, then the Son becomes a subordinate demiurge who is subject to the whim of the Father. Instead, we believe that the will of God the Father is identical with the will of God the Son--they share the cross as the ultimate expression of selfless love.
There are other ways that Arianism has crept into our faith, but, since we've forgotten what heresy is, we've forgotten how wrong belief limits our understanding of God's love. The PowerPoint slide show addresses these and other issues (including scripture). Take a look and let me know in the comments below if you have any other insights to share.

Friday, January 21, 2011

Unredeemable Scripture

In an introductory session, I remember Tony Lewis, the Molly Laird Downs Professor of New Testament at VTS, telling our Ephesians class how angry Paul made him when we wrote about slaves and masters. When we got to that section of the text, however, I recall the conversation containing less vitriol than I expected. This morning, however, all the anger and frustration I once anticipated seems to have resurfaced in my reading of the text.

This morning’s New Testament lesson (Ephesians 6:1-9) is the latter half of the “Household Code”—that section of text in chapters five and six of Ephesians in which Paul tells everyone how he or she is supposed to behave. The former half, which was yesterday’s reading, contains Paul’s less-than-modern (and quite offensive) instruction for wives to “be subject” to their husbands. Because this morning’s lesson, which commands slaves to “obey [their] earthly masters with fear and trembling,” has been separated from the part about husbands and wives, there is nothing else to receive the ire of the reader. As I read this part by itself, I realize just how infuriating it can be.

Some writers attempt to redeem Paul, arguing that in his day he was actually progressive. Although a 21st-century reader finds his Household Code anachronistic and distasteful, a 1st-century Christian would have been amazed at how inclusive and forward-thinking Paul was…or so the argument goes. But I don’t want to redeem Paul. I don’t want to let him off the hook. I want to read this passage in all its unholiness and be angry and resentful. Instead, I want to take Paul at his word and then argue how completely necessary it is for modern Christians to be willing to depart from the instructions contained in ancient texts when they clearly contradict our contemporary understanding of God’s will.

No one would argue that slaves (those of the 1st century, of the 19th century, or of the 21st century) should meekly obey their oppressors. Simply identifying the threads of progressivism within Paul’s letter and discarding the rest isn’t good enough. We can’t just look for the positive within an abhorrent text. We must be willing to face the sin of scripture head on and name it for what it is. Then, we can unlock our faith from distant past and make it relevant for today’s world.

Thursday, January 20, 2011

Unknowingly Chosen

The opening verses of this morning’s Old Testament reading (Isaiah 41:5-17) caught my attention: “I gird you, though you do not know me, that men may know…” In this passage, God is speaking to Cyrus the Great. Cyrus was the Persian king who conquered Babylon while the people of Judah were imprisoned there in exile. He was the instrument by which God orchestrated the return of his people to Jerusalem. As such, he was the mighty warrior who fought for the Lord. Because of his exploits, he was named “God’s anointed servant.” And he did all of that even though he didn’t know it.

God’s providence is so pervasive that even Gentiles—those who worship other gods—can be used by God to accomplish his divine plan. To me, that says two things about the nature of God: 1) God’s will is so huge that nothing escapes it and 2) hindsight allows us to identify God’s will in circumstances that we might not originally attribute to God’s plan.

Cyrus was chosen by God even though he wasn’t consciously participating in God’s plan for the deliverance of his people. That’s because God didn’t wait for Cyrus to understand his place in the story of salvation before anointing him as his servant. Likewise, no one in Judah or Israel would have expected a Persian king to be their savior, but once the exile was over, after they had returned to Jerusalem, they were able to identify the unlikely hero as God’s chosen one.

If God can use an unwitting Persian king to save his beloved people, can’t he use me even though I have no idea how that might work? So much of my faith is trying to discern God’s will before I do something. The story of Cyrus reminds me that we’re often better off searching for God’s will after a situation is over. No matter what happens, regardless of who or what is involved, God’s will will be done. I don’t have to figure it out first. I can participate and then celebrate how God has acted in my life and in the world.

