The Strangest Victory of All

Cemetary2Easter is a great celebration, but it is a strange celebration. It isn’t like celebrating an election won or winning the World Series. It most certainly isn’t like celebrating victory in war. But if we have trumpets and kettle drums to augment the shouts of Alleluia!” we might forget the strangeness sometimes and get carried away by a sense of triumphant victory.

The sober but profound truth is that we are celebrating the resurrection of a loser. Jesus was not voted into office; he was handed over to the authorities who put him to death. Jesus did not win a war; he refused to fight one. His disciples were downhearted because they thought Jesus was the one who was going to restore Israel, and he obviously didn’t do it. When he rose from the dead, some of his disciples thought he might restore Israel after all, but he still didn’t. All Jesus did was have quiet meetings with his unfaithful followers who had trouble recognizing him. During those meetings, Jesus explained the scriptures to try to help us understand why he could only win by losing. We still have trouble understanding this.

Jesus did win a victory; a great victory. But it was a victory Jesus won by losing. That is, if Jesus had defeated the Roman Empire by force and restored Israel in that way, Jesus would have lost, and so would everybody else. For defeating an enemy by force is the way the world normally works, so if Jesus had won in that way, the world would not have changed and the rule of defeating one another by force would continue to rule the world as it always has. But Jesus triumphed over triumphalism, thus defeating trimphalism for all time.

The Resurrection proves that it is Jesus who rules the world and not those who defeat others by force, least of all empires. If that is the case, then Jesus rules in an odd way. For Jesus does not give marching orders and intimidate people to do what he wants. (Unfortunately, many pastors do that on Jesus’ behalf.) Jesus rules the world by gathering those who will join him into a community of vulnerability and forgiveness. Of course, the vulnerable and forgiving lose in the game of life which is ruled by force.

It is frustrating to see the powerful prey on the weak and not only not does Jesus not tear the oppressors apart but Jesus teaches us not to do that. But the victory Jesus won on the cross was the victory of losing and the victory of Jesus’ Resurrection is the continuation of Jesus’ losing ways. What is so frustrating is that there is so much forgiving to do that it is overwhelming. Many of the news stories I read about make forgiving very difficult for me. The worst thing about these news stories is that they show how unforgiving our society is. Given that, it is a blessing beyond imagining that Jesus is gathering us in a different way. If Jesus had not won by losing, we would all be losers without even knowing how deep our loss is. But Jesus has won the great victory so that He can give us his life of mercy and love for us to pass on to others. We also are relieved of the responsibility to “win;” we only need be faithful in works of mercy. This is the way to life for ourselves and for all other people. This is the restoration of Israel. This is what we celebrate when we cry out: “Alleluia! The Lord is Risen! The Lord is risen indeed!”

Setting Our Hearts on God’s Treasure

purpleFlower1Jesus’ teachings on the right and wrong ways of fasting are true and important but I would rather talk about treasure and our hearts. Treasure is a much brighter and exciting thing to think about then renunciation and fasting. What child doesn’t like a treasure hunt? Why else is Treasure Island such an archetypal novel?

What is the treasure we should seek? A treasure is whatever we set are hearts on. If we desire diamonds, then diamonds are our treasure. But even if we find a diamond mine in our back yards, we won’t have the treasure Jesus is talking about. Jesus’ admonition to “store up treasures in heaven” sounds like we store them for an after-life. But let us remember that this verse comes roughly in the middle of the Sermon on the Mount which outlines the real treasure we should seek: “Do not resist an evil doer” (Mt. 6: 39) and “Love your enemies.” (Mt. 5: 44)

We call these treasures? If we set our hearts on these teachings, they do indeed become treasures, treasures we have in the here-and-now, treasures that “neither moth nor rust consumes.” (Mt. 6: 20) These are treasures that remain safe as long as we set our hearts upon them. How about that as a challenge for Lent and on into Eternity?

God-Is-With-Us: A Christmas Eve Meditation

creche1-copyTonight, we celebrate the birth of a child. Usually, there is rejoicing when a child is born. One of my family stories is that my grandmother was so excited about my birth that she burned two pots of beans.

When we celebrate a birth, we celebrate the fact that a baby is. The simple act of coming to be is a cause of wonder and joy. So it is that we celebrate Jesus before he did anything at all except come out of his mother’s womb and maybe cry a bit and suckle some milk. As a friend of mine said once about newborn babies: “They don’t do much at that age.” We also celebrate our hopes for the future and for the future of that child. We know that in the case of Jesus, the future wasn’t all rosy. That Jesus was born in a stable because there was no room for him and his family and that Herod would be out to get him as soon as he found out about him shows that there was cause for anxiety from the very start. Unfortunately, many babies being born right now are born into much the same sort of anxiety that is mingled with hopes for the child. So not every birth leads to unequivocal rejoicing. Such anxiety is exacerbated by our tendency to focus on those who stir up fear in us, goading us on to adding further fuel to the violence growing all around us. We can see in news reports, Twitter, and Facebook that we are locked in violent systems of condemnation that stoke our fears exponentially.

