A Provocation: The Day of Pentecost: June 4, 2017: Acts 2:1-21

“The miracle of Pentecost is that God spoke like everyone’s mother, that God embraced the differences, and did not reject them. “


Acts 2:1-21
2:1 When the day of Pentecost had come, they were all together in one place.

2:2 And suddenly from heaven there came a sound like the rush of a violent wind, and it filled the entire house where they were sitting.

2:3 Divided tongues, as of fire, appeared among them, and a tongue rested on each of them.

2:4 All of them were filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak in other languages, as the Spirit gave them ability.

2:5 Now there were devout Jews from every nation under heaven living in Jerusalem.

2:6 And at this sound the crowd gathered and was bewildered, because each one heard them speaking in the native language of each.

2:7 Amazed and astonished, they asked, “Are not all these who are speaking Galileans?

2:8 And how is it that we hear, each of us, in our own native language?

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A Provocation: Ascension and Seventh Sunday of Easter: May 24, 2020: Acts 1:1-14

1:1 In the first book, 
I wrote about all that Jesus did and taught 
from the beginning

1:2 until the day when he was taken up to heaven, 
after giving instructions 
through the Holy Spirit 
to the apostles whom he had chosen.

1:3 After his suffering 
he presented himself alive to them 
by many convincing proofs, 
appearing to them during forty days 
and speaking about the kingdom of God.

1:4 While staying with them, 
he ordered them not to leave Jerusalem, 
but to wait there for the promise of the Father. 
he said, 
"is what you have heard from me;

1:5 for John baptized with water, 
but you will be baptized with the Holy Spirit 
not many days from now."

1:6 So when they had come together, 
they asked him, 
"Lord, is this the time 
when you will restore the kingdom 
to Israel?"

1:7 He replied, 
"It is not for you to know the times 
or periods 
that the Father has set 
by his own authority.

1:8 But you will receive power 
when the Holy Spirit has come upon you; 
and you will be my witnesses 
in Jerusalem, 
in all Judea and Samaria, 
and to the ends of the earth."

1:9 When he had said this, 
as they were watching, 
he was lifted up, 
and a cloud took him out of their sight.

1:10 While he was going 
and they were gazing up toward heaven, 
suddenly two men in white robes stood by them.

1:11 They said, 
"Men of Galilee, 
why do you stand looking up toward heaven? 
This Jesus, 
who has been taken up from you into heaven, 
will come in the same way as you saw him go into heaven."

1:12 Then they returned to Jerusalem 
from the mount called Olivet, 
which is near Jerusalem, 
a sabbath day's journey away.

1:13 When they had entered the city, 
they went to the room upstairs where they were staying, 
and John, 
and James, 
and Andrew, 
Philip and Thomas, 
Bartholomew and Matthew, 
James son of Alphaeus, 
and Simon the Zealot, 
and Judas son of James.

1:14 All these were constantly devoting themselves to prayer, 
together with certain women, 
including Mary the mother of Jesus, 
as well as his brothers.

V. 1 ἤρξατο ὁ Ἰησοῦς ποιεῖν τε καὶ διδάσκειν

One of the pieces that matters in Acts 1:1-14 is the word: ἤρξατο.  

Customary translation reads this as “from the beginning.”  That is an odd translation.  The root carries the notion of beginning, but this is a plain old aorist verb with plain old Jesus as its subject.  And the plain old verb means “Jesus began…” and then gives us two infinitives that tell us what Jesus began: “to do” and “to teach.”  This is pretty straightforward.  Why have customary translators complicated things?  My guess is that they are nervous about having Jesus only “begin” to do and teach.  I think that interpreters should take notice when translators get nervous.  There is usually something worth thinking about in such spots.  

The story told in the gospel of Luke is not a story of accomplishment, but of beginning.  That matters.  Embodied in that important word is an explicit recognition of the incompleteness of Jesus’ career as messiah.  This shows up in Christian circles as a fixation on the “second coming” of the messiah, which (to any articulate Jewish analysis, would amount to the actual FIRST coming of the messiah, since Jesus (even when read charitably by Jews or by Christians who have a clue about what “messiah” means and does) simply did NOT accomplish what messiah must accomplish.  At the end of his career, the world is still obviously upside-down.  Rome is still in power, and has demonstrated that position by having crucified the messiah.  

