A Provocation: Twelfth Sunday after Pentecost: Proper 15 (20): John 6:51-58: August 15, 2021

     51I AM
     the bread,
          the one that lives,
          the one coming down out of the sky.
               Anyone who should eat of this bread,
                    will live into the aeon.
     The bread that I will give:
     It is my body
          for the sake of the life of the beautiful world.
52They kept fighting therefore toward each other,
          the Judeans did;
     they said:
          How is this one able to give his body to eat?
     53He said therefore to them
     Jesus did:
          Amen amen I am talking to you:
               If ever you do not eat the body of the son of adam,
               and do not drink of him the blood,
                    you do not have life in you.
               54The one gnawing of me 
                    the flesh 
               and drinking of me 
                    the blood
                         has aeonic life.
                              I myself will raise him in the last day.
               55For my body,
                    it is true: 
                         it is food;
               my blood,
                    it is true: 
                         it is drink.
               56The one gnawing of me 
                    the body 
               and drinking of me 
                    the blood
               in me remains
                    and I myself in him.
                    57Exactly as he sent me,
                         the living father,
                    so I myself live
                         through the father.
                    Just so the one gnawing on me 
                         that one also will live through me.
                    58This is the bread,
                         the one coming down out of the sky;
                         not like they ate,
                              your fathers did,
                         and died.
                    The one gnawing this bread will live into the aeon.

A Question or Two:

  • What gnaws?
  • What else?
  • Do living things get gnawed?

Some Longer Reflections:

Three years ago (the last time we worked our way through all the bread, all the time), a friend gave me an idea for provoking this scene that surprised me. I read it again this morning, and it surprised me again. To share the surprise, go to https://provokingthegospel.wordpress.com/2018/08/13/a-provocation-thirteenth-sunday-after-pentecost-august-19-2018-john-651-58/

That is about as good a provocation as I can offer, so this year I will just ask a few odd questions:


Why does the storyteller inform us that the Judeans “kept fighting toward each other”? It could be, of course, just an odd idiom, but I never start there. If you begin by knocking the edge off every surprise, you will never discover anything new. So, what does this odd way of telling the story add? Maybe only this: the people who live in Judea (Southerners, not Northerners like Jesus and his main group of followers) are not fighting with Jesus about this. His words provoke a fight amongst the Judeans themselves. That means that some find his words supportable, and some do not. It is not surprising that people are shocked by what Jesus has said. It is, however, surprising that other people are not, and that the argument over his words is taking place within the community of Judeans. And maybe also this: Jesus provokes argument. This is not a flaw. This is a particular strength. Messiah strengthens the people by giving them occasion to argue about who they are and what responsibilities they have.

And Second:

The matter of living and dying is more complicated than it might first seem. The people who ate the manna died. No kidding. But if this is somehow a scene hinting at the sacrament of eating bead and wine as body and blood, then everyone who has ever eaten that food has also died, at least eventually. So what is going on? If the storyteller is making the Christian sacrament superior to the Jewish memory of being fed in the wilderness, I want no part of it. And I am joined in this judgment by other New Testament writers, Paul among them (read Romans 9-11, especially 11, slowly). I don’t mind disagreeing with arguments made by biblical writers. We do it all the time. But maybe something else is going on here. If my friend’s analysis from 3 years ago is right (follow the link above), then this scene is all about incarnation. And incarnation is all about limitation and even mortality. It is incarnation that makes the death of messiah significant. And possible, in John’s terms. If the Word somehow IS God, then when messiah dies, God experiences death. Just as we do. But that means that “living into the aeon” requires resurrection, and resurrection requires death. So that means that the “life of the aeon” is not a matter of simple undefeated life. So, perhaps resurrection is something that happens when messiah is killed? Or resurrection is something that is passed along to all of Creation when messiah is murdered for attempting to turn the Creation right-side-up, when messiah is a corpse that you could actually eat.

