Ancient Answers

Guidance for Today from Scripture and Early Christianity


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Unfinished Business with the Devil

 

What did Jesus do after his baptism? Why was he baptized to begin with? Perhaps we will find the answer by looking at what happened after his baptism. Today’s Gospel reading coming on the Sunday after Epiphany might give you the impression that right after his baptism he began preaching, “Repent for the kingdom of heaven is at hand.” But between the baptism and today’s passage in the Gospel, something very significant happened in the life of Jesus.

You’ll remember that at his baptism the Holy Spirit came upon Jesus. Mark then tells us, “And right away the spirit drives him out into the desert – και ευθύς το πνεύμα αυτόν εκβάλλει εις την έρημον.” The implication of the verb εκβάλλει is that the spirit drove him out into the desert in a forceful manner. Jesus was thrust, almost thrown into the desert. Why? Matthew tells us in order to be tested/tempted πειρασθήναι by the devil, the διάβολος. Luke’s version puts it in a softer, more spiritual manner: “Jesus departed from the Jordan full of Holy Spirit, πλήρης πνεύματος αγίου, and was guided by the spirit (but the Greek says, ήγετο έν τω πνεύματι!) into the desert, where he was put to the test by the devil for forty days.”

Note the more aggressive action of the spirit in Mark’s version – ευθύς…εκβάλλει! What happened in the desert is the key to understanding his baptism. There he was tested by the devil three times. I’ll follow Matthew’s sequence of the three temptations instead of Luke’s.

First temptation: “If you are the Son of God, command these stones to become bread.” An echo of the time in the desert when God fed his people with manna from heaven. Jesus goes right back to that time and quotes Moses’ words in Deuteronomy: It is written, man shall not live by bread alone, but on every word that proceeds from the mouth of God.” It is interesting that Moses himself said that in the same sentence as he reminded his fellow Jews of the manna! As if he was saying to them, don’t get too excited about the miraculous manna; get excited about the words God speaks to you and the reasons why God sends the manna and does other miracles in your lives.

Second temptation: The devil takes Jesus to the highest point of the temple in Jerusalem and tells him to throw himself down to see if angels will come to rescue him. Jesus answers again from Deuteronomy: You shall not put the Lord your God to the test. Jesus allows himself to be tested/tempted, but he will not test God!

Third temptation: The devil shows him all the kingdoms of the world and all their glory and promises to give all these to him if Jesus would bow down and worship the devil. This is the last straw, and now Jesus calls him by his more proper name: Away from me, Satan. For it is written, Worship the Lord your God, and serve him only – and again Jesus quotes from Deuteronomy, the same chapter 6 he used to fight the second temptation. It is in that same 6th chapter of Deuteronomy that we hear those wonderful words: “Hear, O Israel. The Lord our God, the Lord is one. Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength.” This is the Shema Yisrael – the most important affirmation that Jews speak morning and night as the summary of their faith.

Jesus’s baptism was necessary as his own immersion into the history of his people. The God of the Bible is not an aloof God; he is in the midst of his people. As he was in the desert with Moses after the exodus, he is here in the person of Jesus. But the baptism was not only an immersion in the history of his people, it was also the conclusion of that history. Something new, something great was about to happen. “Behold, I do something new,” God spoke through the prophet Isaiah. God was always doing something new, something surprising. And the greatest surprise was about to unfold.

But first some unfinished business. The devil had to be dealt with. He was and is the constant opponent of God’s new order. And he does this with the tricks of the marketplace: good food, security, idolatry… Anyone who promises a comfortable and secure life we will gladly vote for and gladly worship. Money, security, and all the goods the marketplace has to offer – that’s all we need to turn away from God. Ancient Israel had barely escaped slavery in Egypt that they wanted to go back to slavery in Egypt: at least that was better than facing an uncertain future with Moses!

Can you love God more than you love the trinkets and comforts of a secure life? And how secure really is our life, really? A wrong button in Hawaii yesterday could have started a nuclear war! “Someone clicked the wrong thing on the computer.” Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your mind and with all your strength – that is the challenge. Don’t accept the deceptive promises that the gods we have created make.

Matthew and Mark tell us that after the devil left, angels came to look after Jesus. Luke says something more ominous, no angels in Luke’s version: And when the devil had finished all his tempting, he left him, for the time being – άχρι καιρού – until another time. Ominous. The devil is the same tempter at all times. He does not change. God changes – the devil does not! He tested Israel in the desert; he tested Jesus in the desert; he tests every one of us in the desert of our own failures. Jesus was baptized in order to immerse himself completely in the story of his people. He re-lived all the temptations of his people by confronting the devil. Then and only then does he go out and start preaching, “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand.” Repent, change your mind about God and life. Don’t worship the false gods and the enticing promises they make. Worship the Lord your God, and let the Holy Spirit take you into the marvelous new life of Jesus. He was baptized for you; he lived for you; and he died for you. But he then rose from the dead so you and I might also rise from the dead. Awake, O sleeper, face the new dawn!