Christians will leap to their feet and cheer for the resurrection.  But if they are cheering for the power demonstrated by God’s raising a corpse to life, the resurrection has become some kind of circus trick.  “And for my next magical trick,” says God, “I will make this dummy speak while drinking a glass of water.”  Such acts belong on the Ed Sullivan show, or on any one of many variety shows in the early days of television, but not in any serious theology.  

Paul reads the resurrection as some kind of “first-fruits,” as a promise of life erupting out of all-too-common death.  He didn’t mean that in some metaphorical sense.  He meant that resurrection was soon to become a common experience.  It has not.

Christian theology has, of course, responded to this through the millennia with great vigor and creativity.  The resurrection is morphed into a kind of “spiritual rebirth.”  We are raised to a new life that is “free from sin,” theologically at least, if not in any observable sense.  Resurrection becomes a metaphor for hopefulness or cheeriness or courage.  It can be all of those things, but only if you recognize how metaphors actually work: whereas a simile posits an essential similarity between the things that are identified as similar, a metaphor gains its energy from the lack of fit between Term A and Term B: Madeleine Albright is most assuredly NOT a lion.  But the disjunction sharpens both sides of the metaphor.  

In Acts, the storyteller is clear: all we can say about Jesus is that he BEGAN to do and teach things that are proper to the work of the messiah.  Whatever else messiah does, the narrative image of messiah makes it clear that what you need a messiah for is to turn the world right-side-up.  

The issue, then, is: if Jesus only BEGAN this work, how is it to be completed?  The narrative logic of Acts shows up in this little scene: Jesus will return from the sky to complete the work.  I am deeply uneasy with what people have done with the notion of a “second” coming.  Historically the notion of a “second” coming has been tied to political, social, and personal quietism: when James Watt (Secretary of the Interior) was asked whether we shouldn’t try to slow our use of fossil fuels, specifically when he was asked how long our coal supplies would last, he answered by asking how long it would be until Jesus came back.  This is irresponsible.  It is also typical.  

I need to go to theologies rooted in the Incarnation that have vital ties to vigorous readings of the Body of Christ.  In such theologies (thank you, Dietrich Bonhoeffer) hand the work of turning the world right-side-up (that is: doing the actual work of messiah) to the Body of Christ in the world.  That makes us partners in beginning the work that will always be larger than we are.  Because it was also larger than the messiah, himself. 

V. 5 ὅτι Ἰωάννης μὲν ἐβάπτισεν ὕδατι, ὑμεῖς δὲ ἐν πνεύματι βαπτισθήσεσθε ἁγίῳ οὐ μετὰ πολλὰς ταύτας ἡμέρας. 

There are two crucial bits in this.  The first is related to the word, ἐβάπτισεν.  The problem with ἐβάπτισεν is that we have a word “baptize” that we think we understand.  Of course, we don’t.  Lutherans baptize, but an entire set of denominations (the Baptists in all their wild variegation) doesn’t recognize our baptizing as any kind of baptism at all.  But we all agree that this word refers to a sort of religious ceremony that we regularly perform.  But the word in Greek means “washing,” “cleansing,” “purifying.”  

And the washing in question (for John the “baptizer”) maps most naturally on the various washings that are part of Jewish life in both the ancient and contemporary world.  Women ritually wash at the conclusion of their monthly periods as part of their returning to ordinary life after being in mysterious contact with blood, the bearer of the deep mystery of life.  Soldiers wash (in the ancient Jewish world at least) in preparation for the extraordinarily destabilizing work of combat.  John’s washing appears to be more closely related to the preparation for apocalyptic warfare against the powers that hold the world upside down.  That’s why it matters in Luke’s story that even soldiers and tax collectors show up to be washed: Rome thinks it controls the universe, but even its very agents of domination are defecting to the side of the God who is working to turn the world right-side-up.  

In Acts, the washing is tied decisively to the πνεύματι … ἁγίῳ.  This phrase is translated (adequately) as [the] Holy Spirit.  The problem is that πνεύματι means “breath” long before it means “spirit.”  It means “wind” also.  Tying this breath to the notion of holiness means that you cannot make sense of this phrase until you go back and soak up the story in Genesis 2.  God makes an intricately crafted Mudguy (a good translation of the Hebrew word, adam), but it lies on the ground inert.  The Mudguy is eerily motionless (think of the first person you saw die;  think of every person you have seen die) until the holy mystery of life is blown into its nose.  Why the nose?  Because Genesis 2 is not a story of the FIRST human breath, but a revelation of what is happening in EVERY human breath: each inhalation happens because God bends down and blows, yet one more time, the gift of life into each human nose.  Including yours.  

