Saturday, February 28, 2009

No Deceit

The next day Jesus decided to go to Galilee. He found Philip and said to him, ‘Follow me.’ Now Philip was from Bethsaida, the city of Andrew and Peter. Philip found Nathanael and said to him, ‘We have found him about whom Moses in the law and also the prophets wrote, Jesus son of Joseph from Nazareth.’ Nathanael said to him, ‘Can anything good come out of Nazareth?’ Philip said to him, ‘Come and see.’ When Jesus saw Nathanael coming towards him, he said of him, ‘Here is truly an Israelite in whom there is no deceit!’ Nathanael asked him, ‘Where did you come to know me?’ Jesus answered, ‘I saw you under the fig tree before Philip called you.’ Nathanael replied, ‘Rabbi, you are the Son of God! You are the King of Israel!’ Jesus answered, ‘Do you believe because I told you that I saw you under the fig tree? You will see greater things than these.’ And he said to him, ‘Very truly, I tell you,* you will see heaven opened and the angels of God ascending and descending upon the Son of Man.’

-John 1:43-51

So what does it mean that Nathanael asks, "Can anything good come out of Nazareth?" First of all, it's clear that Nazareth doesn't sound like a particularly impressive place. Bethlehem, the home of David and the city proclaimed to be the one from which the Messiah will come, would definitely sound more impressive. But Nazareth? He might as well be from anywhere.

Nathanael speaks his mind. Nothing wishy-washy about him. "Can anything good come out of Nazareth?" Tell me another one. But Jesus just seems to laugh. He doesn't correct him, or point out his real birthplace. No, this is a gospel about a different value system. Jesus says that Nathanael is "an Israelite indeed, in whom there is no deceit." Nathanael speaks his mind. And Jesus goes on to speak his own mind, and to tell Nathanael what he knows. He may not have heard the remark made to Philip, but he knows Nathanael through and through. And Nathanael is impressed enough to decide right then and there who Jesus is.

This is a story about what it means to be straightforward, to be honest, to have no deceit in oneself. There is Jesus who stands so far in truth that he knows people perhaps more deeply than they know themselves. We should not forget that it was in the previous text that he named Simon "Peter," the "Rock." Before he met Nathanael, he knew who he was, he'd peered into his soul. "In whom there is no deceit" is one whom Jesus already knew.

Can there be any good thing that comes from Nazareth? What we need to know is what there is in the heart.

Blessed are the pure in heart, for they shall see God.

Friday, February 27, 2009

The Lamb of God

The next day John again was standing with two of his disciples, and as he watched Jesus walk by, he exclaimed, ‘Look, here is the Lamb of God!’ The two disciples heard him say this, and they followed Jesus. When Jesus turned and saw them following, he said to them, ‘What are you looking for?’ They said to him, ‘Rabbi’ (which translated means Teacher), ‘where are you staying?’ He said to them, ‘Come and see.’ They came and saw where he was staying, and they remained with him that day. It was about four o’clock in the afternoon. One of the two who heard John speak and followed him was Andrew, Simon Peter’s brother. He first found his brother Simon and said to him, ‘We have found the Messiah’ (which is translated Anointed). He brought Simon to Jesus, who looked at him and said, ‘You are Simon son of John. You are to be called Cephas’ (which is translated Peter).
- John 1:35-42

What does it mean to call Jesus the "Lamb of God?" My first thoughts conjure up not-very-pleasant things, like the sacrifice of a lamb to God. But truly, we should think a little more about this, and I think it warrants some consideration. A sheep first of all - or more specifically, a lamb - is one that follows. The lamb is devoted to his shepherd, the one that leads him. So first of all I believe we should consider the Lamb of God to be a title of great honor in the sense that this holy man is indeed a chosen follower of God, of unquestioning loyalty to God.

I also think of the unblemished lamb as the great sacrifice, as Jesus would give himself in order to minister to us and to bring us to reconciliation with God, to give us his Holy Spirit. But I think there is more to this symbolism than only sacrifice. I think that in this Lamb we must remember salvation, that he is willing to do a job for our salvation, to show us a way out of our distress, and to bring us into a place where we have hope for something, and spiritual aid that we did not have before. This is the Lamb of God for me. He is the lamb that helps us to be redeemed, transformed - who loses his life so that we may find ours.

Appropriately, this particular passage ends with the naming of Peter. Jesus has already spotted the man who will be his most volatile, changing, emotional apostle, and christened him "Rock." In that naming, the Logos has spoken the new, transformed nature that will be the result of baptism in Spirit, the process of transformation unleashed by Jesus' sacrifice and mission in the world. Let us remember we are all lambs as we follow to do our own part for the redemption and transformation through us.

Thursday, February 26, 2009

Rebirth and Revelation

The next day he saw Jesus coming towards him and declared, ‘Here is the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world! This is he of whom I said, “After me comes a man who ranks ahead of me because he was before me.” I myself did not know him; but I came baptizing with water for this reason, that he might be revealed to Israel.’ And John testified, ‘I saw the Spirit descending from heaven like a dove, and it remained on him. I myself did not know him, but the one who sent me to baptize with water said to me, “He on whom you see the Spirit descend and remain is the one who baptizes with the Holy Spirit.” And I myself have seen and have testified that this is the Son of God.’
- John 1:29-34

John comes baptizing, in hopes of the revelation of the Savior. I think it's fitting that we have a symbolic death which is the birth of the Savior's revelation. Baptism is a symbol for death - the covering or immersion in water is a symbol for death, and hence rebirth. To baptize is to lose the old life, to pray for renewal, to be reborn. But the rebirth in Spirit is to come by another hand.

