Saturday, April 7, 2012

What I Make of the Empty Tomb

What is the meaning of the resurrection of Jesus?
The empty tomb tells us that Jesus is on the loose!

There are long range implications of the resurrection as empty tomb.
We continue to interpret the Easter hope.
We do not pass it along untouched.
To speak it anew means to pass on our own understanding of what it means and could mean in our lives and for the world.
Somehow, the resurrection of Christ has something to do with what is happening in our world.
Jesus is on the loose.

Lloyd Geering is an amazing octogenarian in New Zealand.
He is a Presbyterian minister and seminary professor who was tried for heresy 45 years ago. Wrestling with God tells his story.
He denied the literal virgin birth and resurrection, and defended his position in a two day trial in which he was acquitted.
He has said that Religion is not the supernatural but that which interprets and enhances life.
(He has written many good books – Christian Faith at the Crossroads is a good place to start.)

He tells us that all of human history is a road to freedom:
Judaism began the path of human freedom when they left Egypt and proclaimed that God had freed them.
This exodus became a parable of freedom both for Jews and later for Christians.

The meticulous observance of the Mosaic tradition led to a new kind of slavery: enslavement to the written word of the law.
At least that is how the early Christians saw it.
Resurrection was the new Exodus; a new liberation from the old religion and the rule of Rome.

Later Christians also gave themselves up to a new slavery, enslavement to the written word of the Bible and to written creeds and doctrines of belief.
But the Exodus tradition inspired many struggles for freedom.
The idea of freedom survived when the Jews lost to the Greeks.
It survived when they lost to the Romans and both Jews and Christians were dispersed from their holy land.
In the renaissance thinkers claimed the right to think for themselves.
In the Reformation people claimed the freedom of individuals to make and to choose their own religion.
The Enlightenment affirmed universal human rights.
People won freedom to govern themselves without absolute monarchy and the divine right of kings.

Human slavery was abolished.
Racial division and racism have been rejected, and women were emancipated so that they could aspire to any work, although oppression of racial minorities and women continues.
Now homosexuals claim their right to exist.
Now we see the disadvantaged, the wretched of the earth.
Can their right to life be next?

Now that the danger of nuclear weapons is universally recognized, can a world without nuclear weapons be possible?
The damage to the earth that we have done is now visible, can the liberation of the earth itself be far behind?

We argue about immigrants. Can it be that there will life without nations and borders?
Jesus is on the loose!
Who can imagine where the Exodus and the Resurrection will take us - or we will take the Exodus and the Resurrection - next?

Friday, April 6, 2012

Nothin’ Good Yet about It

The suffering and death of Jesus are significant because
this was the undeserved and gruesome death
of a great teacher of love and peace.
His suffering and death should symbolize to everyone
the undeserved and horrible suffering and death
that befalls anyone and everyone who is such a victim.
The suffering of Jesus was no greater than the suffering of every victim
of every crime and political execution and war.

Jesus didn’t have to suffer more than anyone else
for his death to have meaning for the rest of us.
Neither was the suffering of Jesus less painful than it would be for us,
because he was divine.
I do not think that Jesus wanted us to focus on his suffering,
but rather on his desire that we should all live as if God rules the world.

Jesus’ death was wrong.
This is a powerful statement because it means that the suffering
of all the millions of others who have been tortured,
raped, and slowly killed to suit someone’s desire
for power, control, and revenge that has occurred
in thousands of places and situations
that we could name or don't know –
their deaths were and are wrong, too.

Our traditions teach that Jesus died for our sins.
I see no way that his death atones in any way for my sins or yours.
His death, his spirituality, his religion, his God
were about active resistance to the uses of power against people.
Jesus died because of our sins,
because we want or consent to violence and killing.
There is atonement only if you and I cease to support a system
that does violence to people and kills them.

The teaching of Jesus that we would rather he hadn’t taught,
is to love our enemies.
The power of Jesus was his subversive way
of viewing the world, living in it, and dying.
The power in Jesus' death
was the great integrity by which he died for the values by which he lived.

When I ponder the death of Jesus,
I don’t see the end of sin as such
but a witness to the end of cruelty and torture,
the death penalty, war, killing,
and the end of violence itself.
If Jesus in any way died for my sin or sins, or yours,
he died so that no one else would have to die as he did.
If Jesus died for our sins,
and we wish to follow him,
we must renounce violence and stop the killing.

Thursday, April 5, 2012

What Jesus Did Besides Teach

Jesus may have healed people. This is hard for us to understand unless you believe that he had supernatural powers and was different from you and me. I think I better understand how he may have healed the sick by the recent concept of “conversion syndrome.” This is a bit more sophisticated than what we used to call “psychosomatic illness.” A person’s emotional state, brought about by family, social, or cultural pressures, is released in physical dysfunctions or sickness. It may be that someone genuinely ill suffers that illness because of trauma embedded by a culture permeated by a purity code or abuse that repeatedly reinforces that their suffering is caused by their own sin. Someone like Jesus comes along and says authoritatively that their sin is forgiven – something that no one was expected ever to do – and they are suddenly liberated and healed. This was a pre-scientific world.

