thinking theology

Archive for the ‘Easter’ Category

Seeds at the Cross to New Wine

Very truly, I tell you, unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains just a single grain; but if it dies, it bears much fruit. 

— John 12:24 —

But someone will ask, “How are the dead raised? With what kind of body do they come?” What you sow does not come to life unless it dies. And as for what you sow, you do not sow the body that is to be, but a bare seed, perhaps of wheat or of some other grain. But God gives it a body as he has chosen, and to each kind of seed its own body. 

— 1 Corinthians 15: 35-38 —

These two passages offer very significant clues for thinking about the season from Good Friday to Pentecost. They help us move away from literalism to a rich understanding of Jesus the Christ and of how his resurrection is a promise for us and for all.

On Good Friday, the first disciples were overwhelmed with the awareness that their teacher and friend, their mentor, was in fact as human as they. He died in a particularly gruesome and humiliating fashion. No lightning bolts came to save him. He died with us, sharing even fear and pain with us. For me, this has always been an important insight, a reality that demands that we are born and that we die: some of us easily, some of us horribly. Nothing can save us. We are designed for death. But maybe we are also designed for resurrection!

When family and friends first encountered the risen Messiah, you will remember that they did not recognize him. He had been transformed. It is in relationship that his nature was revealed to followers, sometimes immediately, as in the garden with Mary; sometimes later, after he left the dinner and prayers in Emmaus. Although his presence seemed concrete and corporeal, he was able to appear and disappear mysteriously. All the post-resurrection stories happen only with his followers. There is no mention of any encounters with strangers, enemies, or other friends. John Dominic Crossan (Resurrecting Easter) has pointed out that the Eastern Church maintained its commitment to the idea of a corporate resurrection as the important idea, whereas the Western Church became focussed on personal salvation. Of course, both belong together. It is not possible to conceive of isolation in the company of Christ. Everything happens in community, but it also leads to individual experience. 

Which brings us to the story of the Ascension, a story that is limited by a shift in our knowledge base and the literalism of our era. Buckminster Fuller calls the whole story into question with his famous perspective that in a round world, there is neither up nor down. So if not an up and down movement, than what do we make of this tale? I believe the story of the ascension has everything to do with grief and empowerment. 

Many people who are grieving say quietly that they have either seen their loved one or that they experience their presence. There is a Netflix series call “After Life” about a man struggling grimly with his grief, so much that he views videos of his deceased wife, over and over. Eventually, he is able to move beyond his personal pain to acknowledge that the world still exists and instead of fighting it or hiding from it, he can be a force of compassion and wisdom. 

The ascension story might be about the disciples releasing their grief and their personal sense of disempowerment in order to become the church. Unless the seed falls into the ground…. And that seed is the misdirected hopes, the keenness of feeling abandoned, the confusion around the choices that those first disciples must have felt. Also, the time had come to reassess who Jesus could be for them in the present, rather than clinging to the beloved leader of the past. 

One trajectory for this story is to understand the ascension as the movement from Jesus the mortal, the man, to Jesus, filled with the Spirit of the Holy One, as the Christ; Jesus, the one anointed to show the world that death is a gateway not an abyss. The Christ who — through his transformation from the Beloved to the Christ — becomes for us the sign of inclusivity, and who combines all the knowledge of the suffering and joy of humanity with the cosmic wisdom of the Spirit of the Holy One. 

Jesus, the man of history, would have been an influence but would not be such a world-shaking experience without his transformation. The disciples could not have become the church without turning away from gazing into the skies, waiting for an unrealistic dream. Instead, they look at each other, at their world, at the circumstances of their lives, and they begin to plan their next steps as the followers of Jesus, now the Christ. 

On the day of Pentecost, the story of the gathering of the disciples, for the first time as the Body of Jesus, transforms them also into the body of the risen Christ, no longer limited by other knowledge, or false hope. For themselves and for the witnesses, they become people who — like Jesus himself — reach out to all people, regardless of status or ethnicity. They are filled with the wine of vision and new hope. They come to believe that they have not been abandoned at all but, like the earthly Jesus, they have been anointed for the work of transforming others with compassion, hope, and healing. 

They no longer look like those first fishermen. They are no longer seeds planted in hope, but food for a hungry world.

They discover abilities they did not know they had. They become orators, motivational speakers, powerful in prayer and in the radical messages of acceptance and the destiny of humanity. The gospels certainly are about love, but about a tough love, one that has endured suffering, that has experienced the pain of becoming new, that has had to leave the past behind to grasp for an awe-filled, unbelievable promise. Through these disciples Pentecost calls: “Follow him with us and discover that death is a gate and there is so much more to life than we can know in one lifetime.”