So, fittingly, Jesus' ministry begins with death and rebirth, just as it would end, in the hopes of resurrection and salvation. John is the prophet who tells us of his coming and to whom his true nature is revealed. In the Orthodox church, this event is called Ephiphany or Theophany, because it is the revelation of the Trinity: the voice of the Father, the revelation of the Son in Jesus, and the Holy Spirit in the form of the dove descending. It is also the beginning of Jesus' public ministry, so revelation - and rebirth - is happening here in more than one way.

As we enter into Lent, I think it's important to think of death and rebirth, salvation and redemption. Baptism may wash us clean, but this cleanliness is for a purpose, for a rebirth into something. We ask to be made whole through repentence or reflection, but it's important to remember we are also entering into something, and that the baptism we await is in Spirit. To what are we reborn? Into what is this new life asking us to be reborn? What new nature is being revealed?

Wednesday, February 25, 2009

Lord Have Mercy

He also told this parable to some who trusted in themselves that they were righteous and regarded others with contempt: ‘Two men went up to the temple to pray, one a Pharisee and the other a tax-collector. The Pharisee, standing by himself, was praying thus, “God, I thank you that I am not like other people: thieves, rogues, adulterers, or even like this tax-collector. I fast twice a week; I give a tenth of all my income.” But the tax-collector, standing far off, would not even look up to heaven, but was beating his breast and saying, “God, be merciful to me, a sinner!” I tell you, this man went down to his home justified rather than the other; for all who exalt themselves will be humbled, but all who humble themselves will be exalted.’
- Luke 18:9-14

The first thing that strikes me about this passage is the notion that God has made the Pharisee a good person, and that somehow God has left others bad. Why else thank God for the fact that you're avoiding the pitfalls of bad behavior, and doing many good things? On the other hand, I suppose it makes sense to me to thank God that I have not had the hardships others have faced, and that He's given me the grace to choose well in times when I easily could have gone the other way. But of course, the main way we read this passage is to understand the lack of humility in the Pharisee, and its inverse reflection in the Publican.

Jesus says that "all who exalt themselves will be humbled, but all who humble themselves will be exalted." I usually think of this as the humility to be honest with God, and not a hypocrite, to admit my downfalls, my limitations and that there are just things I don't know and can't judge of myself. But there's another edge to exalting oneself here, and that's the Pharisee's lack of compassion for the Publican. We can be grateful for the blessings we have in life, but that does not mean we exalt ourselves over those who lack them. This is yet another mystery to me, that we are all equal before God. Regardless of what we have done or achieved, we stand on even ground.

In another sense we are to read this passage as telling us that we all must be vigilant, to keep watch over ourselves with honesty, and to accept that it is not ours to glorify ourselves, but always to go forward and see where God leads us. What's the next thing I need to face and to deal with? What is there that I have left undone that God wants me to examine? What are the things I still don't know, regardless of what I have learned? Even the best and most perfect among us can pray that prayer.

The Jesus Prayer is a practice that I use, and it's partly taken from this passage of the Publican and the Pharisee. The Publican asks for reconciliation with God, the way a child will approach a parent or a transgressor may approach a judge to right his wrong. In other passages, Jesus is asked for healing by the words "Lord have mercy." The prayer can take many forms, but its most basic form is simply, "Lord have mercy." This prayer echoes down the centuries as the most humble and most exalted and probably the most well-used all over the world. Let us not forget that mercy is rooted in the Greek eleos as much more than forgiveness of sins. Its root is close to that of the word for olive oil, out of which was made the balm for all ailments in the ancient world. When we pray, "Lord have mercy" for ourselves and others, let us remember that we pray for healing, for whatever ails.

Tuesday, February 24, 2009

For a Little While

Now God did not subject the coming world, about which we are speaking, to angels. But someone has testified somewhere,

‘What are human beings that you are mindful of them,

or mortals, that you care for them?

You have made them for a little while lower than the angels;

you have crowned them with glory and honour,

subjecting all things under their feet.’

Now in subjecting all things to them, God left nothing outside their control. As it is, we do not yet see everything in subjection to them, but we do see Jesus, who for a little while was made lower than the angels, now crowned with glory and honour because of the suffering of death, so that by the grace of God he might taste death for everyone.

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.

-Hebrews 2:5-10

I struggle with the omnipotence of God – or rather with the notion of God’s omnipotence. How can there be judgment against human beings in light of this omnipotence? If we aren’t fully in control of our fates – as another’s omnipotence implies – then how can we face judgment? Must we not be absolutely responsible for judgment to be fair and good?

Furthermore, I can see perfectly clearly there are those who do make choices to be evil, knowing full well the suffering they cause others, and who are fully capable of choosing good instead. I’m not talking about people with mental deficiencies or handicaps or extreme ailments that would cause them to feel they have no choice in the matter. Surely choices made knowing full well the extent of suffering they cause, purely for selfish reasons, are choices that people are responsible for. But what of the suffering they cause the victims of that choice? What does that say of the omnipotence of God?

I think in this passage there is a hint of an answer to these questions. Our Lord has brought salvation to us through suffering. As we live in a fallen world, one in which evil is clearly present, temptations abound, and life isn’t always fair, suffering is an inevitable part of life. But what of those who truly seek to do good and avoid causing suffering to others? What of those who sincerely seek the good, the will of the Father, etc. and yet suffer themselves? Or suffer even because of that seeking? How does an omnipotent God allow such suffering? These are important questions.

