Sunday, May 31, 2009

My peace I give to you

They who have my commandments and keep them are those who love me; and those who love me will be loved by my Father, and I will love them and reveal myself to them.’ Judas (not Iscariot) said to him, ‘Lord, how is it that you will reveal yourself to us, and not to the world?’ Jesus answered him, ‘Those who love me will keep my word, and my Father will love them, and we will come to them and make our home with them. Whoever does not love me does not keep my words; and the word that you hear is not mine, but is from the Father who sent me.

‘I have said these things to you while I am still with you. But the Advocate, the Holy Spirit, whom the Father will send in my name, will teach you everything, and remind you of all that I have said to you. Peace I leave with you; my peace I give to you. I do not give to you as the world gives. Do not let your hearts be troubled, and do not let them be afraid. You heard me say to you, “I am going away, and I am coming to you.” If you loved me, you would rejoice that I am going to the Father, because the Father is greater than I. And now I have told you this before it occurs, so that when it does occur, you may believe.

- John 14:21-29

In these words, Jesus affirms for me the reality of Spirit, and the importance of understanding this kingdom in which we participate through faith as something real, indwelling in us and present to the world, and yet outside "the world" in the sense that it is life in abundance. It is something added to our daily lives that we perceive (and receive) in ways beyond our usual physical senses. It's an extra dimension of reality that is added to our daily lives, which informs, infuses and adds a spiritual dimension to all that we do or perceive. This is my understanding of what is Spirit, and what is meant by the kingdom. I hope to grow to understand these things better, but that is roughly my idea of the spiritual life in the kingdom. It is something in which we are all invited to participate, not just a code or a set of beliefs alone.

As Jesus bids farewell to his Twelve apostles in our reading for today, we are set with a system of values and beliefs, and a procedure for growing in our faith and in relationship and participation in the kingdom. We have his word and his teachings. Throughout the readings of the past month or so we have been reading Luke, which is replete with teachings and parables such as that of the Good Samaritan, or the story of Martha and Mary, the advice to his disciples about how to preach and to teach those who may become followers, and his dispensation to the Seventy. So we understand that we begin this journey toward the kingdom with the understanding of its logic and its teachings, including the basic understanding of the law and the prophets to love God with all our mind and soul and being, and to love our neighbor (as in the Good Samaritan) as ourselves.

But that's just the beginning, if I read correctly Jesus' words here. The beginning is to follow the word. What we expect is something altogether different, added to the world and to the word. We expect an indwelling participation in this Reality that Jesus is talking about, the rules of which we've been learning through the teachings about right-relatedness in the parables. We expect the Advocate. Moreover, we expect, in Jesus' words, that 'those who love me will be loved by my Father, and I will love them and reveal myself to them.' We expect his manifestation, himself made real, to us. His disciples don't know what to make of this, so Jesus explains: ‘Those who love me will keep my word, and my Father will love them, and we will come to them and make our home with them.'

Furthermore we are to understand that there is a new reality of wisdom to be present to all of us who keep and love the word we hear in faith. That is the Advocate, the Holy Spirit (or Spirit of truth), which will be sent to us from the Father. Jesus says that his apostles should rejoice that he is going to the Father, because the Father is greater than he. As I understand this, it is in the sense of the Father as the Fountainhead of all, even of the Trinity - and so the Spirit will be sent to us and they Three will indwell in us. This is participation in the depth of the sense of full identity. We expect identity to be formed and shaped in relationship; just as our identity is formed and shaped in relationship to those with whom we are close or whom we love in the world, so also our identity as members of this kingdom must grow and be shaped within this indwelling Reality of relationship. Our understanding of our lives, how to live them, what is wise and proper, will also depend on this discernment given via this relationship.

'Peace I leave with you; my peace I give to you. I do not give to you as the world gives.' We are given full relatedness, full relationship with the Trinity - or at least the possibility of this gift. Our peace, and the peace of the apostles at this dinner before the Passion and death on the cross of their Leader, is the peace of understanding that we are given full membership in this kingdom, and we are given the gift of the Divine Personhood of this indwelling. It is important to understand, from my perspective, the nature of this gift and how it is given, and to take advantage of what it offers to us. All we have to do is open to it, ask it to come in and give us guidance. At least, I believe that all we can do is try, and see where it leads us, and which form of participation it gives us as we lead our lives.

Saturday, May 30, 2009

Whoever is not with me is against me

Now he was casting out a demon that was mute; when the demon had gone out, the one who had been mute spoke, and the crowds were amazed. But some of them said, ‘He casts out demons by Beelzebul, the ruler of the demons.’ Others, to test him, kept demanding from him a sign from heaven. But he knew what they were thinking and said to them, ‘Every kingdom divided against itself becomes a desert, and house falls on house. If Satan also is divided against himself, how will his kingdom stand? —for you say that I cast out the demons by Beelzebul. Now if I cast out the demons by Beelzebul, by whom do your exorcists cast them out? Therefore they will be your judges. But if it is by the finger of God that I cast out the demons, then the kingdom of God has come to you. When a strong man, fully armed, guards his castle, his property is safe. But when one stronger than he attacks him and overpowers him, he takes away his armour in which he trusted and divides his plunder. Whoever is not with me is against me, and whoever does not gather with me scatters.

- Luke 11:14-23

Here in this passage Jesus' authority begins to be questioned in a truly direct way. As he is casting out a demon from a man who was rendered mute, and the man is healed and returned to speech, he is accused of working with demons - of casting out demons because he is in league with the "head" or "ruler" of the demons, Beelzebul. They also demand of him a Messianic sign, to prove that he does not work through demonic assistance.

Jesus once again here presents his bold and defiant argumentative style. He turns the tables, oratorically, on his accusers with his own arguments. Every kingdom divided against itself becomes a desert, and house falls on house. If Satan also is divided against himself, how will his kingdom stand? How can Satan work against Satan and protect his own kingdom? Furthermore, Jesus asks, since there is already a tradition of exorcism among the Jews, by what power then do their own exorcists perform this rite? Are they thus accusing those others who perform exorcisms in the tradition? Their work then stands as judgment on Jesus' accusers.

But if by the hand of God Jesus is doing his work, then it must logically follow that the kingdom has come to you. This is the phrase which Jesus instructed the Seventy to use as they traveled from town to town on their first message. As we have already seen, this visitation, and witnessing of the work of Spirit, carries with it its own responsibility on the witnesses to such acts and such visitation. One's yes or no to that visitation becomes a matter of great weight. Jesus goes further to elaborate what exactly is happening, then, in spiritual terms. When a strong man, fully armed, guards his castle, his property is safe. But when one stronger than he attacks him and overpowers him, he takes away his armour in which he trusted and divides his plunder. It is Jesus as the stronger man, who is armed against the work of evil, of Satan (or Beelzebul). Therefore those who would ally against Jesus' power are to be scattered, and their power and protection appropriated. This again is the logical argument. "You say that I work with demons, but a kingdom cannot be divided against itself. If then, you're wrong, be warned: the stronger man scatters the weaker ruler and those allied with him." Jesus is saying here that if he works through the power of God, then those who ally against him and the power of Spirit will themselves be scattered. They must take care what they say yes or no to. The consequences are not of insignificance, but rather the weight of such decision is a great one.Whoever is not with me is against me, and whoever does not gather with me scatters. The logic is once again carried over from a previous injunction that his disciples should not rebuke those others who work in his name but do not travel with him. There he said that those who are not against him are with him. Our choices are important, yes or no carries great significance. If we are not with him, not acting in his name, we are against him - whoever does not gather with him scatters. The house is plundered, the weaker power cannot stand. It is a question of a choice, a decision, yes or no. We should take care to respect this power, and therefore make our choices with great care.

It's important to understand the metaphor here of "desert" as a place which was considered the abode of demons. The desert (as used here, by tradition) is a place, not of spiritual serenity, but of the emptiness of waste, of nihilism and nothingness. So, it is there that demons were considered to flee and to abide. If we take the allegory of "water" further, we see that "desert" is a place where this presence of the Holy Spirit is not welcomed. Therefore the allegory extends to the understanding of our yes or no as welcoming the power that scatters evil, and allowing the presence of Spirit, or "living water" within us - to restore us, to build structures of value and power within us as well, and not to leave us empty, abandoned and vulnerable to the evils that plague the world.

I personally think this notion is as important now as it was then: you don't even have to believe in the physical or literal presence of demons to understand what it is to be adrift and without values that will stand the test of time. Neither is it necessary to understand that personal troubles or false or crippling belief systems - those that steal our power and render us mute - can truly behave as demons within us. I have seen too many people for whom whim or fantasy (perhaps degenerating into power and control, or coercion and violence, or spiritual exploitation of others), or following one group or another, replaces something of substance in the inner person, and am convinced that this alignment with something of real value and structure within us is essential for making good choices and building our lives. The soul and spirit must be fed. I don't think the word "scatter" is misused here in terms of the allegory of our own modern understanding of what provides substance and, ultimately, true value. It is important to take seriously the notion of spiritual power and substance, and the ideas Jesus teaches in terms of whether or not we choose to be a part of that kingdom that restores and heals.