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The Fellowship of Baptism

 

Wall painting of Paul in Ephesus

“I saw the spirit descend and remaining upon him” – so speaks John the baptizer to his circle of followers about his baptism of Jesus. It is from this circle of John’s followers that Jesus drew his first disciples.

In our reading from the Book of Acts this morning, we hear of an encounter between the apostle Paul and some Christians in Ephesus. Paul asks them if they received the Holy Spirit. They don’t know anything about the Holy Spirit, they had only received John’s baptism. How they had received John’s baptism in Ephesus, when John had already been killed and had done all his baptizing in the Jordan? Perhaps some of John’s disciples who did not become disciples of Jesus had carried on the type of baptism that John had practiced? That’s the most likely explanation I can think of.

 

Paul instructs them that John’s baptism was only a baptism of repentance, only to prepare for the one who was coming. Just as John himself said, “After me comes a man who ranks before me, for he was before me.” Interesting here these words of John. He saw deeply into the mystery of Jesus Christ – “he was before me,” yet John was born 6 months before Jesus! Surely John is pointing to an origin beyond human birth. John himself acknowledged that he baptized only with water. Jesus would baptize with the Holy Spirit!

In Ephesus, Paul met some followers of Christ who had only received the water baptism of John.

This is what was missing in these Christians in Ephesus that Paul encountered. So Paul baptized them in the name of Jesus and the Holy Spirit came upon them, and they spoke in tongues and prophesied – which is what usually happened in those early days when people were baptized. And we must not confuse that with what Pentecostals claim today about speaking in tongues.

Ruins of Ephesus today

But here is today’s message. Baptism is incomplete without the Holy Spirit. Anyone can be baptized in water, in other religions also – but only the Holy Spirit makes a baptism truly a baptism into Christ, into the fullness of life that Jesus Christ brought into the world. This is why the Orthodox Church believes that the gift of the Holy Spirit should not be separated from baptism, but follows immediately after the baptism, even in the baptism of a baby. Our Orthodox practice is theologically and biblically correct; but it has its disadvantages, in that we have neglected to develop a rite of passage when a child or young person reaches the maturity to understand the faith into which he or she was baptised.

Have you ever noticed how the Holy Spirit is referred to in our Liturgy? This is a typical conclusion of a prayer addressed to God the Father: “Through the mercies of your only begotten Son with whom you are blessed, together with your all holy, good and life creating Spirit, now and forever…” Listen in the Liturgy for this and many similar prayers. Even when we give glory to Jesus, we say “together with your Father who is from everlasting and your all holy, good and life creating Spirit…” Life creating, life giving – ζωοποιόν. The Spirit gives life, creates life. When we kneel, we pray that God will send his Holy Spirit “upon us and upon the gifts here presented.” It’s not a magical transformation of bread and wine into the body and blood of Christ, but a bestowal of life, the life of Christ onto the bread and wine! The Holy Spirit is always life-bestowing, life-creating.

And the fullest blessing in the Liturgy: “The grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, and the love of God the Father, and the communion of the Holy Spirit, be with you all.” κοινωνία του αγίου Πνεύματος. This is the climax, this is the ultimate gift of the Holy Spirit, and why baptism is incomplete without the Holy Spirit. Fellowship, communion – first with God through Jesus Christ, but also with each other. We are not baptized to be isolated from other believers in Christ. We are baptised into fellowship. We receive the life of Christ with each other and through each other. No one is saved alone! The challenge to every Christian congregation is to experience the fellowship that is the gift of the Holy Spirit.

Mark, in his gospel account of the baptism of Jesus, wrote that “the heavens were torn apart” (σχιζομένους). The same verb is used in all three Synoptic Gospels (Mark 15:38; Matthew 27:51; Luke 23:45)  at the crucifixion of Christ when the veil of the temple was torn in two (εσχίσθη εις δύο).

This use of the same verb, σχίζω/εσχίσθη, is used in all three synoptic Gospels was not accidental, it was intentional in my opinion. First the heavens were torn open to break down the wall between God and humans. That was the beginning of Christ’s mission. Then, at the end of his mission on earth, the curtain in the Temple was torn to symbolise the tearing down of all walls that exist and will be built to separate people from each other and from our God-ordained destiny. I do not understand how any Christian can support the existence or construction of ANY walls, whether physical or mental.