All things will be subject to man in the world to come, the writer says. But this hasn’t happened yet, although for one man, the pioneer of our salvation, it has. And, significantly, it has happened through suffering. I get the faintest hint of this omnipotence of the Father through notions of how we endure that suffering. What depths do we seek within ourselves in terms of how we respond to that suffering? For me, this is the key to the sense of salvation noted here in Hebrews, and also to my questions about God’s omnipotence, about the Father in heaven.

I have known people in my life who have suffered greatly. There is a film about an Armenian woman who is a survivor of genocide, a witness to horrible suffering and murder of those whom she loved. The film is called, “I Will Not Be Sad in This World.” As a woman in her 90s, she loves beauty, especially the beauty she creates in her garden. I believe that this internal depth, below even the suffering, is the soul’s answer to God’s call. Her capacity to love and to create beauty is a response to suffering which continues to love God (for after all, Beauty is one of the names of God).

I think this depth of relationship to God through suffering tells us about salvation and omnipotence: that no matter what we go through – even horrible suffering in childhood – there is a depth in us from which we can respond to life that clings to the good, the true and the beautiful, and to relationship with that omnipotent God, who has made for us a place with the Son who suffered so that he calls us brothers and sisters. So that, in our suffering, we too can receive the glory of that kingdom. We too become a part of the salvation of the world, of which He is captain.

Monday, February 23, 2009

The Light

In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was in the beginning with God. All things came into being through Him, and apart from Him nothing came into being that has come into being. In Him was life, and the life was the Light of men. The Light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not comprehend it.
- John 1:1-5

"In the beginning" is a phrase that starts what I consider to be the most haunting words of the bible. In a few sentences, the encapsulation of what it is to send light into the world, and who that light is. This is a different creation story, a story about the creation and renewal of life, and what it is to be born of the light.

I choose this particular translation because it uses the word "comprehend." In the original Greek, the word used indicates "comprehend or understand" and, just as with the English word comprehend, the same word can also be used to indicate being a part of something, or containing something. In this case, we understand at the same time that the darkness can't understand the light, and neither can it "take it in" or contain it. So we have a substance that comes into the world without necessarily being a part of the world, and neither can it be held or contained by that world; more importantly the darkness or ignorance in the world cannot understand it, won't "get it".

The Word, or "Logos" in Greek, has a long history, first used significantly in ancient Greek in works of philosophy, to indicate meanings as varied as "creative principle", or the law or reason behind the universe, or reason itself. It is formed from the word for "speak", and has manifold echoing meanings to indicate speaking something into existence which others do not necessarily grasp or understand. So there was already a tradition in the ancient world, or an understanding of the idea of a reality of values that human beings don't necessarily grasp but nevertheless form a circuit of reality, of the good and the true.

Therefore, although I am not a biblical scholar, from my attempts at learning and meaning I can discern the echoes of many meanings here in this simple paragraph, the beginning of John. We have a world into which the light is born. Paradoxically this is the light that created the world, but as we have our own way of grasping or understanding, we may lose sight of or miss the light altogether. And we have the choice to remain ignorant of the light, although this will neither extinguish the light nor make it a part of the ignorance.

How does the light reach us? To shine a light in the darkness means that it must have a source of its own, it's not dependent on the darkness for its energy or for its fuel. We always have the choice to walk in darkness or light, the "worldly" or the good. I think of this paradox as situations I have experienced in which those with whom I am dealing or observe have no mercy in them, and have no value for mercy or love or beauty. Where there is no compassion, and no creativity, no imagination except to repeat the brutal power struggles, lies and manipulations of selfishness. No room for truth. This is darkness which does not extinguish the light and doesn't take it in.

"And whoso degrades His dignity in the creature, degrades the Creator in his victim"
- Franz Werfel, The Forty Days of Musa Dagh

Sunday, February 22, 2009

In Service

Very truly, I tell you, unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains just a single grain; but if it dies, it bears much fruit. Those who love their life lose it, and those who hate their life in this world will keep it for eternal life. Whoever serves me must follow me, and where I am, there will my servant be also. Whoever serves me, the Father will honour.

‘Now my soul is troubled. And what should I say—“Father, save me from this hour”? No, it is for this reason that I have come to this hour. Father, glorify your name.’ Then a voice came from heaven, ‘I have glorified it, and I will glorify it again.’ The crowd standing there heard it and said that it was thunder. Others said, ‘An angel has spoken to him.’ Jesus answered, ‘This voice has come for your sake, not for mine. Now is the judgement of this world; now the ruler of this world will be driven out. And I, when I am lifted up from the earth, will draw all people* to myself.’

-John 12:24-32

"Unless a grain of wheat falls to the earth and dies, it remains a single grain." Often we are told Jesus is speaking allegorically of his own death, and I am certain that is true. But here the allegory is not just about him, it's about all of us. Life transformed is a life that has been given over to something other than selfishness, or what we'd call ego. Life transformed is a life where the influence of Spirit may indeed create something far, far away from personal expectations, from the "shoulds" and "have tos" we thought were ours. To give up one's life for the Lord may indeed have the effect of taking one's life away, and replacing it with something far different from our own expectations. This is the fruit of following the Lord.

Jesus also teaches the crowd about his own death, which he expects and accepts as part of the exchange of his earthly life and human expectations for the will of the Father, the life transformed and transfigured by God-likeness. He dies for a cause and a purpose and to bear fruit. And for a further reason, to bring Judgment. If the God-like meet their fate, as caused by hatred of what that Spirit creates, then Judgment can be made in the world.

