Archive for March, 2016

Easter’s Great Commission

March 31, 2016

In today’s Gospel reading for Easter Thursday, we have the account of the famous “Great Commission.” (Matthew 28:16-20) Having returned to where it all began, their native Galilee, the eleven remaining disciples experience Jesus as alive, not dead, as a continuing presence among them, not as a failed messiah. According to the text, they are torn between faith in this experience and continuing doubt that it could actually be true.

But their final “takeaway” from a mountain-top encounter with the risen Christ was that they now knew that he spoke with the authority of God and that their mission (should they choose to accept it!) would be to:

“Go therefore and make disciples of all nations.”  So, far from returning to their familiar work as fishermen, they are to become “apostles” (those who are sent) rather than simply “disciples” (those who learn). But they are sent to recruit more disciples of Jesus. How?

By “baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.” They are to initiate new followers in the same way Jesus had inaugurated his own ministry (the baptism of John), in the same way they themselves (presumably) had been initiated, and in the same way as they certainly initiated others during Jesus’ public ministry — by baptism.

But this baptism is not merely the baptism of John. It now presumes incorporation into the life of God, the love of Jesus, and the indwelling presence of the Divine Spirit to guide them. It will become known as “Christian” Baptism, Holy Baptism.

What should the apostles teach these newly baptized ones? “To obey everything I have commanded you.” To be a disciple of Jesus means to learn what it means to live a life of absolute commitment to God, a life of solidarity with all people ( particularly the poor and powerless), a life of healing and forgiveness, and a life of non-violent, peaceful resistance to anything that seeks to destroy the dignity of human beings.

Is this even possible? they must have asked. Yes, but only because they are to “remember I am with you always, to the end of the age.” Because, in the final analysis, the importance of the resurrection is not about empty tombs or dramatic appearances in rooms with locked doors.

The importance of the resurrection is that Jesus is not an historical figure the likes of Moses or Alexander the Great or Cicero or Abraham Lincoln. They lived, made their contributions, and died.

Jesus lived, made his contribution, and died too. But “the death that he died, he died to sin, once for all. But the life he lives, he lives to God.” (Romans 6:10)

That IS the resurrection!


Keeping The Feast

March 30, 2016

As we seek to sustain our Easter joy throughout this week (and in fact, throughout the Great Fifty Days of Easter until the Day of Pentecost) this is our prayer for this morning: “O God, whose blessed Son made himself known to his disciples in the breaking of bread: Open the eyes of our faith, that we may behold him in all his redeeming work; who lives and reigns with you, in the unity of the Holy Spirit, one God, now and for ever.” Amen.

This Collect reminds us that one of the ways the Risen Christ was made known to his disciples, and continues to be made known to us, is through the Eucharist. Table fellowship was a big part of Jesus’ common life with his disciples. He shared bread with outcast and sinner and with scribe and Pharisee during his earthly life. The common meal reached its zenith in that Last Supper (likely a Passover meal) when he identified the broken bread with his body and the poured out wine with his blood. He then told them to “do this in remembrance of me.”

No doubt they followed that command faithfully. Because Paul speaks of the Eucharist in great detail in his letters to the Corinthians and elsewhere. Luke tells of the Walk to Emmaus where Cleopas and his companion (his wife?) experience the Risen Christ and are quoted as saying, “Were not our hearts burning within us on the road when he was opening the scriptures to us?” (Luke 24:32) Yes, but not before they had shared a meal with him where he “took, blessed, broke, and gave them bread” to them…just as he had with the Twelve in the upper room the night before he died.

And, of course, seven of the apostles in the Gospel of John have bread and fish with Jesus on the beach in Galilee right after they had gone back to do what they knew best — fishing — as they wrestled with the possibility that all this had been for naught and that his mission (and theirs) was a failure. Once again, he was known to them in the “breaking of the bread.”

