A Provocation: Pentecost: June 9, 2019: Romans 8:14-17

Romans 8:14-17
8:14 For all who are led by the Spirit of God are children of God.
8:15 For you did not receive a spirit of slavery 
to fall back into fear, 
but you have received a spirit of adoption. 
When we cry, "Abba! Father!"
8:16 it is that very Spirit bearing witness with our spirit 
that we are children of God,
8:17 and if children, 
then heirs, 
heirs of God 
and joint heirs with Christ--
if, in fact, we suffer with him 
so that we may also be glorified with him.

Just a short note.

“…you did not receive a spirit of slavery.” The point of this passage is probably clear, but it is worth noting that there were a great many people held as slaves in the ancient world, some sources say as many as 50% of the population.

Stop and think about that.

And even those who were not technically held as slaves had relatively little control over their lives. Power and wealth were concentrated in the top 5% of the population, and they managed the social system so that the 95% stayed subservient.

As I write this, I am preparing to lead a session at a Theatre Camp focused on Les Miserables. My task is to explore the history of the French Revolution and of the story told in Les Miserables. I had forgotten that it was Louis XVI who abolished serfdom in France. It had been several years since I had read “What is the Third Estate?” by the Abbé Emmanuel Joseph Sieyès, so I had not thought about how the First and Second Estates (the Church and the Nobles) paid little or nothing in taxes. Taxes were paid by the 95%. Slave labor was done by the least powerful members of the Third Estate, and the prison system was managed so as to guarantee an adequate supply of prisoners to man the galleys and do other essential tasks. I had forgotten.

It had been years since I had read the “Declaration of the Rights of Man and Citizen,” a remarkable document to which Thomas Jefferson made significant contributions (without ever imagining that his words applied to the people he himself held as slaves).

Maybe this Pentecost we ought to take Paul seriously, and not imagine the gift of the Spirit, the holy breath of God, as a religious experience. Maybe we ought to add a hymn to the Pentecost section of the songbook. How about this one:

Do you hear the people sing?
Singing the song of angry men?
It is the music of the people
Who will not be slaves again!
When the beating of your heart
Echoes the beating of the drums
There is a life about to start
When tomorrow comes!

That might make Pentecost a little different. Maybe it is time.

A Provocation: Seventh Sunday of Easter: June 2, 2019: John 17:20-26

20     Not concerning these am I asking only,
              but also concerning those who are faithful 
                   through their ordered utterance 
                        (faithful toward me),
21          in order that they all should be one,
                   (exactly as you,
                    in me 
                         also I in you),
              in order that also they in us should be,
              in order that the beautiful world should be faithful:
                   you sent me.
22     I, also, 
              the glory that you gave to me,
              I have given to them,
                   in order that they should be one,
                   exactly as we are one.
23          I in them and you in me
                   in order that the beautiful world should know:
                        you sent me and you loved them 
                             exactly as you loved me.  
24     Father:
         what you have given to me,
              I want:
                   that where I am
                        there also they should be with me,
                   that they should see my glory 
                        that you have given to me:
                             you loved me 
                            before the founding of the beautiful world.
25     Father,
         observant father:
              the beautiful world did not know you.
              I knew you
                   and these knew that you sent me,
26               I made known to them your name,
              and I will make it known,
                   in order that the love that you loved me 
                        in them should be
                             I also in them.  


Just a short note this week. (This is End of Semester/Final Exam/Graduation season, and this enforces brevity, even on an academic nerd like me.)

In v. 24, Jesus mentions that his Father had “loved [him] / before the founding of the beautiful world.”

That is a simple little statement; it seems so charming, so parental and obvious. But every word in this little statement is charged with energy.

Love is a word that wraps its arms around the Cosmos in the gospel of John. It dances, to be sure, with notions of fathers and sons, but it finally sings of God’s deep reciprocal love for the entire Cosmos, the love that establishes all true mutuality. That mutuality is rooted in the verb that John uses: ἠγάπησάς, which springs from the noun αγάπη, which does NOT refer to one-sided “theological” love, no matter who says that it does. It refers to a responsive love that takes delight in the other. This kind of love echoes the mutual love created in the Origin Story told in Genesis 2: Mudguy and the Mother of All Life are created side-from-side so that they will live side-by-side and have each other’s back. That is what it means to be human in the Jewish story that John is re-telling. And that is what it means to be loved by God in this story: delight, joy, response, creative mutuality.

And since this is a re-telling of the community’s Origin Story, the reference to a time “before the founding of the beautiful world” has a particular poignance. The storyteller told us that before that founding, there was with God the λόγος, the logic of life. In John’s story, that λόγος is identified with Jesus, and Jesus has just told us that his Father has loved that λόγος. John’s story spins around these swirls of words: love, logic, father, son, Cosmos. This last word (which is usually translated, dully, as “world”) refers to Creation as a beautifully ordered whole, decorated with delight by One whose eye loves beauty. If you have a friend who uses cosmetics (same root), ask them how and why and what they are after. Listen when they speak, even if you never use cosmetics. I have a dear friend who is always well put-together. His skin is carefully moisturized. His hair expresses the playful (and serious) way he lives. By referring to Creation as a Cosmos, John’s storyteller is saying that God is like my friend: a good eye and a sure hand and a love of put-together beauty.

And if Jesus is the λόγος of the Cosmos, the logic that God loves from a time prior even to existence, then it matters that Jesus is, in this story, the messiah. That means that the λόγος of Creation is messianic. That means that the logic of the Universe (you might even call it the physics of the Universe) is embodied in the drive to turn things right-side-up. That does not mean (or even suggest) that the way things are is proper and correct. Quite the contrary. You know, and everybody who will hear you preach knows, that the world is upside-down. Children starve every day. People born into poverty are kept there by a system that surrounds their neighborhoods with jobs without a livable wage, with food stores that are expensive and loaded with foods high in fat, salt, and calories, with schools that erode the dreams of both children and teachers. Clods with power slander anyone who opposes them.

The world is upside-down.

But the logic of the Cosmos, loved by God, opposes that.