I think the notion of Judgment causes profound fear in some, and great personal expectation in others. But the common thread for both Jesus' teachings about himself, and his allegory here for our own lives, is that Spirit builds Judgment, and that this is something none of us with our human, earthly expectations can create or build or know of ourselves alone.

It is the life transfigured that bears fruit for Judgment, for the conviction of evil, and for the good. In this service, none of us are gifted with the vision of service of ourselves alone to decide how that may work - our earthly expectations alone can't do it. We need open the door to Spirit to lead us. To follow Jesus where he goes means that we also seek the will of the Father in our lives, through dialogue and prayer.

Saturday, February 21, 2009

The Gift

As he taught, he said, ‘Beware of the scribes, who like to walk around in long robes, and to be greeted with respect in the market-places, and to have the best seats in the synagogues and places of honour at banquets! They devour widows’ houses and for the sake of appearance say long prayers. They will receive the greater condemnation.’

He sat down opposite the treasury, and watched the crowd putting money into the treasury. Many rich people put in large sums. A poor widow came and put in two small copper coins, which are worth a penny. Then he called his disciples and said to them, ‘Truly I tell you, this poor widow has put in more than all those who are contributing to the treasury. For all of them have contributed out of their abundance; but she out of her poverty has put in everything she had, all she had to live on.’

-Mark 12:38-44

Here we have Jesus at his eloquent best. His eloquence is not florid, not long-winded, but simple, and to the point, and furthermore his audience knows exactly what he is talking about. He reaches right into their experiences, he reaches to their hearts and what they know, and he tells the truth.

From hypocrisy, and from hidden corruption, he knows they suffer. People whose jobs it is to know and teach the law have allowed the law to shield themselves from the scrutiny of the heart, and of conscience. For the sake of appearances, they are holy and devout and the glory is theirs among the religious. But they make the widows suffer, and the poor oppressed.

The widow, by contrast, has given her whole heart to God, and her offering, although we could call it a pittance, is a fitting symbol of her whole heart, and all her abundance of offering. She cannot make the appearance the scribes can, but her heart has been given over to God.

This is a question of love. We can see it in our relationships with others. Do we give our best or just put in an appearance, and behind the scenes we take what is not ours? Do we love with our whole hearts, and our gifts (although perhaps poor) reflect the abundance of love in the heart? A paradox, but still true today, as simply as it is told.

Friday, February 20, 2009

What are the top commandments?

One of the scribes came near and heard them disputing with one another, and seeing that he answered them well, he asked him, ‘Which commandment is the first of all?’ Jesus answered, ‘The first is, “Hear, O Israel: the Lord our God, the Lord is one; you shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind, and with all your strength.” The second is this, “You shall love your neighbour as yourself.” There is no other commandment greater than these.’ Then the scribe said to him, ‘You are right, Teacher; you have truly said that “he is one, and besides him there is no other”; and “to love him with all the heart, and with all the understanding, and with all the strength”, and “to love one’s neighbour as oneself”,—this is much more important than all whole burnt-offerings and sacrifices.’ When Jesus saw that he answered wisely, he said to him, ‘You are not far from the kingdom of God.’ After that no one dared to ask him any question.
-Mark 12:28-34

Jesus here is willing to answer a good question. But then again, here, he's got an audience of at least one scribe who is going to listen, who has his ears at least open.

I like the expression of love in this question and answer. The first great commandment is to love God, with all one's heart, with all one's soul, with all one's mind and with all one's strength. The second is to love one's neighbor as oneself. I think the fact that the first comes first is significant, if only because we need to understand what love is. To worship the good, to be loyal to the Person who is Love, is first of all because it teaches us what it means to love one's neighbor as oneself. In these are all the law and the prophets, and better than any sacrifice or burnt offering.

I find most often in my life that situations in which there is a bad outcome seem to most frequently come about as a result of the failure to follow these rules. Selfishness seems so often at the root of community outcomes that are disastrous: corruption, greed, scandal. If we have special favors or kickbacks, a whole community's welfare is jeopardized where instead something much better, for the good of all, could have been realized.

I think that to worship God is truly to put love first. It's like saying that one's loyalty is to the good. It's possible to "love one's neighbor as oneself" by practicing a kind of selflessness that is not for the good: to be in a violent gang for example, where individual identity is wiped out, or women are treated as communal property, is a strange form of "selflessness" to the good of a bad ideal, a violent ethos. If God comes first, this is saying that we must first turn to the good, to love, to teach us what love is, how to treat that neighbor and even, indeed, what it means to love and respect oneself, even to find our true selves.

When we worship we must remember what we worship, and what for. When we serve our neighbor, we also must remember why, and learn how to do what is best for the most good. These are not easy things to learn; it takes a lifetime process, in my opinion, just to begin to know something of these things.

Thursday, February 19, 2009

Speak the Truth

Then they sent to him some Pharisees and some Herodians to trap him in what he said. And they came and said to him, ‘Teacher, we know that you are sincere, and show deference to no one; for you do not regard people with partiality, but teach the way of God in accordance with truth. Is it lawful to pay taxes to the emperor, or not? Should we pay them, or should we not?’ But knowing their hypocrisy, he said to them, ‘Why are you putting me to the test? Bring me a denarius and let me see it.’ And they brought one. Then he said to them, ‘Whose head is this, and whose title?’ They answered, ‘The emperor’s.’ Jesus said to them, ‘Give to the emperor the things that are the emperor’s, and to God the things that are God’s.’ And they were utterly amazed at him.
-Mark 12:13-17

Here we have Jesus again at his storytelling, eloquent, witty best. Bring me a coin! Whose head is on it? Whose image? This is the same idea when we are told we are made in the image of God, or that Jesus comes in the name of the Lord. What is the Lord's is the Lord's, what is Caesar's is Caesar's. And Jesus knows precisely how to answer their query.