Wednesday, January 19, 2011

Parable Unexplained

Many people have written (and preached) about the parable of the sower as one of the few that Jesus explains. I, too, am one of those who has focused on the fact that Jesus gives his audience some help interpreting his teaching. For his less-than-bright disciples (and the equally uninspired Christians studying the parable centuries later), Jesus takes the time to explain what the images in the parable represent. Before doing so, however, he throws out a sharp critique of his hearers, “Do you not understand this parable? Then how will you understand all the parables?” Given how many times I’ve heard this parable read and explained, I should be confident in my ability to comprehend its meaning, but, unfortunately, I’m not so sure about that any more.

This morning, as I read this passage from Mark again, I discovered that Jesus only offers half an answer to the parable’s implied question. As a teaching about hearing and receiving God’s word, this parable seems to suggest that those would-be Christians who hear the word and have it snatched away, shallowly implanted, or choked out are unable to maintain their faith in the face of adversity. The birds, rocky soil, and thorns are those things that prevent us from fully embracing what God is trying to tell us. That’s the half that Jesus explains, but what about the other half? What about the good soil? What is that supposed to be?

Jesus said, “But those that were sown upon the good soil are the ones who hear the word and accept it and bear fruit.” What soil? Who has good soil? Before Jesus bothered to explain this parable, I already knew that I wanted to be in the good soil, but what does that mean? What does it take to have good soil? On this point, I find Jesus’ parable…well, still parabolic.

The difference, I think, is that between a positive and negative instruction. Taken as Jesus explains it, this is an exhortation to avoid temptation and distraction. But that alone only tells me what not to do. What am I supposed to do in order to receive the word fully and have it bear fruit in my life? That’s the explanation I really want. “Just tell me what I’m supposed to do, Jesus!” I cry out from the back of the room.

Parables, of course, draw us in. This parable is no different, and the explanation that is given, although insightful and helpful, doesn’t “solve” the whole parable, rendering it anemic. If Jesus had explained away every tiny aspect of the story, it would have been robbed of its germinating quality that makes parables so inviting. There’s more work to be done, here. I’m supposed to still be asking questions, and the life of the Christian is spent searching for what it takes to have good soil where God’s word will take root.

Tuesday, January 18, 2011

Moments of Clarity

Today we celebrate the Feast of the Confession of St. Peter the Apostle. In several ways, that moment, when Peter looked at his master and said, “You are the Messiah, the Son of the living God,” is a hinge-point for the Christian story. As the gospel story is told, it’s the first time that one of the disciples acknowledges Jesus’ identity as the Christ. In Mark’s gospel account, it occurs midway through the book, and Jesus’ focus and direction seem to shift more intently toward Jerusalem after Peter’s confession. The moment also crystalizes Peter’s role as the head of the apostles, which is suggested in Jesus’ reply, “…on this rock I will build my church.”

What grabbed my attention this morning is the timing of this feast in the course of Jesus’ life. The full nature of Jesus’ identity won’t be revealed until he died and rises again, but this confessional moment in which Peter exclaims Jesus’ messiah-ship still shines through well before that happens. As the verses which follow reveal (“get behind me Satan”), Peter’s confession didn’t represent a full understanding of who Jesus was, but he did grasp enough of it to make his confident declaration, “You are the messiah!”

As the rest of the Jesus story plays out, there are moments of clarity followed by moments of obfuscation. Just when it looks like the disciples (and the crowds) have figured it out, they do or say something else to reveal their thick-headedness. The fact that everyone (including Peter and the other disciples) were utterly surprised when Jesus rose on the third day suggests that they still didn’t understand who Jesus was well enough to maintain their confidence through the darkness of the crucifixion. When we read those moments of doubt, this moment of confession seems little more than a distant memory. How quickly a disciple’s faith changes!