There are, of course, all kinds of theories about what “happens” at the Eucharist. Some of those theories have tragically become “church dividing” over the centuries. How that must grieve the heart of God! Perhaps we “understand it best” when we approach the Eucharist guided by these words attributed to Thomas Aquinas and later paraphrased by Elizabeth I.

“Taste and touch and vision to discern thee fail; faith that comes by hearing,  pierces through the veil. I believe whate’er the Son of God hath told; what the Truth has spoken, that for truth I hold.” (Hymnal 1979 #314)

Alleluia. Christ is Risen. Therefore, let us keep the feast!


Why Does Mark Seem To Have Two Endings?

March 29, 2016

I’ve always loved the Gospel of Mark — which is why I published an extended meditation on this first-gospel-ever-written called John Mark (see I love its fast-paced, almost breathless action and the fact that scholars believe it was written closest to the actual events it purports to convey. This Easter Week, in our daily lectionary, we have just completed various “endings” of Mark.

In keeping with its “highlights only, almost outline” webelieve that the original  ending of the gospel was at Mark 16:8 with Mary Magdalene, Mary the mother of James, and Salome experiencing the empty tomb when they brought spices to anoint Jesus’ body. A young man suggests that they go tell Peter and the other disciples that he had been raised from the dead and that they should go back to the place where it all began — Galilee — where they would see him once again. Initially, however, the women fled from the tomb and didn’t tell anyone “for they were afraid.” The story ends with an affirmation of the resurrection, but no actual appearances of Jesus.

The longer ending of Mark (Chapter 16, verses 9-20) appear to have been added later and include details which would later be included in the Gospels of Matthew,  Luke-Acts (and perhaps even the much later Gospel of John!). The appearance to Mary Magdalene (John 20:11-18), walk to Emmaus (Luke 24:13-35) and Great Commission (Matthew 28:16-20) seem to be suggested in this longer ending of Mark.

The unknown author may have even known of Luke’s second-volume Acts of the Apostles since, in this section (Mark 16:17-18) he seems to refer to events such as exorcism by the apostles, speaking in tongues, and Paul’s snake handling which we only know of in the accounts of the Acts of the Apostles. Finally, the ascension of Jesus is mentioned (Mark 16:19-20) a fuller account of which we can find in Luke 24 and Acts 1.

Some people find the literary dependence between the four gospels (and even Acts) to be problematic since it suggests, among other things, that Matthew and Luke (and perhaps even John) had the Gospel of Mark before them when they wrote, incorporating much of his story and adding details of which they were aware or further grounding the life of Jesus in the Hebrew Scriptures.

I find it fascinating and even affirming that the four evangelists took such care in their recounting of Jesus’ life, death and resurrection while each one bringing an emphasis of his own — Matthew’s a Jewish one; Luke’s a Gentile one; John perhaps specifically Hellenistic thoughtand philosophy.

How much richer the accounts we have when seen though four sets of lenses than if we only had one, but that they took each other seriously enough to build on their predecessors’ work!


The White Robed Army Of Martyrs

March 28, 2016

“A suicide bomber killed at least 65 people, mostly women and children, at a park in Lahore on Sunday in an attack claimed by a Pakistani Taliban faction which said it had targeted Christians. More than 300 other people were wounded, officials said. The explosion occurred in the parking area of Gulshan-e-lqbal Park close to children’s swings.” (Reuters)

Close to children’s swings…

If ever we needed verification that there is sheer, naked, unimaginable evil in this world, perhaps that phrase will do it. Close to children’s swings. Some hate-filled, misguided murderer strapped explosives to his body and decided to move close to children playing on the quintessential child’s toy — a swing — before he blew himself…and their little bodies…to pieces.

Much has been made of the fact that this was Easter Sunday, and that the vast majority of people in the park were of the 2% minority population (Christians) in the park. But Muslims died too. People of no particular faith died too. Hatred and barbarism know no political, ethnic, or religious bounds. We see that in the senseless acts of random violence (multiplied many times by the plethora of guns in our society) right here in the United States.