Friday, May 29, 2009

The Good Samaritan

Just then a lawyer stood up to test Jesus. ‘Teacher,’ he said, ‘what must I do to inherit eternal life?’ He said to him, ‘What is written in the law? What do you read there?’ He answered, ‘You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your strength, and with all your mind; and your neighbour as yourself.’ And he said to him, ‘You have given the right answer; do this, and you will live.’

But wanting to justify himself, he asked Jesus, ‘And who is my neighbour?’ Jesus replied, ‘A man was going down from Jerusalem to Jericho, and fell into the hands of robbers, who stripped him, beat him, and went away, leaving him half dead. Now by chance a priest was going down that road; and when he saw him, he passed by on the other side. So likewise a Levite, when he came to the place and saw him, passed by on the other side. But a Samaritan while travelling came near him; and when he saw him, he was moved with pity. He went to him and bandaged his wounds, having poured oil and wine on them. Then he put him on his own animal, brought him to an inn, and took care of him. The next day he took out two denarii, gave them to the innkeeper, and said, “Take care of him; and when I come back, I will repay you whatever more you spend.” Which of these three, do you think, was a neighbour to the man who fell into the hands of the robbers?’ He said, ‘The one who showed him mercy.’ Jesus said to him, ‘Go and do likewise.’

- Luke 10:25-37

The parable of the Good Samaritan occurs only in Luke. I see these illustrative parables as teachings to further prepare those who will follow Jesus after he is gone. As we have seen in the past few readings, Jesus has set his face toward Jerusalem; from that point on in his ministry (including today's readings) we are in the journey toward Jerusalem and the Passion. Consequently, in my view, we see the Seventy sent out with instructions on what it is to be a disciple and apostle, and here we have this parable of the Good Samaritan.

The questioner (a lawyer) begins by asking, "What shall I do to inherit eternal life?" Jesus answers with a question, seemingly knowing that the lawyer has the answer already. "You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your strength, and with all your mind; and your neighbour as yourself." This is the correct answer, of course. But then there's a little trick to these rules. The lawyer asks, "And who is my neighbor?" So Jesus' answer is the parable of the Good Samaritan.

Of course, the Samaritan is symbolic for the outsider (even a person of the presumed enemy) - the last person to be considered "neighbor." Those who pass by are those even bound by law to righteousness: a priest and a Levite, an official helper in the temple. But it is the Samaritan who recognizes one who is in need, and who goes the extra mile to care for a helpless victim. Which of these three was the neighbor to the victim of the thieves? "He who showed mercy on him." Jesus says, "Go and do likewise."

There are many ways of interpreting this parable. I suppose in a particularly transcendent sense we are to understand relationship in the kingdom this way. Those who minister are acting as neighbors - it does not matter necessarily what the need is. But since this is Luke our Physician who includes this parable in his gospel, it's important that we understand the metaphor of healing for the work of the kingdom itself. Righteousness, or right-relatedness, is also setting something right. We heal the woundedness in others by ministering to them. What evil takes away (the thieves), ministry restores. All of these things act consistently in the metaphor of healing. So, for those in the kingdom, ministry is an act of healing and restoring right relatedness - we all can act through mercy to restore our neighbor after a wound. And the thieves of course are symbolic of the evil in the world.

As we practice our faith, I think the great St. Luke the Physician is teaching us what it is to truly minister, to restore, to heal. It is through mercy that we ourselves can all choose to become the true neighbor. And again we remember this word for mercy in the Greek, eleos, and its relationship to the word for olive oil, the traditional base for all ointment for healing. When we find a need that asks of us love and compassion, we should remember that whatever we do, it should be done with the understanding that we seek to heal whatever ails. Our compassion itself, I find, is often the healing balm itself. Just knowing that someone else has taken the time to simply care can make all the difference in the world to restore someone who is failing through despair and isolation and their sense of abandonment.

So here we are still with our Physician who is teaching us what it means to be a neighbor and a healer - to be a part of that kingdom. Our efforts may not be perfect but this is not the real question. The real question is whether or not we've got the compassion and the mercy. The one who needs restoration may simply need just that balm - and we will have been a true neighbor.

Thursday, May 28, 2009

The better part

Now as they went on their way, he entered a certain village, where a woman named Martha welcomed him into her home. She had a sister named Mary, who sat at the Lord’s feet and listened to what he was saying. But Martha was distracted by her many tasks; so she came to him and asked, ‘Lord, do you not care that my sister has left me to do all the work by myself? Tell her then to help me.’ But the Lord answered her, ‘Martha, Martha, you are worried and distracted by many things; there is need of only one thing. Mary has chosen the better part, which will not be taken away from her.’

- Luke 10:38-42

I really like the story of Martha and Mary, not least because I identify with Mary in the sense that I feel like someone who's pretty much emphasized one thing in life (or shall we say, certain things) - sometimes at the cost of making the right appearance in what a good organizer, housekeeper, and all-around good image of woman that I am.

But I think there's more to this story than my personal feelings; there's plenty to this story for all of us to think about in each of our lives. Martha and Mary are the sisters of Lazarus. The three of these siblings make up a family that is in some sense central to Jesus' ministry and to his life. They seem like deep personal friends to our Lord and he's involved with so much of their lives in some personal way. We find Jesus weeping when his sisters and neighbors are mourning the death of Lazarus, although Jesus knows he plans to save Lazarus. Jesus' simple counseling and love of these people, in their great loss when mourning their brother, or their daily concerns when Jesus visits, are really personally touching. They show truly his most personal relationships with his close friends, and this is like a great balm, a wonder, in the midst of all the public teaching. At least, I feel that way about it.

Martha, of course, is tending to important household matters for Jesus' visit. She's doing the chores necessary for the social aspects of Jesus' presence in their home. Jesus is doing his job of teaching at the same time. So Martha's sister, Mary, sits at his feet and listens with the other disciples and followers of Jesus. Naturally, Martha complains - and she goes right to the top. "Make my sister help out," she seems to say. How many times have we (especially the female "we" out there) been in this same situation or witnessed it somewhere, say at a family gathering?

In this sweet personal story, we have Jesus intervening in the household matters. 'Martha, Martha, you are worried and distracted by many things; there is need of only one thing. Mary has chosen the better part, which will not be taken away from her.' Jesus reaffirms the importance of discipleship and relatedness for all of us: a woman's worth is not just about her social skills, or how well she fits the image of what woman should be - be that now or then. Mary has chosen what's truly necessary, that relationship of the soul and spirit that must feed and inform all of our lives, and no one is left out - through social obligation or status - from this. While this by no means discounts the work that Martha is doing in her hospitality to Jesus and fellow guests, Jesus emphasizes that we all have jobs to do to take care of what is necessary: to take care of our souls, our inner and spiritual lives, to think about that which is truly necessary for us each as persons in the sense that we are created in the image of the Creator, and hence we all have need of spiritual food.

While we may all concern ourselves with the image we must live up to in the world, the image of a dutiful person who fulfills appropriate social and personal obligations - we must each consider with what food do we feed ourselves. We must also take the time for that, and not be lost to the identity that the social would confer on us, without forgetting the obligation to the identity we have internally, the need we have for spiritual food and nurturing. That is what Jesus terms the one thing of which we have need, the better part. We mustn't forget, no matter how much we minister to others, the true need within ourselves. Coming after the story of the Good Samaritan, this is another pertinent and timely teaching that balances "good works" against the "one thing necessary." We must have faith, when we choose this true self-nurturing, that this is the better part that will not be taken away from us. I believe that in order to minister with discernment and in appropriate ways, we need first this better part.

Wednesday, May 27, 2009

I watched Satan fall from heaven like a flash of lightning

The seventy returned with joy, saying, ‘Lord, in your name even the demons submit to us!’ He said to them, ‘I watched Satan fall from heaven like a flash of lightning. See, I have given you authority to tread on snakes and scorpions, and over all the power of the enemy; and nothing will hurt you. Nevertheless, do not rejoice at this, that the spirits submit to you, but rejoice that your names are written in heaven.’

At that same hour Jesus rejoiced in the Holy Spirit and said, ‘I thank you, Father, Lord of heaven and earth, because you have hidden these things from the wise and the intelligent and have revealed them to infants; yes, Father, for such was your gracious will. All things have been handed over to me by my Father; and no one knows who the Son is except the Father, or who the Father is except the Son and anyone to whom the Son chooses to reveal him.’

