Ancient Answers

Guidance for Today from Scripture and Early Christianity


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True Images

 

The book of Exodus describes the escape of the Jews from slavery in Egypt under the leadership of Moses, the miraculous crossing of the Red Sea, and the long journey through the wilderness. The people were quickly frustrated by their escape from Egypt and they turned against Moses and his god, lamenting that perhaps they were better off as slaves in Egypt! It’s perfectly normal in human nature to do this: After the exhilaration and the excitement of liberation comes the harsh reality. Faced with the harsh realities of life, most people are willing to give up even their freedom!

Idolatry is at the very heart of human existence, and we each have our own idols. Some are religious idols; some are idols of achievement; some are idols of physical appearance and attractiveness; etc. And the greatest idol, of course, is money. Almost every human being worships that idol. So when God gave the Ten Commandments to Moses on Mount Sinai, idolatry was confronted head on. You shall have no other god… You shall make no image… You shall not take the Lord’s name in vain… You shall honor the Sabbath… You shall not covet. Five of the ten commandments are explicitly against idolatry! No other gods… no images or statues… no use of God’s name the way idol-worshippers use the names of their gods, for magic and manipulation… honor the Sabbath – a protection against enslavement to money and earthly masters… do not covet – coveting is the root of the idolatry of money!

But when Moses went back up on the mountain to receive further instructions from God, the people quickly gave in to idolatry. He took too long up on the mountain; maybe he’s abandoned the people; maybe his god deceived them to take us out of Egypt so they can die of hunger and thirst in the desert. Build us an idol, Aaron, another god we may worship, a god we can see! This is the comfort that idols bring – they are gods we can see. Money is a god we can see. Images and statues we can see. A god who does not reveal himself and only speaks to one man – well, maybe that’s not a god we want to trust or believe in.

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The Old Testament injunction against images is something that the Orthodox Church has had to face throughout its history because icons are such an important part of our tradition. We have good theological reasons for icons, and we certainly are not bound to the commandments and laws of ancient Israel. But even though we can work our way around the commandments of Sinai, the danger of idolatry persists and is a constant temptation. And let’s face it: rules didn’t work for the ancient Israelites, they don’t work for us either. So God found another way – the way of Pentecost.

Back in the First Book of Kings we read of Elijah on a mountain. “And a great and strong wind rent the mountains, and broke in pieces the rocks before the Lord, but the Lord was not in the wind; and after the wind an earthquake, but the Lord was not in the earthquake; and after the earthquake a fire, but the Lord was not in the fire; and after the fire a still small voice” (1 Kings 19:11-12) – all external manifestations of power, but God was not in any of them; God was in the small voice instead. In the ancient world there were gods of thunder and storms; gods of earthquakes and fire. All the powers of nature were associated with gods. But not the God of Israel, who preferred the still small voice. 

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But notice what happened on the day of Pentecost. “And suddenly a sound came from heaven like the rush of a mighty wind, and it filled all the house where they were sitting. And there appeared to them tongues as of fire, distributed and resting on each one of them. And they were all filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak in other tongues, as the Spirit gave them utterance” (Acts 2:2-4). A mighty wind and fire! Just as with Elijah – but with a difference, a big difference. The wind and the fire were no longer the weapons of fictional gods; they were now the message of the coming of the Holy Spirit. For pagans, the forces of nature were controlled by gods and were used to strike fear and superstition into people. On Pentecost, God chose these forces of wind and fire to announce a new way. Wind and fire, to manifest the power of the Holy Spirit to drive away evil from our hearts and to cleanse us and inspire us to new life, new hope and vision! And the Gospel gives us an even third image for the Holy Spirit: rivers of living water (John 7:37-39). Water, the greatest power on earth; the power that can erode whole mountains and continents given enough time! Water destroys when its fury is unleashed; and yet water is the source of all life.