The grace of our Lord Jesus Christ – the beauty, the χάρις of what Christ did to save us;

The love of God the Father – that sent Christ into the world to bring grace instead of the law;

And the fellowship of the Holy Spirit – the communion with God and with each other that should fill and renew our lives.

That is the blessing, and I greet the new year with that blessing. May it guide us as a community and every one of us as disciples of Christ. Amen.


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Our Totalitarian Lives

I stand in awe of Karl Barth (1886-1968), generally acknowledged as the greatest theologian of the 20th century and one of the greatest of all time. My awe is not simply at his theological depth and understanding of Scripture; I’m awed at the sheer quantity of what he wrote and published. His greatest contribution to Christian theology is undoubtedly his magnum opus, Church Dogmatics, a multi-volume work of over 9,000 pages (in its original German). When I consider this huge work and the countless other books and papers that he contributed to a deeper understanding of our Christian faith, I cannot help but think how meagre our own efforts are. Today, with all the tools that technology has given us to make research and publication so easy, what theologian produces one-tenth or one-hundredth of what Barth produced with only a typewriter and printed books at his disposal? As I said, I stand or sit in awe of Barth – and other men like him of bygone eras who produced books for the ages instead of idiot tweets that our own era will be known for.

The recently published book, Barth in Conversation, Volume 1, 1959-1962, contains precisely what its title signifies, transcripts of various public “conversations” in which Barth participated and in which he answered questions posed to him by a variety of people – not just professional scholars and clergy, but also journalists and even prisoners! Barth was very fond of visiting prisons and having group conversations with prisoners. When he toured the United States in 1962, he insisted on visiting some major prisons, including San Quentin in California. The greatest theologian of the century was no aloof elitist.

One of the most fascinating conversations in this collection is one that took place on June 24th, 1962, with Protestant book dealers, in the Alpine village of Flims in his native Switzerland. One of the questions posed to him was as follows: “What possibilities do you see for the existence of the church in a totalitarian state?” Certainly an important question to ask at that time, when Europe was divided between a totalitarian East and a democratic West, but also an important question to ask in any modern era; very much including our own. Barth’s answer was long. A few quotes are worth sharing:

“Totalitarian” – that somehow refers to something whole, comprehensive. And when one says “totalitarian state,” one apparently means a state that demands something in its entirety from humans….that they place themselves without reservation at the disposal of its teaching and its will and its purposes. The total state is a state that says, “You shall love me with your whole heart, with your whole mind, from the entirety of your soul, and from the entirety of your strength” (and here Barth is clearly alluding to God’s command in Deuteronomy 6:5 as being demanded by the state). And there we have the mystery: the total state, even when it poses as being atheistic, is a state that arises in the shape of a deity and wills to have from humans that which only God can will to have from humans. That is the imposing thing about such a totalitarian state: it is, so to say, a caricature of God. Even when it wishes to be atheistic, it somehow has to represent God in a distorted form on earth….a curious contradiction: the godless atheistic state that presents itself, reveals itself, and represents itself as divine.

Is it clear to all of us that not only the Communist state and also not only the Hitler state, but rather every state has something of the totalitarian state in it, that every state, even the finest and freest and most democratic, thus resembles a large cat, which has fine paws to be sure, but whose paw has claws stuck in it somewhere? And the claws in the cat’s paw – that is the totalitarian element in every state: and one can never be entirely certain just when that totalitarianism will appear. As I say, in every state!

After giving a couple recent examples in Swiss history, he goes on to some startling statements which should give us pause to reflect on our own habits.

You know, that’s how it is with the totalitarian spirit: it doesn’t begin with the state. Human society, if you will, is totalitarian as such. Society around us automatically demands certain things from us. It doesn’t make much noise, as long as one goes along with it. But when one doesn’t go along, when one swims against the stream, things get nasty….What “they” believe and think and do – this “they” governs “in the air” (reference to Ephesians 2:2 and Paul’s teaching about powers and principalities in Ephesians 6:12). Without police! No one lands in prison. But everyone has to do and has to approve what “they” do and approve….Because society is always based on this “they”, there is also occasionally a totalitarian state, and then its claws become more or less apparent….

Now, you see, something much larger stands behind the totalitarian society and then the totalitarian state. I would say it is a totalitarian world. Yes, what the Bible calls “the world” is a being full of totalitarian demands. When the apostle Paul spoke of it, he spoke of those powers and authorities that rule. He named them “thrones, principalities” and so on. And that is not mythology. That is the truest reality. (Further passages in Paul that explain what Barth is referring to: Romans 8:38, 1 Corinthians 15:24, Ephesians 1:21, Ephesians 3:10, Colossians 1:16, Colossians 2:15)

You can guess what this is leading to: Barth’s itemization of some of the social constructs that define our lives: fashion, media, sports, money. He even makes a humorous reference to his experience in the United States in the previous months:

Or take something else, what we now call “traffic”. Take a look at our streets with all these cars! I have just had this experience in America….four cars next to each other in one direction and four in the other direction! And nonstop, day and night. You ask yourself, what’s going on here? What are they all rushing to? Yes, they must rush. Things are in a hurry, yes, in a hurry. And so they hurry along. And then to realize that cars like this are rushing and racing all over the world! We wouldn’t have it any other way. No, we wouldn’t have it any other way. It must be so. But when something must be so, then it is something totalitarian. Modern people have mostly become car people, and to be sure, not in the sense that they govern cars, but rather that cars govern them.