This has implications. Especially if you are a Christian, a messianist. If you are not involved in turning the world right-side-up, you are not a messianist. If you are really mostly hoping that you can just wait for things to get a little better, you are not a messianist. If your ideology tells you that your every action is simply and easily justified, and that self-criticism is for snowflakes and liberals, you are not a messianist. Or if you imagine that only people on the other, ignorant, side of things need to be self-critical, you are not a messianist. Ask Dietrich Bonhoeffer (read his discussion of the dangers of ideology in his Ethics, for starters).

Ideology will not turn the world right-side-up. It is not ideology that the Father loved before the founding of the world, it is justice. And doing justice (along with loving kindness and walking humbly with God, to bring Micah 6 into the discussion) is the logic of God’s Creation.

A Provocation: Fifth Sunday of Easter: May 19, 2019: Revelation 21:1-6

Revelation 21:1-6
21:1 Then I saw a new heaven and a new earth; 
for the first heaven and the first earth had passed away, 
and the sea was no more.
21:2 And I saw the holy city, 
the new Jerusalem, 
coming down out of heaven from God, 
prepared as a bride adorned for her husband.
21:3 And I heard a loud voice from the throne saying, 
"See, the home of God is among mortals. 
He will dwell with them as their God; 
they will be his peoples, 
and God himself will be with them;
21:4 he will wipe every tear from their eyes. 
Death will be no more; 
mourning and crying and pain will be no more, 
for the first things have passed away."
21:5 And the one who was seated on the throne said, 
"See, I am making all things new." 
Also he said, 
"Write this, for these words are trustworthy and true."
21:6 Then he said to me, 
"It is done! 
I am the Alpha and the Omega, 
the beginning and the end. 
To the thirsty I will give water 
as a gift from the spring of the water of life.

A Question or Two:

  • Why will God wipe away every tear?
  • Who do you know that is weeping?

Some Longer Reflections:

When I was thinking about the scene from John for last Sunday, the scene set at the time of Hanukkah, I noticed that the word for the Rededication of the Temple is ἐγκαίνια, and that at the heart of this verb of dedicating is the stem, …καίν…, which means “new.” I wondered about that a little.

Then I looked at the gospel assigned for this Sunday (which I wrote about three years ago; see: https://tinyurl.com/ProvocationFifthEasterJohn ), which also focuses on newness, specifically a new commandment, ἐντολὴν καινὴν. And then I looked at the text from Revelation. Again, newness; again the stem, …καιν….

So I thought about Hanukkah again. It is a feast of Rededicating, of Restoring the Temple after Antiochus IV had polluted it, of Renewing the Holy of Holies in order to stabilize the world. Being a word nerd, I noticed that the prefix “re-” is followed by “-dedicating,” which is a verb form. I noticed that “re-” is also followed by “-storing,” another verb.

That would seem to imply that the third translation I just offered, “renewing,” should also be based on a verb. Now, I verb nouns with the best of them. Just ask my students. So did John Steinbeck, so I don’t feel too bad about it. When someone gets nervous about using “gift” as a verb, I find myself remembering the word “present,” which is both noun and verb . Or the word “display.” Or “exit.” Oh well.

What if “new” is also a verb?

It turns out that it is, at least in Greek. The stem …καιν… shows up not only in the adjective, καινη, but also in the verb καινοω, which means “to make new,” or “to restore.”

So, for the sake of provoking reflection, what if the “new commandment” in John 13 (which is just plain old Torah, as every Jew knows) is a commandment that reNEWS you? That is also something that every Jew knows: Torah renews you, your community, and the Creation. Since, as the rabbis say, God created the Cosmos in accordance with Torah, living in accordance with Torah makes you new, just like sunrise in the spring.

And, to push the provoking further, what if the story of a “new sky and a new earth” also reNEWS? We live in the midst of politics and privilege that do their best to train us to be cynical and hopeless. The people with power hold on to it, in part, by training you to say, “Nothing will ever change, so why bother?” Every time anyone says that, power and privilege are cemented in place, and the world stays old.

What if the story of newness is actually the power that makes the world new? What if when God says, “See, I am making all things new,” it causes the birth of hope, and erodes the power of dry cynicism? Michael D. Jackson, in his book The Politics of Storytelling: Violence, Transgression, and Intersubjectivity, argues that reclaiming the power to tell our own stories is the means by which human beings resist oppression, and that it is the means by which we recover from abuse. As an anthropologist, Jackson has seen it happen.

You have, too.

A Provocation: Fourth Sunday of Easter: May 12, 2019: John 10:22-30

John 10:22-30
22    It happened then:
           the Rededication (Hanukkah)
               among the Jerusalemites       
                   winter it was.
23    He kept walking around,
           Jesus did,
       in the Temple,
           in Solomon’s colonnade.
24    They encircled him, therefore,
           the Judeans did;
       they kept saying to him:
           When will you stop teasing us?
           Since you are the messiah,
               speak to us publicly.
25    He answered them
           Jesus did:
               I spoke to you
                   and you are not faithful.
              The works that I do
                   (in the name of my father),
                       these testify concerning me.
26           But you,
                  you are not faithful:
                  you are not from my sheep.
27                   My sheep hear my voice
                          and I know them and they follow me.
28                           I give to them aeonic life.
                             They will not be destroyed into the aeon.
                                 No one will seize them out of my hand.
29                                  My father,
                                         the one who has given to me,
                                     is greater than all things.
                                         No one will seize them
                                             out of the hand of the father.
30                                  I and the father,
                                         we are one.

A Question or Two:

  • Why is Jesus in Jerusalem?
  • Why is he in the Temple?

Some Longer Reflections:

Three years ago, I explored this same scene from John. You can read that Provocation at https://tinyurl.com/Provocation4EasterJohn10

This year I am looking at a very small part of this same scene, just the opening words, in fact.

The NRSV informs us that this takes place at the time of “the festival of the Dedication.” I translate it as “the Rededication.” Both of these translations are fine, but not so many Christians listening to these translations will know that this festival is Hanukkah. And that matters.

What is being rededicated, of course, is the Temple. And to understand this, you need to understand Antiochus IV Epiphanes.

You can start with the last part of his name, which he chose for himself. Antiochus followed in the line of the Seleucids, capable rulers descended from one of Alexander the Great’s generals. They had ruled Asia Minor (modern day Turkey) and the eastern end of the Mediterranean successfully for generations, but now they faced a threat from the Ptolemies (other descendants of one of Alexander’s generals) who ruled Egypt.