Yet, this was not a random act of a madman. This was a coordinated, planned attack on a particular group of people held on a particular day, holy to them, and to much of the world. And so 65 more souls (and probably many more in the next days and weeks as more of the injured lose their battle for life) join the “great multitude that no one could count, from every nation, from all tribes and peoples and languages, standing before the throne and before the Lamb, robed in white, with palm branches in their hands…” (Revelation 7:9)

For “the white robed army of martyrs” of the Te Deum continue to “praise you, O God.

Because, in the midst of it all, Christ is Risen, He is Risen indeed. Alleluia!

Good Friday: A Reflection

March 25, 2016

“What does it mean to say that ‘Jesus died for my sins’?” I shall never forget that question posed by my systematic theology professor in an introductory course my second semester in seminary. “What could one man’s death — even the Son of God — possibly have to do with your sins?” he continued. And I realized that, for all the times I had heard and repeated that stock evangelical phrase, I had no idea what it meant to say that Jesus died for my sins!

Turns out, neither does the church…exactly. What we do have are  number of “theories” which attempt to explain the mystery behind the fact that Christians have experienced — in the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ — a kind of atonement (“at-one-ment”) with God. I had hoped for better than “theories,” but theories are what we were taught.

There are three main ones. Most popular with evangelicals and catholics is the “substitutionary” theory which postulates that, since all have sinned and deserve punishment and death, God required a perfect sacrifice to be offered (an extension of the animal sacrifices of Judaism). The only perfect sacrifice could be that of a perfect life. Jesus lived that perfect life. And so he was offered on our behalf — as a substitution — to take the punishment we deserved. This always seemed to me to make God something of a monster. The “cosmic child abuser” as one wag has it.

The second theory is the “moral exemplar” one. This favorite of liberal protestants teaches that Jesus came as a model for us as to how to live a good life, a life pleasing to God. As we emulate his life and teaching we will become pleasing to God and therefore reconciled. I found this a bit more satisfying but soon realized that, if living a life like Jesus, was what it took to be acceptable to God, I was in a world of hurt! He is a wonderful example, but one I could certainly never live up to.

The third main theory of the atonement — and the one in vogue when I was in seminary — was the “Christus Victor” model. This said that Jesus, as God’s anointed one, the Christ, faced all the evil — temptation, betrayal, despair, torture, despair, suffering and death — which “the devil” could throw at him. He beat them all, was victorious over them in the resurrection. And in the winning of that battle, conquered death and hell and achieved eternal life for all who trust in him.  Inspiring…but a bit metaphysical for this essentially pragmatic seeker.

We were taught, finally, that we will never fully understand the mystery of the atonement, that each of the theories (and probably others) had a piece of the truth, and that the best we could do was hold them all in some kind of creative tension. Sort of like Thomas Cranmer did in this catch-all phrase from the 1549 Book of Common Prayer which said that Jesus suffered “death upon the cross for our redemption; who made there, by his one oblation of himself once offered, a full, perfect, and sufficient sacrifice, oblation, and satisfaction, for the sins of the whole world…”

I’m OK with that. As long as we do not have to settle on these three theories. The Eastern Orthodox certainly never have. They seem perfectly content to leave it as mystery. To gaze in love and awe at the broken man on the cross, to visualize him rising from the grave holding hands with Adam and Eve as he brings them forth from death to new life. To plunge naked babies completely beneath the waters of baptism and hold them up into the light, streaming with water, knowing that — somehow — they are reconciled to God through Jesus Christ in the power of the Holy Spirit.

I’m OK with that.


Maundy Thursday: A Reflection

March 24, 2016

It was certainly not a festive meal. Even though some churches (used to?) break out the white vestments, sing the Gloria instead of the Kyrie, and adorn the altar with flowers, the Last Supper was just that. The last one. And everyone knew it.