Then turning to the disciples, Jesus said to them privately, ‘Blessed are the eyes that see what you see! For I tell you that many prophets and kings desired to see what you see, but did not see it, and to hear what you hear, but did not hear it.’

- Luke 10:17-24

The Seventy return from their first mission, and they are thrilled to tell the news of all that has happened. They have received a spiritual power for healing - but to them it is a revelation that Lord, in your name even the demons submit to us! This is a sharing of spiritual power from the Lord to his missionaries. We are in a kingdom where the realities of spiritual relationship confer a sharing of spiritual power and even authority, the blessings of spiritual gifts. To act in the name of Christ is to act in his authority, sharing, in a sense, in his personhood.

Jesus rejoices that human beings now truly share the kingdom; the power of the enemy, the one who defied God, is defeated: I watched Satan fall from heaven like a flash of lightning. He adds to his disciples: See, I have given you authority to tread on snakes and scorpions, and over all the power of the enemy; and nothing will hurt you. It is my opinion that the words "snakes" and "scorpions" are images of demons and demonic activity, and the poison and hurt they bring to human beings - and not meant to be taken literally. But Jesus also puts their work and these gifts of power into perspective: Nevertheless, do not rejoice at this, that the spirits submit to you, but rejoice that your names are written in heaven. The great gift is really to be a part of this kingdom, to participate in its reality. Finally, Jesus himself rejoices "in the Holy Spirit" - in the sharing of such knowledge and power and spiritual gifts, that they have been given to those not of extensive intellectual preparation or knowledge, but to those who have simply received the kingdom. This is the radical equality of the kingdom and its sharing, and our ability to participate in it. It is yet another illustration of its logic - the will of the Father in this is something in which Jesus rejoices. His will is for all to be included in this possibility of sharing, and so it is. All things have been handed over to me by my Father; and no one knows who the Son is except the Father, or who the Father is except the Son and anyone to whom the Son chooses to reveal him. This reality is conferred through relationship, through spiritual connection and in the true "energy" of that kingdom, and not by study or striving or intellectual preparation. There must be a reality of relationship, of spiritual experience - and this is open to all but only to those who will receive in that choice for revelation.

‘Blessed are the eyes that see what you see! For I tell you that many prophets and kings desired to see what you see, but did not see it, and to hear what you hear, but did not hear it.’ Jesus rejoices in this revelation of the working of the kingdom in the world. Do we understand the nature of the gift? Do we appreciate this reality given by the will of the Father as Jesus does? What does spiritual reality mean to you?

Tuesday, May 26, 2009

The kingdom of God has come near to you

After this the Lord appointed seventy others and sent them on ahead of him in pairs to every town and place where he himself intended to go. He said to them, ‘The harvest is plentiful, but the labourers are few; therefore ask the Lord of the harvest to send out labourers into his harvest. Go on your way. See, I am sending you out like lambs into the midst of wolves. Carry no purse, no bag, no sandals; and greet no one on the road. Whatever house you enter, first say, “Peace to this house!” And if anyone is there who shares in peace, your peace will rest on that person; but if not, it will return to you. Remain in the same house, eating and drinking whatever they provide, for the labourer deserves to be paid. Do not move about from house to house. Whenever you enter a town and its people welcome you, eat what is set before you; cure the sick who are there, and say to them, “The kingdom of God has come near to you.”* But whenever you enter a town and they do not welcome you, go out into its streets and say, “Even the dust of your town that clings to our feet, we wipe off in protest against you. Yet know this: the kingdom of God has come near.” I tell you, on that day it will be more tolerable for Sodom than for that town.
‘Woe to you, Chorazin! Woe to you, Bethsaida! For if the deeds of power done in you had been done in Tyre and Sidon, they would have repented long ago, sitting in sackcloth and ashes. But at the judgement it will be more tolerable for Tyre and Sidon than for you. And you, Capernaum,
will you be exalted to heaven?
No, you will be brought down to Hades.

‘Whoever listens to you listens to me, and whoever rejects you rejects me, and whoever rejects me rejects the one who sent me.’
The seventy* returned with joy, saying, ‘Lord, in your name even the demons submit to us!’

- Luke 10:1-17

Jesus here gives his instructions to the Seventy who are sent out as apostles to preach and to spread the word. This account of the Seventy appears only in Luke, but the instructions given out to these disciples and apostles, messengers sent out into the world, are similar to the ones given in Matthew's gospel to the Twelve apostles. Among the Seventy, according to church tradition, are Barnabas, Mark, Titus, Aristarchus, Tychicus, Simeon, and others mentioned in St. Paul's epistles, including Aristobulus, the brother of Barnabas, who preached the gospel in Britain and died peacefully there. Several would become Bishops of the early church.

First of all Jesus tells the Seventy to pray for more hands for the harvest - to gather more like themselves to the task at hand. Then he makes it clear to them the very nature of what they are undertaking: See, I am sending you out like lambs into the midst of wolves. This journey forward is to be one in which they resemble the sacrificial lamb himself; this implies their innocence and that their journey is not a safe one in which they will be treated well and always welcomed. They must travel light, be ready always to move forward, spend no idle time in extensive or over-ostentatious conversation. Keep to their business, this says to me, and keep moving.

Then come his instructions to them for their conduct on this journey. These instructions are clear: the apostles are not to go from house to house (which would imply looking for superior accommodations) but to stay with those who first offer them a place. They are to greet these people by wishing peace upon the house: and if there are those who are receptive to that peace it will rest upon them, if not the peace will return to the apostles. I take it that this is a way of discerning the ways of the kingdom, how spiritual blessing works. To use a "modern" word (for Western ears), it's like the version of karma that applies to the Christian spiritual reality.

They must accept the welcome given to them - including eating and drinking what is placed before them, taking part in what is offerred by those who are ready to hear this word or at least willing to take them in and open their hearts. I see this as another type of "Christian karma" - those who are receptive to this spiritual contact must also be received as they are, they must not be told that other food than that which they offer is preferable, just as the apostles must not seek out better accommodation. But those who are willing to open their houses, to listen and to hear must be received and reciprocal politeness and hospitality in this kingdom must be extended to those who make that connection with them, who are ready to listen or at least extend an offer of welcome. I think we could learn from this sense of appropriate behavior today (at least I could).

Additionally, for those who welcome them, the benefits of this kingdom must be extended: besides the blessing of peace, healings and cures should be done also in that place. They are to tell them that "The kingdom of God has come near to you." But whenever they enter a town that refuses them, again this spiritual "karma" works in a particular way: they are to tell that town as well of the nearness of the kingdom and the visitation that was made. They are to say, “Even the dust of your town that clings to our feet, we wipe off in protest against you. Yet know this: the kingdom of God has come near.” The rebuke and protest (but not retribution) are the result of refusal to hear or to listen or to welcome.

Extending this notion of the refusal to welcome or to hear (or to see) Jesus comments on those cities in the Galilee where he and his mission have been rejected, although great works of Spirit were done there. He gives a sure certainty of the predicted outcome of Judgment. However, such outcome is left to the Judgment and to the time of Judgment. This is never the purview of his workers for the harvest; they are to preach and to follow these rules he lays down.

I think we could all learn from this spiritual reality and how it works. When the truth comes near, this kingdom comes near, it confers on us the responsibility of how we will respond to it. The greater the spiritual works done in the presence of a person, the more responsibility he or she bears as witness in his or her response. I don't think we can take that point too lightly. It's another facet of yesterday's admonition to the disciples that once they put their hand to the plow, if they look back they're not ready for this kingdom and this work. We're all in; this reality takes us all in - and beyond that it commands our yes or our no. It is something like a charge we are given, and our response to which carries immediate weight and responsibility.

There's a note in the Orthodox Study Bible that I feel is helpful and enlightening to this point (on Luke 10:9). It reads: The gospel of Christ is not simply that there is a divine Kingdom somewhere, but that the kingdom of God has come near to us. It breaks into our lives through the work of Christ and His sent ones. I feel that this notion of the kingdom breaking in upon our lives is an important one, and an important way in which to think about spiritual reality - it can break in upon us at any time, like a great transcendent crash of echoing light, that carries its own resounding silence, and awaits our response. But we may just miss it altogether.

Monday, May 25, 2009

No one puts a hand to the plough and looks back

When the days drew near for him to be taken up, he set his face to go to Jerusalem. And he sent messengers ahead of him. On their way they entered a village of the Samaritans to make ready for him; but they did not receive him, because his face was set towards Jerusalem. When his disciples James and John saw it, they said, ‘Lord, do you want us to command fire to come down from heaven and consume them?’ But he turned and rebuked them. Then they went on to another village.
As they were going along the road, someone said to him, ‘I will follow you wherever you go.’ And Jesus said to him, ‘Foxes have holes, and birds of the air have nests; but the Son of Man has nowhere to lay his head.’ To another he said, ‘Follow me.’ But he said, ‘Lord, first let me go and bury my father.’ But Jesus said to him, ‘Let the dead bury their own dead; but as for you, go and proclaim the kingdom of God.’ Another said, ‘I will follow you, Lord; but let me first say farewell to those at my home.’ Jesus said to him, ‘No one who puts a hand to the plough and looks back is fit for the kingdom of God.’

