John 11:17-27

Earlier, I mentioned that one could spend all of Lent on John 11.  While I don’t plan on doing that,  today I was reflecting on the exchange between Jesus and Martha.  Jesus makes a direct statement about who He is, and Martha responds by stating a belief that goes beyond what Jesus said.

John is called “The Theologian” for a reason.  While the other three gospels focus on what Jesus did and what Jesus taught, John really focuses on who Jesus was.  John begins with telling how Jesus is the definitive revelation of God, and it ends telling how Jesus is a greater revelation than any writing could ever be.  Of the Gospels, John is unique — John directly deals with the divinity of Christ.

Christians believe in resurrection.  Without resurrection, our faith makes very little sense.  Our hope for salvation, restoration, and life are tied up in the idea of resurrection.  We seek to participate in resurrection, not only in the last days, but we seek to live renewed life with Christ.  Resurrection is both a hope for what comes and a metaphor for the life of faith. Jesus is, as the resurrection and the life, both our hope for the future and the life that Christians seek to live in the now.

We look for the resurrection, and we look forward to the life that is to come.  God willing, we are Lazarus.

John 11: Resurrection and Death

Reading: John 11

Today’s reading was a little longer than what we might be used to, however there is a reason for that. The section that talks about how Lazarus was raised from the dead is rarely read with the sections before and after it. We focus on Jesus calling out “Lazarus come out”, which is the most striking part of the narrative, or perhaps we focus on the theology behind what Jesus said to Mary: “I am the Resurrection and the life.” John 11 is full of important things, and it would be possible to spend all of Lent going through things that have been found in this single chapter of John.

You might have noticed that last Wednesday was Ash Wednesday. If not, perhaps you did something for Mardi Gras, which is the day before. Ash Wednesday marks the start of Lent. This means that this is the first Sunday in the Lenten period. Lent is a period when people prepare for the death and resurrection of Christ, and this is why I chose this passage. This is where the first Lent really seems to start. Before Jesus goes to heal Lazarus, the disciples are worried that Jesus might not survive the trip. Everybody must be thinking what Thomas said: “Lets go die with Jesus.”

Meanwhile, everything that we have known from childhood happens. Jesus comes, cries out, Lazarus, come out, and he comes out all wrapped up like a mummy. Everybody is excited, everybody talks. News of the event gets to Jesus’ powerful enemies among the Pharisees. The Pharisees mention this in council, and the chief priest called for Jesus to die as a scapegoat to appease the Romans. I find it remarkable that the is the point where it seems everybody knew Jesus was going to die: The disciples saw it coming, and the Judean leaders started planning it.

As readers, 2000 years distant we miss something politically important: the Pharisees consulted with the chief priest, and made this decision with the chief priest. The Chief priest was a Sadducee: Priests were always Sadducees at this time. The Pharisees were a reform party who built new structures apart from the priesthood that they felt was corrupted by foreign influence. While I don’t want to go into the exact nature of the political differences, the point is that the opposing parties got together to plan the death of Jesus. Both of the major religious parties competing for power opposed Jesus. If we go through the gospels, we see that Jesus angered just about everybody who was in power.

If we look at Jesus’ disciples, we learn that not only did Jesus anger powerful people, but his disciples came from diverse ideological backgrounds. Matthew was a tax collector for the occupying Romans, Simon was a zealot, or we would call him a terrorist or an insurgent. Without Jesus, Simon would feel perfectly justified killing Matthew, the Roman collaborator and traitor to his people. With Jesus, they shared a common faith and a common cause that transcended their politics.

For me, the question is: “Why is Jesus so dangerous that the leaders say: `This man must die’?” The question is extended as the same people, both the Romans and the Religious authorities continued to kill the disciples and early Christians. This is a difficult question, because as Justin Martyr points out in the 2nd century, Christians are good people who don’t rise up against the government and who pay their taxes. What did Rome fear of a man, and a people who did nothing but what was required of all good citizens?

One of the reasons Jesus died was for the sake of politics. The Romans, Pharisees, Sadducees, Herodians, and Zealots all had their own political views and agenda. One thing all these groups have in common is the way that they struggle for power. Power is established through fear, hate, and death. The politics of Jesus are unlike the politics of any Earthly kingdom, but, unless you believe in miracles, Jesus seems like a harmless nice guy who knows nothing about the way the world works.

Where the world’s politics teach us to hate, Jesus commands his disciples to love their enemies. Where politics uses fear to manipulate and to establish power, Jesus teaches his disciples to live lives in faith — faith that Christ will always be with us, and no matter what happens, we will also be with Christ. Where politics claims the power of death, Jesus tells Mary: “I am the resurrection and the life.” Jesus goes on to prove that he has power over death. Jesus at this point has disarmed every show of earthly power. He is subversive, he’s brought a kingdom that cannot be conquered by ordinary means. Love defeats hate; faith defeats fear; resurrection defeats death.