So now it should be evident to you that we live within an entire spiderweb of such powers and authorities, and you have before you what I call the totalitarian world.

If I were present in an audience listening to this methodical exposure of the totalitarian instinct I would have become breathless. How true Barth’s words ring, and even more today than 55 years ago. Because how much further we have traveled down the road of totalitarianism!

What would Barth say about today’s digital world, and especially social media and the power they hold upon a growing majority of the “world”? Hardly a day goes by that we are not reminded of the power social media exerts in our lives, even defining how many of us receive our news, influencing even elections in democracies such as ours. How free are we, truly? The things Barth used as examples of society’s totalitarian instinct are still with us – fashion, money, media, sports – but now we have an even more powerful force in the prevalence of social media. His image of “traffic” and cars applies even more to the digital world that now controls so much of our lives. The Guardian newspaper included a devastating article on New Year’s Day: Take it from the insiders: Silicon Valley is eating your soul.

A pre-Christmas statement by Facebook claimed that although “passive” use of social media could harm users, “actively interacting with people” online was linked not just to “improvements in wellbeing”, but to “joy”. “In short,” the Guardian article states, “if Facebook does your head in, the solution is apparently not to switch off, but more Facebook.” So if you’re not happy, it’s because you’re not using Facebook enough! Don’t be a light user of Facebook and social media, immerse yourself, find happiness online with Facebook!

The former Facebook president Sean Parker warned in November that its platform “literally changes your relationship with society, with each other … God only knows what it’s doing to our children’s brains.” God indeed only knows – or we will know when it will be too late, after we have created a few generations of robots ready to be assimilated into a Big Brother corporate totalitarian state such as those depicted in movies of dystopian futures. Another former Facebook executive was quoted to say: “The short-term, dopamine-driven feedback loops that we have created are destroying how society works. No civil discourse, no cooperation, misinformation, mistruth … So we are in a really bad state of affairs right now, in my opinion.” But he still loves the company! So must we all, despite what it’s doing to our brains and our social interactions. One Stanford University lecturer and tech consultant pontificates with statements like this: “For new behaviours to really take hold, they must occur often.” But even this devotee came to realize the truth of what he was promoting and eventually installed a device in his home that cut off the internet at a set time every day. Nice that the elite can have such digital solutions to digital sickness. Most people are not so lucky. Even Steve Jobs, inventor of the iPad, was quoted in 2010 to say that his children do not use the iPad. “We limit how much technology our kids use at home,” he said in an interview. Again, the elite have options that the majority of the people who will become drones in a dystopian future do not. I’m not exaggerating.

The scariest part of all this and the reason why I want to relate it to the biblical teachings about powers and principalities is that the owners of these companies – Facebook, Google, etc. – do not have control over what their digital platforms are doing. It’s all done by bots – pieces of software that perform automated tasks – and other such digital entities which follow their own rules and probably create or will create their own realities. Tristan Harris recently told Wired magazine: “Right now, 2 billion people’s minds are already jacked in to this automated system, and it’s steering people’s thoughts toward either personalised paid advertising or misinformation or conspiracy theories. And it’s all automated; the owners of the system can’t possibly monitor everything that’s going on, and they can’t control it.” The same Tristan Harris asserted: “Religions and governments don’t have that much influence over people’s daily thoughts.” I don’t care about governments – I don’t trust them – but I do care about religion, especially my religion. So in a sequel to what I write here I want to look at Barth’s answer to the question originally posed to him: “What possibilities do you see for the existence of the church in a totalitarian state?” Can the Christian church have any resistance to the multiple threats of totalitarianism?


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The Real War on Christmas

 

There is a Buddhist saying, “If you meet Buddha, kill him.” Weird? Clearly, the saying is meant to warn against idols, against illusions, against deceptions. We are easily deceived, easily fall into our own wishful thinking and illusions, and easily can turn everything and everyone into an idol.

Every year, we kill the Christ child – not because we are Buddhists, but because we fail to understand how easily we fall to idolatry, illusion and deception. The market kills Christ every year, turning us into partying consumers. We lose all sense of balance – and no wonder the holiday season creates some of the worst depression and stress in the year!