Acts is arguing that, because God blew life back into the inert body of the messiah (who embodies the hope that the world will be turned right-side-up) and Jesus rose from the dead.  That makes Acts 1 into a promise of a re-staging of Genesis 2, but now with the breath of resurrection, not just life, as the central factor.  Paul, by the way, reads it the same way, which is weird, given how different Luke and Paul sometimes are.  

V. 6 τῷ χρόνῳ τούτῳ ἀποκαθιστάνεις τὴν βασιλείαν τῷ Ἰσραήλ; Οὐχ ὑμῶν ἐστιν γνῶναι χρόνους ἢ καιροὺς οὓς ὁ πατὴρ ἔθετο ἐν τῇ ἰδίᾳ ἐξουσίᾳ:

Two things here: first, there is the matter of “restoring the kingdom to Israel,” whatever that might mean.  The details of this notion are murky, and tangled, but the basic notion is important.  Jesus is being asked when Israel will finally be released from Roman domination.  Christian interpretation has typically spent its energy making fun of the notion that the work of the messiah would have some kind of earthly effect.  When I was in undergrad, the typical Christian interpretation of such a notion began with ridicule of “Jewish foolishness.”  Ish.  

This was done in the name of avoiding false linking of the work of God with any particular side in a partisan conflict.  Ancient Jews were caricatured as “foolishly nationalistic.”  This interpretive line was often advanced by interpreters with their roots in European Christianity, interpreters who were quite sure that that form of Christian theology represented the best and most true form of God’s work on earth.  Translated: ancient Jews were wrong because they didn’t see that Jesus’ career fosters OUR nationalism, not theirs.  Ish.  

Hoping for the restoration of the “kingdom to Israel” is a cry for an end to injustice and brutal domination.  The disciples in this scene were asking for the same thing that any dominated and brutalized people asks for.  Listen to the speeches of Martin Luther King, Jr., or those of Malcom X.  Now imagine that the interpreters I read as an undergrad were speaking instead of the “foolishness” of people who had been held as slaves.  Ish.  

Also, notice that the disciples ask about this crucial establishment of justice in terms of τῷ χρόνῳ.  The Greek word, chronos, is the word that gives birth to chronology.  They are asking if this is the particular point in time when you can start to count on things to start happening.  

The answer attributed to Jesus responds in terms of both χρόνους ἢ καιροὺς, both chronos and kairos.  If chronos refers to locateable points in time, kairos refers to those astonishing “sweet spots” in time that suddenly open up.  Jesus says that both kinds of moments are unknowable.  He is not (not to my eye, anyhow) training his disciples in quietism, not administering the opiate that Karl Marx noted centuries later.  His words (at least for me) spur dissatisfaction.  “No, this is not the time,” he says, even though he taught his disciples to pray that God’s will would ACTUALLY be done on earth, not just somewhere up in the sky.  For once.  

V. 8  λήμψεσθε δύναμιν

A short note here: δύναμιν is generally translated as “power.”  This word is risky when you hand it to people who are already in control of most of the power in a society.  It also implies that the work of the disciples will be accomplished by force.  The word in Greek refers more to “dynamic potentiality.”  In fact, in biblical texts, when δύναμιν goes out of a person (especially a male), he becomes im-potent.  Any decent translation needs “potence” in the mix somehow.  So, if the followers of the messiah are somehow the “Body of Christ,” they are promised the dynamic potentiality to actually carry out this transformative and life-giving work.

 V. 9 νεφέλη ὑπέλαβεν αὐτὸν

A cloud received him.  Jesus goes up, not into “heaven,” but into the sky.  Our notions of “heaven” have almost nothing to do with ancient Jewish notions.  The sky was a place no human being could reach.  There were no airplanes, and no space craft.  Humans lived their entire lives on the (relatively) flat plane of the earth.  The sky was the barrier between ordinary life on earth and the uncontrollable forces that were held back by the dome.  The sky was the dome in which the stars were set, and the stars were orderly and ordered, they allowed the prediction of seasons and cycles.  Jesus is returning to the site where order and the inexorable were balanced against each other.  And thus it was that a cloud received him.  

V. 12 σαββάτου ἔχον ὁδόν. 

It matters that the disciples were a “sabbath’s journey” from Jerusalem.  This scene takes place, we are told, on a sabbath 40 days after Jesus was seen to have been raised from death (on the day after the sabbath, a Sunday).  That means that this scene takes place (apparently) 43 days after Passover.  And that means that this scene takes place one week before Pentecost, the feast of 50 days, Shavuot, in Hebrew.  This may not be earth-shaking, but it matters in a world that measures time from sabbath to sabbath.  This scene takes place one sabbath before the next major festival in the life of Jews, and thus contributes its energy to that coming festival.  Christians tend to think of this as their own story.  It draws its energy, however, from the structure of a Jewish world.  Remember, Jesus is Jewish.  Then and now.  