Even while early Christians do nothing to disrupt the peace, they are salt and light — as they flavor and enlighten the world, everything changes. We have been salt and light for almost two thousand years, and it is amazing how much the world has changed. In this time, we have learned that all human life has value. It is no longer completely normal to leave unwanted children outside to die. People no longer flock to blood sports to watch people die. While the change seems slow, it is also quite obvious.

It took 300 years for Christianity to go from a persecuted minority to the dominant faith in the Roman empire. The flavor of Christian salt is still within our societies. Even those who reject Christianity embrace what they learned from Christians. The kingdom of heaven is dangerous, because it changes the people. Jesus’ kingdom is dangerous, because the tools of the kingdoms of this world: Fear, hate, and death are powerless against it. The kingdom of heaven remains, no matter who claims the land we stand on.

As we go into lent, let us reflect on Jesus in Judea, moving forward to the crucifixion. Without resurrection, Jesus’ kingdom has no hope of surviving. Because Jesus has power over death, Fear not, for the Kingdom of heaven is at hand. The kingdom of Heaven continues forever.

What fools these magi be

Reading: Matthew 2:1-12

Every year, I see manger scenes with shepherds, wise-men, angels, animals, and the Holy Family. We sing songs about the wise men who sought after Jesus, and we honor their devotion to seeking Jesus with so little to go on. The story of the wise men is something that is always part of Christmas, but we rarely think about their role in the story. While their gifts were princely, their actions made Mary, Joseph, and especially Jesus fugitives in Egypt. The people we call “wise men” must have been fools if they could not foresee the results of their actions.

The so called wise men were magi from the East. The most obvious way of understanding this is that they were Persian priests. If this understanding of these priests is correct, and if Joseph’s paternal family line was known, this was something that had dangerous political consequences. The Parthian empire was still a power, and still would be for another two and a half centuries. These were foreigners interfering with politics internal to the Roman Empire, not unlike the ways that Romans were using their diplomatic skills to disrupt the Parthian throne(s) and destabilize the Parthian Empire.

Currently, the king of Judea was Herod — the king who was put on the Throne by the Romans. The Magi visited Herod to talk to him about his replacement, a replacement who came from the line that the Persians returned to official governance when Judea was a tributary state the Parthian Empire. Joseph was, according to Matthew 1 a direct male line descendant from Zerubbabel, who ruled Judea under the Parthian empire.

Consider the significance of a delegation of priests coming to endorse the rule of a new king. Politically, this was denying the legitimacy of Rome’s claim on this territory. The Magi were claiming an infant king who would remove Roman rule, and perhaps, remember that his first supporters were those who visited from the neighboring empire. This acknowledgment that the Religious elite of the Parthian empire felt it was right to recognize a new king, as a successor of a failed dynasty is one that requires either large armies or great secrecy.

Before Jesus can talk, Jesus is named a political king. Matthew, from the very start of the book has people getting Jesus all wrong. Not only do Jesus’ disciples and the crowds misunderstand Jesus’ mission, thinking that Jesus will free his people from the rule of Rome, but the Parthians seem to look to the infant Jesus as a disruption to Roman power. The wisdom of the day is that if salvation is needed, we need saved from Rome. From the very opening of Matthew‘s gospel, we see that this is not the salvation that Jesus offered.

The magi were fools, but sometimes we all are.

A farewell to Mars, book review.

Brian Zahnd’s book Farewell to Mars has many celebrity endorsements.  Many of the endorsers see something very novel and prophetic in the way that Zahnd understands the ministry of Christ.  However, arguments that Jesus taught peace are nothing new to me.  I grew up in one of the historic peace churches.  There is no shortage of books written about Jesus and peace, nor a shortage of apologetic literature for opposing the war or state sponsored injustice.  Zahnd’s book lacks the sophistication of books that draw from centuries of Anabaptist tradition, and/or the theological works of Catholics (and allied protestants) who honestly reflect on the implications of Just war theory and Catholic social teaching… books that I assume are largely unread by outside the schools of thought that produced them.

If I were to judge Zahnd’s book from this context, I would be unfair to the book.  While Farewell to Mars touches on both the apologetic and the theological, neither theology nor apologetics is the focus nor the strength of the book.  This book is a personal testimony;  it is a memoir of conversion from one theological paradigm to another.  What he once saw as sacred, he now sees as idolatry.

Zahnd starts as somebody who has fully bought into the American Christian worldview, which includes an ideas that the United States is somehow more special to God’s heart than other nations, and Americans are somehow more valuable to God than people of other nations.  He belonged to an American Christianity that assigns divine origin to American political theory, making our political documents such as the constitution double as religious texts.