In my own life, I have fleeting moments of clarity, but they are always followed by moments (days? weeks?) of darkness and confusion. As much as I’d love to hang on to that brief episode of ebullient faith, I never seem able to grasp it tightly enough to prevent it from blowing away. Peter’s story (especially as depicted by the Transfiguration in the next chapter) confirms that I don’t need to dwell on the mountain top in order maintain my faith. Being a follower of Jesus is a life spent in varying degrees of faithfulness. We celebrate those moments when all the pieces come together in order to survive the moments when things seem to fall apart.

Monday, January 17, 2011

A List of Names

Can you name the twelve disciples? I can’t. On a given day, with no preparation, I think I could probably name ten or eleven of the twelve, but I feel certain that one or two would always elude me. Why is that? Maybe it’s because the list of names wasn’t chosen to help me remember them. Although I’ve tried, I still haven’t come up with an easy mnemonic that would help me remember all twelve. (Anyone for “Silly People Aren’t Just Juggling Plastic Balls; They May also Jump Through Silver Jettas?”) Plus, there are confusing overlaps like two Simon’s and two James’s or two different Judas’s (depending on which account of the gospel you’re using as your guide). Ultimately, the reason I can’t remember them is that I haven’t every taken the time or effort needed to commit them to memory.

Others, I am sure, could name all twelve without hesitation. Do you remember that episode of West Wing in which the president asks the Chinese dissident to name the twelve and he does so without blinking an eye? For some, their faith is founded upon things like being able to keep straight James son of Alphaeus and James son of Zebedee. But, as much as I enjoy the bible, I’ve never been very good at or interested in memorizing parts of it. Every once in a while I impress myself when I am actually able to tell a parishioner what chapter and verse a particular passage of scripture comes from. Usually, when faced with that sort of question, I shrug my shoulders and say in a half-joking, half-desperate tone, “I’m not really that good with the bible.”

Whether I remember their names or not, the twelve were chosen by Jesus to be remembered. They were memorialized in scripture despite my inability (unwillingness?) to commit them to memory. What does that say about me? What does that say about the role of the twelve in contemporary Christianity? How many people know their names? How many people know why there are twelve? How many people even know what a disciple is?

Today’s gospel lesson from the Daily Office (Mark 3:7-19a), which names the twelve, reminds me that many aspects of my faith are more important than I give them credit for. Yes, I should be able to name the whole dozen. But it also reminds me that there are more important things than remembering a list of names. Some of those twelve no one really knows anything about except their name (e.g. Thaddeus—who the heck was he?). But the fact that there were twelve and the fact that they were called by name and the fact that they were sent out across the face of the known world does make a difference. My job as a Christian is to figure out what that difference is.

Sunday, January 16, 2011

Who's Hungry?

On a youth ski trip, eating habits are conspicuous. Some of our girls, subject to a culture that praises thinness, pick at their food, only eating substantially when they are urged to by an adult. Some of our boys (and adult advisors) eat the equivalent of two meals every time they sit down at the table because they’re burning so many calories while skiing. All of us, living on the road, are eating relatively unhealthfully—fast food, snacks, sodas, and candy. But, as is true for some many different circumstances in youth ministry, food plays an integral part in bringing our group together.

In this morning’s gospel reading from the Daily Office (John 4:27-42), this disciples come to Jesus and encourage him to eat something. “I have food to eat of which you do not know,” he replies. Isn’t that just like Jesus—to take an innocent, well-intentioned question and turn it into a lesson? “Wait a minute,” the disciples continue.  “Does he have some food we don’t know about?” Actually, as Jesus explains it, he does have some food they don’t know about, but it’s not the kind of food that they (or most anyone but Jesus) have in mind.

Jesus says, “My food is to do the will of him who sent me, and to accomplish his work.” In terms of circumference, I am certainly not the “least of these,” so it should come as no surprise that I find Jesus’ words frustrating. Like the friend who can eat and eat without gaining a pound or the newly minted mother of three who lost all her baby weight in 6 weeks—Jesus is taunting me with his ridiculous faith. If I were one of the disciples, Jesus probably would have heard me mutter under my breath, “Dude, I’m hungry. ‘Doing the will of him who sent me’ isn’t going to satisfy my appetite.”