In the face of this threat, Antiochus IV saw the long-standing Seleucid practice of tolerating diversity and difference as a weakness in the face of a unified Egypt. He needed glue to hold his crazy-quilt of an empire together, and he judged that the best glue is religious glue.

He announced to his polyglot and polytheistic subjects that, commencing immediately, all would agree that he was a Deity. And he remodeled his name to make that clear: he was henceforth to be called Antiochus IV The God Revealed (Epiphanes).

For most of his subjects this was no great problem. Polytheists with a dozen or so gods already on the bus can always find room for one more, even if he has to sit on someone’s lap.

And then there were the Jews. Monotheists can be SO troublesome. Jews heard his announcement, considered it carefully, and responded with the Shema: Shema Yisroel, Adonai Elohenu, Adonai Echad (Hear, O Israel, the LORD our God, the LORD is One). Put simply, a central Jewish confession, then and now, is “God is God, and you are not.” And that goes for any “you.” Including Antiochus.

Antiochus was not amused. He made it illegal to be Jewish. He forbade circumcision. He punished distinctive Jewish practices, like observing Sabbath or keeping kosher. And he sacrificed a pig on the altar in thee Temple and erected a statue there, which made it impossible for the priests to bring the universe back into balance.

This is a serious matter, more serious than people who live without a Temple are likely to be able to imagine. The practice of sacrifice balanced the wobbling universe. This truth was embodied in the notion that God’s finger touched the world in the dark silence of the Holy of Holies, the safest, most Jewish place on earth. When Antiochus broke the Temple, he made the world deeply unsafe.

Which is exactly what he intended to do.

When the Jewish forces, under the leadership of Judah Maccabeus, defeated Antiochus, one of their first actions was to rededicate the Temple in order to heal the world. Hanukkah remembers that victory, and that act of re-balancing.

Jesus remembers Hanukkah. So do the Jerusalemites who gather round him in the Temple. That’s one of the reasons they ask Jesus to declare publicly that he is the messiah (the Greek sentence is a “condition of fact,” not a “condition contrary to fact,” in case you were wondering). If Jesus is, indeed, the one appointed (and anointed) to turn the world right-side-up, Hanukkah would be an apt time to make that clear, and the Temple would be exactly the right place.

Jesus’ response is odd, but that is quite normal for Jesus in the gospel of John. To sort it out, go back to chapter 6 and read slowly, tracking what Jesus says to and about the people who, the storyteller informs us, ate the miraculous bread Jesus provided and saw it as a sign. The tangled story will require slow, attentive reading.

For now, ask yourself what Hanukkah has to do with the Fourth Sunday of Easter. That is worth wondering.

A Provocation: Third Sunday of Easter: May 5, 2019: Psalm 30

Psalm 30
30:1 I will extol you, O LORD,
for you have drawn me up,
and did not let my foes rejoice over me. 

30:2 O LORD my God, I cried to you for help,
and you have healed me. 

30:3 O LORD, you brought up my soul from Sheol,
restored me to life from among those gone down to the Pit. 

30:4 Sing praises to the LORD, O you his faithful ones,
and give thanks to his holy name. 

30:5 For his anger is but for a moment;
his favor is for a lifetime.
Weeping may linger for the night,
but joy comes with the morning. 

30:6 As for me, I said in my prosperity,
"I shall never be moved." 

30:7 By your favor, O LORD, you had established me as a strong mountain;
you hid your face; I was dismayed. 

30:8 To you, O LORD, I cried,
and to the LORD I made supplication: 

30:9 "What profit is there in my death,
if I go down to the Pit?
Will the dust praise you?
Will it tell of your faithfulness? 

30:10 Hear, O LORD, and be gracious to me!
O LORD, be my helper!"

30:11 You have turned my mourning into dancing;
you have taken off my sackcloth and clothed me with joy, 

30:12 so that my soul may praise you and not be silent.
O LORD my God, I will give thanks to you forever.

For a Provocation of John 21, go to https://tinyurl.com/Provocation3EasterJohn21

A Question or Two:

  • If this is a psalm for Easter, why does it not sound like most Easter hymns?

Some Longer Reflections:

This is the first time I’ve aimed a Provocation at the Psalm for a Sunday.

I am struck by the multiple reversals in this song: …you have drawn me up, …you have healed me, …you brought up my soul from Sheol, [w]eeping may linger for the night, but joy comes with the morning. This is a song about surprise, about dismay. What seemed fixed and firm suddenly falls away. Hopelessness seems the sun break over the horizon; problems without solution yield to sudden insight or to slow, stubborn effort.

Both kinds of reversals make this a song worth singing during Easter. We misunderstand (and misrepresent) Easter if we make it into a happy little miracle, an obvious and easy reversal of death that lets life loose. The singer in Psalm 30 knows that reversals go both ways. So do we, but we use religion to pretend that we don’t. At least sometimes.

Listen to the desperate honesty of verse 9: “What profit is there in my death, if I go down to the Pit? Will the dust praise you? Will it tell of your faithfulness?”

Listen slowly.

This is a voice we all know. We have heard this voice at 3:00am. We have heard it out of the mouth of dear friends who know us well enough to dare to say such a frightening thing. We have heard it also in the anger that surprises us, or the tears that fall silently, or the mouth that smiles when the eyes dart to the side and sink.

In the Psalm, this painful question is aimed at “the LORD.” You know that this word, LORD, stands in for the unspoken Name of God, YHWH. English translations use LORD because Jews tradition reads “Adonai” in place of the Divine Name. And Adonai refers to lordship.

The problem with this ancient practice is that it substitutes hierarchy for a personal Name. Have you watched Downton Abbey? Have you watched any show that has lords and ladies in it? Mr. Carson calls Robert Crawley, “Your Lordship.” He cannot call him by his personal name. Only another noble can call Her Ladyship by her first name.

The rabbis note that Jewish Scripture uses Elohim (the other most common Name for God) to identify God working to establish justice, order, and reliability. YHWH, they note, is used to point to God acting in Mercy to claim, nurture, and rescue Creation. This is not an act of lordship, but of love.

That’s why these cries of painful honesty call out God’s personal Name, and expect Mercy. The practice of not speaking God’s own Name makes sense to me. But calling God Lord establishes a distance that seems false to me, regardless of ancient practice. It is also the practice of observant Jews to read YHWH as “haShem.” I sometimes translate it this way, but that only really works for people who know Hebrew, and thus already know that haShem means “the Name.”