Imagine the tension which must have filled that upper room, after the unexpected and embarrassing  washing of the feet by their Master. The shock when he spoke of his impending betrayal — to be effected by one of their own band…one at this table with them.

And, when he changed the words of the Passover ritual. Taking the rough loaf of bread into his hands, he must have looked around the table, sorrowfully, before he broke it in two. This is what will happen to my body. And, putting the wine into a cup (no, not a chalice!). My blood will be poured out like this. For you.

The Gospels record some discussion, some denial and anguish about who the betrayer might be and was all this really necessary anyway? But my guess is, most of the meal was eaten in an uneasy silence. The bread, dry in their throats; the wine, sour. But they gamely picked up the ancient ritual, sang a psalm, and moved out together back toward Bethany…and Gethsemane.

There he prayed. There, overwhelmed by fatigue and depression, they slept. Until the soldiers arrived with the betrayer. And there was fear…and fighting…and blood. Until he was bound and taken away from them.

What were they to do? Flee? Fight? Was it possible to rescue him? Peter may have had that in mind as he moved, under the cover of darkness, toward the site of the “trial.” Before the futility of such an effort became clear. And his courage failed.

They would just have to wait…and see. What the daylight would reveal.

Wednesday in Holy Week: A Reflection

March 23, 2016

It must have been so frustrating for them, his friends and followers. Why don’t they get it? Why don’t they understand? Why don’t they realize that they have, right here in their midst, the Anointed One we have all been waiting for? Could it be possible that the opposition is so widespread that he might actually be assassinated, right here in the Holy City?

But, gradually, they remembered his teaching. They remembered the times he, like the prophet Isaiah of old, had told stories of vineyards and owners of vineyards and tenant farmers who worked in those vineyards. One in particular stood out: the one about an absentee owner sending slave after slave to these sharecroppers to collect the lion’s share of the produce; and how they were beaten and some even killed; and about his finally sending his son, who was also killed.

They knew that the image of the vineyard had often been used by the prophets to symbolize Israel itself. And so it was no great leap to interpret Jesus’ coded message that he would have to suffer, and even die, as some of the prophets had done, as Israel itself had done. But, would that be the end of it all? Would his life end up as counting for nothing? Would his mission be a failure?

But then, they also remembered a line from Psalm 118, “The stone that the builders rejected has become the cornerstone; this was the Lord’s doing and it is amazing to our eyes.” And they recalled the rabbis interpreting this as the essence of Israel’s mission — they would always be despised and rejected as a people, but somehow in God’s own way, they would be instrumental in repairing the world!

Israel would become the cornerstone.

Perhaps — even if the worst should happen — Jesus would too.

Tuesday in Holy Week: A Reflection

March 22, 2016

Today we continue the account of Jesus’ conflict with the religious establishment after the dramatic “moneychangers in the temple” event of yesterday. Today, the chief priests, scribes and elders ask the obvious question, “By what authority are you doing these things? Who gave you the authority to do them?” (Mark 11:28)

That is to say: Yesterday, you stood in the midst of the temple, questioned the entire sacrificial system, and accused our leaders of robbing the poor to advance their own ends! How dare you? “Who made you the boss of us,” as our kids might put it today.

Jesus responds by setting them up with a brilliant conundrum, a “Catch 22” if there ever was one. Basically, he asked them who gave his predecessor, John the Baptist, his authority. John was a prophet in the long line of Isaiah, Jeremiah, Ezekiel and others, at least according to his followers — who were many. The religious leaders had tried to “stay neutral” on the Baptizer as he came into conflict with their Roman overlords.

Now they were being called out. If they denied that he was a prophet, the people might rise up in revolt. If they said that he was a prophet, that his authority came from God, the obvious question would be, “Then why didn’t you acknowledge him. And come to his assistance when he was arrested and murdered by Herod?”

They took the Fifth –“I refuse to answer on the grounds that it may tend to incriminate me.”

In a court of law, such a statement usually means the defendant is guilty.

Same here.

