thinking theology

Archive for April, 2016

What’s love got to do with it

John 13:35-40

There are three points that are useful to consider here and I think they all have to do with baptism into the faith of the risen Christ. The first thought that arises is that this saying of Jesus occurs between two events: Jesus’ acknowledgement of Judas’ betrayal and his anticipation of Peter’s betrayal. Between these two events, Jesus again reminds his followers about the commandment to love.

This commandment to love needs to be set in the Jewish concept of the Shema, or what we recite as the Summary of the Law. Rather than a legalistic concept, we might think of the law and the commandments as a road map for community and enshrined in its heart is love. The law is about an intentional way of life, supported and enlarged by community. That suggests that love is not so much a warm feeling as respect for each other, honesty in relationship, openness, longing for peace within the household of faith. Love in this sense motivates what we do and how we do it.

To return to Judas and Peter, each of them probably had their own expectations of Jesus, expectations that did not include a vulnerable messiah. Judas goes away and never returns. For whatever reason, shame, fear, or contempt, he cuts himself out of the followers of Jesus. And Peter, despite his own fear and cowardice, remains. About the latter, we know he is forgiven and given great responsibility. One trusts in love; the other does not. One forgets that we are forgiven before we slip and connected regardless of our virtue or lack thereof. We cannot escape love and forgiveness, but it takes a community to restore and heal us.

And finally, how is God glorified in all of this? The glory of God, that is awareness and awe in his presence, is found not in the dramatic moment, but in the willingness of ordinary people to spend their lives in the service of love. God is glorified in Jesus’ resistance to the powers of domination, in Peter’s return to serve the community of the risen Christ, and in every single incidence of sacrificial love. That includes the weary parent of a crying baby, the prison chaplain who continues to care in the midst of a riot, the personal service worker who stays past her shift because the old person is fretful. In a thousand small and large ways, God is glorified by loving concern between people.

And here is the final thought. For God to be glorified, we must learn not only how to give love, but also how to be recipients. To fully understand the mystery of God’s abiding love in creation, we must be helper and helped, lover and beloved. We will have no love to share if we have not experienced the grace of God who uses even betrayal to bring us closer to the divine heart. Jesus called us to a new way of life as lover and beloved, and not even death can break that bond.

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Not such Peaceful Pastures

Who is important anyway? This week’s news included stories of the continuing atrocity of Boko Harun, the earthquakes in Japan, another failed missile launch in North Korea, war robots who can kill without conscience issues or compensation for injury.

People of faith continue to speak out for justice, for consideration of the earth and its creatures, for peace, and a willingness to see ourselves as one family, one people, one earth. And this morning we read about Tabitha, who must have been one of the original disciples. Why was it important for her to experience resurrection? Why heal her? I wonder if it’s just because it was the obvious thing to do, an act of love and solidarity, even with a woman. Or was it important to show the other women disciples that in the household of faith, they were of equal value? I wonder how many opportunities for healing witness we miss every day, how often we let someone fade away as if they were less desirable or needed.

The church in our time will have to decide if the way we weigh tribal values in Hebrew scripture has more validity than Jesus’ command to withhold condemnation and act with compassion. The people we have told to leave, because of lifestyle, conviction, status, nationality, or whatever, have remained astonishingly loyal. First Nations people continue to value the gospel, despite how it was used against them. Refugees continue to be grateful for our meagre efforts. Gay, lesbian, and transgender people continue to lobby for full inclusion, despite our best efforts to ostracize and judge. Of course, many have left and many condemn religion as a tool for oppression and violence. There is no exculpation for the past, but we can change our present focus.

I think many of us believe we are at a turning point now. We can no longer play one concern against another, weigh one cultural value against another. We are being called to be the household of Christ. That means we have only one value: compassion. Our actions must be governed by protecting the least of all humanity, whether or not those people have received our cultural sanitization and seal of approval. The only enemies for Christians are hunger, fear, and oppression. Our only weapon is sacrificial love. And the words we have are welcome, peace.