We need a way of reading God’s Name that does not create hierarchical distance where the singer expects tender closeness. These days I generally translate YHWH as “the God Whose Name is Mercy,” but that is too long for a proper name, let alone a proper Name. Today I challenged my students to imagine a new way to translate the Name. I offer you the same challenge.

The Name needs to know that “joy comes with the morning.” But it needs to know the weeping that lasts all night long. The Name needs to know the reversals that make Easter part of real life, not just part of religious playacting. The Name needs to be warm and soft enough to hear our frank questions without becoming defensive. The singer asks, “What profit is there in my death?” She expects an answer. Mercy does not defend itself against that demand.

I would very much love to hear your translations for the Name.

A Provocation: Second Sunday of Easter: April 28, 2019: Revelation 1:4-8

Revelation 1:4-8
1:4 John to the seven churches that are in Asia: Grace to you and peace from him who is and who was and who is to come, and from the seven spirits who are before his throne,

1:5 and from Jesus Christ, the faithful witness, the firstborn of the dead, and the ruler of the kings of the earth. To him who loves us and freed us from our sins by his blood,

1:6 and made us to be a kingdom, priests serving his God and Father, to him be glory and dominion forever and ever. Amen.

1:7 Look! He is coming with the clouds; every eye will see him, even those who pierced him; and on his account all the tribes of the earth will wail. So it is to be. Amen.

1:8 "I am the Alpha and the Omega," says the Lord God, who is and who was and who is to come, the Almighty.

There is plenty to provoke around Easter. Three years ago, I found the resurrection scene in John 20 poking me, so I poked it back. You can read that Provocation at https://tinyurl.com/ProvocationSecondEaster

A Question or Two:

  • The final word in this passage is παντοκράτωρ, translated as “Almighty.”
  • Does it matter that the phrase “Almighty God,” in Jewish Scripture, translates the phrase “El Shaddai,” which is best translated as “God the Nursing Mother?” Asking for a friend.

Some Longer Reflections:

This year, the text from Revelation caught me. This text, and the call and response that I heard repeatedly on Easter, in church and all over social media: Christ is risen. Christ is risen indeed.

The first thing I notice is that John speaks grace and peace from three interwoven sources: from God, from seven spirits in the Divine Presence, and from Jesus Christ. This origin is not simple.

The three-fold origin of the blessing will make Christians salivate: this must be the Trinity! And maybe we are right to respond this way. But three-step patterns are as much rhetorical conventions as they are theological doctrines: in either case the rhetoric emphasizes the wholeness and completeness of the bestowing of grace and peace. Besides, the traditional trinitarian pattern is lacking here: there is no reference to a Father or a Son, and there are seven spirits.

But this is still more complicated. The first step in identifying the source of grace and peace also involves a three-fold pattern: it refers (in the NRSV) to “him who is and who was and who is to come.” This looks like present, past, and future, but the Greek is better read as “the One who is, who was, and who is coming.” The last participle is in the present tense, and thus does not point to a future arrival, but to a practice of continuously arriving. This echoes an argument made years ago by C. A. van Peursen in his book, Him Again. The unpronouceable Name of God, van Peursen argues, is indeed a kind of verb form. But it isn’t some kind of “present tense,” which would identify God as the One who exists (“the One who is”), and it isn’t a kind of “past tense,” which would tie God with the Deity narrated in past stories (“the One who was”). The Name of God (YHWH) is a kind of “iterative tense,” used to name each new eruption of God in human history. As in “Oh, it’s Him again.” This intriguing interpretation actually works well in both the gospel of John and the revelation to John. God DOES keep popping up, after all.

But what the “seven spirits?” There is surely more to be said about them later in Revelation, but for now, it matters that πνευμα means breath, and in a Jewish context (like Revelation) it means the breath of life that God blows into every human breath. In a Christian context it means the breath of life that God blew into the crucified messiah, thus restoring life that had been murdered. Before the throne, there is the πνευμα, the breath of life and resurrection. Specifically, there are SEVEN breaths, one for each day, breath enough for all days, since seven is the number of totality.

After these complications, the reference to Jesus seems easy. Sort of. Customary popular theology spends its time waiting for the “Second Coming.” Of Jesus. But notice that the phrase “One who is coming” is not applied to Jesus. That probably matters. Jesus is identified as “the witness.” He is “the faithful one.” And he is the “the firstborn of the dead, and the ruler of the kings of the earth.” These identifications have their own complexity.

First of all, the NRSV makes it a three-fold (again with the threes!) identification by linking the first two terms, witness and faithful. This is surely workable, though not all editors of Greek testaments agree. If, as I read it, the terms are separate, Jesus is still a witness, but he is also faithful (πιστός) which, in a Jewish text means that he was Torah observant: he kept kosher; he lived an orderly life; he shaped his existence to point to the God who creates, redeems, and loves the Cosmos. I think this is important.

The next step calls Jesus the “the firstborn of the dead,” a clear reference to his resurrection. But it is more than that, of course. The reference to “first-born” implies that this is not simply a “one off” event, not a circus trick. Resurrection is what ALL of Creation waits for (“with eager longing” says Paul). Jesus begins the process of the return to life.

If you translate as I do, this leaves a fourth step to the progression. Jesus is also the “ruler of the kings of the earth.” This rhetorical structure (three steps leading to a climactic fourth), says Amos Wilder, makes the fourth step the consequence of the first three. Thus, Jesus is the Ruler of rulers because he is a witness, who is an observant Jew, who is the beginning of God’s restoration of life to all Creation.

This is why the Easter call and response (Christ is risen / Christ is risen indeed) caught my ear this year. These words do not proclaim the miracle of a single escape from death. They state that it was messiah who is the firstborn out of death. Messiah is not simply an individual. Messiah is the promise of Hope, the hope for Justice, the justice that lets us live together in peace. It is hope that dies. Indeed. Hope often dies. It is hope that rises. It is about time.

Grace and peace from the hope that rises even out of death.

A Provocation: Easter Sunday: April 21, 2019: 1 Corinthians 15:19-26

1 Corinthians 15:19-26
15:19 If for this life only we have hoped in Christ,
we are of all people most to be pitied.

15:20 But in fact Christ has been raised from the dead,
the first fruits of those who have died.