This is a different way to think about hope. Life-giving hope requires experiencing the deep loss of hope, even the death of hope. Resurrection and the life of the aeon are always on the other side of failure and defeat. This may have something to do with the experience of people who work for justice. Such work has always involved defeat. Justice requires resurrection, it would seem.

A Provocation: Eighth Sunday after Pentecost: Proper 11 (16): July 18, 2021: Mark 6:30-34, 53-56

30And the apostles gathered to Jesus 
     and reported to him all the things that they did 
     and the things that they taught.  
31And he says to them: 
     You yourselves come alone into a wilderness place and rest a little, 
          for those coming and those going were many 
          and they did not even have time to eat.  
     32And they went away in the boat into a wilderness place 
     33Many saw them going off 
     and knew them 
     and they ran together by foot from all the cities there. 
          They came there ahead of them.  
     34After he got out, 
          he saw a great crowd.
          He was moved for them: 
               they were as sheep that did not have a shepherd.
          He began to teach them many things.  
35It was already mostly evening 
his disciples 
     after coming to him 
were saying: 
     It is a wilderness, 
          this place, 
     and it is already mostly evening. 
     36Release them 
          so that they go in to the circling fields and villages 
          and buy for themselves something 
               and eat. 
37But he answers,
he said to them: 
     Give to them, 
     something to eat.  
They say to him: 
     Should we go and buy eight months wages worth of bread 
     and will we then give to them to eat?  
38He says to them: 
     How many loaves do you have?  
     Go see.  
And when they knew they say: 
     and two fish.  
39And he commanded to them to sit down, 
     all of them, 
     banquet by banquet, 
     upon the green grass.  
40They sat down, 
     row by row, 
          in hundreds and fifties.
41He took the five loaves and the two fish; 
he looked into the heaven; 
he blessed and broke the loaves.
He kept giving to his disciples 
in order that they should set it before them 
and the two fish he divided to all.  
42They all ate and were stuffed.
43They picked up fragments 
     twelve baskets full, 
          also from the fish.  
               44Those who ate the bread were five thousand males.  
     he forced his disciples to get into the boat 
     and to go ahead into the region by Bethsaida, 
          until he releases the crowd.  
          46After he ordered them off,
          he went into the mountain to pray.  
47When it was evening,
     the boat was in the middle of the sea, 
     he was alone on the land, 
     48he saw them tortured in their rowing.
     The wind was against them.
     About the fourth watch of the night 
     he comes toward them,
          walking upon the sea.
          He wanted to go past them.  
     49But when they saw him 
          upon the sea 
               they thought that he was a ghost.
               They screamed.  
               50For they all saw him 
               and were thrown into chaos.  
     BANG he spoke with them 
     and says to them: 
          Be brave.
          I AM. 
          Stop being afraid.  
     51He got into the boat, 
          got in with them. 
     The wind stopped
          and they were ecstasied beyond all measure  
               52for they did not understand about the loaves. 
                    Their hearts were calloused. 
53After they crossed upon the land 
they came into Gennesaret and dropped anchor.
     54As they were getting out of the boat, 
     BANG they recognized him. 
     55The whole of that region ran around 
          and began to carry 
               upon pallets 
          those who were in a bad way.
     They carried them around wherever they heard that he was.  
     56Wherever he went into a village, 
     or into a city, 
     or into a field, 
          in the fields they placed the weak.
     They kept calling him 
     so that they touch even the fringe of his garment.
          As many as touched it were rescued.

A Question or Two:

  • The storyteller informs us that Jesus saw the people as “sheep that did not have a shepherd.” What did he see that led him to that conclusion? Could it have been the fact that the crowd ran, all on their own, all the way around the lake to meet him on the other side? Could it be that the crowd seems to see Jesus as messiah, and (to Jesus’ mind) that alone is evidence that they are vulnerable, at risk, and too eager to leap to world-changing conclusions?
  • The storyteller tells us that Jesus, in response, “taught them many things.” Why not tell us what those things were? What is your hypothesis about the content of that teaching?