Herod tried to kill the Christ child and he ended up killing uncounted innocent babies instead. That’s how much he felt threatened by the presence of the child born in Bethlehem. Today’s consumer madness does its own damage, to adults and children alike. I’m not being a scrooge. I love Christmas as much as anyone. I love the carols, the Christmas cards, the lights, the trees, the festive decorations of the stores. And I love the gifts that we exchange. But the joy seems to have gone out of so much of the Christmas traditions. Why? Because we have lost the sense of balance.

Christmas is just one more indicator that we as a society have lost the sense of balance, moderation, and common sense. There IS a war on Christmas – but it’s not the war pronounced by one TV news network and some politicians and evangelical preachers. The war on Christmas arises from deep within us and our loss of meaning. When Christmas is only about saying Merry Christmas instead of Happy Holidays, when it’s about public displays of Christmas trees – it’s clear how trivial Christmas has become in the minds of those who talk about a war on Christmas.

No, the real war on Christmas began 2,000 years ago in Judea, and it continues today. It’s not about public displays of Christmas trees and nativity scenes. It’s not about how we greet each other. Merry Christmas becomes just another superficial greeting that some Christians even use as a weapon against non-Christians. That’s pretty sick, in my opinion, to turn a greeting of goodwill and joy into a weapon of one-upmanship against people who don’t celebrate Christmas. Jesus was a threat to the Roman Empire, and Herod sought to destroy him. Jesus is a threat to today’s powers and principalities, both political and economic. Hence the real war on Christmas is being waged precisely by those who speak of a “War on Christmas”! The best way to eliminate the threat of Jesus is to domesticate him and turn his birth into a commercial bonanza. The Bible itself is a threat to the commercial interests that govern our world. Solution? Turn it all into self-serving and self-promoting slogans and simplistic theologies. Turn the Bible into a gospel of wealth, and it’s in the pocket of the commercial interests.

Instead of shoving our commercial version of Christmas down the throats of non-Christians, why not show them the love of the Christ child instead of the hatred of Herod? There is a longing in the hearts of all people, a longing for authentic, meaningful existence. How do we meet that longing? Isn’t it also the longing deep inside us? A longing for communion, fellowship with each other and with God?

Before we can recognise the longing that is inside other people we have to recognise it in ourselves and respond to it, instead of covering it up with trinkets, partying and escapist entertainment.

I don’t agree with everything in our Orthodox tradition, but one of the things that I have admired about our tradition is the way Christmas used to be celebrated in Orthodox societies. Christmas was a purely religious celebration. The gifts and the partying came after Christmas, during the so-called 12 days of Christmas, Το Δωδεκαήμερο. The Catholic and Anglican traditions also have the idea of the twelve days of Christmas – hence the popular song/carol. But the Orthodox society that I remember has fallen into the same commercialism that we experience. The temptation of superficiality is just too strong for all societies.

This Sunday, because it falls on December 31st, is a bit confusing in the church calendar. Is it the Sunday After Christmas or the Sunday Before Theophany? Different calendars choose one or the other. The Greek Archdiocese has chosen to designate it as the Sunday Before Theophany. I have included both Gospel readings today. The Matthew reading is for the Sunday After Christmas and it tells us of Herod’s killing spree. The Mark reading is in anticipation of next weekend’s celebration of Epiphany/Theophany. Nice to read both as I did today. Because after Herod’s evil actions and the escape of the Christ child with his parents, we hear the good news – the beginning of the gospel of Jesus Christ. After darkness comes the light, the way forward.

At the start of every year we read this opening of Mark’s gospel. Every new year is an opening to a fresh start. Regardless of what we’ve turned Christmas into, the start of the new year invites us to love his appearing. And perhaps with every new year, we can desire to recover something of the missing spirit of Christmas. Or do we forget by the time we get to December? Perhaps this is something I should return to next year, not after Christmas but before! My bad. Perhaps I’ll have more wisdom next year. CHRIST IS BORN!


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A Vulnerable God

 

Christmas is the celebration of God’s vulnerability. It was the birth of a vulnerable baby that constituted God’s great plan for the redemption of human beings. So don’t turn God into a macho god, a warrior god, an imperial god!

Immanuel = “God with us” in Hebrew. Jesus is a wonderful name, it has been the name by which we’ve known him for 2,000 years. But Immanuel is the name by which the prophet spoke of his coming. And prophets looked deep into reality, deep under what was visible. Immanuel reveals more about Jesus than the name Jesus.

Immanuel, God with us – with us in our weaknesses, in our vulnerability, in our contingency.