V. 14 Γυναιξὶν 

Customary translations say something about “certain women.”  I can’t figure out where they get the word “certain.”  That implies, in my ear at least, that the group of women is rather small.  The Greek just says that the named disciples devoted themselves to prayer with women.  The group of women included Jesus’ mother, but it is implied that the group was large.  Perhaps much larger than the group of 11 males who are named.  That is worth thinking about slowly.  Imagine that.  Now go back and read Luke’s story.  It is, to be sure, a story that assumes that a patriarchal world is normal.  There are baritones everywhere.  But there are also women who are decisive in the story, decisive in ways that males are not.  Zechariah has a scene paired with Mary’s first appearance in the story.  Mary comes off strong enough to sing the Magnificat.  Zechariah is reduced to making incomprehensible signals that people can’t quite figure out.  Elizabeth plays the role of a powerful auntie to whom Mary flees for protection.  Anna in the Temple anchors the story in the history and hope of the Jewish people.  At the end of the story, the “daughters of Jerusalem” come out to mourn for Jesus as their brother.  And now the small group of male disciples join with this ever-expanding group of women in devoting themselves to prayer.

Just saying.  

A Provocation: Sixth Sunday of Easter: May 17, 2020: John 14:15-21

15          If ever you should love me,
                   my mitzvot you will guard.
16                    I also will ask the father 
                             and another similar advocate he will give to you
                                 (in order that he should be with you into the aeon):
17                                  the breath of truth,
                                           the one that the beautiful world is not able to receive
                                                because it does not see it
                                                neither does it know it;
                                                     you will know it
                                                     because with you it remains 
                                                     and in you it is.
18          I will not leave you orphans;
              I come to you.
19               Still a little,
                        and the beautiful world sees me no longer
                             because I live and you will live.
20          In that day you yourselves will know:
                   I in my father 
                   and you in me
                   and I also in you.  
21          The one who has my miztvot,
                   and guards them,
              that one is the one who loves me.
                   The one who loves me
                        will be loved by my father,
                             and I also will love that one 
                                  and will make myself appear
                                  to/in/by means of that one.

Again, I explored this passage three years ago, and was much taken with Sara Miles’ argument that remaining confined inside the walls of our safe sanctuaries and traditions does not lead to life. The events of the past few months (and of the coming many months) make Miles’ insights even more important, I think.

You can find that Provocation at: https://provokingthegospel.wordpress.com/2020/05/11/a-provocation-the-sixth-sunday-of-easter-may-21-2017-john-1415-21/

This year another thing has struck me. Jesus says, “I will not leave you orphans….”

I wish a nifty little rhetorical flourish could make that so memorable and effective that the sense of being vulnerable and abandoned would just vanish. There is no such rhetorical power.

Every institution, every business, every mom-and-pop restaurant that I know anything about is under serious pressure, and feels exposed and endangered. Because they are. Every young professional I know is concerned about house payments, and every older worker I know wakes up at night doing the math for retirement. And in both of these cases, it is not just that the crashing of the stock market and of the economy in general has made things dicier that at any time in living memory. In both of these cases and in so many more, the crashing of the market has led to corporate talk about layoffs and furloughs, reduced hours, salary cuts, and imposed early retirement programs.

“I will not leave you orphans,” says Jesus, but every person I know feels suddenly unprotected and unsure of what the next steps even could be. (If you don’t feel this way, get quietly to work and find a way to help. All the rest of us DO feel this way, and feel it acutely.) The verse in which this promise appears would seem to imply that the solution to our sense of sharp vulnerability is “Jesus coming to us.” Maybe. But I have yet to hear any explanation of what this could mean that does me any good.

Sometimes it is dressed up as some sort of “spiritual coming,” and so it seems to offer a kind of inner peace. I’m all in favor of any peace, internal or external, that I can find, but I am puzzled as to how inner peace pays the bills or buys clothes for growing children.