Although we celebrate tonight the very being of Jesus, that Jesus is, when Jesus was apparently not doing much, God was and is already doing a great thing, an unprecedented thing: God had entered humanity. God chose to share, in frail human flesh, the very threats and anxieties that we all share. God has not left us to the human powers over which we have little or no control, powers we doubt we can trust with our well-being. Moreover, God shares the vulnerability other humans suffer from us on account of our fears and our own violence that we cannot see. In this way, God, in Jesus, lives up to the name: Emmanuel, which means “God is with us.”

God’s presence among us means many things. Tonight I will touch on one of them. By entering humanity, God has opened our human nature to God’s nature. We are no longer as trapped in our own human fear and violence as we often think we are. Later in life, Jesus spoke about God coming “like a thief in the night” but at the time of Jesus’ birth, God had already broken into the household of our humanity and started to sneak around, taking away bits of fear and violence and leaving bits of love behind.

This Christmas, let us celebrate the sneaky child who is already crawling around in the dark places of our lives, taking away the things we need to lose and giving us the gifts we need the most.

On Being a Bad Samaritan And a Good Person

Good_SamaritanMany of us instinctively think that knowing is something we have in our heads, something we can recite, like a catechism. This is the sort of knowing that the lawyer demonstrates when he recites, correctly, the two great commandments when Jesus encourages him to answer his own question as to what he must do to inherit eternal life. (Lk. 10: 27) But then the lawyer shows a certain ignorance, a missing piece. He doesn’t know who or what his neighbor is. Jesus answers this question by telling a story that pinpoints exactly the missing piece in the lawyer’s cognition.

The key phrase in this familiar story that shows what the lawyer lacks is that the Samaritan was “moved with pity.” The Greek word is one that twists the mouth all out of shape: splagchnizomai (pronounced splangkhnizomai). Literally, this word means his entrails were stirred up at the sight. Here is a visceral response that didn’t need the benefit of the catechetical verse from scripture to be activated.

The response of the Samaritan, then, was instinctive, a bonding with the victim who had been severely injured. We are naturally wired for this sort of solidarity, but René Girard has demonstrated that this natural solidarity often takes the form of bonding with other people at the expense of those who are excluded from this bond. Paul Dumouchel, in his analysis of this process in The Ambivalence of Scarcity, argues that the social bonds in early humanity required not only self-sacrificial nurturing of others in the group, but also the obligation to kill all those outside the group, who were considered enemies. The natural response to a person in trouble is hedged in with limitations. One’s entrails are not stirred by the plight of just anybody, but only the plights of those who are within the group.

It is this bonding based on exclusion that Jesus thrusts into the face of his listeners by telling us that a priest and a Levite both passed the victim by but then a Samaritan came to his aid. Since the victim might have been dead, both the priest and Levite would have been rendered ritually unclean by touching a corpse. Ritual purity, like all kinds of purity, requires exclusion. One is pure only if something or someone is defined as “impure” so that the “impurity” can be purged from the social fabric. This kind of bonding by exclusion becomes so instinctive that it trumps bonding through sympathy with someone outside the group. The lawyer’s question came naturally to him because it was natural for him to place boundaries around who was a neighbor and who wasn’t.

The ethnicity of the victim in the parable is not given but Jesus’ listeners would have assumed that he was a Jew like them, most likely a Galilean. Samaria came between Judea and Galilee. This was a problem because all Jews hated all Samaritans and vice versa. When Jesus went through Samaria with his disciples, they were refused hospitality at a village they came to. The reason this Jew from Galilee would have been on the notoriously dangerous road from Jerusalem to Jericho, was because he would have traveled along the Jordon River to avoid going through Samaria on his way to Jerusalem. So, the traveler, in trying to avoid Samaritans, ended up encountering a Samaritan who helped him and undoubtedly saved his life!