God became vulnerable. Why are we so hesitant to show ourselves as vulnerable. Why do we always have to put on a strong face? Why is the American ideal that of the rugged individualist? Why is it part of our language to say, “me against the world”? Why pretend to be stronger than I am?

I’m usually grateful that we don’t have a magnificent cathedral. I’m grateful that our church is in this corner, hemmed in by other buildings, with inadequate parking. I’m glad we did not escape to the suburbs, where we don’t have to deal with “certain kinds of people”! What do huge, ornate churches have to do with the child that was born in a manger, or even a cave, as is usually depicted in our icons?

Let’s call him Immanuel, God with us. Let that name bring us into intimate relationship with him. When we call him Immanuel we remember that he was born to live in solidarity with us, to share our joys and pains, to defend and protect us, and to suffer everything that life can throw at us with us. The God with us is a close God; he is our refuge, our wisdom, our helper, our shepherd, our love.

He was born in a time of tyranny, a time of imperial domination and subjugation. He was born to an enslaved people, a people who had known and lived under slavery for so much of their history. He came to be their comforter, to suffer with them. And that’s how he comes to us today, because we are no different than the people of 2,000 years ago. We also live under tyranny – the tyranny of despair, of materialism, of competition, of suspicion, the tyranny of loneliness, of jealousy. And he comes to give us hope, to show us the true value of things, to show us co-existence and trust, to be our companion.

He comes as our liberator from all those things that oppress us. And that is why he is Immanuel, God with us. He is not remote. Though we represent him as Pantokrator in the ceilings or domes of our churches, that’s to miss the meaning of Immanuel, God with us. He did not come as Pantokrator; he came as a child, born in a nation that was under the heel of the Roman pantokrator. He came not to compete with Rome, but to expose the weakness and futility of all empires, ancient and modern. He was a direct threat to the Roman Empire and to all empires that oppress. But his threat was much greater and deeper than any military threat.

He lit a flame of hope and goodness and peace and love. A flame that directly went against the values of empire. He came to a people who had seen their own flames of hope and faith extinguished by one empire after another. Perhaps it is meaningful that the Jewish feast of Chanukah falls around the same time as Christmas. I love the song Peter, Paul and Mary used to sing during the holiday season, “Light One Candle”:

Light one candle for the Maccabee children

With thanks that their light didn’t die

Light one candle for the pain they endured

When their right to exist was denied.

Light one candle for the strength that we need

To never become our own foe

And light one candle for those who are suffering

Pain we learned so long ago.

Light one candle for all we believe in

That anger not tear us apart

And light one candle to find us together

With peace as the song in our hearts.

Don’t let the light go out

It’s lasted for so many years

Don’t let the light go out

Let it shine through our love and our tears.

We have come this far always believing

That justice would somehow prevail

This is the burden, this is the promise

This is why we will not fail.

Don’t let the light go out

It’s lasted for so many years

Don’t let the light go out

Let it shine through our love and our tears

Don’t let the light go out

Don’t let the light go out

Don’t let the light go out!

Call upon Immanuel and don’t let the light go out in your own hearts and lives. May Christmas be more than just a family day of joy and sharing. May it be the day that reminds us that God shared his own life with us. Don’t let that knowledge, that light in your souls, ever go out!


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An Ill-Mannered Jesus

 

More than 200 newspapers carry the advice column of Judith Martin, better known as Miss Manners. I was curious to see if Miss Manners could help Jesus with some dinner etiquette, so I did aa quick Google search. In August of this year, someone asked Miss Manners for advice:

DEAR MISS MANNERS: I find myself stunned at most people’s table manners. For example: breaking bread/rolls and buttering each bite, using a thumb to push food onto a fork, using a place spoon for soup, cutting up an entire entree salad at once, serving coffee after dessert, leaving napkins on the table at end of a meal, passing salt and pepper together, etc.

I never say anything, but just wonder if the etiquette rules I was taught, and followed in a very upper-level hospitality position, have been canceled.

GENTLE READER: It is never a good idea to monitor other people’s table manners, and not only because you are apt to spill something all over yourself while you do so.

Miss Manners notices that you are already agitated, because you have mixed up what should and what should not be done, and thrown in some general rules.

Just to clarify:

Bread and rolls should be broken into small pieces and buttered individually; thumbs should not be used as pushers; the so-called place spoon is a medium-sized oval spoon that can be used (as the teaspoon should not be) for soup or dessert; napkins should be put to the left of the plate at the end of the meal, and salt and pepper should be passed together.

That people violate these and other basic rules does not mean that they have been canceled. So no, the Etiquette Council did not say, “Oh, go ahead, plough in with your hands, who cares?”

But it did resolve to refrain from watching.

So Miss Manners advises not to watch what other people do at a dinner – but there are rules for dinner etiquette.