Pentecost is the promise that if we open our minds and our emotions, we too can be filled with the new wine of promise and the courage to live our lives with openness and authenticity. Pentecost is a story about finding the Holy as an experience that comes for those who allow themselves to live on the other side of platitudes and vulnerability. 

“God loves us already and has from our very beginning. The Christian life is not about believing or doing what we need to believe or do so that we can be saved. Rather, it is about seeing what is already true: that God loves us already and then beginning to live in this relationship. It is about becoming conscious of and intentional about a deepening relationship with God.” (Marcus Borg)

At the heart of the institutional church, the Holy Spirit still burns and stirs, no matter how deeply we may from time to time have embedded it in stone and statutes. The wild Spirit will break out and demand freedom and justice, hope and healing, compassion and vision beyond our knowing. 

And from the late Judy Cannato (Radical Amazement), mystic and believer:

Our knowing what we know is an act of self transcendence, and our acting upon what we have learned will lead to greater consciousness still. . . . . We must accept accept the power and grace that is in the emerging universe. . . .This is our moment. Let us live connected and in love. . . .

Christos Anesti!

Bunnies and chicks, chocolates and maple candies, spring flowers and sunshine: the ingredients of our Easter celebrations. Oh… church, too! I think Jesus would have loved all the intercultural props for the service that celebrates his resurrection into the Body of his followers. I am convinced that we are made for delight, for affection, for appreciation of the goodness of life. On this morning, we celebrate that healing is as real as pain, that death is an event in a life, not the end of life. 

Today we laugh away how imprisoned we have been by doubt and fear. Now we see how life could be, how we can remake the world in the image of sacrificial love, of peace, of enough for all. With our linear thinking, our over-confidence in knowledge, we forget to trust the impulse of our experience that will always draw us to beauty, to mystery, to the horizon where Christ is calling. 

Consider the lilies this morning. Artfully designed by the Creator and arranged by loving hands, they focus our vision on how we could work together with the Holy One. This is how life might be if we saw ourselves as co-workers with God. Such tiny specks in the universe, yet we have been asked to be the ones who give meaning, who provide for the safety of the other creatures and the earth. We have been commissioned by God to maintain this planet, this first home. We have been called to live resurrection, to speak resurrection, to become resurrection. With all the world, our song must be awe and praise and thanks. 

Do not fear that prompting in your heart. You have nothing to lose but isolation. Open your heart in community and discover that together we are on the path. If God were a verb, I would say that we can only “god” in community. By ourselves, we can prepare, we can send love and peace in prayer. But as we “god,” we discover how much may be achieved, how wonderful it is to sing together, and finally how much we lift each other in hope.

And so enjoy the chocolate today. If you are alone, go out to a restaurant and sit at the bar, enjoying the company of others, or call a friend to wish them happy easter or happy spring. If you are toiling under the demands of a big family dinner, remember what a miracle each life is. 

Christos Anesti! Christ is risen! 

And so may our hearts and love for each other rise with such beauty that Christ is revealed in our lives. 

Alleluia! Amen!

The Coming of the Light

Who has found the place of Wisdom? the prophet Baruch cries out. The place of Wisdom is filled with light and music.

— Baruch 3:20 —

All creation, from the stars above to the little mice that creep through the pantries of the world, praises the joy of living. Most of us are only visitors to the halls of the Holy, but we do catch glimpses from time to time through the lens of creation and through prayer, and those moments open our hearts and make us hunger for more.

During evening prayer we sing, “May our prayer rise up like incense before you, the lifting up of our hands as the evening sacrifice to you.” (Psalm 142:2) We give thanks for the gift of Jesus who teaches us that all life is sacred, that meaning must be assigned to all sacrifice, that the time for violent solutions has ended. When we all subscribe to this, war will become abhorrent to us, there will be no need for retribution any longer. The sweet smell of incense rises with our commitment to acts of peace and justice, with our prayer for transformation for ourselves as the body of Christ in the world.  

In the dark of night, the stars shine above even if we cannot see them and the purposes of God, like the stars, lead us to save ourselves, even when God seems absent. Within the womb of the world, new life is stirring, kicking away barriers and opening a way. God births us with pain and with love, trusting that we will find our way home, creating joy and gratitude with our passage through life. 

