Jesus’ Yoke

eucharist1Jesus’ invitation to come to him with our burdens so that he can give us rest and take his easy yoke upon ourselves sounds like an irresistible blessing. But the troubling words skipped by the lectionary suggest that Jesus’ offer is highly resistible. Here, he bemoans the rejection of Chorazin, Bethsaida and Capernaum. Given the horrifying hardness of heart shown in the story of Sodom and Gomorrah’s destruction, it boggles the mind that Jesus thought those people might have responded better than the people of Capernaum who witnessed Jesus’ first miracles of healing.

How can Jesus’ offer to free us of our burdens be so resistible? We get some hint of this in the powerful, if dense, passage in Romans 7 where Paul cries out against the burden of sin that makes him do what he does not want to do. Most of us think the problem is that the burden of sin renders us powerless. There is something to that, especially in the case of addictions. But the deeper problem is that we have great difficulty knowing what we really desire. The French thinker René Girard has helped us greatly towards an understanding of this problem with his insight into what he called “mimetic desire.” That is, although we tend to be addicted to the illusion that our desires originate from within ourselves, Girard suggests that our desires originate from without: i.e. from other people. That is, we copy the desires of other people. Since the same is true of other people, they are imitating our desires as much as we are imitating theirs. No wonder desires are so complicated. It is telling that Paul says: “I would not have known what it is to covet if the law had not said, ‘You shall not covet.’” (Rom. 7: 7) Covetousness is precisely the sin most driven by mimetic desire. This phenomenon can lead to a spiral of desire that reinforces each others’ desires in love. This is what Jesus us getting at in offering to relieve us of our burdens and take his yoke upon us. But usually, we imitate each other in a downward spiral of rivalry, anger, and vengeance. In this spiral, we become more and more convinced that our anger and rage are our own even as the rage and anger of others overtakes us like a flood. When this happens, we are yoked to our rivals and they to us. This is the yoke Jesus would relieve us of.

Girard argues that a society caught in a downward spiral either implodes into mutually assured destruction (MAD) or channels its common rage against a victim who is scapegoated. The latter is the story told in the four Gospels. However, it is not only the story of the Gospels; it is the story told numerous times in the Hebrew Bible starting with the dawn of humanity. The establishment of violence as the engine of society is what Jesus was getting at when he said, in another verse not included in the lectionary: “From the days of John the Baptist until now the kingdom of heaven has suffered violence and the violent take it by force.” (Mt. 11: 12)

Although we are prone to clinging to the illusion of our individuality, Girard has shown us that we are yoked to others through the matrix of our intertwining desires. Where we can take some responsibility for our lives is to choose how we wish to be yoked and to whom we will be yoked. In rabbinic literature, the yoke is used as an image for a Jewish student’s relationship with his or her rabbi. Jesus, as a rabbi, offers such a yoke. Being yoked to Jesus means being yoked to a Messiah who rides on a donkey in fulfillment of Zechariah’s prophecy. The Greek word translated as “gentle” is praus, the same word used in Matthew’s quote from Zechariah to describe Jesus’ entry into Jerusalem.

Jesus’ yoke may be easy but it is challenging. The temptation to give way to fear, anger, and vengeance, especially when that is all around us, is very strong, but the yoke of vengeful anger is very heavy and it entraps us in the power of sin within us that prevents us from doing what we really want to do. Escaping this trap can seem impossible. As Paul discovered, it is impossible without the grace of Christ who offers us his yoke in place of the yoke of sin. The harsh words against Capernaum and neighboring towns actually offer us hope. If Jesus could envision the possibility of Sodom and Gomorrah converting to Jesus’ yoke if they had seen the wonders done at Capernaum, although the people in these towns united to persecute Lot and his guests, surely Jesus can envision the same for our persecutory society. Can we cast the burdens of fear, anger, and vengeance on Jesus and accept the yoke he offers us, a yoke that burdens us with compassion and love?

[For an introduction to René Girard see Violence and the Kingdom of God.]