- Luke 9:51-62

At this crucial juncture in his mission, Jesus has decided that it is the time he must go to Jerusalem and face his fate. At this point he is moving toward the Passion, Resurrection and eventual Ascension ("the days drew near for him to be taken up"). On the way to Jerusalem, there are still things to be taught to his disciples, to those who will continue on after he is gone and carry out his mission with which they are charged, and the journey toward Jerusalem suffices to provide opportunity for teaching about ministry, and conduct in that ministry.

When a village does not receive him, his disples ask if they should use their newfound spiritual power to send fire upon the village. (See details on "Gehenna" from yesterday's commentary.) But Jesus rebukes James and John. It is not a part of his ministry to take retribution against those who do not receive the disciples. As seen in the instructions he will give to the Seventy, they are not to take action against those who don't wish to listen. This is the first instruction of conduct for his disciples on how they are to behave regarding their ministry and preaching.

The next event recorded here is when Jesus is told by someone that he will follow Jesus wherever he goes. Jesus reminds this person that he has no home: that even the foxes have holes and the birds have nests, but the Son of Man has no home. Following means giving up everything, all sort of thoughts of permanence, in order to give one's life and one's time to follow. The disciple is not above the master.

Still another wishes to follow Jesus, but first to bury his father. "Let the dead bury the dead" is Jesus' reply. This is a teaching about spiritual reality: that there is a connection within and between those who wish to receive this word, and it is now in this form of relatedness that a disciple must follow, leaving other ties behind. The young man has a family to do the job of keeping the family responsibilities, he has the opportunity to follow Christ. There are others who can do that job who have not heard the call. Yet another tells Jesus that he wishes to follow, but that he would like to go to say farewell first to those in his home. Jesus replies that "no one who puts a hand to the plough and looks back is fit for the kingdom of God."

So, as Jesus begins to make his way to Jerusalem and what awaits him there, we have several teachings on the conduct appropriate to the affairs of the disciples who will follow him after his Passion, Resurrection and Ascension, after he is gone. The rules of men - the commonly observed values of relation, of village, group and family, are suspended. The disciple who puts his hand to the plow must be prepared to live as a messenger of that kingdom: there is to be no retribution against those who do not wish to receive them, material need is secondary to the mission they undertake and in so doing they must be prepared to forfeit the kind of security that is "home" - family ties and obligations come second, such as burial and even farewell, once someone has made up his mind. There are others to do this obligatory work (such as burial), and the hesitation to follow isn't really a full "yes" to the work. We must be "all in." There should be nothing to keep us from following, nothing that comes before that following. The usual "rules" are suspended in order to follow in this kingdom. We must put our whole hearts into this, as did Jesus.

I think this says to me that point in life, whenever I have a choice to make, my choice must go first to how to follow. Throughout our lives we each have daily choices to make, some mundane, and some life-changing. But if we have accepted that indeed there is this word and this kingdom, perhaps what we feel it asks of us must come first. Taking up this cross - as illustrated in this passage in which Jesus is set to go to Jerusalem - is for us a daily activity of being "all in" and not holding back. We each have choices. May they be well-made, and for values that last beyond what we already know. The risk we take must be worth it.

Sunday, May 24, 2009

What you hear whispered, proclaim from the housetops

‘A disciple is not above the teacher, nor a slave above the master; it is enough for the disciple to be like the teacher, and the slave like the master. If they have called the master of the house Beelzebul, how much more will they malign those of his household!

‘So have no fear of them; for nothing is covered up that will not be uncovered, and nothing secret that will not become known. What I say to you in the dark, tell in the light; and what you hear whispered, proclaim from the housetops. Do not fear those who kill the body but cannot kill the soul; rather fear him who can destroy both soul and body in hell. Are not two sparrows sold for a penny? Yet not one of them will fall to the ground unperceived by your Father. And even the hairs of your head are all counted. So do not be afraid; you are of more value than many sparrows.

‘Everyone therefore who acknowledges me before others, I also will acknowledge before my Father in heaven; but whoever denies me before others, I also will deny before my Father in heaven.

‘Whoever welcomes you welcomes me, and whoever welcomes me welcomes the one who sent me. Whoever welcomes a prophet in the name of a prophet will receive a prophet’s reward; and whoever welcomes a righteous person in the name of a righteous person will receive the reward of the righteous; and whoever gives even a cup of cold water to one of these little ones in the name of a disciple—truly I tell you, none of these will lose their reward.’

- Matthew 10:24-33,40-42

Just prior to this passage in Matthew, Jesus has been maligned for healings which the pharisees have said were done through the assistance of demons. Jesus has therefore been accused of practices that are outside the realm of God and are evil. Here he's instructing his disciples in response to the beginnings of persecution, and what will come to them. Because he is already being accused of evil practices, they too will follow him. "A disciple is not above the teacher, nor the slave above the master." But by the same token, Jesus puts responsibility on the shoulders of his followers that they are to be fearless in going forward and doing what he does as well. Whatever he faces in terms of the judgment of men, so will they. But whatever he does in the name of God, so must they do, and they must share in his lot on all levels.

So, Jesus turns the accusations of demonical assistance upside down: he instructs his disciples that they are to fearlessly preach the word of God - and not to fear those who malign them and wish to do them harm but rather to fear God instead. I read in commentary that the word for "hell" is Gehenna. In Jewish history Gehenna (or the Valley of Hinnom) became a place of forbidden religious practices because a throne was established there for Molech, to whom children were offered as sacrifices. King Josiah put an end to these practices. By Jesus' time the valley had become a garbage dump that smoldered ceaselessly. Because of these associations, Gehenna acquired the connotation of punishment in the afterlife. So, essentially Jesus has taken an image from demon worship and turned the arguments of his accusers back against them. It is they who must fear the consequences of behavior that denies God's truth, and it is his disciples who are responsible for behavior that is loyal to that truth. They can no more ignore such responsibility than he can: it is their duty not to fear evil but instead to boldly preach what he tells them.

To act in the name of something or someone is to bear representation of that person. To act in the name of Caesar is to bear representation of Caesar, and for Jesus his instructions to his disciples emphasize that they are to remember in whose name they are at work, and bear responsibility to that name, that person. So, because of persecution, Jesus responds by exhorting them not to be careless (the passage just before this one includes the admonition to be "as wise and serpents and as gentle as doves"), but to vigorously undertake their mission of preaching - not to fear men but rather to do what must be done for the kingdom, and to boldly undertake as the means of going forward the job that is at hand. The imagery is vivid: what he whispers to them they must proclaim from the housetops; what they is said to them in the dark they must tell in the light.

As the persecution and the responsibilities of the Master are also theirs, so is their reward. They will follow in every measure the one in whose name they are acting. And beyond that: anyone who so much as offers a cup of water to the least of them will be offering it to Christ and to the Father. As they act in the name of God, so they bear that image within themselves, they carry the name and the persona into the world through the work they agree to do and the responsibility that they carry.

Perhaps what I love most about this passage is its reflection of the boldness of Jesus as a fighter: the vivid imagery and phrases used here are multiple and are still common in our every day language (i.e. "proclaim from the housetops"). Jesus takes the arguments against him and boldly turns the tables on his accusers in his own argument and exhortation to his disciples. This is fighting the good fight and it's a testimony to the bravery we understand is encountered through this spiritual work. He is rallying his own troops, bucking them up for the difficult road ahead but with the faith they must have in their mission. They work for the One whose authority should be feared, not for those who wish to cause them fear. It is that Father in heaven who is aware of all things, even the numbers of the hairs of their heads and the fate of the sparrows. I have to ask myself what I fail to speak out that I should speak, and what I fear that I should not fear.

Saturday, May 23, 2009

Whoever is least among you

On the next day, when they had come down from the mountain, a great crowd met him. Just then a man from the crowd shouted, ‘Teacher, I beg you to look at my son; he is my only child. Suddenly a spirit seizes him, and all at once he shrieks. It throws him into convulsions until he foams at the mouth; it mauls him and will scarcely leave him. I begged your disciples to cast it out, but they could not.’ Jesus answered, ‘You faithless and perverse generation, how much longer must I be with you and bear with you? Bring your son here.’ While he was coming, the demon dashed him to the ground in convulsions. But Jesus rebuked the unclean spirit, healed the boy, and gave him back to his father. And all were astounded at the greatness of God.