What Jesus is doing in this parable, then, is shock us out of our tendency to bond through exclusion and bring us back in touch with the deeper natural bonding through compassion for whichever victim we pass by. For a Jew of the time to help a Samaritan in similar circumstances would have been unthinkable. Such a person would have been a bad Jew—like Jesus. Likewise, the “Good Samaritan” was actually a bad Samaritan in the eyes of other Samaritans and all Samaritans were bad in the eyes of the Jews. In his novel A Boy’s Life, Michael McCammon presents us with a similar situation that brings this parable home for many white Americans. A violently racist white man in a small town in Alabama tried to blow up a museum of Black culture but ended up in a life-threatening situation, caught in his own trap. This racist was then rescued by a black man. The cognitive dissonance experienced by the man who had hated blacks so viscerally all his life was highly dramatic. In the broader context of the novel, the eleven-year-old protagonist Corey, a white boy, consistently showed a visceral sympathy for victims that extended to saving a black boy from drowning during a flood.

Jesus knew better than most liberals like me that we don’t overcome prejudice by trying to be more logical about the problem. Our bonding through exclusion short-circuits rational thinking as the lawyer, the priest and the Levite demonstrate in much the same way as priests, ministers and social workers demonstrate today. What is needed is knowledge through our deepest natural bonds of sympathy with the other that has no boundaries. Then, we need not ask: Who is our neighbor? because, as Kierkegaard tells us in Works of Love, the person nearest us, no matter who he or she is, is our neighbor.

The Breath of the Trinity

Piero,_battesimo_di_cristo_04There is much theology that treats the Trinity as a mathematical game, trying to work out how three can be one and one can be three. But math, important as it is for many things, is not the way of salvation.

The Church, of course, didn’t preach the Trinity just to solve a mathematical puzzle; the Church preached the Trinity because that seemed to be the best, maybe the only way, to preach salvation. Jesus, a human being, was so god-like that his followers concluded that he wasn’t just like God but was God when, among other things, Jesus exerted divine power to walk on water and still the waves of the Sea of Galilee. Then Jesus sent the Holy Spirit, the Advocate, to do the godlike things he had done. So it was that the disciples experienced three Persons acting like God in a way that only God could act. That’s why theologians have been trying to do the math ever since. We shall reflect on one of the most important of the godlike acts of Jesus and the Holy Spirit.

Jesus got in trouble with the religious authorities for many things, but probably the most serious of them was claiming the power to forgive sins. He did this when the paralytic was brought down through the roof by his friends so that he might be healed, (Mk. 2:5) and he did it again when the Sinful Woman poured perfume over his feet at the house of Simon. (Lk. 7: 47) The Pharisees were incensed because Jesus, a human being, was doing what only God could do. The Gospel writers agreed that only God could forgive sins and Jesus had, in fact, done what only God could do.  Before he died, Jesus promised to send the Holy Spirit to be an Advocate who would lead them further into the truth of who Jesus was. When the risen Jesus breathed on the disciples in the upper room, he passed on to them and, through them to us, the ministry of forgiveness of sins. (Jn. 20: 22–23) Fifty days later, Peter exercised this power to forgive sins when his listeners asked him what they needed to do to be saved. (Acts 2: 38)

The Trinity, then, is not a mathematical puzzle but a story of sin and forgiveness. In spite of some outbursts of anger, Yahweh claimed to be a God who was chesed, a Hebrew word meaning full of loving kindness and mercy. The attitude of the Pharisees towards the paralytic and the Sinful Woman suggests that they thought forgiveness should stay up in the heavens where it belonged and not get mixed up with humans on the earth. In our angrier moments we tend to feel the same way. But Yahweh’s hesed did get mixed up with humanity: first in the person of Jesus and then in the disciples through the Gift of the Holy Spirit. So it is that we humans are given the Gift, not only of having our sins forgiven, but we have the Gift of forgiving the sins of other people. Note that it isn’t we who forgive, but it is God who forgives through us. That is, the divine act of forgiveness that came the earth in the person of Jesus has, like the Holy Spirit, spread throughout the whole world.

Forgiveness is the air we breathe. Unfortunately, just as we can pollute the air, we can pollute the breath of the Holy Spirit through our own wrath. But fortunately, there is no getting rid of God’s hesed. It is all around us and we can breathe it any time we wish. And when we wish it and breathe in the Spirt, we share the life of the Holy Trinity with other people and so help them share the same forgiving life.

Jesus’ New Commandment

AndrewWashingFeet - Copy

Jesus’ “new commandment” to his disciples that they should love one another (Jn. 13: 34) is simple. Or is it? If it were as simple as it seems, everybody would love one another and everything would be fine. But everything is not fine. Violence continues to break out time and time again. We get a strong hint as to the difficulty of this simple commandment by noting the context immediately surrounding this new commandment. Judas has just left the group to betray Jesus. Does this new commandment apply to him?