15:21 For since death came through a human being,
the resurrection of the dead has also come through a human being;

15:22 for as all die in Adam,
so all will be made alive in Christ.

15:23 But each in his own order: Christ the first fruits,
then at his coming those who belong to Christ.

15:24 Then comes the end,
when he hands over the kingdom to God the Father,
after he has destroyed every ruler and every authority and power.

15:25 For he must reign until he has put all his enemies under his feet.

15:26 The last enemy to be destroyed is death.1

Three years ago I explored Luke’s story of the resurrection, including especially the impact of the women in the scene. You can find that Provocation at http://tinyurl.com/ProvocationEaster2016

This year, I chose to explore 1 Corinthians 15 and Paul’s understanding of resurrection.

A Question or Two:

  • Why is death the last enemy?
  • What are the consequences of a theology that treats mortality as an enemy? (Include good and bad consequences.)

Some Longer Reflections:

“If for this life only we have hoped in Christ, we are of all people most to be pitied.” This is a Christian argument, but Paul learned it because he was a Pharisee. Look back at verse 16. Note the order of his argument: If the dead (in general) are not raised to life, then Christ (in particular) is also not raised. Not the other way around. The argument is NOT that the resurrection of the Christ makes resurrection possible for the rest of Creation. That would be a customary enough Christian argument. But Paul was a Pharisee, and as such he holds that resurrection, along with the singularity of God, are the core of proper theology and all of life.

And it’s not about resurrection as a circus trick. It’s not about the ultimate Houdini escape from actual death. For the Pharisees, resurrection was not magic, or even a miracle. It was a design feature of the Universe. For Paul, as for the Pharisees (and for Jesus, while we’re at it), resurrection sets the universe in the context of God’s Justice.

This theological understanding is a strange mix of ultimate hope and ultimate despair. The hope is easy enough to see, I suppose. All enemies, specifically including death, will be put under the feet of Messiah, who comes to turn the world right-side-up. According to this ultimate hope, justice is also a design feature of the Universe. Justice is not a pretty little daydream, not an adolescent imagining, nor is it a project for absolutists and other terrorists who aim to impose their idea of justice even if they have to kill the world to do it. The ultimate hope of resurrection which raises Jesus to life, not because he was messiah but because he was part of Creation makes justice real and inevitable because it is God who made the world so that death ends nothing. This is ultimately and supremely hopeful.

But this is ultimately desperate, and for the same reasons. Locating justice on the other side of death implies (strongly) that it can’t find real lodging on this side of death and eternity.

It is easy enough at this point to bring Karl Marx and his religious opiate onto the scene at this point, and then people can either love him or hate him. That is too easy.

Religion funds both revolution and reaction, restoration and repression. It will not do to pretend otherwise.

But the real problem is that the crimes that demand justice are both solvable and not. A proper theology of resurrection increases our awareness of the necessity of justice on this side of death, and it does this by revealing to us that we would much rather leave it all for heaven. If justice is only enacted after resurrection, our privilege is left fully in place until then. But any serious effort to carry out justice now faces us with complications that confuse us. We begin our effort to make justice a design feature of the Universe and find ourselves with questionable allies and compromised outcomes.

Make a list of situations that call for justice. Make it a serious list. Include geopolitical meat-grinders: alliances with known dictators (think FDR and Stalin against Hitler), peoples locked in vicious stalemates (think Palestinians and Israelis). Include historical assaults that have left marks that cannot be erased, wounds that do not heal: think genocidal slaughter of Native American nations; think the systematic enslavement of people stolen from Africa. Reparation and resurrection have to be wound around each other, or all we have left of Easter is bunnies and eggs. Alleluia.

So, reflect on resurrection and reflect on the real world. Paul wrote: “If for this life only we have hoped in Christ, we are of all people most to be pitied.” True enough. But his argument implies also a corollary: “If only for the next life we have hoped in Christ, we are of all people most useless.” Neither state prepares us to answer to Justice on the other side of resurrection.


A Provocation: Maundy Thursday: April 18, 2019: 1 Corinthians 11:23-26

1 Corinthians 11:23-26
11:23 For I received from the Lord what I also handed on to you, that the Lord Jesus on the night when he was betrayed took a loaf of bread,

11:24 and when he had given thanks, he broke it and said, "This is my body that is for you. Do this in remembrance of me."

11:25 In the same way he took the cup also, after supper, saying, "This cup is the new covenant in my blood. Do this, as often as you drink it, in remembrance of me."

11:26 For as often as you eat this bread and drink the cup, you proclaim the Lord's death until he comes.

Two years ago I explored John’s story of the Last Supper. You can find that Provocation at http://tinyurl.com/ProvocationMaundyThursday

This year I am in the midst of preparing to write my next play. This play, a collaboration with a friend who is a theologian and a composer and with a student who is a dancer, will be called This Is My Body and will wind the words of the Sacrament around real life, and wrap real life around the Sacrament.

This small Provocation is part of my preparatory work.

Paul notes that when Jesus breaks the bread, he says, “This is my body.” The people who join us to commemorate Maundy Thursday may understand a bit about the fights pastors and other theologians have had over these words. They may have a sense of the real significance of those fights in their time. They are less likely to have read much about more recent rapprochement around such matters. Some of the people who join us would be willing to take up theological cudgels and join the old fights if we encourage them to do so. Others (perhaps a larger number) would be more likely to conclude that we think REAL theology is mostly about thinking we are right and about excluding people we don’t think are right. More than a few of that larger group will write us off as irrelevant and unhelpful.

I might be wrong.

But this year it might be wise to explore what Jesus’ words might connect us to.

It is not only in church that I have heard people say, “This is my body.” I have read it in the stories told by people in the #MeToo movement. “This is my body, not yours,” I have heard people say. “You do not have the right to act otherwise.” I have heard friends say those words when they describe the extra lessons they have to include when they teach their sons to drive: specifically the lessons that cover what to do WHEN the police pull you over, how not to get shot. “This is my Black body,” one mother said, “what are you going to do?” I have heard the same words from friends and students who find themselves in the midst of various gender transitions. “This is my body,” they say as they work to understand what those words actually mean to them and to the communities around them.