Feed My Sheep

AndrewPreaching1In the final chapter of John’s Gospel, Jesus asks Peter three times: “Simon son of John, do you love me?” Peter has to answer three times that he loves Jesus and then listen to Jesus tell him three times: “Feed my sheep.” (Jn. 21: 15-17) This three-fold question and response is commonly interpreted as Peter undoing his three-fold betrayal of Jesus in the court of the high priest. I agree, but with the caveat that Peter’s betrayal goes further back. At Gethsemane, when Jesus had been seized by the temple police, Peter drew a sword and cut off the right ear of one of the high priest’s servants. This may look like loyalty to most people, but not to Jesus, who said: “Put your sword back into its sheath. Am I not to drink the cup that the Father has given me?” (Jn. 18: 11) That is, Peter had betrayed what Jesus really lived for and was about to die for. As he had at Caesarea Philippi, Peter had acted as a “satan,” a stumbling block to Jesus’ commitment to non-violence, even at the cost of his life. In declaring his love for Jesus three times, Peter declared his love for what Jesus lived for and died for. It is with this love that Peter was told to feed his sheep.

Paul, whom we also celebrate today, is famous for his conversion experience. Like Peter, Paul had to repent of the violence he had committed in what he thought was in the service of God. The voice from Heaven on the road to Damascus told Paul that he was actually persecuting God by persecuting the followers of Jesus. After hearing this voice, Paul realized that, like his fellow Pharisees denounced by Jesus, he had been committing the social violence of heaping burdens on people and not lifting a finger to lift them. With Paul, this social violence had exploded into physical violence against those very people on whom these burdens had been imposed. (Mt. 23: 4) The voice of Heaven converted Paul into being a lifter of heavy burdens from others so that he and those he preached to could embrace the gift of forgiveness Jesus bestowed on him when he drank the cup given by his heavenly Abba and allowed his Abba to raise him from the dead.

Peter and Paul are often posed as opposites, even antagonists, but they are united in one most important thing: both ministered out of their conversion from violence to living by the free gift of God’s mercy grounded in the cross. Out of their conversions, they preached whether “the time [was] favorable or unfavorable.” (2 Tim 4: 2) In doing so, both of their lives were “poured out as a libation” (2 Tim. 4: 6) as they tended the heavenly Abba’s sheep with special care for the sick and the wounded. In the end, both were led away to where they did not wish to go (Jn. 21: 18) but ended up winning “the crown of righteousness.” (2 Tim. 4: 8) If we are to follow these two great saints, we, too, must hear the voice of Jesus warning us of the violence we commit or benefit from and be converted so that we, too, can feed Jesus’ sheep.

God’s Kingdom as Gift

treeBlossoming1There is only one simple qualification for being a disciple of Jesus: give up everything. That’s one whale of a qualification. So hard is this qualification that earnest Christians have thought of many ways to soften Jesus’ words without washing all meaning and challenge out of them. My New Testament professor at Nashotah House, O.C. Edwards, suggested that this qualification means we have to give up everything that comes between us and God. That is, if parents, children, spouses, friends, or fellow members of a community help us draw closer to God, we don’t have to give them up. The same would go for material possessions. Even Benedictine monks have to use things in this world in order to live so we can’t give up having anything at all. The trick is to use things in such a way that the work and recreation we do with them draws us closer to God rather than farther away.

We could phrase this approach by saying that the problem is not possessions but possessiveness. God gives us parents, children, siblings, and friends as gifts. Likewise we should give each ourselves as gifts to other people. The things we use in the world are likewise gifts from God and should be treated accordingly. The problem comes when we prefer to take other people and things rather than receive them. In such cases, the intensity of love we feel for others is actually possessiveness rather than love. We are told to “hate” parents, children, siblings, and friends so as not to be possessive of them. Taking people and things is the result of putting ourselves in competitive relationship with other people. When we compete with others, we have to win and a victory is something we earn, not a gift. This same competitiveness carries over to our attitudes toward possessions. As the French thinker René Girard teaches us, we often want things that other people have or want to have things at the expense of others so that we can claim a victory over them. Of course, competitiveness is a bottomless pit. If we win one round, we always fear losing the next. If we have to have more than other people, or at least as much, we have to keep on accumulating more things no matter the damage our hoarding does to others. In all this, the people we try defeat and our lust to win through possessions become stumbling blocks between ourselves and God. This is what we have to give up.