Sometimes the coming of Jesus is rolled over into the “Second Coming” (whatever in the world that is). That has been a popular interpretive move at various times in history. So far he hasn’t shown up. So far the expectation of a cataclysmic apocalyptic event has also not covered anybody’s mortgage payment or made it more likely that people whose work sustains the food supply chain get workplace protection, reliable health care, or a living wage. Joe Hill, a labor organizer from about a century ago pointed this out clearly:

You will eat, bye and bye

In that glorious land above the sky

Work and Pray, live on hay

You’ll get pie in the sky when you die (it’s a lie)

from “The Preacher and the Slave”

So, that’s cheery.

Here is what I hear just now:

21          The one who has my miztvot,

                   and guards them,

              that one is the one who loves me.

The word that I have translated (from Greek into Hebrew, of all things) as mitzvot is usually translated as “commandments.” That’s a good translation, but it tends to lead to interpreters thinking only about the Ten Commandments, or about the (quasi-)Lutheran dogma that “commandments” mean “LAW” and LAW only knows how to kill. Jesus was apparently not that kind of a Lutheran. Go figure.

In the face of a deep running chaos that leaves everyone vulnerable and feeling like an orphan, there is only one solution, says Jesus: do the mitzvot. Ask your Jewish friends what this means. Here is the short version: Look for things that lead to life, and do them. Don’t stop. You aren’t in charge of raising the entire universe to life, but when you see something that helps, protects, nurtures, loves, or just generally gives life to someone who has that kicked-in-the-stomach feeling, do it. Just do it.

I have no idea what those life-giving things are going to be, not for me, and surely not for you. But I do know that this little scene in John’s story links doing those things with messiah coming to people who feel abandoned and turning the world right-side-up. And I do know that talking about messiah coming, while refusing to look for and do those everyday mitzvot is nothing more than pie in the sky. And that’s a lie.

So, get on with it. I’m pretty sure that, if we had to sit down and thrash all this out before we did anything, we’d mostly discover that we disagree with each other about which mitzvot are most important. And then we could argue about who was the only person who was right. We love to do that. It’s a lot easier than actually doing the things that help people not feel like orphans. Use your imagination. There might be a way that your company, or your family, or even just you could give life and hope and protection that you have never thought of before. Can you help prevent evictions? Can you help guarantee medical coverage for people who have lost their jobs? Can you protect people who have no choice but to go to work because there is no other way they can get a paycheck? The mess we are in is going to require everybody’s best imagining. And it is going to require that we just do it.

I will not leave you orphans.

A Provocation: The Sixth Sunday of Easter: May 21, 2017: John 14:15-21

“Using the word κόσμος for the Creation implies that God does hair and makeup, not stopping until the Universe is not just functional but beautiful.”


John 14:15-21
14:15 “If you love me, you will keep my commandments.

14:16 And I will ask the Father, and he will give you another Advocate, to be with you forever.

14:17 This is the Spirit of truth, whom the world cannot receive, because it neither sees him nor knows him. You know him, because he abides with you, and he will be in you.

14:18 “I will not leave you orphaned; I am coming to you.

14:19 In a little while the world will no longer see me, but you will see me; because I live, you also will live.

14:20 On that day you will know that I am in my Father, and you in me, and I in you.

14:21 They who have my commandments and keep them are those who love me; and those who love me will be loved by my Father, and I will…

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A Provocation: Fifth Sunday of Easter: May 10, 2020: John 14:1-14

14:6 Jesus said to him, “I am the way, and the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me.

I wrote a long Provocation three years ago. It’s worth looking at again, I think. (Go to https://provokingthegospel.wordpress.com/2017/05/10/a-provocation-the-fifth-sunday-of-easter-may-14-2017-john-141-14/ )

Here is a short Provocation for this year and these weird times.

Verse 6 is the stuff fistfights are made of. Anytime anyone notes the places in Scripture (even places in John’s gospel itself) when God’s embracing inclusivity is emphasized, someone quotes John 14:6 and dares you to disagree with their exclusivist theology. Sometimes I think people quote Scripture SO THAT they can have fistfights. It’s like a hobby or something.

It’s actually more like needing to be right. Exclusively right.

For years I have read this verse from my own point of view. It is simply the case that my theology and self-understanding always start (somehow) with Jesus. I am a Christian, a Lutheran Christian at that. What do you expect? And that has been my point: OF COURSE a person who was raised warmly wrapped in the all-inclusive love of God (embodied in Jesus) is going to think of Jesus first when he starts doing theology. Or anything else, for that matter.From my mother and father I learned a theology that saw and heard the wonderful goodness of God in all things. ALL things. But I learned early on that my viewpoint is exactly that: the point from which I, as one of billions of people alive right now, can only view life, the universe, and everything. So when Jesus in this verse says, “I am the way…,” what he says rings true from the point from which I view everything. No surprise.