Jesus’ words point in at least two directions. They point through the bread to focus our eyes on his death by torture. And they point to the physical bread held in his very physical hand, and by doing so aim our eyes at the revelatory complications involved in the Incarnation. A Deity often imagined as the Ultimate Abstraction, knowable only in unreachable superlatives, holds bread in a simple human hand that will soon be nailed to an instrument of torture. Bodies can be tortured. Bodies can be murdered. These simple statements are true for all of us. They are true for anyBody.

Perhaps this Maundy Thursday these words link us, along with Jesus, with all those who have found themselves saying, “This is my body.” Reading it that way might put some teeth into the Mandate delivered in John’s gospel: Love each other.

A Provocation: Good Friday: April 19, 2019: John 18:1–19:42

John 18:1-19:42
18:1 After Jesus had spoken these words, he went out with his disciples across the Kidron valley to a place where there was a garden, which he and his disciples entered.

18:2 Now Judas, who betrayed him, also knew the place, because Jesus often met there with his disciples.

18:3 So Judas brought a detachment of soldiers together with police from the chief priests and the Pharisees, and they came there with lanterns and torches and weapons.

18:4 Then Jesus, knowing all that was to happen to him, came forward and asked them, "Whom are you looking for?"

18:5 They answered, "Jesus of Nazareth." Jesus replied, "I am he." Judas, who betrayed him, was standing with them.

18:6 When Jesus said to them, "I am he," they stepped back and fell to the ground.

18:7 Again he asked them, "Whom are you looking for?" And they said, "Jesus of Nazareth."

18:8 Jesus answered, "I told you that I am he. So if you are looking for me, let these men go."

18:9 This was to fulfill the word that he had spoken, "I did not lose a single one of those whom you gave me."

18:10 Then Simon Peter, who had a sword, drew it, struck the high priest's slave, and cut off his right ear. The slave's name was Malchus.

18:11 Jesus said to Peter, "Put your sword back into its sheath. Am I not to drink the cup that the Father has given me?"

18:12 So the soldiers, their officer, and the Jewish police arrested Jesus and bound him.

18:13 First they took him to Annas, who was the father-in-law of Caiaphas, the high priest that year.

18:14 Caiaphas was the one who had advised the Jews that it was better to have one person die for the people.

18:15 Simon Peter and another disciple followed Jesus. Since that disciple was known to the high priest, he went with Jesus into the courtyard of the high priest,

18:16 but Peter was standing outside at the gate. So the other disciple, who was known to the high priest, went out, spoke to the woman who guarded the gate, and brought Peter in.

18:17 The woman said to Peter, "You are not also one of this man's disciples, are you?" He said, "I am not."

18:18 Now the slaves and the police had made a charcoal fire because it was cold, and they were standing around it and warming themselves. Peter also was standing with them and warming himself.

18:19 Then the high priest questioned Jesus about his disciples and about his teaching.

18:20 Jesus answered, "I have spoken openly to the world; I have always taught in synagogues and in the temple, where all the Jews come together. I have said nothing in secret.

18:21 Why do you ask me? Ask those who heard what I said to them; they know what I said."

18:22 When he had said this, one of the police standing nearby struck Jesus on the face, saying, "Is that how you answer the high priest?"

18:23 Jesus answered, "If I have spoken wrongly, testify to the wrong. But if I have spoken rightly, why do you strike me?"

18:24 Then Annas sent him bound to Caiaphas the high priest.

18:25 Now Simon Peter was standing and warming himself. They asked him, "You are not also one of his disciples, are you?" He denied it and said, "I am not."

18:26 One of the slaves of the high priest, a relative of the man whose ear Peter had cut off, asked, "Did I not see you in the garden with him?"

18:27 Again Peter denied it, and at that moment the cock crowed.

18:28 Then they took Jesus from Caiaphas to Pilate's headquarters. It was early in the morning. They themselves did not enter the headquarters, so as to avoid ritual defilement and to be able to eat the Passover.

18:29 So Pilate went out to them and said, "What accusation do you bring against this man?"

18:30 They answered, "If this man were not a criminal, we would not have handed him over to you."

18:31 Pilate said to them, "Take him yourselves and judge him according to your law." The Jews replied, "We are not permitted to put anyone to death."

18:32 (This was to fulfill what Jesus had said when he indicated the kind of death he was to die.)

18:33 Then Pilate entered the headquarters again, summoned Jesus, and asked him, "Are you the King of the Jews?"

18:34 Jesus answered, "Do you ask this on your own, or did others tell you about me?"

18:35 Pilate replied, "I am not a Jew, am I? Your own nation and the chief priests have handed you over to me. What have you done?"

18:36 Jesus answered, "My kingdom is not from this world. If my kingdom were from this world, my followers would be fighting to keep me from being handed over to the Jews. But as it is, my kingdom is not from here."

18:37 Pilate asked him, "So you are a king?" Jesus answered, "You say that I am a king. For this I was born, and for this I came into the world, to testify to the truth. Everyone who belongs to the truth listens to my voice."

18:38 Pilate asked him, "What is truth?" After he had said this, he went out to the Jews again and told them, "I find no case against him.

18:39 But you have a custom that I release someone for you at the Passover. Do you want me to release for you the King of the Jews?"

18:40 They shouted in reply, "Not this man, but Barabbas!" Now Barabbas was a bandit.

19:1 Then Pilate took Jesus and had him flogged.

19:2 And the soldiers wove a crown of thorns and put it on his head, and they dressed him in a purple robe.

19:3 They kept coming up to him, saying, "Hail, King of the Jews!" and striking him on the face.

19:4 Pilate went out again and said to them, "Look, I am bringing him out to you to let you know that I find no case against him."

19:5 So Jesus came out, wearing the crown of thorns and the purple robe. Pilate said to them, "Here is the man!"

19:6 When the chief priests and the police saw him, they shouted, "Crucify him! Crucify him!" Pilate said to them, "Take him yourselves and crucify him; I find no case against him."

19:7 The Jews answered him, "We have a law, and according to that law he ought to die because he has claimed to be the Son of God."

19:8 Now when Pilate heard this, he was more afraid than ever.

19:9 He entered his headquarters again and asked Jesus, "Where are you from?" But Jesus gave him no answer.

19:10 Pilate therefore said to him, "Do you refuse to speak to me? Do you not know that I have power to release you, and power to crucify you?"