Wind, fire and water – images of God’s power to transform our lives. That’s the power of the Holy Spirit. The Holy Spirit may have appeared as a dove at the baptism of Jesus – but we do a great disservice when we turn the Holy Spirit into a bird! Not a bird, not a plane, not Superman – but the infinite power of God. Pentecost provides us with the truest images of God. Tongues of fire rested on each disciple in Jerusalem. May tongues of fire rest on every one of us today and every day: the Holy Spirit in our lives!


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Who is this Son of Man?

Today’s Gospel reading (John 17:1-13) takes us back to the upper room, where Jesus had his last supper with the disciples before his arrest. On this Sunday After Ascension, one week before Pentecost, we hear Jesus speak of returning to where he was, with God his father, from all eternity. This is what Ascension is all about: the return of Christ to the right hand of God the Father.

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At the end of that evening, he looked to heaven and prayed to his father: “Father, the hour has come; glorify your Son that the Son may glorify you, since you have given him power over all flesh, to give eternal life to all whom you have given him. And this is eternal life, that they know you the only true God, and Jesus Christ whom you have sent. I glorified you on earth, having accomplished the work which you gave me to do; and now, Father, you glorify me in your own presence with the glory which I had with you before the world was made.”

In this prayer, Jesus refers to the authority that God the Father has given him “over all flesh” and “to give eternal life.” As if that was not enough, Jesus here asks his father to glorify him with the glory that he had from before the creation of the world – “in your own presence”! So in these few sentences, Jesus claims authority to grant eternal life; he claims to share God’s glory, in the presence of God (=with God); and he claims to have existed with God before anything was created. Those are radical, bold statements for anyone to make within the strict monotheistic culture of Judaism. But John’s Gospel has already claimed these truths – for example: In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was in the beginning with God; all things were made through him, and without him was not anything made that was made. In him was life, and the life was the light of men” (John 1:1-4); Abraham rejoiced that he was to see my day; he saw it and was glad… Truly, truly, I say to you, before Abraham was, I am” (John 8:56-58); For as the Father has life in himself, so he has granted the Son also to have life in himself, and has given him authority to execute judgment, because he is the Son of man” (John 5:26-27); and one can go on and add other passages.

“The Son of man” – this was the most common way that Jesus referred to himself. Did he just pick that phrase out of the air? Or was it just a reference to his humanity, as many church theologians explain all too easily? Or was there more involved in that self-designation, “Son of man”? What about the other statements above, about his authority to judge and grant eternal life, his existence before the creation and his being the creator of everything? One source that is in everyone’s Bible is Daniel, chapter 7. There we read:

“As I looked, thrones were placed, and the Ancient of Days took his seat; his clothing was white as snow, and the hair of his head like pure wool; his throne was fiery flames; its wheels were burning fire. A stream of fire issued and came out from before him; a thousand thousands served him, and ten thousand times ten thousand stood before him; the court sat in judgment, and the books were opened… I saw in the night visions, and behold, with the clouds of heaven there came one like a son of man, and he came to the Ancient of Days and was presented before him. And to him was given dominion and glory and a kingdom, that all peoples, nations, and languages should serve him; his dominion is an everlasting dominion, which shall not pass away, and his kingdom one that shall not be destroyed.” (Daniel 7:9-10 & 13-14)

The parts highlighted in red will be echoed by other writings, including the so-called Book of Enoch. But before going there, here’s an interesting point about this passage in Daniel. The Book of Daniel as it exists in our bibles is a compilation of stories and visions and was probably completed around 150 BC; it certainly does not date from Daniel’s time in Babylon, nor was it written by him. The vision of “one like a son of man” is almost unique in the writings of the Hebrew Bible (what Christians call the “Old Testament” – though I always say there’s nothing “old” about it!). When we turn to the Greek translation of this passage, what we call the Septuagint (LXX) version of the Old Testament, we see something quite striking. Here it is:

ἐθεώρουν ἐν ὁράματι τῆς νυκτὸς καὶ ἰδοὺ ἐπὶ τῶν νεφελῶν τοῦ οὐρανοῦ ὡς υἱὸς ἀνθρώπου ἤρχετο, καὶ ὡς παλαιὸς ἡμερῶν παρῆν, καὶ οἱ παρεστηκότες παρῆσαν αὐτῷ. καὶ ἐδόθη αὐτῷ ἐξουσία, καὶ πάντα τὰ ἔθνη τῆς γῆς κατὰ γένη καὶ πᾶσα δόξα αὐτῷ λατρεύουσα, καὶ ἡ ἐξουσία αὐτοῦ ἐξουσία αἰώνιος, ἥτις οὐ μὴ ἀρθῇ, καὶ ἡ βασιλεία αὐτοῦ, ἥτις οὐ μὴ φθαρῇ. (Daniel 7:13-14, LXX)

Translated: “I was watching in the night visions, and behold, upon the clouds of heaven there came one like a son of man, and as an ancient of days was present, and those standing by were presented to him. And to him was given authority… his authority is eternal and will never pass away, and his kingdom shall not be destroyed.”

Note that the old Greek translation (LXX) regards the “one like a son of man” and the “ancient of days” as one and the same person. A later Greek translation, by Theodotion, separates the two, in a more accurate translation of the Hebrew text: ἐθεώρουν ἐν ὁράματι τῆς νυκτὸς καὶ ἰδοὺ μετὰ τῶν νεφελῶν τοῦ οὐρανοῦ ὡς υἱὸς ἀνθρώπου ἐρχόμενος ἦν καὶ ἕως τοῦ παλαιοῦ τῶν ἡμερῶν ἔφθασεν καὶ ἐνώπιον αὐτοῦ προσηνέχθη.

Does the LXX version perhaps represent some confusion over the language of Daniel and an intentional effort to avoid giving divine attributes to this “son of man”? And did Theodotion remain more faithful to the Hebrew original? It’s also interesting that the Dead Sea Scrolls include many manuscripts with portions of the book of Daniel, but the two verses of the “son of man” (7:13-14) are not found in any of these manuscripts and fragments among the Dead Sea Scrolls! This intrigues me, but I have no explanation, except perhaps to speculate that Daniel’s vision of “one like a son of man” had become controversial in the time immediately before the appearance of Jesus.

Chester Beatty XII, Greek manuscript of the Book of Enoch, 4th century

Chester Beatty XII, Greek manuscript of the Book of Enoch, 4th century

The Book of Enoch (generally referred to as 1 Enoch) is another book that was compiled in the century before Jesus; but unlike the Book of Daniel, it was never included in the Bible – though it is significant that the New Testament book of Jude directly quotes it! It was of these also that Enoch in the seventh generation from Adam prophesied, saying, “Behold, the Lord came with his holy myriads, to execute judgment on all, and to convict all the ungodly of all their deeds of ungodliness which they have committed in such an ungodly way, and of all the harsh things which ungodly sinners have spoken against him” (Jude, verses 14-15).

Who was Enoch? In Genesis chapter 5 we read: Thus all the days of Enoch were 365 years. Enoch walked with God, and he was not, for God took him. This statement that “God took him” fascinated the Jews for centuries, and it was inevitable that a book would be put together claiming to represent what was revealed to Enoch after he was taken to heaven. This book of Enoch is one of the many books that are called Pseudepigrapha – books that were not written by the individuals that they claimed to be written by. There are countless such books from the Old Testament times and also from the New Testament times and the early centuries of the church. The section of 1 Enoch known as the Book of Parables was written around time of Jesus or a little earlier and contains many visions of the Son of man. Here are some excerpts. The parts highlighted in red are meant to emphasize the similarities with Daniel 7 and the words of Jesus.

1 Enoch 46: In that place I saw the One to whom belongs the beginning of days, whose head was like white wool. With him there was another individual, whose face was like that of a man, and whose face was full of grace like that of one of the holy angels… This is the Son of Man, to whom belongs righteousness… he is the one whom the Lord of Spirits has chosen… This Son of Man whom you have seen is the One who will remove the kings and the mighty from their seats and the strong ones from their thrones.