The book tells the story of the conversion of a man who prays for the death of America’s enemies and preaches sermons that are an apologetic for American wars.  Somehow, Zahnd started to see Jesus in those people that he was part of dehumanizing, people his earlier sermons lowered from “image of God” to “enemy”.

If this book is prophetic, it is prophetic because a voice from “American” nationalistic Christianity is questioning the ethics of the nation.  Voices that always rejected the idea of ‘exceptionalism’, such as Catholics, and voices that tended to doubt the ethics of any government, such as Anabaptist are easy to ignore.  Zahnd does not manage to say anything new, nor does he manage to say any of it better than writers who were able to connect with centuries of tradition, whether Catholic or Anabaptist; but he manages to say it as somebody who’s heart and mind was changed.

I recommend this book as a light read, an honest memoir of a conversion experience, and as a call to consider the role of Christianity and its relationship to our government.  For those looking for an invitation to peace, and away from a religion that serves the state before Christ, this is a great book.  For those looking for apologetic literature that engages the critics of pacifism, this book will be a disappointment.

St Nicholas

I have always loved hagiography.  Often people hear the word, and they think of a sanitized account where the sainted person can do no wrong.  People think of politicians who are deified by their followers.  Real hagiography is different.  When we look at the lives of those who are remembered as saints, we see depressed people, angry people, and frightened people. Christian saints are all people who are deep in a faith that God offers salvation for our sin. Christian saints are people who confessed that they are sinners in need of salvation.

 nicholas and arius
Today is St. Nicholas day.  Out of all the stories that are told of St. Nicholas, my favorite is how he was kicked out of the council of Nicaea.  At this time, the bishop Nicholas of Myra would have been about 55.  When Nicholas started serving the church, the church was persecuted.  Under the emperor Diocletian, Nicholas was arrested, imprisoned and beaten, but his faith remained.  When many people died, Nicholas survived and was faithful.  Now that years passed, the Church was no longer persecuted, but in a favored position.  The emperor himself made this council possible.  Bishops from all over the world came together to talk about God, and most importantly answer the question: “What do we mean when we speak of the deity of Christ?”

Arius was a well spoken African priest who explained how Jesus was God’s creation, and how the deity of Christ was subordinate to the deity of the Father.  There were great metaphors, songs that people could sing, and obviously ways that this understanding of the Jesus story spoke to people in the area.  While Arius was explaining his position, St. Nicholas walked up to him and punched him in the face.

While there had never been a universal church council before, everybody there knew that a punch in the face was not an appropriate rebuttal.  Even before the church became respectable, bishops didn’t punch priests. Nicholas would have overstepped his authority if he even reprimanded Arius because Arius was not his responsibility.  Nicholas acted badly; he acted in a way that didn’t help anybody; he acted in a way that discredited anything he might say at the council.

The story continues that Nicholas had everything marking him as clergy taken away from him.  He was locked up for the duration of the council as punishment for his unprofessional behavior.  Nicholas was restored when the council ended, but his misbehavior took away his opportunity to be part of defining what the church would be now that it was no longer persecuted.

When I think about this, I wonder what must have been going through his mind.  I imagine Nicholas remembering what life was like 30 years earlier, suffering with others during the persecution under the emperor Diocletian.  I imagine Nicholas remembering dear friends who were killed by Roman soldiers.

One of the advantages of Arianism was that it was agreeable to the Empire. Arius could be understood in a way that supported imperial power, both Jesus and the emperor are Godlike.  Both have a tangible divinity to them even though this divinity is not the same thing as being God.  It is most likely that Constantine favored Arius but, he asked the church to decide for itself.

Nicholas experienced the empire and soldiers as enemies. Soldiers tried to beat his faith right out of him. For Nicholas, any advantage to the empire would be no advantage at all.  I imagine the anger that boiled up in him.  I imagine the man thinking “if this is true, if Jesus was not really God, I took a beating for nothing.  All those deaths are for nothing.” Whatever he was thinking, it was personal.  Nicholas acted with passion but without wisdom.

I love these stories because these are the stories that make the saints real to me.  I see St. Nicholas as somebody for whom faith was his life.  The passion Nicholas felt when he punched Arius was lived out when he saw prisoners treated unjustly and when he saw the needs of the poor and of those who traveled.  The generosity of Nicholas is legendary but I believe the stories of an unreasonably generous man because I know he was unreasonable enough to punch the guy he disagreed with in a business meeting.