Some Longer Reflections:

The lectionary decided to omit 20 verses. Such choices have to be made, but it is worth noticing what was chosen to be omitted: Jesus feeds 5000 people who ran around the lake to be with him, and then Jesus walks out to join his disciples in the boat where they were “tortured in their rowing.” In the text as cut, Jesus goes from teaching to healing, and both activities are motivated by a crowd that runs to him.

We are told that they run to him because they know him, or because they recognize him. Which means they have been informed about him, somehow, by someone. The storyteller has also told us about this. At the end of the story, after Jesus is dead and after all his male followers have abandoned him, the storyteller opens our eyes to see how very many women are still following Jesus. The storyteller informs us that, though we somehow missed them, they have always been there, following from the very beginning all the way to the very end. And, we are told, as they followed Jesus, they “deaconed” for him. Deacons were people whose mission it was to connect need with resource. How did people know whom to run to? Not because Jesus looked just like his messiah mug shot in the Post Office. They knew because the women told them. They pointed out which one was the messiah, and told the crowd what they might hope for.

That means that at the heart of the messianic movement devoted to turning the world right-side-up is a key collaboration: the women (whom we miss, consistently) collaborate with Jesus, and the result is that Jesus is acclaimed as messiah. The result is that Jesus carries out the tasks that make him the messiah.

This last bit wants further reflection. Interpreters have, for a long time, noticed that Mark’s story of the messiah is decisively shaped by 2nd Isaiah’s songs, especially those about the Servant of God who suffers. This recognition is significant. The shape of the gospel is formed by the shape of Jewish hope at the time of the return from Exile. The storyteller knows the old songs of hope, and uses them to link the career of Jesus (who was murdered by Rome) to the moment of return from the Exile (a disaster inflicted on the Jewish people by Babylon). This creative link remakes the present moment (after Rome crushed the First Jewish Revolt and destroyed Jerusalem and the Temple), reshaping it into a moment when hope is re-born.

Such re-shaping, such re-imagining is crucial to theology. It is why what Lutherans call the “theology of the cross” is central to my own theological work. A theology of the cross “calls a thing what it is.” This is crucial. This theological beginning point insists on seeing crucifixion for what it is: catastrophic torture, a dead end. A theology of the cross cannot leap over the murder of the messiah to get to a cheerier message, cannot treat it as a simple transitional stage on the way to glory. As I said, a theology of the cross calls a thing what it actually is: the lynching of the messiah crushes hope.

And the resurrection is the deep, world-altering miracle that creates hope as something altogether unlike mere optimism. Hope only becomes hope when it has stared into the eyes of impossibility.

Which brings us back to the tasks that made Jesus the messiah. Mark’s storyteller presents the doing of those tasks as the result of the women, who are as invisible as God in Mark’s story, collaborating with the messiah who will be murdered and raised. I have thought about this narrative structure for a long time. Mark’s story is tightly told, with no wasted movements. That inclines me to expect that the work of the women can only be understood if it is read in line with the basic narrative structure of the story as a whole. That is to say: the collaborative creation of the career of Jesus as the career of the messiah is the through-line that makes Mark more than just a random collection of “stuff Jesus did.”

The women, through their collaboration, make Jesus into the messiah who will be crucified and then raised. They do this by seeing the actual needs of actual people, and calling them what they are: obstacles that make it impossible to hope for the world to be turned right-side-up. And that means that the women in Mark’s story emerge (upon reflection, once their work is revealed) as the people who know the songs of 2nd Isaiah better than anyone else. They see the crippled people who will not be able to walk back to the Land of Promise. They notice the people who cannot see, who therefore could not follow the road home safely. They are pointedly aware of the people who cannot hear the song of freedom that Isaiah sang, and who therefore cannot join in singing that song. The women in Mark see all this, and they call it what it is: an obstacle that makes optimism irrelevant. And they connect need with resource, they bring people to the Jesus so he can do for them what a messiah must do. As a result, the women make it possible for hope to be born in the story.