Jesus – 1; Chief priests, scribes and elders – 0

Monday in Holy Week: A Reflection

March 21, 2016

Shortly after Mark’s account of Jesus riding into Jerusalem, setting up the inevitable conflict with the religious and political authorities of his day, we have the story of him “turning the tables” on the money changers in the temple (Mark 11:12-25). This event has often been interpreted as having something to do with commerce being carried on in this sacred place. But there is something far more important going on than that.

The “money changers” and “those who sold doves” were not the primary targets of Jesus’ anger here. They were actually providing a service to the people because pilgrims to Jerusalem needed someone to exchange currency for them and, because it was impractical to transport animals for the temple sacrifices across the many miles of their journeys, they needed someone to provide what these devout folks needed to perform their religious duties.

Jesus was not exactly a fan of the sacrificial system, but this was not the “ditch he was prepared to die in.” On occasion he even told those whose healing he had facilitated to show themselves to the priests and make the appropriate sacrifice in thanksgiving for their healing.

The key to what Jesus was really on about has to do with the famous line, “My house shall be called a house of prayer for all the nations, but you have made it a den of robbers.” Think about it: a den of robbers is not where the primary transgressions are carried out. A den is where robbers might retreat to find safety (a “safe house” if you will) after they had done their dirty deeds elsewhere.

Jesus knew that the religious establishment of his day had been co-opted by the occupying Roman government and, in addition to the exorbitant taxation laid upon the people by the Romans, were taking advantage of their own people by requiring “tithes and offerings” the average peasant (who were Jesus’ primary followers) could hardly afford.

In fact, one reading of the story of the “widow’s mite” was not that she was being commended for “giving her last penny, all she had” but that Jesus was warning people that, while the rich folks could easily afford to give the great sums required by the chief priests, they — like the widow — must beware of the religious authorities’ tendency to take them for all they were worth!

So, Jesus was not really after the bottom-feeding money changers and dove peddlers in the temple, but the chief priests and levites who took advantage of the people six days a week and then retreat into their sanctuaries, their “den” on the high holy days.

Sound familiar?








Two Parades

March 19, 2016

New Testament scholars John Dominic Crossan and Marcus Borg have suggested that, on that first “Palm Sunday” there were two processions (parades) entering the holy city of Jerusalem. From the east, the familiar “peasants’ parade” with Jesus sitting atop a donkey and crowds of his supporters cheering him on the way as he brought his message of the reign of God right into the heart of the religious and political establishment.

From the west, this reading goes, a military procession (parade) approaches led by the Roman governor Pontius Pilate at the head of an army regiment complete with leather helmets, spears and swords, and an eagle atop the lead lance. Always conscious that large public celebrations like the Passover festival could erupt into violence and protest against the occupying Roman authority, it made sense to boost the number of available troops just in case, and to make a show of their entrance to discourage any disruptive activity.

Whether this reading of the story is is poetry or history, there is no doubt in my mind that the Palm Sunday entry set up an inevitable clash between the kingship of Caesar and the kingship of God and that Jesus knew precisely what he was doing in every detail. He chose to ride into town on a donkey symbolically identifying himself with the Messiah hoped for by the prophet Zechariah:

“Rejoice greatly, O daughter Zion! Sing aloud, O daughter Jerusalem! Lo, your king comes to you; triumphant and victorious is he, humble and riding on a donkey…” (Zechariah 9:9)

This was the kind of “enacted parable” made famous by prophets like Jeremiah who regularly provided such “visual aids” to underscore the message they believed they were to deliver from God to the people. If there was ever any doubt that Jesus considered himself as the Messiah, the anointed one of God chosen to bring freedom and peace to his people, this action alone should serve to put that doubt to rest.

He knew what he was doing. And his question to the crowds was, “Which parade do you want to be in — Caesar’s or God’s?”

Two thousand years later, the question remains: “Which parade do you want to be in — Caesar’s or God’s?

Remember that question on election day.