While everyone was amazed at all that he was doing, he said to his disciples, ‘Let these words sink into your ears: The Son of Man is going to be betrayed into human hands.’ But they did not understand this saying; its meaning was concealed from them, so that they could not perceive it. And they were afraid to ask him about this saying.

An argument arose among them as to which one of them was the greatest. But Jesus, aware of their inner thoughts, took a little child and put it by his side, and said to them, ‘Whoever welcomes this child in my name welcomes me, and whoever welcomes me welcomes the one who sent me; for the least among all of you shall be great.’

John answered, ‘Master, we saw someone casting out demons in your name, and we tried to stop him, because he does not follow with us.’ But Jesus said to him, ‘Do not stop him; for whoever is not against you is for you.’

- Luke 9:37-50

This grouping of passages from Luke, in my opinion, are hidden teachings about love and faith. That is, they teach us about the nature of this love and faith in this kingdom, and how relationship works in this spiritual realm of reality and being.

We first have the father, who out of love and concern for his only son, seeks Jesus out in the crowds to heal his son. We have here the familiar model of persistence: the disciples fail to heal his son, and so the father seeks Jesus himself for assistance. Jesus teaches us about relationship in this kingdom when he rebukes his own disciples for their lack of faith or belief. After the demon once again afflicts the son, Jesus himself "rebukes" the "unclean spirit" and the son is healed. So, we have here a kind of setting up of an order: there are those aligned with Jesus in love and faith, and there are those (the demon) who are set apart because they do not share in this relationship. Jesus shows his power in two ways: by telling his disciples their faith isn't strong, and by saving the child in rebuking the demon. I often ponder on this word translated as "rebuke" and it seems to me it is a kind of strict authority that is used - it's like giving an order, to charge someone in the sense of laying down authority, a command. So in this world of faith, we have help to protect us against that which is not a part of this world of healing and goodness (and which has clearly chosen not to be so), and at the same time it is our link in relatedness via faith that strongly cements us into that world. Again, the focus in Luke the Physician's gospel is on healing. Love, faith and health (in all senses of what it means to be human) are all linked.

But then there is interjected here, after Jesus' display of power and authority, the prediction Jesus reiterates to his disciples (after the Transfiguration vision) that he will be betrayed "into the hands of men." This power and authority does not extend to coercion of the free will of human beings. Jesus seeks out love and relatedness from willing hearts - and just so, he voluntarily goes to his fate as meted out at the hands of men as well. This is part of his plan, part of teaching what it means to be related in this world of faith and spirit. Human beings have free will; ultimately for judgment to work, for "death" to be defeated, Jesus must face his life and his death with regard for the truth about whatever is in the hearts of men - and not by compelling any of us to love him. This is a hard teaching about authority in this kingdom, but the apostles are not ready to hear it and to understand it.

We are given an illustration next about the notions of authority and rank that the apostles (predictably) continue to hold. They are still expecting Lordship, messiahship that is all-powerful as in the worldly notions of power and authority. So they begin to dispute about who will have rank in this kingdom, and which ones among them should occupy the places of highest honor. Jesus' teaching here is very poignant: even a little child (the lowest social rank possible, with no authority whatsoever, and a symbol of dependency) ranks not only equal with Christ, but those who receive the child in his name also receive the Father in his name. If we are related in love and faith, it gives us radical spiritual citizenship of equality in a kingdom. The lowest among us represents even the Father himself by acts committed in the name of Christ, so the child carries even the image of the Father. In this kingdom, rank and citizenship are synonymous with faith and relatedness, so that all other notions of rank disappear. Again, this is a voluntary citizenship, and its rules do not apply as rules of authority and power in worldly kingdoms.

And finally, we have yet another teaching on authority and relatedness. Somewhere there are disparate believers: another man is calling himself a believer and casting out demons in Jesus' name - another expression of healing power that acts against that which is not part of this kingdom. But even those whom Jesus' closest companions do not know are related in faith. Jesus goes far enough to explain this very explicitly to us: Do not stop him; for whoever is not against you is for you. We are to understand that those who share our faith, even if they are not part of our immediate group, are also working with us. Faith and relationship are extended through this kingdom, wherever it may be found, and we must respect that relationship.

I have to remark on these notions of healing and health, and correctness in relationship and relatedness - prior to his death, Jesus teaches about authority and power in this kingdom, who is eligible for citizenship, and what does not belong. Presented in this book of Luke, where so much emphasis is on health and healing, I cannot help but see these teachings and this writing in terms of what is spiritually healthy and what constitutes healthy relationship. Jesus is laying down a pattern for authority that respects human will, that is not coercive but wishes to know what is truly present in each heart - if this were not so there could be no judgment that was honest either. But for those in this voluntary relationship of the kingdom, the nature and tone of our relationship is essential for us to understand; what constitutes healthy relationship and relatedness, and true authority and leadership, are also essential for us as followers to understand so that we remain healthy ourselves in this kingdom. How could we improve our relationships (or at least our tolerance) via this model - even with other believers with whom we don't necessarily see eye to eye in day to day practice or are not a part of our group? Or even with those who are the least among our own?

Friday, May 22, 2009


Now about eight days after these sayings Jesus took with him Peter and John and James, and went up on the mountain to pray. And while he was praying, the appearance of his face changed, and his clothes became dazzling white. Suddenly they saw two men, Moses and Elijah, talking to him. They appeared in glory and were speaking of his departure, which he was about to accomplish at Jerusalem. Now Peter and his companions were weighed down with sleep; but since they had stayed awake, they saw his glory and the two men who stood with him. Just as they were leaving him, Peter said to Jesus, ‘Master, it is good for us to be here; let us make three dwellings, one for you, one for Moses, and one for Elijah’—not knowing what he said. While he was saying this, a cloud came and overshadowed them; and they were terrified as they entered the cloud. Then from the cloud came a voice that said, ‘This is my Son, my Chosen; listen to him!’ When the voice had spoken, Jesus was found alone. And they kept silent and in those days told no one any of the things they had seen.

- Luke 9:28-36

There are many things written about this moment, the Transfiguration, and many things that we can find written into this text of a highly symbolic nature. Moses and Elijah, respectively, reflect the Law and the Prophets. The cloud that covers the disciples is reminiscent of the cloud on Mt. Sinai, and leading Moses and the Israelites to a new land - a symbol of God's presence. The voice coming from the cloud also a reflection of the story of Moses and the leading of the Israelites through the wilderness, and God's extraordinary presence to them. Peter's asking to build three "dwellings" is a recollection of the Festival of Tabernacles (or Booths) which is a festival celebrating the coming of a new Kingdom, which would make sense given Peter's religious background and understanding of this moment. Finally, again paralleling the journey of Moses and the Israelites, the word "departure" in Greek is exodos - Jesus' "departure" from Jerusalem (his crucifixion and resurrection) is the exodus into that new kingdom.

For the Orthodox church (I am currently visiting Athens, Greece), this is a very special event because it is considered a theophany, a revelation of the Divine, and especially of Jesus' divinity. But it's also important in the sense that Jesus' transfiguration in this divine light is a reflection of our own transformation to which we aspire, and also a foreshadowing of all those who will dwell in the kingdom. This glorification is seen as a reflection of life in that kingdom - and Moses and Elijah as the presence of the communion of saints in that kingdom, where God is the "God of the living and not the dead." We are all unified in that light and that cloud, all hearers of the word from that voice, and all witnesses to this revelation of the divine nature of Christ.

The icons of the Transfiguration portray this light as something different from what we normally experience as light in the world - it's given a blue tinge to symbolize its divine, ineffable origin. (See icon above, by Theophanes the Greek, late 14th cent.)

But I think the most important part of this story for us all, today, regardless of our religious backgrounds, is that this light is meant for us all. This light, with its divine origin, is something into which we can all enter, and at moments of transfiguration in our own lives, we seek its divine energy, resources and rejuvenation for ourselves. At times when we are alone and pray, we too ask for such transfigurative and revelatory experiences. We ask for illumination in the form of wisdom, or a better way to live our lives, or the way forward through our own wrestlings with difficult choices. We seek the strength and resourcefulness to put new plans from "outside the box" into action, or help in exchanging our own behaviors or old ways of thinking for something better. If we seek that which the Divine wishes for us to do in order to bear this light in the world, we also seek such experience, however subtle or less than earth-shattering, except perhaps to ourselves as a saving grace. Our day to day experience of life as part of this kingdom must also include our own transfiguration through time, through our lives, one moment at a time. We too, may enter into participation in this kingdom through this divine light, at whatever level or corner of our lives - no matter how mundane - in which we need that light to shine for us.

Thursday, May 21, 2009

I am with you always

Now the eleven disciples went to Galilee, to the mountain to which Jesus had directed them. When they saw him, they worshipped him; but some doubted. And Jesus came and said to them, ‘All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything that I have commanded you. And remember, I am with you always, to the end of the age.’