Paul’s Letter to Philemon illustrates this point very well. Slavery, very common up to the present day (although now other terms such as “trafficking” are often used for it), is perhaps the ultimate in possessing other people. Onesimus was a runaway slave. Paul experienced Onesmimus, not as a possession but as a gift, a person who freely gave of himself to serve Paul while he was a prisoner. Paul is tempted to be possessive and keep Onesimus for himself but he offers Onesemus to Philemon as a gift, clearly hoping that Philemon will give Onesimus back to Paul as a free gift. Paul makes it clear that he is not giving Onesimus back as a slave; instead, he is giving Philemon back as a beloved brother “both in the flesh and in the Lord.” (Philem. 16) If Philemon receives Onesimus as a brother in Christ, he can hardly continue to possess him as a slave.

I’ve always seen Paul’s letter as an artful piece of emotional blackmail, but for all his manipulative rhetoric here, Paul is basically passing on to Philemon Jesus’ invitation to the Kingdom with its one qualification. This sounds simple, but in the heat of daily battles, we find that the possessiveness born of competitiveness is very hard to renounce and it amounts to carrying our cross daily. If we can daily renounce our possessiveness, we will indeed receive everything from God and from others as Gift.

God’s Reconciliation: A Thought on the Feast of Saints Peter & Paul

220px-Greco,_El_-_Sts_Peter_and_PaulIt is interesting and a bit ironic that we celebrate Saints Peter and Paul on the same day. Although there are famous icons of the two embracing one another in Christian love, the two seem not to have had an easy time getting along in real life. Although the two appeared to have been somewhat reconciled at the Council of Jerusalem in Acts 15, in his letter to the Galatians, Paul says that he opposed Peter “to his face” for backing down from what he thought they had agreed on. (Gal. 2: 11) The final chapters of John’s Gospel suggest tensions between the “Beloved Disciple” and Peter, and/or some tension between the two communities derived from them. The Beloved Disciple rests on Jesus’ breast at the Last Supper while Peter stubbornly tries to prevent Jesus from washing his feet. In her book Courting Betrayal,” Helen Orchard argues that Peter was resisting the slavish action of Jesus in washing his feet because he did not want to stoop so low himself. The episode of the Empty Tomb in John shows a rather awkward dance between the two where the Beloved Disciple gets there first but waits at the entrance and allows Peter to go in first. In this little tangle of a narration, both seem to have been first but not in the same way; which suggests some attempt to overcome the tension. In the final chapter of John, after the threefold question to Peter: “Do you love me?,” Peter points to the Beloved Disciple and asks” What about him?” Jesus answer basically tells us it is none of his business.

Peter is redirected to the threefold command he has just been given: “Feed my sheep.” Here is the key for overcoming tension and competition. When we compete with another, we become preoccupied with our rivals and nobody else. What does this do for pastoral care?  The preoccupation of rivals with each other answers the question quite clearly. It is tempting to say that pastors should never fight so as not to undermine their ministries, but there are times when we do have to stand up for the people we minister to. Paul stood up to Peter because he was paying close attention to the pastoral needs of the Galatians and other Gentiles he preached to. There are times in his epistles when Paul comes across as disputatious and rivalrous but in this instance, he was holding his focus on how to feed the sheep entrusted to him and trying to help Peter see the need of the Gentile sheep for himself.

Scripture does not tell us how this conflict ended as far as these two men are concerned although subsequent tradition claims that they were indeed reconciled. Likewise, the Johannine literature stemming from the Beloved Disciple was integrated into the New Testament, creating a deeper unity then Peter and the Beloved Disciple seem to have had. The art of differing and reconciling with others is much too complex to be taught in a brief sermon, but we have a couple of basics to get us started. 1) Keep our attention focused on those who depend on us for pastoral support; 2) Remember that Divine Providence can and will work out a deeper harmony underlying our conflicts and it isn’t always up to us to solve them, which means that, as Peter was told to stop worrying about his rival, we should stop worrying about our own rivals quite so much. And now for a third thought: Both Peter and Paul had much to repent of and they did just that. Can we do the same?

How Is the Gospel Veiled?