But, of course, Jesus isn’t asking us to subsist only on the zero-calorie diet of aligning our wills with that of God. Instead, he’s pressing me to acknowledge that all of my needs (both physical and spiritual) are provided for by God and that allowing my personal needs to distract me from that fact diminishes my capacity to comprehend that truth. In other words, if the grumbles in my belly become louder than my prayers, I’ve strayed from God’s will.

Theologically speaking, I don’t think it’s right for us to look at Jesus’ model and set that as the standard for our behavior. (Thus, I conclude that the “WWJD” phenomenon is fundamentally anti-gospel.) But I do believe that Jesus chose frustrating moments like this one—when the disciples were trying to get their master to eat—to teach us that following him requires sacrifice. I might not want to give up my meals (or anything else), but how often does my love of earthly sustenance interfere with my ability to receive heavenly bread?

Friday, January 14, 2011

Easy Answers

Sometimes parabolic speech is supposed to draw us into its enigmatic character, forcing us to consider and reconsider what we’ve heard (e.g., the parable of the dishonest manager from Luke 16). Other times, however, I think Jesus speaks in analogy to make things simpler. This morning’s lesson from the gospel (Mark 2:13-22) is beckoning me to revisit it but within a simpler framework.

In the past, I’ve heard some of my colleagues focus on the end of the lesson—“no one puts new wine into old wine skins”—as a metaphor for spiritual growth. The infer from Jesus’ words an instruction for those who might wish to follow him: “If you want to be my disciple, you must become new, discarding the old ways of being and embracing new life. Then you can burst forth with spiritual abundance.” For whatever reason, I’m hearing Jesus’ words in a very different light.

Instead, those last few verses from the reading seem to be a “duh” statement. They aren’t begging for a complicated interpretation—quite the contrary. Today, they say to me, “My words are simple and straightforward. Only an idiot would put fresh wine into old wineskins. Everybody knows that.” Thus, Jesus’ analogy, intended to reground his hearers in everyday logic, invites them to take everything else he’s said at face value. “Why am I eating with tax collectors and sinners? Because they need me. Why are my disciples not fasting? Because we are celebrating together. Can’t you see that?”

It’s easy for me to lose sight of the obvious. “What am I supposed to do?” I often ask God. “How am I supposed to recognize your will in this situation?” God’s gentle answer reminds me that I’ve often overthought the situation. Jesus came to save the lost. Why does it need to be any more complicated than that?

Thursday, January 13, 2011

The Growing Kingdom

All three of today’s lessons (Isaiah 41:17-29; Ephesians 2:11-22; Mark 2:1-12) resonate with the same theme: God continually leads his people to recognize new and previously unthinkable ways of expanding his kingdom.

Around the time of the Babylonian Exile (6th century BCE), the Israelite religion shifted from monolatrism to monotheism. Until then, the people of Israel and Judah had always believed that their God—Yahweh—was supreme among many gods (“There are no other gods like you”). Something about the tragedy of complete national destruction helped God’s chosen people realize that their hopes didn’t depend upon the belief that their God was more powerful than any other gods but that their god was the only god. In a mocking tone, Isaiah quotes God as taunting the imagined gods of the other nations, saying, “Set forth your case…bring your proofs…that we may know that you are gods.” But, as the prophet concludes, “Behold, they are all a delusion; their works are nothing; their molten images are empty wind.” The consequence of this radical change in belief was earth-shaking. Now that Israel believed in the existence of only one God, they were forced to acknowledge that their God was actually the God of all—that everyone and everything belonged to the same loving creator.

In Jesus’ day, the belief in only one God reinforced the religious authorities’ understanding that “[no one] can forgive sins but God alone.” Though it’s easier to remember the paralytic’s dramatic healing, in Mark’s account of the gospel, the first miracle Jesus performs is the forgiveness of the lame man’s sins. Knowing this would ruffle the feathers of the scribes who had gathered to hear him preach, Jesus declared that which no one else on earth could say—that someone’s transgressions had been pardoned and that God’s forgiveness had been granted. “God is one, and there is no other” the authorities rejoined. “You cannot make yourself equal with God.” But Jesus’ two-fold reply—part word, part action—silenced their objections and inspired the crowd to praise God, saying, “We have never seen anything like this.” God’s authority to share divine love, forgiveness, and healing had been brought to earth, and, with it, God’s kingdom on earth was growing exponentially.