19:11 Jesus answered him, "You would have no power over me unless it had been given you from above; therefore the one who handed me over to you is guilty of a greater sin."

19:12 From then on Pilate tried to release him, but the Jews cried out, "If you release this man, you are no friend of the emperor. Everyone who claims to be a king sets himself against the emperor."

19:13 When Pilate heard these words, he brought Jesus outside and sat on the judge's bench at a place called The Stone Pavement, or in Hebrew Gabbatha.

19:14 Now it was the day of Preparation for the Passover; and it was about noon. He said to the Jews, "Here is your King!"

19:15 They cried out, "Away with him! Away with him! Crucify him!" Pilate asked them, "Shall I crucify your King?" The chief priests answered, "We have no king but the emperor."

19:16 Then he handed him over to them to be crucified. So they took Jesus;

19:17 and carrying the cross by himself, he went out to what is called The Place of the Skull, which in Hebrew is called Golgotha.

19:18 There they crucified him, and with him two others, one on either side, with Jesus between them.

19:19 Pilate also had an inscription written and put on the cross. It read, "Jesus of Nazareth, the King of the Jews."

19:20 Many of the Jews read this inscription, because the place where Jesus was crucified was near the city; and it was written in Hebrew, in Latin, and in Greek.

19:21 Then the chief priests of the Jews said to Pilate, "Do not write, 'The King of the Jews,' but, 'This man said, I am King of the Jews.'"

19:22 Pilate answered, "What I have written I have written."

19:23 When the soldiers had crucified Jesus, they took his clothes and divided them into four parts, one for each soldier. They also took his tunic; now the tunic was seamless, woven in one piece from the top. 

19:24 So they said to one another, "Let us not tear it, but cast lots for it to see who will get it." This was to fulfill what the scripture says, "They divided my clothes among themselves, and for my clothing they cast lots."

19:25 And that is what the soldiers did. Meanwhile, standing near the cross of Jesus were his mother, and his mother's sister, Mary the wife of Clopas, and Mary Magdalene.

19:26 When Jesus saw his mother and the disciple whom he loved standing beside her, he said to his mother, "Woman, here is your son."

19:27 Then he said to the disciple, "Here is your mother." And from that hour the disciple took her into his own home.

19:28 After this, when Jesus knew that all was now finished, he said (in order to fulfill the scripture), "I am thirsty."

19:29 A jar full of sour wine was standing there. So they put a sponge full of the wine on a branch of hyssop and held it to his mouth.

19:30 When Jesus had received the wine, he said, "It is finished." Then he bowed his head and gave up his spirit.

19:31 Since it was the day of Preparation, the Jews did not want the bodies left on the cross during the sabbath, especially because that sabbath was a day of great solemnity. So they asked Pilate to have the legs of the crucified men broken and the bodies removed.

19:32 Then the soldiers came and broke the legs of the first and of the other who had been crucified with him.

19:33 But when they came to Jesus and saw that he was already dead, they did not break his legs.

19:34 Instead, one of the soldiers pierced his side with a spear, and at once blood and water came out.

19:35 (He who saw this has testified so that you also may believe. His testimony is true, and he knows that he tells the truth.)

19:36 These things occurred so that the scripture might be fulfilled, "None of his bones shall be broken."

19:37 And again another passage of scripture says, "They will look on the one whom they have pierced."

19:38 After these things, Joseph of Arimathea, who was a disciple of Jesus, though a secret one because of his fear of the Jews, asked Pilate to let him take away the body of Jesus. Pilate gave him permission; so he came and removed his body.

19:39 Nicodemus, who had at first come to Jesus by night, also came, bringing a mixture of myrrh and aloes, weighing about a hundred pounds.

19:40 They took the body of Jesus and wrapped it with the spices in linen cloths, according to the burial custom of the Jews.

19:41 Now there was a garden in the place where he was crucified, and in the garden there was a new tomb in which no one had ever been laid.

19:42 And so, because it was the Jewish day of Preparation, and the tomb was nearby, they laid Jesus there.

In the last few years I have written some Provocations for Good Friday that I still think might be useful. You can find them at these URLs:

My Provocation for this year focuses on a very small bit of a very long scene. The long scene is from John, and it stretches from the arrest in the garden to the burial in the new tomb. The small bit is from chapter 18. Annas has examined Jesus and sent him along to Caiaphas. Caiaphas in turn sends Jesus along to Pilate.

The question is, Why?

Why did the High Priest send Jesus to Pilate? John’s narrative gives us an answer, of sorts. We are told that the Jewish authorities brought Jesus to Pilate because “[they] are not permitted to put anyone to death.” At that point commentators rush to make it clear that they did indeed have that authority. They couldn’t crucify anyone. Rome retained that horrifying right for itself, and used it to prove to the dominated population that Roman cruelty had no limits. Only Rome could torture someone to death on a cross, in public, over the course (usually) of six days, and Rome reserved this particular brutality to demonstrate what would happen to anyone who threatened Roman control. That was also the point of having condemned rebels carry the crossbeam to the place where they would be crucified. It wasn’t a matter of efficient transport. It was to prove to any potential supporters in the crowd that they lacked the courage to rescue their comrade.

The Jewish authorities could not crucify anyone, but they could execute. And the storyteller and any imaginable audience would have known this.

John’s narrative tells the story this way to place blame on the Jewish authorities. It’s time we stopped this. It is time we just stopped.

There is more than one voice telling the story in John’s gospel. I judge the older voices to be the ones that celebrate God’s all-embracing love for the Cosmos. The later voices are angry, vicious even. The later voices attack Jews as “children of [their] father, the devil,” even though the older storyteller had previously told us that these same Jews were faithful to Jesus.

It is time, long past time, that we stopped listening to growling, angry voices, whether in theology or in politics. We stop now.

Why did Caiaphas hand Jesus over to Pilate? He did it because Rome had created the priesthood as what I call the “organ of liaison.” Rome controlled its conquered peoples by identifying the key leadership group in each case and using them to control the population.

So Pilate went to the Chief Priests and made it clear that they were in charge of keeping the peace. Any potential troublemaker was to be handed over to Pilate, and Rome would take it from there.