By Miss Manners’ standards, Jesus showed very poor manners when he was invited to a dinner (Luke 14:7-24). When the parable of the banquet (verses 16-24) is heard without its context of Jesus being a guest at a dinner, it can lead to some very misleading interpretations. Let’s see the context of the parable in Luke 14.

When he noticed how the guests chose the places of honour, he told them a parable. (Not actually a parable, but advice!) “When you are invited by someone to a wedding banquet, do not sit down at the place of honour, in case someone more distinguished than you has been invited by your host; and the host who invited both of you may come and say to you, ‘Give this person your place,’ and then in disgrace you would start to take the lowest place. But when you are invited, go and sit down at the lowest place, so that when your host comes, he may say to you, ‘Friend, move up higher’; then you will be honoured in the presence of all who sit at the table with you. For all who exalt themselves will be humbled, and those who humble themselves will be exalted.”

(And he offered advice to the host!)

He said also to the one who had invited him, “When you give a luncheon or a dinner, do not invite your friends or your brothers or your relatives or rich neighbours, in case they may invite you in return, and you would be repaid. But when you give a banquet, invite the poor, the crippled, the lame, and the blind. And you will be blessed, because they cannot repay you, for you will be repaid at the resurrection of the righteous.”

(And only then does he tell the parable of the banquet!)

When the parable is read without its context it has often been turned into an allegory, where the invited guests represent the Jews and the lame and the poor represent the Gentiles who are brought in by God to replace Israel. That’s the danger of reading the parable without its context – and the context is an actual dinner to which Jesus has been invited!

When the context is taken into consideration, the parable becomes an expression of the great reversal that Jesus brought into human consciousness and human relations. This was a theme very dear to Luke when he wrote his Gospel. It starts in chapter 1, with Mary’s Magnificat (to call it by its Latin designation).

Part of it reads as follows:

He has shown strength with his arm,

he has scattered the proud in the imagination of their hearts,

he has put down the mighty from their thrones,

and exalted those of low degree;

he has filled the hungry with good things,

and the rich he has sent empty away.

We sing this every Sunday morning in the Orthodox Church as part of Matins (Orthros). But have you ever noticed those words? Or do they perhaps make you blush with embarrassment? As in: Really Lord? When did all this happen? When did you bring down the mighty and send them away hungry? The reality of the world seems to be the exact opposite of what Mary magnified the Lord about!

Was Mary naive when she spoke these words, when she sang them in her heart? Was Jesus naive when he said the meek shall inherit the earth? Is the NT out of touch with reality after all? No, Jesus knew what he was saying. Mary was well aware of the ways of the world when she sang that the Lord has brought down the rich and powerful and left them empty and hungry. She knew that’s not the way of the world. The rich are not brought down or sent away hungry; they are only getting richer and more powerful, often with the help of politicians.  But Mary knew what new values the child that would be born of her would bring into the world.

And that child grew to be a man. And that man spoke as the Word of God – the incarnate Logos, by whom and through whom everything was created. And that man Jesus spoke to the host and the guests at the dinner where he was an outsider guest, and told them how it should be among human beings. The parable of the banquet is not so much about heaven as it is about the earthly existence that represents the values of God’s kingdom.

Look around. Are the proud and mighty brought down from their seats of power? Are the rich going hungry? Are the poor well fed? If the answer is NO – and it it is – then the kingdom of God is not among us. Does the church reflect the values of the kingdom and the great reversal that Jesus taught? The answer is again NO. Do individual Christians reflect the great reversal in how we live our lives and who we honour and who we vote for? Do we reflect the values of the kingdom in how we accept those who are different from us? That’s what today’s parable is about. So don’t dream of heaven if you can’t dream God’s dream for life here on earth.


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Cruciform Love

A few weeks ago I had told of a woman we met in October at the island of Hydra in Greece. She had just returned from Latin America and vowed never to return. She was turned off by the proliferation of crucifixes. Everywhere she went in Latin America there were crucifixes, and she wanted no further experience of those depressing sights. She much preferred the images of Buddha in East Asian countries.

The crucified Christ is scandalous to many people. Saint Paul indeed calls the cross a scandal (σκάνδαλον) to Jews and foolishness (μωρίαν) to Gentiles. Skandalon and foolishness, but despite all that, “we proclaim Christ crucified … Christ, the power of God and the wisdom of God” (1 Corinthians 1:23-24). The theologian Hans Kung, in his bestselling book of over forty years ago, On Being a Christian, stated the foundational truth of Christianity:

Paul succeeded more clearly than anyone in expressing what is the ultimately distinguishing feature of Christianity….as opposed to the ancient world religions and the modern humanisms …[It] is quite literally according to Paul “this Jesus Christ, Jesus Christ crucified.”… It is not indeed as risen, exalted, living, divine, but as crucified, that this Jesus Christ is distinguished unmistakably from the many risen, exalted, living gods and deified founders of religion, from the Caesars, geniuses, and heroes of world history.