I am amazed as are the Pharisees in this story at Jesus' lightning wit. He's an inspiration to all of us who feel a contradiction between this brilliant, witty and intelligent man, and the public image we are often given of a quiet and meek Jesus. I don't see him that way. This Jesus is quick to retort, and quicker to turn the tables on those questioning him. He speaks for a purpose, he doesn't mince words, and he doesn't do anything that isn't necessary. No idle talk here, just what needs to be done.

I often wonder why we don't have such models in our lives as Jesus when we explore how we communicate ourselves. We're not asked by Jesus to put our minds to sleep and just be obedient, but if we follow his example, instead, we are asked to keep up with him - to develop our minds, our wit, our alacrity and especially our vocabulary! This is a man with a way to tell a story, to reach people, and to use language that any good orator (or attorney) would envy. That is what I am asked to be by the Jesus I read and think about. And I do love that Jesus.

So, what I think about when I read these stories is how am I using language? What am I doing in my life and communications with others? Am I wasting my time with idle talk or with those who don't want to hear it? Am I speaking for a purpose, with truth, and using my mind and heart as fully as I can? These are the questions this Jesus imposes for me.

Wednesday, February 18, 2009

In Jerusalem

Again they came to Jerusalem. As he was walking in the temple, the chief priests, the scribes, and the elders came to him and said, ‘By what authority are you doing these things? Who gave you this authority to do them?’ Jesus said to them, ‘I will ask you one question; answer me, and I will tell you by what authority I do these things. Did the baptism of John come from heaven, or was it of human origin? Answer me.’ They argued with one another, ‘If we say, “From heaven”, he will say, “Why then did you not believe him?” But shall we say, “Of human origin”?’—they were afraid of the crowd, for all regarded John as truly a prophet. So they answered Jesus, ‘We do not know.’ And Jesus said to them, ‘Neither will I tell you by what authority I am doing these things.’
- Mark 11:27-33

This passage interests me because it shows Jesus at his clever, storytelling best. It isn't quite Rumpelstiltskin, but it is something that to me is quite the Middle Eastern sense of wit at work, despite its very serious and sober message. "If you won't tell me, then I don't have to tell you." Nobody can catch Jesus in a line, nobody trips him up. Nobody knows better than he the meaning of words and how to use them, and he uses them with great wit.

I love this aspect about the human and very powerful Jesus. He gives in to no one. He sticks to his job and his mission, and it's not to please the whole world. It's to uphold a message, to be true to his Boss, the One, the Father in heaven. But he does so with a boldness and a colorful wit, he does so with alacrity, with powerful force of words, and also with parables we continue to repeat. There is nobody like this human Jesus with this potent, not merely wise but witty personality, and with this strong sense of who he is and what is his message. He doesn't give an inch.

So, he retorts, "I won't tell you either." Let their standards be good enough for them. His inquisitors, on the other hand, fear the crowds, they fear Jesus' intelligence, and most clearly here, they weigh their answers based not on truth but on what the answers might get them. Two different entirely contrasting positions between Jesus and those who accuse him; one who is bold, Jesus, and those who have no truth in them, are selfish and feel fear. Which do you choose? How does your boldness manifest itself? What do you defend?

Tuesday, February 17, 2009

Righteous Anger

Then they came to Jerusalem. And he entered the temple and began to drive out those who were selling and those who were buying in the temple, and he overturned the tables of the money-changers and the seats of those who sold doves; and he would not allow anyone to carry anything through the temple. He was teaching and saying, ‘Is it not written,

“My house shall be called a house of prayer for all the nations”?

But you have made it a den of robbers.’

-Mark 11:15-17

Jesus here acts very boldly, even violently, to express a point. We usually think of Christ as someone ultimately peaceful, never defensive and certainly not violent. But I can't reconcile that image with the Christ in this story. I think of Jesus as someone willing to stand up for what he values, moved to anger, and if necessary a person who takes bold, open action as in this story.

We also think of Jesus as someone who is always tranquil and never angry, but in my opinion this vision of Jesus also doesn't really fit the gospels. I think we should remember that he's the man who told religious leaders that they were like whited sepulchres, for example. He gave examples in parables unflattering to Pharisees (as in the story of the Pharisee and the Publican). He wasn't afraid in his public teaching of saying or doing things that religious leaders considered insulting. So, when it comes to Christ, he certainly didn't shy away from confrontation, from expressing his anger, and even doing so boldly and - at least in this story - with violence.

So what are we to make of this bold Jesus? I think that first of all it's important to remember we are graced by man and God together, and for me this is humanity transfigured. His anger is a righteous anger, and it is in defense of doing the will of his Father. This is not action which is selfish. It is also action which is protective of a community - he is protective of worshippers who are being made to measure commitment to God by what sacrifice they can afford. This is what he calls a den of robbers.