At this point, you can take any sermonic turn you choose. But notice that we are, now as always, surrounded by necessities that are also impossibilities. You have to call things what they actually are. The problems we must solve if “Black Lives Matter” is to be more than a necessary slogan are stunningly complex and perhaps beyond our ability to solve. The legacy of abuse in the Indian Boarding School system (not just in Canada, to be painfully obvious) has left marks on people and families that we can scarcely assess, let alone heal. The knots that transgender people have to untie just to live make the legendary Gordian Knot look like two half-hitches.

No matter what sermonic turn you take, this set of scenes requires that we remember that if the problems we face were NOT impossible and necessary (at the same time) we would not need to tell stories about messiah at all.

What gives me hope is the work of the women in these scenes. They identify impossible problems that must be solved and thus become accomplices of the messiah.

A Provocation: Twenty-second Sunday after Pentecost: Proper 27 (32): November 10, 2019: Luke 20: 27-38

27     They came to him,
              some guys of the Sadducees
                   (those who deny that there is a resurrection).
28     They said:
                   Moses wrote to us:
                        If someone’s brother should die
                             having a wife.
                                  (this one is childless),
                        that he should take the wife,
                             his brother should,
                        and raise descendants to his brother.
29                         Seven,
                             brothers those were.
                                  The first took a wife;
                                        he died childless.
30                              Also the second,
                                  and the third,
                                       they took her.
                                  Just so the seven:
                                       they did not leave children;
                                       they died.
32                              Afterward
                                       also the woman died.
33                                   The woman,
                                       in the resurrection,
                                       of whom does she become wife?
                                            For the seven had her as wife.
34     He said to them,
         Joshua did:
              The sons of this aeon marry
                   and are married off.
35          Those who are considered worthy to reach that aeon
              (and the resurrection out of corpses),
                   they neither marry
                   nor are they married off.
36                    For they are not able still to die.
                        Like messengers they are,
                        and sons they are of Elohim,
                             since of the resurrection they are sons.
37          That they are raised,
                   the corpses,
              even Moses discloses at the bush
              as he says:
                        Elohim of Abraham
                        Elohim of Isaac
                        Elohim of Yaakov
38          Elohim is not of the corpses
                   but of the living,
                        for all in him live.

Again, my exploration from three years ago picks up what I still think are the crucial points. Go to https://provokingthegospel.wordpress.com/2016/10/31/a-provocation-twenty-fifth-sunday-after-pentecost-november-6-2016-luke-2027-38/

For the whole discussion, go to that posting.

Today I want to point to just one thing: resurrection. Every once in a while, interpreters play around with imagining what it would take for resurrection to happen. If the interpreter is an ecologist, we find out that raising all of the people who have ever lived would require an impossibly large amount of space. That’s probably good to know. If the interpreter is a scientist, we find out that, with the exception of meteorites, there are no new atoms of anything on earth, so that means that all the people who have ever lived have shared not just the air they breathed but also the atoms that made up their lungs. That’s probably a good subject for late night reflection.

But resurrection in Jewish faith (and therefore in Christian faith) is not about atoms or ecological space. Resurrection is about justice. And it is about the apparent impossibility of justice.

If it were obvious that “the race went always to the swift” (leaping into this Provocation from Ecclesiastes), the Psalmist would not need to assert that “the needy shall not always be forgotten, nor the hope of the poor perish forever” (Psalm 9:18). But biblical faith is remarkably honest. Biblical faith knows that the needy are NEARLY always forgotten, and the hope of the poor perishes as a general rule. And it says so.

In this little scene, the Sadducees know this, and challenge Jesus to take it seriously.

The Pharisees also know this, and demand something better.

So maybe the task just now, in a world where justice is so often delayed, and therefore actually denied, is to work like a Sadducee and hope like a Pharisee. That is to say: work for actual justice, and don’t be satisfied with the crumbs and scraps of fairness we get. Justice is not made of crumbs and scraps.

In any case, it won’t suffice to just imagine that God instituted the resurrection of the dead so that you could escape the demands for justice by going to heaven.

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.