But this foundational, distinctive truth of Christianity is not about bleeding crucifixes in Catholic or Orthodox churches, nor is it about superficial sermons about “the blood of Christ” that saves the comfortable evangelicals who crowd the entertainment centers that pretend to be churches. Paul went on, in his great letter to the Corinthian Christians: “When I came to you, brothers and sisters, I did not come proclaiming the mystery of God to you in lofty words or wisdom. For I decided to know nothing among you except Jesus Christ, and him crucified” (1 Corinthians 2:1-2).

Nothing, except Jesus Christ crucified! That’s all that Paul wanted the Corinthians to hear from him. Yes, he gave them all sorts of teachings about personal behavior, about order in the church. He even wrote a whole section of his letter about the resurrection of Christ and its meaning for all Christians (chapter 15). Nevertheless, he wanted to preach nothing among them except Jesus Christ and him crucified. This was the heart of his teaching. But it was not about crucifixes or about sermons to comfortable, suburban Christians.

Have the same mind that was also in Christ Jesus,

who, though he was in the form of God,
    did not regard equality with God
    as something to be grasped (ἁρπαγμὸν),
but emptied himself,
    taking the form of a slave,
    being born in human likeness.
And being found in human form,
   he humbled himself
    and became obedient to the point of death—
    even death on a cross. (Philippians 2:5-8)

“Have the same mind,” Paul tells the Christians in the northern Greek city of Philippi. In other words, exhibit the same cruciform love that Jesus showed by taking on our nature and accepting death on the cross. For whom, did Jesus die? For us, his brothers and sisters, since he became as one of us. “Let each of you look not to your own interests, but to the interests of others,” Paul wrote to the Philippians immediately before the remarkable passage quoted above. This is an invitation to cruciform living. It’s not about hanging crucifixes in churches or around our necks. But neither is it about sermons to “me”-Christians. Jesus did not die on the cross to create a me-centered people. His death on the cross is about creating a new humanity, a new human community – exemplified by the church, but only if and when that “church” lives in accordance with the cruciform love of God in Christ.

Τοῦτο φρονεῖτε ἐν ὑμῖν, he wrote to the Philippians (2:5). It’s all in the plural: [You – plural] have this mind in, or among, you (plural). ἐν ὑμῖν can be translated as “in you” or “among you” – both in the plural – but more likely as “among you”, as this fits better with the communal advice that Paul is giving to the Christians in Philippi. His concern was to build up the body of Christ (Ephesians 4:12), the church – but not just the church with the name “church”, but the church that lives by and reflects the power of the cross of Jesus Christ: εἰ γὰρ σύμφυτοι γεγόναμεν τῷ ὁμοιώματι τοῦ θανάτου αὐτοῦ, ἀλλὰ καὶ τῆς ἀναστάσεως ἐσόμεθα· “For if we have been united with him in a death like his, we shall certainly be united with him in a resurrection like his” (Romans 6:5). The Greek adjective σύμφυτοι goes all the way back to Aeschylus in Greek literature and can be translated in many ways, including the one quoted here, “united” – but also, “planted together”, “joined”, “grown into union”, “identified”, “incorporate”….. ὁμοίωμα [in the dative, ὁμοιώματι, here] is translated “like his”, but more literally, “in the likeness”. So a more literal translation of Romans 6:5 would go like this: “For if we have become joined in the likeness of his death, so also we shall be to his resurrection.” This passage from Paul’s Epistle to the Romans is read at every baptism, but people are more interested to watch the baby than to listen to words of such profound, transformational meaning.

The church is here to be for others – not for our own selfish spiritual needs. Jesus never attended to “spiritual needs”! He never knew the term, nor did the New Testament writers. Jesus told us to live for others, just as he lived for us; we are the “others” that he had in mind when he ascended the cross, when he brought into the world and poured out the cruciform love of God in Christ. May we become a church of cruciform love. May we become the church for others. Because we also are “others” who have been brought into the embrace of Christ. Paul reminds us that we also were “without Christ, aliens … and strangers to the covenants of promise, having no hope and without God in the world. But now in Christ Jesus you who once were far off have been brought near by the blood of Christ” (Ephesians 2:12-13). We are in this together, σύμφυτοι in the cruciform love of Christ.

Addendum: I should point out that the initial incentive for this post came from the book by Michael J. Gorman, Cruciformity: Paul’s Narrative Spirituality of the Cross, published by Eerdmans in 2001. I have only now started to read this book, but the term “cruciform love” is used by the author.