We are also told in this story that it is after this incident that the chief priests and scribes began to look for a way to kill him, but that they were afraid of the crowds:

And when the chief priests and the scribes heard it, they kept looking for a way to kill him; for they were afraid of him, because the whole crowd was spellbound by his teaching. And when evening came, Jesus and his disciples went out of the city. Mark 11:18-19

So Jesus finds himself speaking with authority, acting with authority, and favored by the crowds. But those whom he has censured wish to get rid of him, silence him for good. Righteous anger in this case is an expression of his courage, his willingness to fight for what he believes by boldly standing for something publicly, and his willingness to meet the fate he knows is in store for him. Do we choose our expressions of anger for this sort of reason and with this type of care? Do we stand for what we need to stand for?

Monday, February 16, 2009


Now we know that the law is good, if one uses it legitimately. This means understanding that the law is laid down not for the innocent but for the lawless and disobedient, for the godless and sinful, for the unholy and profane, for those who kill their father or mother, for murderers, fornicators, sodomites, slave-traders, liars, perjurers, and whatever else is contrary to the sound teaching that conforms to the glorious gospel of the blessed God, which he entrusted to me. 1 Timothy 1:8-11
I find it interesting here that Paul lays down an idea what the law is good for - who exactly it helps. Law is there to restore order where there is none. Law helps those who cannot construct for themselves lives in good conscience. He instructs Timothy, in this letter, to teach for certain aims:

But the aim of such instruction is love that comes from a pure heart, a good conscience, and sincere faith. 1 Timothy 1:5

So Christian teaching, that aims for the laws of the heart, is toward the goal of true faith, a sincere heart, love.

I have often pondered why, for some Christians, the "straight and narrow" of dos and don'ts, what others would call something more akin to the law, is a creed that helps them in their lives. All of my life it seems that my "instruction" that truly helped me was quite the opposite, to learn more of love, the abundance of instruction made in love, correction that is patient, and always for my good. And I think here that Paul perhaps hits this paradox on the head. Quite often I've found that those who need laws laid down are those for whom chaos shaped a great deal of their early lives, including crime. The do's and don'ts hold down a life out of chaos, to be shaped by what is better. It helps them to have faith in a better future.

But inevitably when it comes to faith there may be those in yet another category: those who do harm but do so out of ignorance.

Paul says,
I am grateful to Christ Jesus our Lord, who has strengthened me, because he judged me faithful and appointed me to his service, even though I was formerly a blasphemer, a persecutor, and a man of violence. But I received mercy because I had acted ignorantly in unbelief, and the grace of our Lord overflowed for me with the faith and love that are in Christ Jesus. 1 Timothy 1:12-15
Mercy, abundant mercy, is also for the sinner. Paul goes on to say that among them he was chief - and so God acted to redeem many through him, who was the worst of all. I think here we have three schools of thought about discipline, about what it means to be a Christian, and Paul has laid down the benefits of each. Where we religious often clash on which system is best really may be simply mistaking different ways in which God helps. But we should never forget that chief of all of these, the divine character behind them all, is love. Nor that the aim of all teaching, as Paul says, is "love that comes from a pure heart, a good conscience, and sincere faith." If we forget those things, we have forgotten who we are, and we are not who we claim to be. We have left our God out of the picture.

Sunday, February 15, 2009

To Know

Again Jesus spoke to them, saying, ‘I am the light of the world. Whoever follows me will never walk in darkness but will have the light of life.’ Then the Pharisees said to him, ‘You are testifying on your own behalf; your testimony is not valid.’ Jesus answered, ‘Even if I testify on my own behalf, my testimony is valid because I know where I have come from and where I am going, but you do not know where I come from or where I am going. You judge by human standards; I judge no one. Yet even if I do judge, my judgement is valid; for it is not I alone who judge, but I and the Father who sent me. In your law it is written that the testimony of two witnesses is valid. I testify on my own behalf, and the Father who sent me testifies on my behalf.’ Then they said to him, ‘Where is your Father?’ Jesus answered, ‘You know neither me nor my Father. If you knew me, you would know my Father also.’ John 8:12-19

What does it mean to know? John here writes that Jesus says to the crowd that if they had known his Father, they would know him. I think we are talking in terms of recognition, of understanding, of that flash of knowledge that means I know this person, I have met them before. What Jesus is speaking of is a type of recognition that has to do with personhood.

I don't think that we can ever forget that Christianity is a faith that demands recognition of personhood. The Word may include the good, the true and the beautiful. It may be "the way, the truth and the life." It is all of those things and contains all of those things. But more than that, the Word, Logos, was and is a living person. We worship a God that is three persons in one. So to know God, here, is about "knowing" a person, having a relationship with them.

Jesus claims that if one knows his Father, then one will recognize, know, him. If you know this person, the Father, then the recognition of that same reality will also be present with Christ, and vice versa. Why? Because Christ does the will of that Father. It's like seeing a reflection of something you know and are familiar with, that you have heard before - you're going to recognize it, you're going to know from whence it comes. This is why Jesus says his judgment is true, because he listens for judgment to the one who is true, he does not judge alone.

How do we come to "know" God? I think this is essentially about relationship. That through prayer and worship, perhaps simply through questioning and asking questions - any way we can we respond to the knock on the door and so seek to "know" God, to come to recognize the voice of God's shepherd within us and in scripture or other places it may appear, we build that relationship. But first we have to open up the door to "know" or to get to know this person, what loving kindness and mercy feels like from this person, what teaching and enlightenment is. How do you decide to know?