- Matthew 28:16-20

Today we celebrate Ascension Day, and the reading is appropriate to the day. I think it's important to consider the elements of this passage from Matthew in the context of the fact that Jesus has become now fully revealed as Divine, fully vested with all power and authority. He has completed his successful mission in the world, his preaching and public ministry as a human being is over, and a new chapter begins for the apostles and disciples.

There are several things to consider in terms of the power and authority that Jesus has now been given and that are revealed as His nature to his apostles. First of all we have to consider what it is that he has now completed. This is significant because he announces to his apostles that "All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me." This is an annunciation that seems to indicate a specific and significant time or event has occurred. In the epistle reading for today, from St. Paul's letter to the Hebrews (Chapter 2), Paul writes:

It was fitting that God, for whom and through whom all things exist, in bringing many children to glory, should make the pioneer of their salvation perfect through sufferings. For the one who sanctifies and those who are sanctified all have one Father.

Jesus has completed this mission of suffering and death. It is not until he has completed this mission as incarnate human being that all power is vested in him in terms of the complete authority he now assumes. While we trust his divine nature was already full as the incarnate Jesus, it is clear that the completion of his "perfection through sufferings" has given him a new status, or more fully vested him with the authority and power of the Son who is an equal and co-creator with the Father and has been given "all authority in heaven and on earth." It is his mission to us and for us that has given him this status, this fully vested condition of authority he now assumes that is announced to the disciples. I don't think that time applies to the nature of Spirit and the Divine in the same way that it applies to us, but it is clear that this full vesting of power is realized or made manifest because of his mission to us and for us in this world.

I think it's important to understand the full nature of redemptive power inherent in this story of Jesus, and its ending with Ascension - and Jesus' annunciation of the fullness of his power and glory. It is now that the apostles worship him, for he has become fully Lord in the Divine sense. It is Jesus' service to us through suffering and death that has assured this fullness of divine power, authority and status.

Paul continues:

Since, therefore, the children share flesh and blood, he himself likewise shared the same things, so that through death he might destroy the one who has the power of death, that is, the devil, and free those who all their lives were held in slavery by the fear of death.

Somehow it is inherent in Jesus' ascension that he is fully Lord because he has also been human, and on human terms has endured the sufferings and evil that we struggle with in our world. If we follow the divine law that seems to be at work here, we see that it is only through service to those who suffer and struggle that true authority and status are conferred. If the Creator is reflected in the creature, it is also the Creator who, by his own nature, must bear the sufferings of the creature in order to fully realize the completion of the full power and authority of Divinity. The holiness of God is fully manifest because of God's suffering with us.

Redemptive grace is truly the element that fully restores Jesus as Lord. The Greek word for the status of this Risen Lord is "Pantokrator" - all powerful. When we face our own tests in life, we should remember that even the Divine Lord could not fully realize his power and authority until death and suffering and evil were defeated by him in the person of a human being. It is for us to understand that, as St. Paul has written elsewhere, God's strength is made perfect in our weakness. Jesus has fully realized his power as Divine Being as redemptive savior who has shown us the way to bear our own sufferings, and invited us to share in the journey of redemption, and the spiritual struggle of "the good fight."

And remember, I am with you always, to the end of the age.

Wednesday, May 20, 2009

Consider the lilies

He said to his disciples, ‘Therefore I tell you, do not worry about your life, what you will eat, or about your body, what you will wear. For life is more than food, and the body more than clothing. Consider the ravens: they neither sow nor reap, they have neither storehouse nor barn, and yet God feeds them. Of how much more value are you than the birds! And can any of you by worrying add a single hour to your span of life? If then you are not able to do so small a thing as that, why do you worry about the rest? Consider the lilies, how they grow: they neither toil nor spin; yet I tell you, even Solomon in all his glory was not clothed like one of these. But if God so clothes the grass of the field, which is alive today and tomorrow is thrown into the oven, how much more will he clothe you—you of little faith! And do not keep striving for what you are to eat and what you are to drink, and do not keep worrying. For it is the nations of the world that strive after all these things, and your Father knows that you need them. Instead, strive for his kingdom, and these things will be given to you as well.
- Luke 12:22-31

These daily readings are arranged quite complementarily, I find. Although the passages from yesterday and today do not immediately follow one another in the gospel, in today's gospel reading we have a "balancing over" in the words of Christ to the teachings on prayer of yesterday's reading. While yesterday's teaching on prayer emphasized the kingdom and its nature, and what those who seek it must pray for, today's teaching is another way to view the cares of the daily world we normally have. Yesterday's teaching on prayer emphasized the spirituality of that for which we pray, and what we should emphasize. Today's readings are a teaching about unecessary worry and anxiety.

It's interesting to note all of this teaching on what we might call detachment - the futility of excessive worry and over-absorption with accumulation. It seems to me that Jesus is teaching his disciples what their priorities are - that they should first seek the kingdom, that this should be their goal. Over-worry and dwelling on purely material acquisition is not the right priority, it's got to be put into its place, falling behind what we seek first, the keys to the kingdom and the wisdom of Spirit.

In this (and overall in the gospels) I don't see Jesus discounting for a moment our needs and our abilities to work, to create and to build a good and healthy and beautiful life in the world. Instead I see this as a ranking in priority, a setting down of life's order. If we seek wisdom, if we seek the Spirit of wisdom and truth, and we lay our lives in service to the Good, then the material must follow. The famous passage about the beauty of the lilies (which inspired my choice for my blog's photo, above) is famous because we all understand the truth in the statement. Creation is beautiful, the world is full of beauty - that which we worship is not blind to our need for beauty and care. But we must dwell on the source of that goodness, that creation, and so the rest is a part of that life in which we share a perspective of the immanence of that goodness in the creation. Our minds can create and plan and develop endless resources and ideas for a good life in this world - but this must follow service to meanings and values and goals that set down order and beauty, and give us purpose.

It is my point of view that in prayer we must understand that what we seek is something to be added to the day to day, that unlimits us in terms of our cares and concerns. It is like adding an extra layer of experience and beauty to life to focus on the gifts of Spirit, and seeking wisdom as part of that gift, so that we may know how to plan our lives better and use resources wisely and for good purpose. A focus purely on the mundane gives us a kind of existence where greed and limitation purely to selfishness can flourish, and all the accompanying behaviors and social ills we know too well. If we set our priorities straight in prayer, we are able the better to appreciate the beauty of life, and the splendour that we can find in our world. We should remember that Beauty is one of the names of God, and so that which we seek does not discount the bounty nor the immanent beauty of life in our world. But we must get our priorities straight, and understand that it is for the revelation of this kingdom to us that we pray, and that we have the strength and proper priorities in order to build it and use our talents wisely, and with good purpose. If we seek the Good, and the wisdom and discernment of Love, might we not use our capacities in a better way?

For life is more than food, and the body more than clothing.

Tuesday, May 19, 2009

Give us this day our daily bread

He was praying in a certain place, and after he had finished, one of his disciples said to him, ‘Lord, teach us to pray, as John taught his disciples.’ He said to them, ‘When you pray, say:
Father, hallowed be your name.
Your kingdom come.
Give us each day our daily bread.
And forgive us our sins,
for we ourselves forgive everyone indebted to us.
And do not bring us to the time of trial,
but deliver us from evil.’
And he said to them, ‘Suppose one of you has a friend, and you go to him at midnight and say to him, “Friend, lend me three loaves of bread; for a friend of mine has arrived, and I have nothing to set before him.” And he answers from within, “Do not bother me; the door has already been locked, and my children are with me in bed; I cannot get up and give you anything.” I tell you, even though he will not get up and give him anything because he is his friend, at least because of his persistence he will get up and give him whatever he needs.

‘So I say to you, Ask, and it will be given to you; search, and you will find; knock, and the door will be opened for you. For everyone who asks receives, and everyone who searches finds, and for everyone who knocks, the door will be opened. Is there anyone among you who, if your child asks for a fish, will give a snake instead of a fish? Or if the child asks for an egg, will give a scorpion? If you then, who are evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will the heavenly Father give the Holy Spirit to those who ask him!’

- Luke 11:1-13

This passage in Luke comes after several important passages of teaching and missionary activity. The Seventy are sent out on another apostolic mission, and Jesus tells them they have power over many things - that prophets have sought to know what they know. There has also been the passage of the Good Samaritan, and other significant teachings. One thing of note in English translations is the phrase in the Lord's prayer, "but deliver us from evil." For some reason, this phrase is missing from several modern English versions (although not from the King James), but because it's definitely there in the original Greek, I leave it in. It's also important to note that often this is translated in Greek Orthodox texts as, "deliver us from the Evil one" because in Matthew (which contains the version of the prayer used in the church), the word "evil" is in the nominative form. In other words, Jesus is referring to Satan. Since this is significant in the original language, I don't think it should be skipped over.