I imagine that, at the outset, the priests thought of themselves as patriots, and sought to protect Jewish troublemakers from Roman torture. Pilate’s response was simple: he started killing random Jews until the troublemaker was identified and turned over. The Jewish population will have understood what was happening, and will have demanded that the priests turn over the next troublemaker before the round of murders started. And the priests will also have learned their lesson. The next time anyone gave even a hint of causing trouble for Rome, they will have found him and delivered him to Rome’s tender mercies.

Pilate will have publicly thanked the priests, and he will have rewarded them handsomely. The Jewish people will have noticed this reward. When Pilate rewarded them, he made them into rich traitors, and the Jewish public will thus have had two easy reasons to distrust them.

At that point, Pilate will have won. He had created a system that would deliver potential rebels, and he had undermined public trust in the priests.

That’s why Caiaphas turned Jesus over to Pilate. He had been made into the Roman organ of liaison. He had no choice.

If you want to think about the political background of all this, read Domination and the Arts of Resistance by James C. Scott (1990). If you want to think about the historical outcome of this practice, read Hellenistic Civilization and the Jews by Victor Tscherikover (1959).

If you want to think about the human effect of this policy, watch the final episode of M.A.S.H. in which Hawkeye suffers in the aftermath of surviving on a bus surrounded by the enemy. The people on the bus survived because a mother smothered her crying baby. Hawkeye ordered her to silence the child (1983).

Or, if you want to think carefully about the history behind John’s story, read John 18:14 again. This verse refers back to an argument in chapter 11. Jesus is causing an uproar. The members of the Sanhedrin note that if he continues, “the Romans will come and take away both our place and our nation.” Caiaphas responds just as Hawkeye did: “It is better that one person should die….”

He had no choice.

A Provocation: Sunday of the Passion: April 14, 2019: Philippians 2:5-11

Philippians 2:5-11
2:5 Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus,

2:6 who, though he was in the form of God, did not regard equality with God as something to be exploited,

2:7 but emptied himself, taking the form of a slave, being born in human likeness. And being found in human form,

2:8 he humbled himself and became obedient to the point of death-- even death on a cross.

2:9 Therefore God also highly exalted him and gave him the name that is above every name,

2:10 so that at the name of Jesus every knee should bend, in heaven and on earth and under the earth,

2:11 and every tongue should confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father.

Once again, my Provocation for Palm Sunday from three years ago (look for it in the archives of this blog) is worth looking at this year, as well. There I reflect on the odd way the Palm Sunday story is told in the gospel of Luke. You can find it at http://tinyurl.com/ProvocationPalmSunday2016

I offer you this reflection on the passage from Philippians that is part of the lectionary for the Sunday of the Passion.

A Question or Two:

  • Why do so many singers and interpreters sing about domination and ultimate victory when they think about Philippians 2?
  • Why does Paul sing about humiliation and crucifixion, not power?
  • How does our love of power and victory and obvious happy endings distort Paul’s song?

Some Longer Reflections:

The Name above every name is not “Jesus.” This passage assigns to Jesus the Divine Name, the Name never pronounced so as not to drain it of its dynamic content. This song gives to Jesus the Name of the Mercy Attribute, the Name (the rabbis tell us) that is used when the storyteller is narrating God’s loving nurture for all of Creation, when God is claiming the Chosen People.

This Name is never spoken for reasons that make great sense to me. When my daughter (a professional now well-established in her career) wants to joke about manipulating me, she calls me “Daddy.” And then she asks me to do something she knows I would do without manipulation. That is the point of the joke. When one of the few people on earth who can call me
“Daddy” asks, the answer is yes. It just goes with having been given that name by your own child, just learning to talk. No one else can use that name, and it would be creepy if they did. It would empty it of the content and context that make it wonderful.

That is what “using God’s Name in vain” means, of course. “Vanity” draws its strength as a word out of the metaphor of hollow emptiness. Jews avoid with loving care any use of God’s Name that would hollow it out, empty it of the warm mercy that raises the Name above every other name.

The substance of that Mercy, in this passage, is the Incarnation, the emptying that transforms God into one who is NOT above it all, not exempt from mortality, not immune to death.

Stop and think about that. What does our fragile mortality contribute to our life?

  • A certain nagging fear, to be sure. When we drove away from the assisted living facility in which my parents spent their last years, we did it knowing that each parting might be a final parting. We know the same thing when our children get in the car to drive home, or when one of my students leaves my office.
  • An intense awareness of how precious time is. During the two years that my sister lived with ALS, we discovered that the delight of tree-ripened peaches was not diminished by her diagnosis. If anything, living in the presence of an invariably fatal disease made the taste wilder, more alive, more shockingly sweet.
  • A very real vulnerability that abusers know and exploit. Have you worked for a boss who reminded workers that it was easy to replace them? I have. “What are you going to do if you leave?” That’s a question abusers of all sorts ask of the people they have made vulnerable. We are murderable, and tyrants remind us of that fact to frighten us. That was the point made by Pilate’s crucifixion of Jesus. That is the point made by the current president of the U.S. when he mentions “Second Amendment remedies.”

So what is the impact of this embodied Mercy? First of all, God is now set in the context of real mortality, not above it. God learns what it means to be murderable. This transforms the way we are able to speak about God. And second, death is now set in the context of resurrection. “O Death, where is your sting?” sings Paul in another epistle. This is not a song to be sung lightly. We are no less murderable than we were before the Incarnation. We are no less fragile, and no less afraid. It will not do to pretend about this. But the resurrection of the murdered messiah directs our eyes to the teachers we need: Rosa Parks, Malcolm X, Martin Luther King, Jr., Emma Gonzalez, David Hogg, Winona LaDuke. You can add to this list. You will think of people that I do not.

In a moment in history when “Second Amendment remedies” are mentioned by more people than the current president, when angry voices play at threatening civil war should an election go against them, remember that the life we need is often on the other side of death. That, unfortunately, has always been true. That is one of the points of giving the Name to the crucified messiah. That is one of the lessons taught to us by the children and students and grandmothers who faced fire hoses and police dogs on the way to getting an education or the right to vote. While you reflect on the murderable messiah and the Mercy of God, read the stories in Isabel Wilkerson’s book, The Warmth of Other Suns: The Epic Story of America’s Great Migration. This is not the first time we have had to learn that death and resurrection are not nice little religious concepts; they are a matter of life and death.

LORD have Mercy.