Matthew 1: Advent for Joseph

Reading: Matthew 1

The story of Jesus opens up at at time that the Jewish people were looking for salvation. After they returned from the Babylonian captivity, they returned to a land that was occupied first by the Persians, then by the Greeks, and at this point by the Romans. While there were brief periods of hope, the truth is that Judah was not able to re-establish itself. The independence won from the Greeks was lost to the Romans, and there was no illusion about who pulled Herod’s strings.

While Herod had the support of Rome, there was some dissatisfaction with his claim to the Judean throne. Herod was not from the line of David, he had no claim to the historic throne at Jerusalem. Not only that, but Herod was not of the line of the Maccabeean priest-kings who held the throne before him. Herod not only was not of lines that traditionally had power, but Herod was not of any of the tribes of Israel. Herod ruled over a people with whom he shared a believe in God, but not a common ancestry. Herod’s reputation for cruelty brought out complaints that he was a foreign ruler.

Matthew starts with a genealogy. This genealogy gives the line from Abraham to David, making somebody who’s connection with Israel and Judah had been there from the very start. Following David, the line goes through the Royal line of David, listing every king of Judah, the pretenders in Exile, and Zerubbabel the man who almost re-established David’s kingdom when Persia allowed the resettlement of Judah. Joseph had the bloodline claims that Herod lacked. Those who were waiting for a Messiah to be anointed King of the Jews had somebody who had a great narrative to say that he was the man.

The heading is: “The genealogy is Jesus”, but, until we get past the name list, we don’t realize the most important thing about this list: Jesus is not part of this genealogy. Where Joseph came from only matters if Jesus were the son of Joseph. In verse 18, we see that Jesus was not the messiah that was expected. He does not have this great claim to David’s throne. He is not born the man to overthrow Herod and Rome, instead he is legally a bastard. Politically, Jesus has fewer claims to Judah’s throne than Herod.

The repeated teaching of the gospel is here, right in this story. We want a king — Jesus does not come as a King but as God with us. We want somebody who will overthrow Rome, and rule in God’s name, but when God comes, Jesus humbles himself and lives and dies under Rome’s rule. Our Messiah does not save us from Rome — our Messiah saves us from, in the words of verse 21 “our sins”. As much as we think we will find salvation in a government — what we most need saved from is ourselves.

This is the genealogy of Jesus: Jesus was not the son of Joseph therefore Jesus was not a pretender to David’s throne. While Jesus has no claim to David’s throne, Jesus has a much higher claim than one king out of many. Mary was found pregnant through the Holy Spirit. Joseph was told this, by God’s messenger in a dream. Joseph could look back at his ancestors and see that he was of royal blood, but Jesus was the son of God.

As Mary and Joseph wait for advent, they know a secret that is hidden from the world; they knew a secret that even Jesus’ disciples missed: Jesus did not come to be king of the Jews, but to be Emanuel, God with us.

Peace: Part 7: Pastoral concerns

In the church setting, peace is largely about setting safe boundaries. Churches are communities of people of faith. The people are sharing their faith with one another, and seeking a place to help themselves and one another live out this faith. Faith is very important to us: Faith helps us to shape our ethical views. Faith helps us to set our priorities. Corporate faith helps build an identity with a community.

Unfortunately, where there are groups of people, there are opinions about what direction the group should take. Where there are resources such as money, there are opinions on the best way to spend that money. Where there is a public voice — there are various opinions of what that voice should say. Where there are a variety of opinions, there will be politics. Unfortunately, politics can disturb the peace of the community.

Even more unfortunate is that people often bring politics with them. While it is true that our priorities and our ethical views affect our views of national and local politics. While this is good, too often, people want to use the church community as their mouthpiece. Unfortunately, this results in people getting passionate about urgent matters that, while urgent, are not important to the faith community.

Christianity is not dependent upon politics. The church grew when the state was hostile to the church. When we embrace the urgency of the political system, we risk being distracted from the things that are important. Even more importantly, we often forget that the gospel is for all people, and not only for those people who have the same political views we do. We cannot afford to put faith in princes before our faith in God.

I’ve experienced some of the disquiet caused by division through politics. I was on staff during a split that was largely motivated by issues which were political hot topics of the time. In conversations with people on both sides of the split, I heard narratives about other people — stories that cast them in the worst possible light, and attempted to imply things which in most cases were not true. People on different sides could not even always decide what the issues were, the only thing they knew was there was disagreement, and something had to be done about it.

What I learned is that peace requires listening and conversation. Even more, peace requires a safe place. One of the acts of war is to dehumanize, or at least villianize the other. The major role of a shepherd is not to enlarge the flock, or to build up a property. The major role of a shepherd is to keep the flock safe from harm. In the case of the church, it is important to maintain a safe space where it is possible to worship God and share faith. These things break down when the peace of the community breaks down.