Another important note of translation here is the word that we use as "daily" (as in "daily bread"). The original Greek word used here is epiousion. This is a very rare word, which seems to have been created specifically for this literature of the gospels. One Greek Orthodox commentary uses the word "essential" to translate the meaning of the word as used. If we take its literal form, it seems to translate "suprasubstantial." At any rate, this particular bread that is being referred to is spiritual bread - again reminding us of the manna in the wilderness and the feeding of the 5,000. But more importantly, the Eucharistic bread - the spiritual food with which we need to be fed to sustain our spiritual lives.

So from our efforts at noting important aspects of translation, we see here two important ideas: there is the focus on the allegory of bread to spiritual food, and also the understanding of what it means to be delivered from that which is evil; and in such focus the spiritual nature of these words, in my opinion, becomes more clear and more stressed. Quite often we think of praying for what we want in some physical sense of need or desire. But it is my opinion that Jesus is emphasizing that which once again is hidden in allegory: those who want the kingdom are eligible for its rewards. Just as in the passage from Matthew we were given recently, the things Jesus is referring to that we seek are spiritual things. Jesus' life and activity has been taken up with bringing in new workers for the kingdom, and sharing his spiritual power with them so that they, too, may do the missionary work he has brought into the world. So when we see the word "bread" used here, we must think of the spiritual focus of this word as analogy to that which we hunger for as spiritual seekers, as those who really want (and need) this gift.

Of course, Jesus makes this clear in the passage when he says, If you then, who are evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will the heavenly Father give the Holy Spirit to those who ask him! I believe that we who read these passages now must focus on the spiritual nature of these words and this prayer. These are not magical incantations for whatever material desire we set our sights on, but rather are prayers for initiating and sustaining the spiritual life, with the focus on worship. In addition, it's important to note the form of the prayer in first person plural: Our Father... give us this day our daily bread... forgive us... , etc. This is a prayer for a particular community. I think we have been assured elsewhere that Our Father is aware of all of our needs: physical, spiritual and otherwise. But here (and there) the focus is on the primacy of putting membership in this kingdom first, as the great gift we've been given. If we think of this prayer as a sort of roadmap of the journey forward into a life that is responsible to the Good, and that asks to participate in building this kingdom, we will set our sights on an understanding that we are asked to be further initiated into wisdom and enlightenment as to how to proceed and live our lives. We ask for guidance and the discernment we need to live a good life of meaning and devotion. We should not forget that it is this for which we pray: for that which will give us a suprasubstantial life, one packed with meanings and values which multiply with time, for life in abundance.

Monday, May 18, 2009

Let them take up their cross daily

Once when Jesus was praying alone, with only the disciples near him, he asked them, ‘Who do the crowds say that I am?’ They answered, ‘John the Baptist; but others, Elijah; and still others, that one of the ancient prophets has arisen.’ He said to them, ‘But who do you say that I am?’ Peter answered, ‘The Messiah of God.’

He sternly ordered and commanded them not to tell anyone, saying, ‘The Son of Man must undergo great suffering, and be rejected by the elders, chief priests, and scribes, and be killed, and on the third day be raised.’

Then he said to them all, ‘If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross daily and follow me. For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake will save it. What does it profit them if they gain the whole world, but lose or forfeit themselves? Those who are ashamed of me and of my words, of them the Son of Man will be ashamed when he comes in his glory and the glory of the Father and of the holy angels. But truly I tell you, there are some standing here who will not taste death before they see the kingdom of God.’

- Luke 9:18-27

In this passage, Jesus continues the theme we encountered in the previous passage of Luke (on Saturday), when Herod asked who Jesus was and began to be curious about him. Jesus is becoming now a public phenomenon; there are rumors swirling about who he is. Here again, the apostles report to Jesus what the crowds say about him; they are the same rumors heard by Herod Antipas. I read in commentary that the crowds are seldom correct in the gospels - in fact most frequently the opinion of the crowds is discounted and downright wrong. This mission for the kingdom is not about pleasing the crowd. Jesus and his disciples are now in a sense outsiders knocking at a door - the leaven brought into the crowd will change it in a certain way, and there will also be those for whom this word will not take fruitful root. I think it is important to note this sense of "outsider" status; that our worship of God is not just following along with the crowds, and the apostles learn this important lesson in this passage.

Furthermore, although Peter understands and discerns who Jesus is, Jesus tells his apostles they must not announce Jesus' identity to the crowds. Although they are healing in Jesus' name, they are casting out demons, and preaching the good news of the kingdom - they are still not to identify Jesus as the Messiah. From my perspective, this is quite remarkable to note. This mission is about the kingdom: as much as we today identify this kingdom with Jesus himself, Jesus' interest is in the unfolding of this preaching, this word, the seed of the kingdom, in the proper way. I read (again in commentary) that Jesus doesn't want the imposition of the expectations and political misunderstanding that would come with the crowds if his Messiahship were the public focus of the ministry. I can quite understand why this would be a problem. It also tells me that there is a time for things to be revealed, and a time to engage in a process with patience. This is a type of unfolding that must happen in the proper sequence and in its own time. Again, going back to Jesus' parables, this kingdom must manifest itself not by radical action, or any type of hard-hitting imposition, but by a kind of "natural" process, as the leaven reaches into all the flour, as the seed of a mustard bush takes root and grows.

Furthermore, there's a test that happens here: Jesus wants true believers. He doesn't want those who are swayed by title or rhetoric, but who will love truth. He wants true relatedness, and true relationship - love. He knows of his future persecution and the reasons for it, and it is important for his purposes that people act on what is on their hearts. For me this is a signal that he truly begins the time of Judgment with his advent as a human being in our world. We are still in a time of judgment, where the weeds and wheat grow side by side, and we must not forget this. It requires our discernment - but we leave the ultimate time of its manifestation beyond our abilities to know or discern. We are still in this period of time initiated by Jesus' ministry.

But now, here in this passage, Jesus elaborates on what it means to follow him. There are times of trial that await those who follow. This process of leavening happens through the choice to follow the word, to enter the kingdom, and to allow this sacrifice of the old self to proceed at every junction, with each choice. We must learn to renounce ourselves, in the sense that when we take up a cross, we are then given new identity through this process. We expect to be changed, to transform by our "yes" to the word as our lives "naturally" take shape through this influence, as the seed grows to a great bush in which even the birds can make their nests. It requires of us a type of diligence and detachment, an awareness that change in us means that we must be prepared to put aside notions of who we think we have to be -- the "shoulds" and "musts" that tend to go along with the overvaluing of the opinions of the crowds.

As Jesus prays alone, he shares this knowledge with his apostles, his inside circle. We too, must remember what it is like to be alone in prayer with the Word, and to take definition of self and truth in our hearts sincerely, and with detachment from the crowds, and discernment for the wisdom that teaches us how to grow in the way of truth. We must make room for this in our lives, and let this word take root in ourselves.

Sunday, May 17, 2009

The kingdom of heaven

He put before them another parable: ‘The kingdom of heaven may be compared to someone who sowed good seed in his field; but while everybody was asleep, an enemy came and sowed weeds among the wheat, and then went away. So when the plants came up and bore grain, then the weeds appeared as well. And the slaves of the householder came and said to him, “Master, did you not sow good seed in your field? Where, then, did these weeds come from?” He answered, “An enemy has done this.” The slaves said to him, “Then do you want us to go and gather them?” But he replied, “No; for in gathering the weeds you would uproot the wheat along with them. Let both of them grow together until the harvest; and at harvest time I will tell the reapers, Collect the weeds first and bind them in bundles to be burned, but gather the wheat into my barn.” ’

He put before them another parable: ‘The kingdom of heaven is like a mustard seed that someone took and sowed in his field; it is the smallest of all the seeds, but when it has grown it is the greatest of shrubs and becomes a tree, so that the birds of the air come and make nests in its branches.’

He told them another parable: ‘The kingdom of heaven is like yeast that a woman took and mixed in with three measures of flour until all of it was leavened.’

Jesus told the crowds all these things in parables; without a parable he told them nothing.

- Matthew 13:24-34a

Jesus' parables are interesting simply by virtue of the fact that I try to picture myself listening to them as one of the crowd. Since he spoke in these "riddles" to the crowds, we must understand that rather than the preaching and explanations and extended doctrine and understanding we're treated to as believers, the crowd only would have heard these parables. As we've said here before, the parables themselves work as seed: those who thirst for more will find the word taking root within them.