This past week in a conversation with a strong group of pastors, one member of the group had her attention fixed elsewhere. She heard the beginning of the sentence: I AM…. As we talked through what it meant to hear this whole discussion beginning with the Divine Name (since the Hebrew word that functions as the Name of God is a form of the verb “I am”), I heard the discussion a bit differently than I had before.

Interpreters have long noted the possible presence of the Divine Name in all the “I am…” sayings. Not everyone agrees as to what this does or does not mean, but everyone sees how you might hear the Name in those sayings.

This time, in that discussion, I found myself remembering that the rabbis argue that anytime you encounter the Divine Name in Scripture, you are watching the Mercy Attribute in action. When you run up against the other main name for God (Elohim, translated simply as “God”), you are seeing the Justice Attribute, that facet of God’s being and acting that guarantees reliability in the universe: Justice is possible (on this model) because good and bad acts are met with corresponding reactions, and Physics is possible (again because of the Justice Attribute) because gravity always acts the same way.

The rabbis say that the Divine Name (translated as LORD in your Bibles) appears when God is acting to rescue, nurture, claim, and protect.

This is worth thinking about carefully. For one thing, it means that God’s grace is active as fully and certainly in the book of Genesis as it is in the gospel of John. The rabbis see the working of the Mercy Attribute to be the key to understanding the deep nature of God, who is (after all) “merciful and gracious, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love” (Psalm 103, among many other places in Jewish Scripture). This sort of messes with the common idea that “Old Testament” texts are about wrath and “New Testament” texts are about grace. Oh well.

But maybe more important is that reading “I AM” as the Mercy Attribute changes the way you read John 14.

If John 14:6 is Jesus talking exclusively about himself and his utter and distinct uniqueness, then the religious exclusivists have a point: for them it’s my way or the highway. It’s Jesus or it’s nobody, and by that they generally mean (in my experience) that you have to understand Jesus pretty much exactly the way they do, or it’s the highway for you, buster.

But what if we are supposed to know something about the way the Divine Name is actually used in the Bible? What if we are supposed to have noticed that “I AM” scenes in Jewish Scripture are scenes of inclusion and rescue, love and mercy, not exclusion? What if Jesus isn’t just talking about himself as an isolated human being, but talking rather about the entire action of God? That is, to my ear, how we should hear him in all of John’s gospel, given that the story begins by weaving him deeply into God’s work from Creation onward.

If that is how we ought read the I AM scenes, no matter which testament we are in, then this verse ought to be translated as “The Mercy Attribute is the way, the truth, and the life….” Because that is kind of a clunky phrase, I have taken to translating the Divine Name (no matter which testament) as MERCY. Thus: “MERCY is the way, and the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father, except by MERCY.”

That is a reading we can live with. Literally. And that is important in a gospel that takes pains to emphasize that in the messiah God was working life that was the light of all (John 1:4). And in a world filled with photos of bully-boy “liberators” screaming in the faces of police officers and nurses, it might be worth going further: MERCY shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it.

May that turn out to be true. I do not expect us to agree with each other. But I do cheer when I encounter mercy that makes room for us all.

A Provocation: The Fifth Sunday of Easter: May 14, 2017, John 14:1-14

Because there is room for people who are not you, there is room for you, too.


John 14:1-14
14:1 “Do not let your hearts be troubled. Believe in God, believe also in me.

14:2 In my Father’s house there are many dwelling places. If it were not so, would I have told you that I go to prepare a place for you?

14:3 And if I go and prepare a place for you, I will come again and will take you to myself, so that where I am, there you may be also.

14:4 And you know the way to the place where I am going.”

14:5 Thomas said to him, “Lord, we do not know where you are going. How can we know the way?”

14:6 Jesus said to him, “I am the way, and the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me.