Saturday, February 14, 2009

Fighting the Good Fight

As for me, I am already being poured out as a libation, and the time of my departure has come. I have fought the good fight, I have finished the race, I have kept the faith. From now on there is reserved for me the crown of righteousness, which the Lord, the righteous judge, will give to me on that day, and not only to me but also to all who have longed for his appearing. 2 Timothy 4:6-8

What does it mean that he's fought the good fight? Paul says here that he has kept the faith, and finished the race. I wonder, what is a good fight? So often we think of Christ as the Prince of Peace, who told us, "Blessed are the peacemakers." So what is a good fight? What does it mean to fight a good fight?

I think here it's important to step back and consider what struggle is, and what it is for. Struggle is the opposite of an easy life, something given without having to fight for it in some way, to stand up for it. I think this is a part of fighting the good fight - that there are just some things you have to stand up for. Some things that one has to endure hardship for, no matter what that is - perhaps social censure, perhaps vigorous persecution, it could be anything.

To fight a good fight is to stand up for what is true; in this case perhaps we should say "the truth." In the end, fighting the good fight for Paul has been his dedication to the Person who is truth, who was truth personified, who lived his life for truth as in spiritual reality. In this we find Paul vigorous and unyielding. He has always pursued his teaching without wavering from the truth. In the paragraph above, he admonishes Timothy:
...I solemnly urge you: proclaim the message; be persistent whether the time is favourable or unfavourable; convince, rebuke, and encourage, with the utmost patience in teaching. For the time is coming when people will not put up with sound doctrine, but having itching ears, they will accumulate for themselves teachers to suit their own desires, and will turn away from listening to the truth and wander away to myths. As for you, always be sober, endure suffering, do the work of an evangelist, carry out your ministry fully. 2 Timothy 4:1-5

So fighting the good fight is sticking with that truth through thick and thin, enduring all and bearing all, with patience, doing your job as teacher, for the ministry and the service to the One. What shape does that take in each of our lives?

Friday, February 13, 2009


...Jesus called them and said to them, ‘You know that among the Gentiles those whom they recognize as their rulers lord it over them, and their great ones are tyrants over them. But it is not so among you; but whoever wishes to become great among you must be your servant, and whoever wishes to be first among you must be slave of all. For the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life a ransom for many.’ Mark 10:42-45
So Jesus here is speaking about power, about notions of power. What are our various notions of power? We have Jesus speaking about what happens among the Gentiles. Remember that Jesus is speaking as someone who knows that his word, his gospel, is to go out among the Gentiles too, and not just among the Jews. So this word, as he is speaking, he is aware will also be sent eventually to the Gentiles.

The Gentiles "lord it over" their people as rulers. They act as dictators. The great, among the Gentiles, are those who make slaves of others, who demand servility from others, who can push other people around. Well, we certainly can say this notion of power has not altogether left us, has not altogether left the world!

In another text for today's reading, we quote St. Paul:
You must understand this, that in the last days distressing times will come. For people will be lovers of themselves, lovers of money, boasters, arrogant, abusive, disobedient to their parents, ungrateful, unholy, inhuman, implacable, slanderers, profligates, brutes, haters of good, treacherous, reckless, swollen with conceit, lovers of pleasure rather than lovers of God, holding to the outward form of godliness but denying its power. Avoid them! 2 Timothy 3:1-5
Note that he says these people he describes are "...holding to the outward form of godliness but denying its power." I pay special attention to the word "power" here, used with the term godliness. An outward form of godliness that is hollow and empty, that denies the power in godliness. Here he's referring to those behaving as the ones described by Christ - yet pretending to be Christians, outwardly godly. And in so doing, they are denying the power of godliness.

So power, in spiritual terms, is the power that does not act to manipulate, that does not see its potency in the ability to push others around, to get them to bend to our will. No, spiritual power is something different. It serves the good, for all. Even in its chastisement, in its prophecy. This is not about personalities, not about the ability to force others to do our will. Spiritual power is in doing the will of God, doing what is good for all, not serving our own will. The only way I know to find this in my own life is through prayer, and asking for guidance, putting myself aside for a moment, and holding the door open to be taught what is best for all - and what way I can serve that.

Thursday, February 12, 2009


Jesus, looking at him, loved him and said, ‘You lack one thing; go, sell what you own, and give the money to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; then come, follow me.’ When he heard this, he was shocked and went away grieving, for he had many possessions.

Then Jesus looked around and said to his disciples, ‘How hard it will be for those who have wealth to enter the kingdom of God!’ And the disciples were perplexed at these words. But Jesus said to them again, ‘Children, how hard it is to enter the kingdom of God! It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for someone who is rich to enter the kingdom of God.’ They were greatly astounded and said to one another, ‘Then who can be saved?’ Jesus looked at them and said, ‘For mortals it is impossible, but not for God; for God all things are possible.- Mark 10:21-26

Here we once again run into notions of freedom, and of what it means to serve. This is not about what you put on your resume. To enter the kingdom of heaven is not necessarily to be able to point to a list of achievements, or things you have accumulated or own. It is to have faith that the inner life is something real, that the possessions that moths can't eat and rust can't get to are real in that kingdom. To enter the kingdom of heaven is to put your faith in something that is within you, that will not necessarily gain you recognition in the world for your achievements.

This, in my opinion, is the hard lesson here. To have faith in God, to enter the kingdom, is to put aside notions of wealth as the measure of one's goodness or greatness. First, before accumulation, is the initiation into love and relationship - into the love and relationship with God, with Christ. Jesus is clearly saying here that it is this relationship that comes before all things, that nothing can stand in the way of that love or come before it.