 

transfigurationWe celebrate the Transfiguration of Jesus at the end of Epiphany to prepare ourselves for Lent. This is a joyous feast where the Light of Mount Tabor should inspire us for the days of penance and then entering into the Paschal Mystery of Christ. However, there is a discordant element in the reading from St. Paul that I want to focus on. He, too, writes of the inspiring light of the Transfiguration, but he also writes about the veil over Moses’ face. This refers to the story in Exodus where Moses put a veil over his face when he came down from Mount Sinai with the tablets of the Law because his face shone too brightly for his fellow Israelites to look upon. (Ex. 34: 29–34) Paul goes on to say that the Jews remain veiled when they hear the words of the Law. In light of Holocaust, this verse causes much uneasiness, all the more so as it has been used to justify anti-Semitic attitudes and behaviors.

Unfortunately, the lectionary stops short of the two verses that are of upmost importance for putting the veil in perspective. The reading concludes with 2 Cor. 4:2 where Paul says: “We have renounced the shameful things that one hides; we refuse to practice cunning or to falsify God’s word; but by the open statement of the truth we commend ourselves to the conscience of everyone in the sight of God.” At this point, Paul is no longer talking about the Jews and the Law; he is talking about the right conduct expected of any follower of Christ. The next two verses bring back the image of the veil: “And even if our gospel is veiled, it is veiled to those who are perishing. In their case the god of this world has blinded the minds of the unbelievers, to keep them from seeing the light of the gospel of the glory of Christ, who is the image of God.” What is crucial is that the veil is not cast over the minds of Jews reading the Law; the veil is cast over all who are unbelievers. Moreover, it is “the god of this world” that has cast the veil. This is a veil cast over everybody.

Is the same veil cast over the Jews? Is this veil cast over those of who follow Christ? The answers are Yes and Maybe in the sense of Probably.

The longer answer to the first question is answered in Galatians 5:6: “For in Christ Jesus neither circumcision nor uncircumcision counts for anything; the only thing that counts is faith working through love.” Circumcision was and is the prime cultural marker for Jewish males. In Paul’s time, uncircumcision was the cultural marker for the Gentiles. Paul is saying that, in Christ, neither of these markers matter. That means that no cultural markers count for anything in Christ. That is to say, any cultural marker is a veil. There is only one veil that covers the Gospel and that one veil is trusting in ones’ own cultural markers instead of trusting fully in Christ. If any of us claim that anyone of another culture is under a veil, we have put a veil over ourselves. (Paul was Jewish, so he was engaging in a self-critique when he wrote of the veil over his fellow Jews.)

This goes a long way to the longer answer to the second question. All of us are trained from birth to affirm our culture and family. We also derive identity from political parties, churches, schools of thought, social sets, and much else. That in itself does not constitute a veil, but if these ways by which we define ourselves take precedence over Christ, they veil us from the Gospel. Such identifications are the specialty of “the god of this world.” If we accuse other people of being veiled, we only put the veil over our own faces and so fail to see the Glory of God revealed on Mount Tabor. So let us examine ourselves for anything that casts a veil over Christ and cast it off so that we cast ourselves onto the mercy of Christ’s Glory.

Beloved Children of God

Baptism_of_ChristAt his baptism, Jesus heard a voice from Heaven saying: “You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased.” (Luke 3: 22) These words ring out in Psalm 2, addressed to the king, the Messiah, who is being singled out from the nations that are raging together and rising up against the Lord and his anointed. Similar words are spoken to the Servant of Yahweh in Isaiah 42:1. Throughout these songs of the Suffering Servant, he is being called out of a violent society to become instead the victim of that society’s violence. Unlike the Psalmist who threatens the raging nations with a rod of iron, the Suffering Servant does not retaliate against the violence inflicted on him. Jesus begins his mission, then, with a powerful acclaim of unconditional love from his Heavenly Father, a sense of unconditional love he will offer to all who will listen.

As the inundation of baptism draws Jesus out of the inundation of the nations raging with each other, in Jesus we too are drawn out of this inundation of rage. But we are not freed from being the target of these raging nations when they unite against the one who has been freed from their wrath any more than Jesus was. Rather, in baptism, we too are overwhelmed by the Servant’s suffering but also overwhelmed by the Servant’s vindication by God.