14:7 If you know me, you will know my Father also. From now on you do…

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A Provocation: Fourth Sunday of Easter: May 3, 2020: John 10:1-10

1     Amen amen I am talking to you:
            The one not coming in through the door
                  into the courtyard of the sheep,
             but going over another way:
                  that one is a thief
                  and a bandit.
2     The one coming in through the gate is a shepherd,
             a shepherd of the sheep.
3          To this one the doorkeeper opens;
                  the sheep hear his voice;
                  his own sheep he calls by name;
                      he drives them out.
4                    Whenever all his own he should cast out,
                            before them he travels, 
                            and the sheep follow him:
                                 they know his voice.
5                         Another they will not follow
                                rather they will flee from him:
                                     they do not know the voice of the others.
6     This proverb he said to them,
             Jesus did.
       Those ones did not know what things it was that he babbled to them.
7     He said,
        Jesus did:
            Amen amen I am talking to you:
            I AM
            The gate of the sheep.
8          All
                 (as many as came before me)
            are thieves and bandits,
                 but they did not hear them
                      the sheep didn’t.
9          I AM
            the gate:
                 through me 
                      (if ever anyone should go in)
                 that one will be rescued,
                      and will go in
                      and come out
                      and will find pasture.
10          The thief does not come
                    except in order that he should steal
                      and kill 
                      and destroy.
                 I came in order that life they should have
                      and that they should have too much.

There is a lot of stuff about sheep in this passage. It’s a little bit tangled up. One example: though this is Good Shepherd Sunday and you may well have sung The King of Love My Shepherd Is, or some other song about Jesus as Shepherd, it might be worth noticing that, at least in this selection, Jesus is NOT the shepherd. Jesus is the gate. Whatever that means. Which means someone else is the shepherd. And apparently people are sheep.

What caught my eye, though, is the final verse. The customary translation is lovely: I came that they may have life, and have it abundantly. The sentence is strong and grace-full. It has caught our imaginations for generations. And we have spun theologies exploring what “abundant life” might be. I like those theologies, on the whole. I am weary of theologies that focus their energy on imagining our flaws and wailing over our sinfulness. Our flaws are obvious enough, and deserve attention. God sees them better than we do. My weariness is rooted in my suspicion that flaw theology, by focusing our eyes on our religious flaws, aims our attention away from our REAL flaws, the flaws that the prophets would direct us to.

But what if we follow the lead of this passage and focus on “abundant life?” The presupposition behind this little scene is that Jesus’ purpose, as messiah, is not to teach us that we are horrible sinners incapable of saving ourselves. His purpose is to foster joy, love, and abundant life. Whatever that means.

But what especially caught my eye was the way translators have stabilized the idea of “abundant life.” By reading it as “abundant,” translators have missed something, I think.

If you read my own odd translation (above), you might have noticed the absence of the word “abundant.” The word in Greek means “too much.” And that is odd.

First of all, if Jesus came to bring “too much” life, I have to stop and imagine who it is he might be speaking to. It seems to me that the phrase “too much” only sings to people who, in fact, have too little. The phrase “abundant life,” when directed at comfortable people, only inclines them to imagine that they will have more of what they’ve already got: more time, more food, more safety, more ease.

But if “too much” only makes sense to people who have too little, we have to stop and think a bit.

I have been intrigued by the objection to offering payroll replacement to people whose jobs have been put on hold, or lost altogether. People claiming to be principled conservatives have worried (loudly, sometimes) that this is “just too much.” The reason is something like: if we replace their paycheck, why would they ever want to go to work again? I recognize the economic complexity of the present moment, but I also recognize what that anguished worrying reveals: our system requires that there be a large pool of people with too little who are desperate for a job, any job.

That is one of the drivers behind attacks on “illegal immigrants.” Some of the people who are agitated about immigrants “taking their jobs” are also ignorant. That is always true. There is plenty of ignorance in the world, some of it in loud, high places. But others are not at all in the dark about what jobs these immigrants are taking: a good proportion of them fill jobs that pay little and sometimes involve dangerous working conditions. Filling such jobs is easier when you have an insecure workforce that will accept any pay, and any conditions, just to have any kind of a job at all.

To my ear, when people worry about workers getting “too much,” it is because they know that our system requires people who have too little.

What do Jesus’ words sound like to those people? That is worth a long, slow think.

If Jesus’ words are directed to people with too little, there is an unavoidable political edge to the gospel. That does not mean that every 9th grade socialist now has a mandate to misunderstand complexity at the top of their lungs. But neither does it mean that melodramatic and alarmist wailing about COMMUNISM has any useful place in our necessary discussions. It DOES mean that everyone who claims to follow Jesus has a responsibility to consider the ways their privilege twists their theology. More important, it means that the present crisis provides a context for re-thinking how we ought rebuild our system on the other side of this breakdown.

So, some questions for the re-building:

  • What does it mean that many of those classed as “essential workers” have jobs that do not provide a living wage? Are we worried that they would have “too much?”
  • What does it mean that people have health insurance only when they have a job? What happens (to all of us) when those people are put out of work by a pandemic? Are we worried that they would have “too much” if they weren’t desperately dependent on their employers for health coverage? Health plans have functioned well to attract employees, but the pandemic has revealed dangers in our current system.