The notion that we are responsible for our own salvation or liberation may be seen even in the Moses and Passover story. While the narrative makes much of God’s actions in bringing about the escape from slavery of the Hebrew people, who makes it happen? Moses and the actions of the people. Moses believes God has done it because Moses cannot possibly do it. He wasn’t a good speaker so Aaron was appointed to help. Did Moses fail to express himself to Pharoah? No. Did God write the Ten Commandments or did Moses? We say that God did it to show the awe we have for an action so significant that we feel we must attribute it to a power beyond our own.

I ramble about these things to introduce the sacrament of the Lord’s Supper or the Holy Eucharist (thanksgiving). Jesus went about teaching but also invited people to eat with him, and asked people if he could eat with them. I think he used the traditional blessing of the food, something like “Blessed art Thou, O King of the Universe, for giving us bread from the grain of the field and wine from the grapes of the vine” as a way of illustrating their reliance on each other’s work, their responsibility to each other, and their reliance on God’s rule rather than Rome’s. Jesus then could teach, “We are not slaves to Rome, but free in our trust of God and in our belonging to each other.”

In this view the “last supper” is not the model for the sacrament, but rather his “table fellowship” with sinners. (Norman Perrin introduced this to me.) It was remembered because it was done repeatedly, not because it was “instituted” at a last meal. Was there a “last supper?” There is always a last supper. But do we know it is the last supper we or a friend or loved one will have? The story says so, but that is very likely hindsight: “Jesus was so great, he knew everything that was going to happen!” There was no “magical” last supper. They probably didn’t sit on the same side of a table. They probably didn’t have a table.

No one has fully explained the origin of the “words of institution.” Did Jesus actually say, “This is my body; this is my blood?” The metaphors are powerful and may come from Jesus himself, but only if he did know what was in store. Verhoeven thinks Jesus could not have escaped knowing his fate, this late in the drama of his life. Hal Taussig, writing In the Beginning Was the Meal: Social Experimentation and Early Christian Identity lays a heavy foundation for understanding the words as meaning applied to the memory of the table fellowship post Easter experience.

Also, we have the story of Judas Iscariot. The Jesus Seminar concluded that there probably was not any such historical person. Paul Verhoeven objected, based on his childhood with the Nazis: “There may not have been a Judas, but there is ALWAYS a betrayer.” See his film, The Black Book, to better grasp this.

The ritual of the sacrament of the Lord’s Supper as Eucharist and remembrance of his table fellowship with sinners is the basic and best thing Christians do. It should be done every Sunday (The Disciples of Christ do this.) Sacraments are defined by many Protestants as an action instituted by Christ (churches don’t often say “Jesus.”) In that case baptism is not a sacrament because Jesus never baptized anyone. And why not have footwashing as a sacrament? (Church of the Brethren does.) Maybe the rest of us don’t because the fourth gospel is not considered as historical as the first three.

Here is what I have said in sermons about the sacrament:
When we eat together as a church,
the risen Christ is made known to us
and our eyes are opened to see him more clearly.
When we are gathered around the table,
we are drawn under the influence of Jesus.
Then we find ourselves in a similar relation to him
as had the first disciples who ate and drank with him.
All the words of his teachings, the stories of his suffering and death,
the promises of the fullness of life,
are given texture and flavor in this meal.

If we enter into the spirit of this table fellowship with Jesus,
we can find ourselves united with God.
If we allow ourselves to be haunted by the vision of the Kingdom of God
given to us by Jesus,
we can join God's mission for abundant life and justice for all.
If we allow ourselves to be taunted by his teachings
to be as gracious to others as God is to us.
then we are on the road to right worship and right living.

Monday, April 2, 2012

More of What Jesus Taught and Didn't

Earlier I posted the top ten sayings that the Jesus Seminar voted "Red" or definitely said by Jesus. The top 15 (of 75) Pink sayings that are probably authentic:
16. On anxieties, don't fret: Th 36, Lk 12:22–23, Mt 6:25
17. Lost Coin: Lk 15:8–9
18. Foxes have dens: Lk 9:58, Mt 8:20, Th 86
19. No respect at home: Th 31:1, Lk 4:24, Jn 4:44
Mt 13:57, Mk 6:4
20. Friend at midnight: Lk 11:5–8
21. Two masters: Lk 16:13a, Mt 6:24a; Th 47:2
22. Treasure: Mt 13:44, Th 109
23. Lost sheep: Lk 15:4–6, Mt 18:12–13, Th 107
24. What goes in: Mk 7:14–15, Th 14:5, Mt 15:10-11
25. Corrupt judge: Lk 18:2–5
26. Prodigal son: Lk 15:11–32
27. Leave the dead: Mt 8:22, Lk 9:59–60
28. Castration for Heaven: Mt 19:12a
29. By their fruit: Mt 7:16b, Th 45:1a, Lk 6:44b
30. The dinner party, The wedding celebration: Th 64:1–11, Lk 14:16-23, Mt22:2-13

Here is a picture of Jesus teaching. I chose it because of the "hoodie." The painting is totally unrealistic and un-historical. No synagogue would have been as fancy as this. The scroll looks accurate, but the robe is a bit much. He may have worn a prayer shawl. Also, Jesus did not glow.