How far could the kingdom grow? What would its limits be? Writing to an early Christian congregation that was struggling with diversity, Paul declared, “But now in Christ Jesus you who were once far off have been brought near in the blood of Christ.” If the reign of God once had boundaries—whether geographic or genetic—Paul was convinced that the blood of God’s son had shattered any barrier or restraint. Not even circumcision—the principal mark of belovedness for God’s chosen people—could segregate the “loved” from the “unloved.”

God’s nature is to reveal himself over and over in new and exciting ways. Although sometimes threatening to the traditions of the day, those divine disclosures always represent expansions of humanity’s understanding of God’s love and inclusion. In each generation, God is asking his people to imagine his reign on earth in broader and more embracing terms. How is God asking us to grow in this age?

Wednesday, January 12, 2011

Gift of Faith

In this morning's lesson from Ephesians (2:1-10), Paul pens one of those lines that reverberates through Christianity, retaining its power through the centuries: "For by grace you have been saved through faith; and this is not your own doing, it is the gift of God--not because of works, lest any (one) should boast." Although this verse and the theme behind it (faith vs. works; grace vs. law) have been a part of my Christian journey since childhood, its meaning and emphasis have grown and developed over the years.

Today, I find myself wondering which gift Paul has in mind. Is it grace? Usually, this is where my emphasis falls. Grace is gift--unmerited favor. By its definition and very nature, grace is a gift. It's easy to read this verse and conclude that God has given us the gift of grace, which, through faith, has saved us. Accordingly, salvation is the soteriological collision of God's grace and our faith.

But that approach to Paul (and more importantly to God) cheapens the gift. This Christmas, Elizabeth gave me a cover for my Kindle. If I were to consider her gift in terms of its partial contribution to the overall satisfaction I receive from my e-reader experience and thank her for her small part in my overall joy...well, I might get slapped. The gift is bigger than that. She gave me something that doesn't depend on me for it to have merit or to be complete. Her gift was a gift.

For Paul, the whole thing is gift--grace, faith, and salvation. We might possess the faith, but it, too, has already been given to us by God. I often forget that faith itself is also a gift, which I don't (and can't) manufacture on my own. So often I approach my faith as if it were something I had created. Fallaciously, I look at it as if it were a little child--something I have nurtured and protected and raised. But in the mathematics of salvation, we don't bring anything to the equation. There is no partial derivative for our contributions. And the gift of salvation is far richer because it is in totality a gift.

Tuesday, January 11, 2011

Immediate Waiting

In today’s reading from Mark (1:14-28), the word “immediately” appears four times. In such a short passage, it really sticks out, making it seem like everyone is in a hurry. But I think that’s the point. This opening chapter to Mark’s gospel account identifies a major theme in the whole book—that things are happening and that they are happening right now. “Immediately they left their nets and followed him.” “Immediately he called them.” “Immediately on the Sabbath he entered the synagogue and taught.” “Immediately there was in the synagogue a man with an unclean spirit.” One moment unfolds into the next without delay, revealing that God’s activity on earth is urgent and uninterrupted.

For us, however, it often feels as if God’s activity on earth is interminably delayed. Answers to prayers can take lifetimes if they ever come at all. Signs of God’s salvation seem locked in the past or agonizingly far ahead in the future. How can Mark place so much emphasis on God’s work happening “immediately” if 2000 years later we’re still waiting around for it to happen?

The kingdom of God isn’t a destination; it’s a process. It’s a series of events. It’s a direction. Mark wanted his readers (including us) to realize that the kingdom is already here—that each little thing that happens to make God’s presence among us and plan for us real in our lives is the kingdom. Yes, we’re waiting, but we should be waiting for whatever happens next.

Monday, January 10, 2011

Avoiding Heresies - What is Heresy?