There are many more questions, and you probably have already thought of them. I’d love to hear them. My two little questions are just the place I am starting from.

I came in order that life they should have
                      and that they should have too much.”

The process of rebuilding will require us all to ask whether we think Jesus’ words apply to life, or just to religion. And that is a question for faithful people of all sorts to wrestle with.

A Provocation: Third Sunday of Easter: April 26, 2020: Luke 24:13-35

30     It happened:
              when he sat down to eat with them,
              he took the bread;
              he blessed;
              he broke;
              he kept giving to them.
31     Their eyes were opened.
         They knew him.

Just a brief note this time. For a larger exploration, go to https://provokingthegospel.wordpress.com/2017/04/25/a-provocation-the-third-sunday-of-easter-april-30-2017-luke-2413-35/

This scene depends on an audience that understands the importance of eating together. For a Jewish audience (in any century) this is a basic assumption about life. For a Jewish audience in the 1st century of the Common Era, the dinner table was treated as if it were the altar in the Temple. This was especially true for Pharisees, but everyone will have recognized the idea. Scholars have argued that this is a major reason the Jewish faith survived the crushing of the First Jewish Revolt against Rome, and the destruction of the Temple. The Temple was the stable, and stabilizing, center of the world, but long before Rome could raze the Temple, Jews had spread the center of the world out to include every Jewish dinner table.

And thus the destruction of the Temple left the center of the world intact: it re-emerged every time faithful people ate together.

That’s what happens in this scene: a world that had been destroyed when Rome assassinated the messiah (“But we had hoped…”) re-emerged in the breaking of bread.

I have been thinking of all my friends who live alone, sleep alone, work alone, and (especially) eat alone. And I have been thinking of the friends that have baked caramel rolls for us, leaving them on our porch. So we made gumbo for some other friends, and they picked it up from our porch. I have been thinking of all the stories like this that I have heard and read.

Of course we have to wear masks and gloves when we prepare and package the food. Of course we have to carefully disinfect every container, both when we make the food and when we receive it. And of course our prayer of thanks has gained new depths in the last five weeks: “…and let these gifts to us be blessed….” Indeed.

But I am still thinking of all my friends and family members who live alone and eat alone. I am waiting for the day we can eat together, face-to-face, the moment we can again share a bite of food with dancing flavors, look up, and recognize each other. That will make the world whole again.

A Provocation: The Third Sunday of Easter: April 30, 2017: Luke 24:13-35

“But we had hoped…” How many times have I heard people say that in the last month or so? How many times have I said it to myself, in the middle of the night?


13     Look,               two among them,                    in the same day,               were walking into a village                    at a distance sixty stadia from Jerusalem                         to which the name:  Emmaeus. 14     They were conversing with each other               about all these things that had come together. 15     It happened:               in their conversation               and examining the evidence together,          Joshua himself was so close,               he was walking with them. 16               Their eyes were defeated                    so that they not know him. 17     He said to them:               What are these arguments               that you throw back and forth                    while you walk?          They stood sullen. 18     He answered               one did,               one by name: Cleopas.                    He said to him:                         You!                         You  are the only one to live as a stranger in Jerusalem                         and not know the things that happened                              in her                              in these days? 19…

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A Provocation: Second Sunday of Easter: John 20:19-31

I posted this piece a while ago. I repost it now because of the way it deals with Jesus’ wounds, and Thomas’s insistence on seeing those wounds. Life leaves marks. What if Thomas is not doubting. What if Thomas needs to make sure that all this nifty messianism hasn’t forgotten that life leaves real marks on us, that real people (even the messiah) are as susceptible to wounds (and viruses) as anybody.


19     When it was evening in that day,               the first of the Shabbats,                    the doors had been locked where the disciples were                          on account of the fear of the Judeans,          he came,                Jesus did.          He stood into the midst.          He says to them:               Peace to you. 20     After he said this he showed also the hands and the side to them.               They rejoiced, therefore,                    the disciples did,               when they saw haShem. 21     He said, therefore,                to them,          Jesus did, again:               Peace to you.                      Exactly as he sent me,                         the father did,                    I also send you.   22     After he said this,                he puffed;               he says to them:                    Receive holy breath.   23                    Should you release from anyone their sins,                              they are released to them.                         Should you hold onto the sins of anyone                              they are held…

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