When we speak and act like Jesus would have us, the riches of grace and purpose will fill our hearts with faith and our hands with work in his name. St. Paul was a murderer, but he was transformed. St. Peter was a traitor, but he found a new path to faithfulness. Tabitha was just one woman disciple, but her healing witnessed to the inclusive, world changing love to which the first disciples witnessed. May it be so in our midst again.

flying sheepSecond Thoughts

Today’s Good Shepherd reading makes me restless. On the one hand, there is an invitation to be part of the herd, an opportunity for rest and passivity. On the other hand, that invitation has a history of resistance to it. How we hear John 10:22, has more to do with us than with the passage I suspect. The news is fraught with tragedy, war, earthquakes, famine. In the church also, there have now been decades of upheaval. But when we hear this news, we are cautioned to think of it as the birth pangs, the advent of something new. I am not sure how comforting that actually is.

What gate lies ahead for us? Where are we being guided? Most sheep resist being sheared. Are we, the church, the world, being sheared of our excess? Are we being invited to be bare to the elements, stripped of our covering and reduced to our essential selves? Most of us find vulnerability difficult, frightening, isolating.

Jesus says that he is with us all the way. He is the good shepherd but he may draw us along frightening paths, across new outcroppings of rocks. The pastures may contain grass that is different, vistas unseen. So how do we see ourselves? Sheep safely grazing, or wild mountain sheep, leaping at the call of the one who leads us into the unknown?

About resurrection, Paul says, “What is sown is perishable, what is raised has life.” The pastures we have known have been good to us, and we have learned from them, but now is the time to travel into life in the hills of hope and promise. I think many of us believe we are at a turning point now. We can no longer play one concern against another, weigh one cultural value against another. We are being called to be the household of Christ. That means we have only one value: compassion. Our actions must be governed by protecting the least of all humanity, whether or not those people have received our cultural sanitization and seal of approval. The only enemies for Christians are hunger, fear, and oppression. Our only weapon is sacrificial love. And the words we have are welcome, peace.

When we speak and act like Jesus would have us, the riches of grace and purpose will fill our hearts with faith and our hands with work in his name. St. Paul was a murderer, but he was transformed. St. Peter was a traitor, but he found a new path to faithfulness. Tabitha was just one woman disciple, but her healing witnessed to the inclusive, world changing love to which the first disciples witnessed. May it be so in our midst again.

 

 

A Fish, a Net, a Boat and a Fisher

IMG_0039A Fish, a Net, a Boat and a Fisher is what I have been thinking about this week. It began when I noticed a post on Facebook suggesting that in reality, the universe might be a computer simulation.The South American writer, Jorge Luis Borges, once wrote a short story called The Circular Ruins, in which a man creates a world for himself, only to discover that he himself may be a dream, and not only the dreamer. Inner and outer, self and others are not as distinct as we would like to believe. Every act changes the world to a greater or lesser degree, and we are also thereby changed.

In Acts 9:1-9, Saul is challenged to look inward to understand himself. When he is blind, he begins to see that not only has he behaved violently towards others, he has injured himself. His healing will be at the hands of his enemies. His safety will be ensured by those whom he would have harmed. Similarly in John, Peter’s betrayal of Jesus is echoed in the demand for his faithfulness.

We tend to hear these narratives in a linear fashion, but what if we think about them in a circular, or metaphorical way. Both Saul and Peter are fish, caught, transformed, renamed and repurposed. And their new purpose is to catch others like themselves, not the righteous, not the good, but traitors, raging persecutors, bigots and murderers. As they face how they have behaved, they become the ones who will cast their nets over the sea in search of other unlikely fish. And the net they throw is the net of their own sin and sorrow, their complicity in betrayal, and their new found faith in the power forgiveness to transform lives. But they need a boat in which to travel. For today, I am thinking of that boat as their surprise at the love of God that will transport to places and situations that would have been unimaginable, and finally to a death that they could have avoided if they had never encountered the resurrected Christ.

Our ministry in the world arises from awareness of our own shortcomings. The very thing that shames us has the power to make us more understanding, more forgiving, clearer about what we see. First we have to meet Jesus and be fed so that we can be fish for others.