This is something that I struggle with at all times, and indeed the apostles here are mystified. How can this be possible? Who, indeed, then, can be saved? These are profound, deep questions. And Jesus' reply is that this happens through God's help. It is through God's help, through grace, that we are able to cultivate detachment within ourselves, to put intangible values first, and then all things serve those values.

Wednesday, February 11, 2009


Remember Jesus Christ, raised from the dead, a descendant of David—that is my gospel, for which I suffer hardship, even to the point of being chained like a criminal. But the word of God is not chained. Therefore I endure everything for the sake of the elect, so that they may also obtain the salvation that is in Christ Jesus, with eternal glory.
- 2 Timothy 2:8-10

What does it mean to be free? Here we have Paul who is suffering, he says, even to the point of being chained like a criminal. "But the word of God is not chained." This is something we must take a hard look at - Paul is chained but the word of God is not. How can a man be chained and yet what he has to say is done with freedom?

I think this is a deep paradox, running far deeper into Christian understanding of the way in which God works than merely the example of the life of Paul, or the persecuted Christians of his time. It goes deep into the heart of what it means to be free, or to have spiritual freedom. It comes up against what we nowadays might call an existential understanding of what it is to be free. We always have choices; even in the direst of circumstances, about what we are to believe, and what we are to listen to in our hearts.

Repeatedly I have been told or read stories of people persecuted for their Christian faith. This is particularly so amongst Orthodox Christians as the countries in which they live have often been places in modern times where they have been persecuted for their beliefs. In Eastern Europe, for example, under communism, many lay religious and those of the priesthood were in prison. The Christians of Eastern Turkey at the beginning of the 20th Century suffered genocide and ethnic cleansing. Today, conditions in various locations in the Middle East due to warfare mean that native minority Christian populations become scapegoats, or are caught between different powers doing the fighting.

But the word of God remains free. It cannot be chained. It survives. It speaks to the heart even in the direst of prisons, even in the direst of circumstances, according to the survivors. The word of God lives, even as those with faith suffer and die for that word. This freedom - this internal freedom in the heart to hear the word of God - is the spiritual freedom that cannot be taken away. The paraclete - our companion - is with us in all circumstances. For reasons we do not know, that shape yet another mystery of spiritual life, persecution has served to strengthen faith, not to quench it. We have freedom to hear and to serve; this is an existential freedom that is perhaps the really true freedom that no one can take away.

Tuesday, February 10, 2009


If your hand causes you to stumble, cut it off; it is better for you to enter life maimed than to have two hands and to go to hell, to the unquenchable fire. And if your foot causes you to stumble, cut it off; it is better for you to enter life lame than to have two feet and to be thrown into hell. And if your eye causes you to stumble, tear it out; it is better for you to enter the kingdom of God with one eye than to have two eyes and to be thrown into hell, where their worm never dies, and the fire is never quenched. - Mark 9:43-49

Today our theme is justice. In the selection from Isaiah there is a visceral and powerful call for justice, a picture of the world gone mad, where nothing makes sense, a living hell of life. Jesus' understanding of justice here implies one great thing: that the sacrifice God asks for is one of the heart. His example offers us different body parts as allegories: a hand, an eye, a foot.

Jesus' version of justice here is very poignant. It's not about covering up your bad acts with some good deeds to balance the other side of the equation. No, he never called that justice. He called that hypocrisy, and repeatedly condemned it.

Instead, Jesus offers us justice: whatever is a part of you that causes evil, deal with it. Cut it out. Stop it. Better to lose one hand than to be cast whole into the cleansing fire, than to lose everything. Better to deal with your problems than simply to do a good deed to cover them up.

I know a thief who donates huge amounts of stolen money to charity. Does this make him a good person? Does it bring justice to the world? If he does not deal with his selfish, dishonest and cheating nature, has he "cut off his hand" in Christ's example? Think about it.

Monday, February 9, 2009

Passing through Galilee

From Mark chapter 9:
They went on from there and passed through Galilee. He did not want anyone to know it; for he was teaching his disciples, saying to them, ‘The Son of Man is to be betrayed into human hands, and they will kill him, and three days after being killed, he will rise again.’ But they did not understand what he was saying and were afraid to ask him.
I've been struck lately by the insertion of phrases in the daily readings that indicate that Jesus does not want himself to be known. In the past few weeks I've been noticing how Jesus admonishes the recipients of his healing not to tell anybody about them. The miraculously healed are to say nothing. Those who have had demons cast out from them are not to tell anybody who did it. Jesus speaks in the Temple and causes great discussion among the crowds about who he really may be, but disappears.

In our daily lives we seem to be inundated with things that teach us that life doesn't exist apart from what's exposed, made famous or public, photographed or documented. Internal life has a way of disappearing from existence because it is not acclaimed in public, in the eyes of others. We count achievement as that which we can see, or which others can recognize - what we can put on a resume.

But Jesus doesn't fall for any of this. He's here to do a job, and it doesn't have anything to do with personal recognition. It has to do with the One whom he serves, doing His will. We were told a few days ago in a selection from John that this is how we know Jesus is true, because the One whom he serves is true.

I wonder how true each of us can be to the One when we serve by healing our own wounds internally, rising above a bad situation to make the best choice, and making hard decisions nobody else necessarily knows about. We won't get applause for it or recognition: but if it's in God's eyes, is this not what we must also recognize? It is a part of the treasures laid up that moths can't eat, that rust can't get to. I struggle with this daily. It is a big part of the contradiction I feel trying to live a life I believe God wants me to.