Here Jesus first expands on the parable of the Sower (see commentary here). After the word, the seed, the truth, is sown, comes the adversary, sowing falsehood. Commentary I read points out that the false resembles the true: the weeds and wheat are similar - they resemble one another, and it's difficult to uproot one without uprooting the other. After true prophets come false prophets, and after Christ, Antichrist. The "enemy" (the devil) comes while everybody is asleep, reminding us always that we need to "pay attention to how we listen" so that truth magnifies in us and we are able to use discernment. Clearly whatever doctrine and teaching, true and false, will come about during these times before Judgment is to be allowed to grow together, the good and the bad, the false and the true - and this applies, obviously, to all of us. To create upheaval trying root out the one will disrupt the other. So, it's up to us to be aware ourselves, and to understand we don't live in a perfect world, but we do share responsibility for our own discernment.

Jesus goes on to teach two other parables, about the properties of the kingdom of heaven. These properties reflect the properties in the story from Luke yesterday of the distribution of food to feed 5,000 people. The small grain of the mustard seed, planted in a field, grows to become a large shrub so that it even shelters the birds. Mustard seeds are one of the tiniest, and the shrubs grow to be large and hardy - enough to shelter the birds. According to a Wikipedia article: "Their growth is persistent and powerful enough to crack cement when growing." That's quite a good metaphor for the word that grows and expands to include so much over time. Jesus is telling us a parable about himself and his word - despite the weeds, it will take root and grow.

He compares the kingdom to a little yeast, which leavens three measures of flour. The message here is clear - that the word Jesus is preaching has potency - it will grow and magnify and transform all that is around it. The weeds will spring up, but they will not defeat the word, and those who carry that word in them must be persistent. He's giving us faith in the potency of that word and the energy it uses in this world to build itself and to sustain us. These parables also work as analogy on the individual scale: if we persist in pursuit of that faith as a seed that's planted in us, we will find ourselves and our lives hopefully transformed over time, and bearing fruit, growing - despite our own natural flaws.

Perhaps what I like best about these parables, aside from their obviously intriguing (and to me, delightful) way of drawing us into mystery, asking us if we want this thing he's teaching us about - is the faith that is put into a highly natural process. Naturally, we will have weeds with which to contend. Naturally, we must take the bad with the good. Naturally, leaven mingles with the flour, and naturally the small mustard seed grows remarkably into a hardy great bush, with formidable and tenacious gradual growth. These are things that reassure - this is not a great, dangerous upheaval; the Judgment and fire come in a time that we don't know and aren't to concern ourselves with at this time. This is now a time for growth, and patience, endurance and persistence: and gently, for it's a natural process, not harsh. It's in tune with the world and its ways of growth.

I love the image of the mustard seed - may the tiniest seed grow for you to a great and hardy bush, so that the birds may nest and sing in its branches. Jesus told the crowds all these things in parables; without a parable he told them nothing. May this process be as gentle and as intriguing for you as Jesus' parables would be to those crowds. There is nothing heavy-handed here - without a parable he told them nothing - the seed will grow in its own time, in the good soil.

Saturday, May 16, 2009

Feeding the Five Thousand

Then Jesus called the twelve together and gave them power and authority over all demons and to cure diseases, and he sent them out to proclaim the kingdom of God and to heal. He said to them, ‘Take nothing for your journey, no staff, nor bag, nor bread, nor money—not even an extra tunic. Whatever house you enter, stay there, and leave from there. Wherever they do not welcome you, as you are leaving that town shake the dust off your feet as a testimony against them.’ They departed and went through the villages, bringing the good news and curing diseases everywhere.

Now Herod the ruler heard about all that had taken place, and he was perplexed, because it was said by some that John had been raised from the dead, by some that Elijah had appeared, and by others that one of the ancient prophets had arisen. Herod said, ‘John I beheaded; but who is this about whom I hear such things?’ And he tried to see him.

On their return the apostles told Jesus all they had done. He took them with him and withdrew privately to a city called Bethsaida. When the crowds found out about it, they followed him; and he welcomed them, and spoke to them about the kingdom of God, and healed those who needed to be cured.

The day was drawing to a close, and the twelve came to him and said, ‘Send the crowd away, so that they may go into the surrounding villages and countryside, to lodge and get provisions; for we are here in a deserted place.’ But he said to them, ‘You give them something to eat.’ They said, ‘We have no more than five loaves and two fish—unless we are to go and buy food for all these people.’ For there were about five thousand men. And he said to his disciples, ‘Make them sit down in groups of about fifty each.’ They did so and made them all sit down. And taking the five loaves and the two fish, he looked up to heaven, and blessed and broke them, and gave them to the disciples to set before the crowd. And all ate and were filled. What was left over was gathered up, twelve baskets of broken pieces.

- Luke 9:1-17

Blogging the daily readings, I never plan in advance what I'm going to write. I read the readings in the morning (which I receive via email - see "Daily Lectionary" link at left), and I post them on a blank blog post screen. I read what commentary is at hand, in reference books or online to get some facts straight that scholarship can provide. Then I read them through thoroughly and carefully and see what ideas come to me. I have a degree in English, and so I tend to approach the text the same way I did the literary texts in my college years, sensing what meanings are there for me. It's always a surprise what I find, and always worrying that I may have exhausted any ideas I have on these readings long before the present one, especially as stories repeat themselves in different gospels. Today was similar; and also, similarly, after I begun reading there were so many ideas in this passage that struck me. To include them all would make the passage much longer than I wish for - so I'll have to save something, hopefully, for the future.

First of all, it's always been striking to me about this particular passage that Jesus instructs his apostles - here sent out on the first apostolic mission - not to take any care for physical provisions: no extra clothes, no extra money, no planning in advance of where to stay. This is a journey where all dependence is on God, and clearly a journey of faith. The journey itself is made in an extension of Jesus' spiritual power: he has invested his disciples with his spiritual power - to preach, to heal disease and to cast out demons (all of which can be seen as forms of healing). They are to stay in whichever home is first offered, and if there is no room offerred and no one wishes to listen in a town, they are merely to shake the dust off their feet and move on. I think this is quite an example for us today, in the sense that we should remember that people are free to listen or not, and we should remain detached in the same sense. This blog is not a form of strict biblical scholarship produced according to doctrine of one church or another (and I have no degree in any theological field), and all are free to read or not, and I like that. But I am free to persist as long as there seems to be something to write. But back to the apostles, Christ is extending himself through them, and he is beginning to share the work of the kingdom - giving us the example of how spirit works as delegator. This spiritual power is shared and spread through relationship and community. The world wide web may serve also as our virtual interlinking of communities, and all are free to "listen" (read) or not.

Herod Antipas hears of all the goings on and wishes to meet Jesus. He wonders who Jesus is; he's very curious about him. This is the same Herod - a ruler of Galilee under Rome - who will be present at Jesus' trial; he will meet Jesus when Pilate sends Jesus to him. The kingdom is in its birth; it is becoming publicly known as an entity with which public figures will have to contend.

In Jesus' feeding of the five thousand, we find a continuation of the understanding of metaphor to the church. The apostles are sent out, bearing spiritual power and the message of the kingdom, just as the churches do today. The feeding of the hungry is a metaphor for spiritual power to feed us in ways in which we hunger and thirst, that the world alone can't necessarily provide for us. Jesus divides up the bread out of his own power (a mastery over nature) as they are in the wilderness - there is the same lack of dependence on material provision, the thoughts in these passages are for the work for the kingdom alone. He has the group of 5,000 divide themselves up into 100 groups of fifty each: an appropriate metaphor for churches. The leftover baskets of broken pieces are twelve - as are the apostles just returned from their first mission.

The breaking of the bread, with Jesus giving thanks and looking to heaven as he does so, is clearly a metaphor for what happens in the Eucharistic service - and also for the feeding by manna in the wilderness, so it is also a clear sign of Messiahship to the crowds. The two fish we must remember are already a metaphor, as Jesus told his fishermen that they'd become fishers of men. The fish would become an early symbol of Christianity via its classical Greek form - transliterating into English we'd spell it IXThYS (pronounced "eekh-THEES"). It worked as an acronym, with each letter standing for a word in the phrase: Jesus Christ, God's Son, Savior (Iesus Xristos Theou Yios Sotir).

Finally, I'm reminded of the beautiful words in the Eurcharistic Liturgy of St. John Chrysostom, which the priest is to say as he breaks the bread for communion:

The Lamb of God is broken and distributed;

broken but not divided,

Forever eaten yet never consumed,

but sanctifying those who partake.

Just as Jesus' spiritual power is distributed to the disciples, to the churches, to us today, and we are fed with spiritual food, so it is the nature of this eucharistic life and this gift. I wonder in what ways we can see this nature of spirit and spiritual power at work in our own lives, and a eucharistic spirit apply to our lives in the world today. I don't think its nature has changed, but we must also be alive to it in ways it works in our own lives, even (and perhaps especially) when we feel ourselves to be in a wilderness of any kind.