This week, I began a new Sunday school series entitled, "Avoiding Heresies." The title itself points to the primary inspiration for the class--Heresies and How to Avoid Them, a collection of sermons edited by Ben Quash and Michael Ward. I was present in Cambridge for many of the original sermons, and the topic has stuck with me over the years.

I hope that this series will give people a chance to examine orthodoxy and discover why our faith is more substantial (real, meaningful, and powerful) when we leave heresy behind. Each week, we will examine an historic heresy, discuss its contemporary consequences, and make the case for orthodoxy. I will follow roughly the outline of the aforementioned book, though this class will focus less on preaching and more on teaching. In a new experiment, I am going to post on a blog a video (.wmv) file of the PowerPoint presentations from each class. Perhaps members of the class and others will find them useful.

In this first week, we ask the question, "What is heresy?" In a church (specifically Episcopal though others might be included) and in a world that is increasingly focused on tolerance and pluralism, is there a place for "defending orthodoxy?" Others have made that case better than I have, and I cite some of them in the video presentation. In particular, I draw your attention to the distinction between a church that emphasizes magisterium (e.g. the Roman Catholic Church) and a church that emphasizes individualism (e.g. the Episcopal Church). In those two radically different settings, what role does "authoritative teaching" have in the modern church? Who decides what is heresy and what isn't? Why is it important to make a distinction?

**I know the video runs a little fast--sorry. I'll slow it down some in future posts. If you want to linger on a particular slide, you may need to pause the video.

Sunday, January 9, 2011

Sunday's Sermon - 1 Epiphany A (01/09/10)

January 9, 2010 – 1 Epiphany A
Isaiah 42:1-9; Acts 10:34-43; Matthew 3:13-17

© 2011 Evan D. Garner

Last Sunday night, there was a movie on TV that caught my attention. It’s not one of those movies that you should see, and I’m definitely not recommending it to you, but it was Sunday night. You might remember Sunday night—it was the seventeenth day in a row on which some form of college or professional football was shown on TV. And, partly because my fantasy football season was over and partly because I just couldn’t stand any more football, I wanted to waste my time watching something else.

Up in that dangerous section of the digital cable channel lineup—somewhere in the 400s—I found an answer: the latter half of Employee of the Month, a 2004 flick, which starred Matt Dillon and Christina Applegate. At its core, the movie is about a bank robbery, but it’s also one of those complicated stories in which someone betrays someone else, yet that someone has actually already betrayed the original betrayer only to have actually been betrayed by yet someone else. If that sounds confusing, good—it’s supposed to. The whole movie was a twisted series of surprises. But when I saw the end, which was supposed to be one of those “wow” moments when the audience is shocked at how things turned out, I wasn’t really all that surprised.

Actually, initially, I was surprised. It caught me a little off-guard. But, just a few seconds later, I thought to myself, “Well, of course it had to be like that. The bad guy ended up empty handed, and the good guy (in this case a woman) rode off into the sunset.” But, only in the last fifteen minutes, as the plot finally unfolded, did the conclusion, which was deeply hidden beneath layer after layer of interconnected betrayal, suddenly spring to light. It doesn’t matter that the audience might have predicted how things would end up. We were so caught up in the unraveling itself that we couldn’t see the end until it was actually upon us. And that made for an entertaining, though thoroughly unenlightening, film.

From today’s gospel lesson: “And when Jesus had been baptized, just as he came up from the water, suddenly the heavens were opened to him, and he saw the Spirit of God descending like a dove and alighting on him. And a voice from heaven said, ‘This is my Son, the Beloved, with whom I am well pleased.’” This is one of those moments when, even though we probably could have predicted the outcome, what happens catches everyone by surprise.

Imagine the scene: As Jesus walks down to the water and looks across at the Baptist, everyone watching, including John, is perplexed. Why is Jesus coming to be baptized? He isn’t a sinner. He doesn’t need repentance. John’s entire message had been about receiving baptism in order to cleanse oneself in preparation for the coming of the Messiah—for Jesus. Why, then, would Jesus himself come down to the waters to be baptized by John? As the drama intensifies, many wonder how the story will play out. What will happen when the Son of God, who came to take away the sin of the world, is plunged beneath the river’s surface? What will transpire when someone attempts to wash away the sins of the one who is sinless?