In the First Epistle of John, the author expresses this new commandment (1 Jn. 2: 8) by saying: “whoever loves a brother or sister lives in the light” but whoever “hates another believer is in the darkness.” (1 Jn. 2: 10–11) When Judas left Jesus and the disciples, John said: “And it was night.” (Jn. 13: 30) This verse is often understood symbolically. Judas has rejected love of Jesus and the disciples and so he is in darkness. Does this mean it is okay to hate Judas who is no longer a believer? Is this how we follow Jesus’ “new commandment?”

In his first epistle, John follows up the love commandment with a denunciation of the “antichrists” who “went out from us” but did not “belong to us for if they had belonged to us, they would have remained with us.” (1 Jn. 2: 19) So, the “antichrists” had, like Judas, betrayed the Johannine community and once again, we face the pain we suffer through betrayal. The tone of John’s denunciations of the “antichrists” suggests that the new commandment does not apply to them any more than it applies to Judas.

Does the new commandment mean it is okay, even righteous, to hate traitors? That is the impression the First Epistle of John seems to give. We all know how difficult it is to have anything but hatred for those who betray us. Loving a traitor seems impossible. For a small community living under pressure and threat, it must have been doubly difficult to forgive those who betrayed them. In Matthew and Luke, however, Jesus commands us to love our enemies. St. Paul and St. Peter say the same in their epistles. Moreover, the story of Peter being called to preach to the centurion Cornelius is a powerful example of Israel being called to expand God’s love to their traditional enemies, the Gentiles.

It follows that whatever John may have thought about loving traitors and enemies, the overall teaching in the New Testament would have us understand Jesus’ new commandment in John as extending to everybody, even Judas. We should note, however, that although the synoptic Gospels don’t express the same cold anger at Judas, there is no indication of forgiveness for him, either. The thrust of these reflections is that the new commandment does extend to Judas but that John is also very frank about how difficult, even impossible, this simple commandment is.

The key out of this impasse is the rider Jesus adds to the new commandment: “Just as I have loved you, you also should love one another.” (Jn. 31: 34) We are very prone to loving as we love one another. A big part of the way we love one another is to intensify our love by hating our enemies, especially those who have betrayed us. By abiding in our love for others, we hate those who are outside our group. If we abide in Christ’s love, then our love for others expands even to our betrayers because it is no longer our love, but Christ’s that moves in and through us. After all, Jesus had presumably washed the feet of Judas before Judas left. Might Jesus still want Judas to come back to the table? Would we welcome Judas if he should return?

For further reflections on this theme see http://girardianlectionary.net/reflections/year-c/easter5c/

 

Gethsemane

crossRedVeil1Jesus’ prayer in the garden of Gethsemane may well have been the loneliest moment of all for Jesus. His disciples were not able to stay awake with him. Much worse, his disciples still seem not to have understood anything of what Jesus had tried to teach them. At what he knew would be his last meal with his disciples, a meal when he had poured himself into the bread and wine to give his life to his disciples and all others who would follow him, his disciples fought yet again about who was the greatest. (Lk. 22:24–26) As he had done many times before, he told his disciples that the one who would be first would be the one who served, but he must have realized his words had had the same effect as before.

Jesus was alone with his heavenly Abba, but he was having difficulty believing that the path leading to the cross was going to accomplish anything. Jesus prayed that the cup he knew he must drink be taken away from him. Many think Jesus was shrinking from the pain of crucifixion. He probably was, but his anguish went much deeper. Jeffrey B. Gibson, in his book The Temptations of Jesus in Early Christianity, suggests that Jesus was tempted to opt for the restoration of Israel by dominance. It was the same temptation he suffered when he called Peter “Satan” at Caesarea Phillippi, and the same temptation he suffered in the desert right after his baptism. As he prayed in the garden, it appeared to Jesus that his whole ministry had come to nothing and that “the path of suffering will really be effective in achieving the task to which he has been commissioned.Like us, Jesus felt the pull of the mimetic spiral of violence. It was hard enough that the pull of violence was strong throughout his entire social ambience. It must have been doubly hard that his disciples were still within that social pull of violence and were pulling Jesus in that direction as well. Worst of all, the full wrath of humanity’s rejection of God from the beginning of time had fallen upon Jesus and there seemed to be no way for that human wrath to be quenched. That Jesus accepted the cup anyway shows a profound trust in his heavenly Abba at a time when his Abba’s will was inscrutable to him. It seemed impossible to believe that the heavenly Abba loved Jesus, his Son, and loved all of the people Jesus had come to save, all of whom had turned against him. Impossible, yes, but with God, even these thing s were possible.