On this holy night, when grief becomes new sight, when we discover that nothing has been lost but everything is being changed; on this night we fan the flickering flames of our faith, and our dream of a redeemed and healthy world. For a while, we can stop sitting by graves and walk into the garden of springtime hope. We are invited to leave behind the binding cloth of death, shift what had seemed to be boulders, and wait for dawn, for the Beloved who is different and yet the same, the mystery of resurrection.

Church of the Broken-hearted

Again this year we gather to remember the death of Jesus — then — and the meaning of his life for us today. We do not gather to remember a dead hero. We do not gather to beat ourselves up with guilt. Rather, we gather to collect the promises and commitments we made on Ash Wednesday. Good Friday is the culmination of our Lenten devotions, our opportunities to minimize the suffering in our world, to devote ourselves to creating hope and the possibility of its fulfillment. 

For Jesus’ brutal death to continue to have meaning, we must accept his living presence in our lives. That means we intentionally lead lives of prayer and action. Our prayers require openness to our own historical complicity in the manufacture of violence, prayers that will lead us to acts of justice and reconciliation. We offer our commitment to grow into the Way that Jesus modelled for us, lives of peace-making, lives of compassion. 

At the centre of the cross is Jesus’ heart filled with the pain and hurt of life. But his arms reach out to the world in love. Christians, perhaps, should have been called the people of the broken heart. We stand at the foot of the cross like the bandits, unsure of our worthiness, not always sure what we believe. We stand at the foot of the cross with the women, who shared the pain of Jesus’ passing. 

And today we are here again, to recognize what it may cost to live a life of love and integrity. We kneel in gratitude that the story does not end with martyrdom because we know that Jesus’ love continues to connect us from birth to death, from crucifixion to resurrection. Through his broken heart then and our broken hearts now, the light of Grace shines through to remind us that we live in the presence of the Holy, the Source of all Being, the path that with all creation leads to transformation. Leonard Cohen said that everything has a crack in it and that is how the light gets in. 

Perfect love

Let us begin our reflection today with a lesson in Greek. The word that we translate as perfect is, in Greek, teleios. More than flawless, the word means something completely executed from beginning to end, something fully realized. We do not have an English word that closely captures that concept.

When we speak of perfect love, we are speaking of a cosmic vision, that holds all of our history from beginning to end, in the loving, forgiving, empowering embrace of the Holy. In Jesus life, death and resurrection, we witness what happens when a human being lives entirely in the context of that love. We only briefly, hear of Jesus doubt or fear. Mostly, what his followers remembered was a person who lived boldly within his tradition, who was fearless in his criticism of oppression or injustice. Out of his own humility, Jesus learned to step outside the boundaries and limits of that tradition, to love others and be loved by them in return.

What does teleios love mean for us? Usually we think it’s a standard for us, something to be achieved, and we feel as though we never quite get there. I think this love, however, is what has already been achieved, or perhaps more accurately, what is the key to the design of creation. There is nothing for us to do except to allow ourselves to experience this love in our hearts and minds. When we stop resisting, we find freedom from the judgement and bondage in our heads.

Love is not a feeling so much as the relationship amongst all the participants in creation. It is not sentimental so much as tensile, resilient, alive. I sometimes think of love as a dance in which everyone is a partner. There are no formal steps to the music but everyone seems to figure out how to blend into the rhythm. Those who cannot hear feel the music through other bodies. Those who cannot see find themselves held in the dance by others. And those who have trouble with mobility find themselves swept up by the movement of the group. The dance only requires a willingness, not a skill. And the dance is the dance of life, the green shoots in the spring, the swirl of autumn leaves, the warmth of summer sun, and the crisp bite of winter. Love binds all of creation together. We are never alone. When we understand that this is reality, we can adjust our awareness, attune our souls, or we can pull away, but even the resistance becomes absorbed into what is.

To trust in this cosmic love that was the way of life for Jesus, his truth, will set us free to be lovers too, to delight in life, to be artists of restoration and healing. We will be hospitable, not out of duty, but from a deep urgency in sharing blessings. It is shalom in Hebrew, being at home with Holy around us and within.

Of course perfect love reduces fear and judgement, which are human constructs and insecurities. Living as the people of the Resurrection we know that there is only life and ultimately love. That is the beginning, the journey and the ending. That is God. Ursula Leguin wrote

HYMN TO TIME
by Ursula K. Le Guin
Time says “Let there be”
every moment and instantly
there is space and the radiance
of each bright galaxy.
And eyes beholding radiance.
And the gnats’ flickering dance.
And the seas’ expanse.
And death, and chance.
Time makes room
for going and coming home
and in time’s womb
begins all ending.
Time is being and being
time, it is all one thing,
the shining, the seeing,
the dark abounding.