thinking theology

Archive for January, 2019

Will We?

In Luke 4:14-21, Luke has Jesus read from a scroll of Isaiah. What he reads are two passages, Isaiah 58:2 and 61:1-2, although It sounds to us like they are one. God’s judgement is omitted in what we would call the original text. leading me to think we have two theological considerations here.

The first is the question of the fulfillment of these prophetic statements. Usually, we understand that Jesus is the fulfillment of God’s justice and mercy. But what does that mean? Practically speaking, the world has not improved its record of kindness and peace. In our era, we are systematically destroying the planet and its creatures, including ourselves. Isaiah’s words sound almost forlorn and hopeless to us. 

Perhaps the Isaiah quote was Jesus’ call to awaken Israel to the purpose for which it was chosen, to be the model community, the sacred community, the keeper of justice and peace. I wonder, though, if the people of Nazareth had hoped for a cheerier interaction from a home grown son. Maybe they wanted comfort rather than a call to action. Jesus imbeds this call in his own life, and ultimately in his death. 

The call to justice and integrity is not bound by contemporary circumstance; rather it is the expectation of a commitment  by the faithful. In Judaism, it is expressed in the law and the prophets. In Christianity, it is expressed in the resurrection. Every Sunday we are reminded that we are the living body of Christ in the world. Every Sunday we express our gratitude for his presence in our lives.

The second theological question is around being corporeal, in the flesh. Christianity is less a philosophy and more a practice. It is less a religion and more rooted in the lifestyle of Jesus. It is spiritual in a physical, relational way. I think Jesus would love the new cosmology that sees how everything is connected.

So what does this passage mean for us in our time? I think we need to spend less time on intangibles and more time being present in and for our world. As a corporate body, our beliefs are useless to our neighbours, but our baptismal promises are crucial to how we participate in and transform our community and our world. 

It doesn’t really matter where we begin. It does matter that we understand that we cannot call ourselves followers of Jesus without paying attention to the promises made in baptism, to the call to be part of the resurrection now, to hear the voice of God through the prophet Isaiah. Here is what one contemporary prophet said:

“The movement is everyone who sends supplies, everyone who talks to their friends and families about the underlying issues, everyone who takes some form of action to get involved in this civic process.”

— Jonathan Matthew Smucker, Occupy Wall Street Co-founder

And here are some baptismal promises:

Presider: God is love. God gives us life. We love because God first loved us. In baptism God declares that love; in Christ God calls us to respond. From the beginning the Church has received believers by baptism. On the day when the apostles first urged his hearers, saying “Turn and be baptized, every one of you, in the name of Jesus the Christ for the forgiveness of your sins, and you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit. For the promise is to you and to your children, and to all who are far away, everyone whom God may call.”

Sponsor and Candidate: I hear God’s call and come for baptism.

Presider: Will you learn to recognize what you need to grow and change for the good?

Sponsor and Candidate: I will, with God’s help.

Presider: Will you proclaim by word and example the good news of God in Christ?

Sponsor and Candidate: I will, with God’s help.

Presider: Will you seek and serve Christ in all persons, loving your neighbour as yourself?

Sponsor and Candidate: I will, with God’s help.

Presider: Will you work for justice and peace among all people? Will you care for God’s creation? 

Sponsor and Candidate: I will, with God’s help.

Presider: Do you trust in Christ’s love which brings freedom and life? Will you turn to him in time of trouble?

Sponsor and Candidate: I will, with God’s help.

The question to ask ourselves as we meditate on our own baptismal promises: Will we?

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Identity Crisis

One of the social media groups that exist on the internet is called “I am not that kind of Christian.” The identity crisis in Christianity originates in its early shift from counter cultural resistance movement to being a recognized state sanctioned institution. Movements are fluid, evolving in goals and processes. Institutions create rules and aim for stability and order. Movements ebb and flow discernibly; institutions change slowly, and reluctantly.

The contemporary church finds itself caught in conflicting modalities of expectations, practice, and freedom to change. Like all religions, Christianity easily becomes a political tool for many different positions.

True religion is organic and will break through any long term attempts to contain its wildness, its creative chaos. For Christians today, there are new expressions of practice and resistance. While there may be what appears to be dissent between religions, in fact there is a deeper, more intentional conversation developing.

The parish church also finds itself rediscovering that, not only have the rules changed, the nature of membership has also changed. In the beginning, Jewish Christians met and planned and prayed in homes. They planned events to intervene in what they perceived to be a call for healing, for resistance, or for discussion about how to model the actions of Jesus. Some of these groups would become more theological, some more liturgical, and others more counter cultural.