When Jesus was called out by his heavenly Father, Jesus experienced his father as “Abba.” This is the Aramaic word a child would use to address his or her father. This word even appears in Romans 8: 15 when Paul says that it is by the Holy Spirit that we cry out: “Abba, Father!” In Isaiah 43: 1, the prophet says that Israel has been called by name, that we belong to Yahweh. This suggests that as Jesus was called the son of the heavenly Abba, we, by extension, are also called children of the same heavenly Abba. In this way, Jesus makes himself the brother of every one of us as we share the same Abba.

Faith as Faithfulness

altarDistance1Faith is often presented as conformity to a set of doctrines like those laid out in the Nicene Creed. I believe in what the Nicene Creed says but believing it isn’t faith. If we turn to St. Paul we find something different. It is often believed that Paul says throughout his epistles that we are saved by faith in Jesus Christ, suggesting that if we believe that Jesus died and rose from the dead, we will be saved. That is, we substitute a more primitive Creed for the Nicene. But this is not what Paul said. In his exhaustive and exhausting book The Deliverance of God: an Apocalyptic Reading of Justification in Paul, Douglas Campbell argues that Paul’s phrase should not be translated faith in Christ, but the faith of Christ. This doesn’t seem to make much sense because Jesus couldn’t have believed in any kind of doctrine. Paul must be talking about faith in some other sense. That is what Campbell thinks when he suggests that a better translation of the word Greek word pistis would be “faithfulness.” That is, Jesus’ faithfulness to his heavenly Father by enduring the mockery of humans and the cross and then being raised from the dead saves us. That is, the faithful acts of Christ save us. We are not saved by our faith; we are saved by Jesus’ faithfulness. This also fits the understanding of “faith” in the Hebrew prophets. When Habakkuk said that “the righteous live by their faith,” (Hab. 2: 4) he was saying that the righteousness live by acting in faithfulness to Yahweh. When James said that faith without works is dead, he was really saying that if there are no works there is no faith because works, the acts of faithfulness, is an integral part of faith.

We can see this point more clearly when we reflect that for Paul Abraham is the father of faith because of what he did when God called him by name. Abraham was told to leave the only life he had known and move to a land God would show him. This is precisely what we are called to do in baptism. We are to leave the life we have known, the life that has formed us and clothed us in what Paul calls “the old person” and move to a life we have never known, a life that will form us and clothe us in “the new person.” This may seem laughable to those of us who were baptized as infants but the baptismal vows of renouncing the world, the flesh and the devil, even if made on our behalf, are still our responsibility as we come of age. We find ourselves formed by the social matrix around us which René Girard argues is run primarily by mimetic rivalry and sacrificial mechanisms and we are called out of these social matrixes into a way of life grounded in the Forgiving Victim.

What makes Abraham’s journey so remarkable is that he was travelling into uncharted territory. He moved out of a culture based on sacrificial violence without a New Testament in his hip pocket to tell him what kind of story he was entering. In this way he was a pioneer of faith about as much as Jesus. Both put their lives on the line, though in different ways. Abraham only had a promise that his descendants would be as numerous as the stars in the sky, although he had born no children up to that time. Jesus hoped to receive from his heavenly Fathers descendants just as numerous (Jn. 17: 10) although it looked hopeless when even his disciples deserted him at the end. Abraham’s wife Sarai went with Abraham on this journey, making her also a great pioneer of faith. I doubt that either of them could have done it alone. It is because this pioneering move is so fundamental to Abraham’s faithfulness that Paul denies that being circumcised constitutes the faith that was reasoned as righteousness. (Rom. 4: 9-12) That is, Abraham was circumcised after he had set out for a new land.

Abraham’s geographical move was not enough, of course. Indeed, if faith has to do with migrating from a sacrificial culture, it is the spiritual geography that matters. After all, Canaan was as in the thrall of sacrificial culture as Ur of the Chaldeans. The real act of faithfulness was bringing Isaac back from Moriah. In a culture that demanded sacrifice so powerfully that even Abraham thought he had to participate in it, he listened to the voice from outside the system that told him not to lay a hand on the lad. On his way to Calvary, Jesus as a pioneer of faith (Heb. 12:2) had to believe that he had been sent from outside the sacrificial system and would return to a place outside that system after having cracked the structure for all time.

[For more on the near-sacrifice of Isaac, see Abraham out on Highway 61]

Proceed to Hope as Inheritance