I asked what is missing in these sayings, from what you might expect having worshiped in a Christian church.  Two things:

1. Jesus says nothing in these sayings or stories about himself and his relationship with God. The authentic and probably authentic words come from the “synoptic” gospels (Mark, Matthew, and Luke, with Thomas thrown in). They all “see with the same eye.” They represent at least five traditions of Jesus sayings. What throws us off is the Gospel of John, yet another tradition, in which Jesus is highly spiritualized. There he speaks in mystical language very different from the sayings or parables above. In John Jesus speaks about himself a lot, about his divinity, his closeness with the Father, and the Spirit he will send when he is gone. This is not the same Jesus who taught as the earlier gospels report. However, there are echoes of the historical Jesus and perhaps some actual history in John.

2. Jesus says nothing about the coming end of the world, or the Spirit, his resurrection, or his return in the red and pink sayings. He is a man who teaches by words and example. He isn’t much concerned about rules, but about the principles in the Hebrew Law and Prophets. He is mainly concerned about living more freely under the harsh Roman rule.

There are a number of familiar and favorite teachings that aren’t in the top 30 red and pink listings. This is probably because there was no secondary attestation, they were commonly taught in Jesus’s time or before, or they speak of things as if Jesus had already died, had been resurrected, or of things that occurred historically after the time of Jesus.

Sunday, April 1, 2012

Palm Sunday - What Can I Say? Altizer Had Something to Say

I didn’t know what to say for Palm Sunday, but I was thinking
        –  Palms are about welcoming a king.
         –  Riding on the donkey is about a king showing his “humility,” (of which most kings didn’t have much).
         –  “Hosanna” is both a cry for help, a prayer, and an adoration, meaning “save us now” or something similar.
All of things make sense if we take Palm Sunday as a protest against Roman rule. Since this is what Jesus seems to have been about, the event makes sense.

Did it happen? Maybe. If it did, there probably were not the crowds described in the story. I think Jesus would have been pretty insignificant to the Romans and was arrested - probably not tried - and crucified for some act like overturning the tables in the Temple. If the Palm Sunday event happened as described, he would have been arrested on the spot. Or, as Paul Verhoeven suggests with considerable evidence, there had been a warrant out for Jesus’ arrest for some time, making a noisy entrance into town rather risky. We really don’t know much about any of it, but again, his staging of an ironic entrance, a shabby rabbi being welcomed as a king by a small group of followers, perhaps viewed by some others ("Who's this guy?"), makes some sense. If Jesus had crowds of followers, I think he would have made it into a chronicle of the times.

I remember that my first sermon was on palm Sunday in 1970, entitled, “The Triumphal Exit.” That sermon is long gone, I think. It must have been more of a Passion Week sermon, about the supreme importance of the death of Jesus rather than the seductive triumph of Jesus in his entry into Jerusalem.

I’ve been struggling recently with Thomas J. Altizer’s classic book, The New Gospel of Christian Atheism (1965). He speaks (at length in 1 chapter) of Hegel’s work, The Phenomenology of Spirit (1807). Did I mention that Altizer’s book is dense, hard to read and comprehend? Basically, Altizer is telling us that anything in the gospels or in the churches that is about earthly empires or triumph or power or victory is FALSE. So much for Palm Sunday.

In another chapter about the incarnation he says that this is the ultimate point of the true gospel: you and I are or can be Christ. Altizer out-Kiergegaards Kiergegaard. Be Christ in the world if you want to be Christian. That is the meaning of taking up your own cross.

It’s like Bob Funk told us. He realized as a young man that he couldn’t follow Jesus’ teachings. If you begin to understand them, you realize you aren’t a follower of Jesus unless you are willing to die for his vision of the Empire of God. It wouldn’t be enough just to study his teachings. And pretending it’s all about victory is simply silly. (Actually, it’s very destructive to follow someone who is about power and destroying what he think's is immoral and un-American.)

The meaning of the Palm Sunday narrative is the end of kingship and lordship and ruling over others. It is the beginning of the end of the despotic father God and all the godlings we have made in the image of that old unhelpful idea. Jesus wasn’t a godling.