Incarnation demands that we understand us as all together in one place, in one life, in one moment which is made into heaven or hell by our decisions. One thief mocks Jesus from the cross; the other prays to him. Which will be our choice: to be blinded so that we can see; to be humbled so that we can serve, to die so that we can live? Jesus says feed my lambs and he feeds us, the followers of the incarnation of love.

12 Gates of Resurrection

Three gates to the north and three in the south
There’s three in the east and three in the west
There’s twelve gates to the city, Hallelujah
Oh, what a beautiful city
Oh, what a beautiful city
Oh, what a beautiful city
Twelve gates to the city, Hallelujah

Well, there are so many ways to get us to the city
So many ways to get us to the city
There are so many ways to get us to the city
Twelve gates to the city, Hallelujah
Oh, what a beautiful city
Oh, what a beautiful city
Oh, what a beautiful city
Twelve gates to the city, Hallelujah

And you can walk right in and you’ll be welcome in the city
Walk right in, you’ll be welcome in the city
Walk right in, you’ll be welcome in the city
Twelve gates to the city, Hallelujah

And you can come from the east to the middle of the city
And you can come from the west to the middle of the city
And we will be all together in the middle of the city
Twelve gates to the city, Hallelujah

Oh, what a beautiful city
Oh, what a beautiful city
Oh, what a beautiful city
Twelve gates to the city, Hallelujah
Oh, twelve gates to the city, Hallelujah

Many artists have recorded the old gospel song Twelve Gates to the City. I used to listen to Joan Baez and the Weavers perform this song. As often happens when I start thinking about Sunday, a tune will pop into my head with a persistence that is not to be ignored.

I was thinking about how each of the resurrection stories, while full of joy, surprise and wonder, are very different in their details, different gates to the same city. Some people needed to have physical evidence (John 20:24ff). Others allow the mystery of the empty tomb to be sufficient (Mark 16:1-7). Some people rediscover the risen Teacher in word and sacrament, as in the Emmaus story (Luke 24:13ff); some in being nurtured (Matthew 28:8-10); some in being challenged (John 21:15-17). These stories of the resurrection do not tell us what happened as much as they tell us how the friends of Jesus experienced his resurrection. Mind, heart, experience: all may be gates into the city of the resurrection if we consider the experiences of those first witnesses.

When we moved into the historical era of doctrines and approved answers, I think we lost some of the wonder of the astonishing way the risen Christ enters people’s lives. Whether it is placing our hands in the wounds by experiencing the suffering of others, or whether it is the joyful celebration of a formal or a casual meal, Jesus meets us where we are. We do not need to find him. He will always find us. He may look like a gardener or a stranger, but he travels alongside humanity with the same qualities of compassion, forgiveness, and generosity, that characterized his human life.

There are at least twelves gates to the city, but there may be infinite numbers too. We may find ourselves passing in and out of the city, entering by different gates, and witnessing to greater depth and clarity of faith as we travel on. Sometimes, we may think we are outside of the city altogether, much as we have thought we were outside the garden of creation;  but  there has only ever been one garden — dependent on our perception — and authentic, corporeal life exists only in the City. The gates are the passages of our understanding and faith.

We will never be abandoned by the city, nor will we be excluded…nor will anyone else although the city may look as different as those experiences of resurrection so long ago.  The community helps us as we travel, as we hear the stories of others and their encounters on the road. Sometimes we may experience the ecstasy of feeling at one with the Holy; other times, it may be the via negativa, the dark night of the soul when we make room for new insight. Sometimes it may be ritual and sometimes it may be routines. Sometimes it may be learning and other times it may be re-creational.  It is not that we will to have these moments; it is that we, like the universe, are perpetually in motion, growing and transforming into the Holy.

I’m going to plant a heart in the earth, water it with love from a vein.

I’m going t praise it with the push of muscle, 

and care for it in the sound of all dimensions.

i’m going to leave a heart in the earth so it may grow and flower,

a heart that throbs with longing, that adores everything green,

that will be strength and nourishment for birds

that will be the sap of plants and mountains. 

— Rosario Murillo —