Today, our partners in prayer are not necessarily Christian. The people who support the ecology or the social justice actions, may or may not be Sunday members. The standard for membership is less doctrinal and more practice based. At one time people who attended seasonally or during life events ( birth, death, marriage) were not considered committed adherents. Now, they are significant participants. The bells we still ring at the elevation of the host, originally reminded the working folks in fields or factories, of God’s love for them in the Christ. Today they remind everyone that we remember them and are praying for them

The church needs to relax in the knowledge that the faith is organic, and that means unpredictable, wild, diverse. Instead of worrying about our statistics, we need to trust that sharing the work of our communities, sharing the concerns of our towns and cities and farms, will help us fulfill the mission of Jesus. When people tell me that they don’t believe in God, but they do work for the common good, then I say that we share the same goals. The church’s purpose is transformation of the world, and we are all the workers for that movement.

Some of us take comfort and inspiration from the liturgy, the bible, the music of the church. These are gifts for some, but not for everyone. Some of us will feel more inspired as we prepare food for others, take part in a demonstration, be politically active. We are all part of the body, although how and when we appear may not be easily controlled.

There is no identity crisis for those who share peace, compassion, and well being for all, as their ethic and their goal. There is no identity crisis for those who share a love of the earth and wonder at the cosmos. There is no identity crisis for those who accept that the whole universe is constantly in a state of transformation and our awareness frees us to be knowing participants in that. When we all dream like that, when all work for that, then the time of religion as division will end and the time of singing” will come to us all.

My Beloved

After everyone else, Jesus goes into the river to be baptized. (Remember why being last is important.) And then people experience a vision of God in the form of a dove, announcing that Jesus is God’s beloved, indeed a child of the Holy One. The dove of course is reminiscent of the story of the ark, the messenger that names the earth again for humankind. 

So why was this story so important to tell? What message would the first followers hear?

Perhaps considering Jesus’ upbringing would provoke some thought on this. The common assumption is that Jesus grew up in Nazareth, with his father a skilled tradesman. Nazareth had an interesting geographical situation. It bordered the Samarian lands on one side; on another the mixed communities of Sepphoris and Tiberias and then the Hellenistic settlements in Decapolis. Further north, there were settlements of Syro-Phonecians. All of these communities were geographically closer to Nazareth than Jerusalem.

Several hundred years before, Rome had punished the people of Sepphoris for a theft of armaments, by crucifying 2000 Jews. The people of the north — the Nazarenes — were thought to be slack religiously, to be overly-influenced by their Gentile neighbours, and to be speaking a barbaric form of Aramaic. Although these separate communities may have been somewhat insular, there was a shared mistrust of Rome and, at least among the Jews, mistrust of Jerusalem and the powerful there who were Roman sympathizers.

Back to Luke’s story: Who were the people who had waded into the Jordan ahead of Jesus? Mostly they would have been Jews, of course, but very few would have been rich or powerful. (The rich and powerful would able to use their own personal, ritual baths, having no need of the dirty water of a river.) Some of these, perhaps out of spiritual hunger, curiosity, or happenstance, might have been engaged by John’s rants, although his attacks on the morality of Herod would have also made participation dangerous.

Jesus walks into the water without comment. He stands not in the courtyard of the wealthy or the priests. Rather he stands with the poor, and the not quite wealthy enough. He stands with the people who could not follow the codes for ritual cleanliness or food, because they simply dId not have the wherewithal. 

Later, we know he will share food and conversation, healing and story with these same kinds of people. It would have been easy to write him off as a person of questionable background, who grew up in a mixed and perhaps not quite savoury area. His Aramaic would have revealed his northern origins.

Luke wants us to know where Jesus stands, who his people are. For the early Jewish Christian communities, the challenge of inclusivity, of resistance to an acceptance of violence, of visionary thinking, had to be rooted in the model of the the One who came as the child of God. 

I think Jesus is the child of God because God is not partial. Anyone who is humble, who is just and compassionate, reveals the face of God and is acting out the wisdom of Torah. If we say Jesus is love, peace, and justice, then we are saying something about the nature of God. Surprisingly, we are also saying something about what we can be also. If Jesus is God’s beloved, then so are you and I. 

Our lineage is not derived from service to oppressive power or imposing status. Our lineage is of the One who loves the earth, who says the last shall be first, who holds us to a higher standard of love. Our baptism is not about our personal salvation, but about the salvation of the world from fear and complicity. Our baptism must be a sign of God’s hope for all people. We personally don’t have to do anything except open ourselves to the Spirit of Wisdom who made us, to the passion of Jesus who calls us to follow him, and to the Holy One who travels ahead, making all creation new and blessed.