Truthfully, I don’t know if anyone who was there, other than John, actually considered any of that. To most of the people gathered along the banks, Jesus’ baptism probably appeared as normal as anyone else’s—at least initially. I doubt that many people in Jesus’ day had already realized who he was or how his story would turn out. But years, centuries, even millennia later, Christians and religious scholars still wonder why Jesus was baptized and why the story of his baptism, which doesn’t quite fit with the belief that Jesus was without sin, gets included in the gospel. No one really has a good answer for that—for why he was baptized. But we do know what happened when he came up out of the water, and that’s probably the point. Even if the storyline doesn’t make sense, the ending is exactly as it should be.

I think that John the Baptist’s perspective is preserved for our benefit—so that we might understand why the otherwise-confusing story ends the way that it does. He plays our part in the baptism narrative. When Jesus approaches, he objects, “You don’t need to be baptized. I need to be baptized by you. Why are you here? Why have you come to me?” We don’t understand why Jesus has come for baptism any more than John does. He shares our confusion, so, when Jesus pats him on the shoulder and says, “Let it be so now,” Jesus is saying to him as much as he is saying to us, “Just wait and see. Watch what happens.”

Of course, there is only one way that this story could end. Jesus’s role as God’s beloved Son must be revealed as he emerges from the water. That’s because the paradoxical collision that occurs when he who was without sin was immersed in the waters of repentance could only be resolved in one way—with Jesus’ messianic character shining through. Although brief, this passage from Matthew contains a dizzying array of theological conflicts, but the end is shockingly simple and straightforward: When all is said and done, Jesus is left standing on the bank of the Jordan, his true identity now revealed.

I wonder if anyone who saw that dove come down or who heard that voice from heaven thought, “You know, that’s pretty surprising, but I guess it all makes sense. I might not have been able to see how this would play out, but, now that it has, I can see why it did. I didn’t quite understand who Jesus was, but now I get it.” For me, the baptism of Jesus is a story about that which was hidden springing to light. It’s a moment when something true, which had previously been buried beneath a complicated story and a confusing identity, finally becomes clear. I might not understand why Jesus was baptized, but I do know that his baptism reveals to me and to the world something important which was once concealed.

We, too, are baptized. Whether sprinkled or dunked, we are plunged beneath waters of baptism. Through baptism, we follow Jesus unto his death, putting to death that part of us which covers up our true identity. We don’t always get to see that true nature that lies beneath our tattered and well-worn exterior. Sometimes the covering over our souls is so thick and black that any evidence of light seems hardly able to escape. But in there, buried deep within, is that part of us that was made in the image of God. We hold within a bright and beautiful light that yearns to shine forth. And, in Christ, that which is hidden breaks forth into the open.

As we baptize a little baby into the fellowship of God’s church, we declare that that which was once hidden has now come to light. We believe that the redeemed and beloved nature of humankind shines forth once the veil of sin and darkness has been removed. For you, it may have been a long time since you were baptized, but that doesn’t mean that God is finished with you. The baptism of Jesus declares that no amount of sin can obscure the true Light of the World. No matter how many layers of disappointment or failure have built up, making it impossible to see how your life’s story will end, the conclusion remains exactly as it should be. Even if you’re covered up by years of brokenness and betrayal, Christ can still bring to light that which is hidden deep within you. Amen.

Saturday, January 8, 2011

Getting Started...

Though not a Luddite, I've been hesitant to embrace fully the digital age of ministry. Sure, I'm versed in e-mail, websites, PowerPoint, and the like, but I haven't been willing to put myself out there. Too many lay and ordained employees of the church use the Internet to escape their work. Lately, however, I've seen examples of successful ministry being carried out in blogs and facebook--ministry that has less to do with the author and more to do with the audience. So I'm giving it a try.