1 Enoch 47-48: In those days, I saw the Beginning of Days sitting upon the throne of his glory. The books of the living ones were open before him, and all his army of heaven above and his council stood before him… At that hour, that Son of Man was called into the presence of the Lord of SpiritsHis name was in the presence of the Beginning of Days, even before the creation of the sun and of the stars… He is a support for the righteous ones… He is the light of the gentiles and the hope of those who suffer in their hearts. All those who dwell upon the earth shall fall and worship him… For this purpose he was chosen and hidden in the presence of the Lord of Spirits prior to the creation of the world, and he will remain for eternity…  And on the day of their distress there will be rest upon the earth, and before them they will fall and not rise, and there will be no one to take them with his hand and raise them. For they have denied the Lord of Spirits and his Anointed One [Messiah]. Blessed be the name of the Lord of Spirits.

1 Enoch 62: And the Lord of Spirits <seated him> upon the throne of his glory; and the spirit of righteousness was poured upon him… And there will stand up on that day all the kings and the mighty and the exalted and those who possess the land. And they will see and recognize that he sits on the throne of his glory; and righteousness is judged in his presence, and no lying word is spoken in his presence… And one group of them will look at the other; and they will be terrified and will cast down their faces, and pain will seize them when they see that Son of Man sitting on the throne of his glory. And the kings and the mighty and all who possess the land will bless and glorify and exalt him who rules over all, who was hidden. For from the beginning the Son of Man was hidden, and the Most High preserved him in the presence of his might, and he revealed him to the chosen. And the congregation of the chosen and holy will be sown; and all the chosen will stand in his presence on that day.

These are remarkable statements, and this book of Enoch has become a focus of much scholarly research in recent decades, precisely because it sheds so much light on Jesus and how he understood himself. These passages from 1 Enoch could very well have been part of the New Testament!

So what do we learn from these excursions into the Judaism that Jesus was born into? Clearly the visions of the “son of man” that we find in Daniel and 1 Enoch had become part of the conversation among Jews in the century immediately before Jesus. Perhaps the absence of Daniel 7:13-14 and the intentional change in the Septuagint translation reflect concern that these verses were a danger to strict monotheistic religion; perhaps they echoed memories of mythological beliefs that some mainstream and sectarian Jews preferred to leave buried in the dust. Perhaps that is why 1 Enoch remained a book in the margins of Jewish society and religion. One can go on speculating.

One thing is certain, to me anyway: Jesus did not pull the title “Son of man” out of the air. It was already a topic of conversation and speculation. So it was that when Jesus appropriated the title “Son of man” for himself, it caused much opposition against him. We see this in all four Gospels, but perhaps nowhere more pointedly than in John 12:34. The crowd answered him, “We have heard from the law that the Christ remains for ever. How can you say that the Son of man must be lifted up? Who is this Son of man?” Can you hear the impatience and frustration in the question, “Who is this Son of man?” You can fill in the missing parts of the dialogue: “We’ve been hearing about this Son of man. Daniel wrote about him, and there are strange books circulating among us that say some very unusual things about a son of man? Now you come around calling yourself the Son of man. What do you mean you’re going to be lifted up? Are you the Christ, the Messiah? Are you the Son of man that Daniel wrote about? WHO IS THIS SON OF MAN?”

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The Emperor Constantine seated at the head of the bishops at Nicaea. The condemned Arius is crouching at the bottom!

Indeed, who is this Son of man? To ask that question is to go deep into the mystery of Jesus. Some people say that Christian theology is too complicated and philosophical, with all our talk of Trinity and the two natures of Christ, etc. We honor the seven Ecumenical Councils that gave us our fundamental doctrines. Today we honor the 318 Fathers of the Council of Nicaea in the year 325. They thought they had God all worked out. They didn’t even come close; all they did was satisfy the emperor’s desire for unity and peace.

To talk of Trinity and to recite the Nicene Creed is only the beginning. There are depths that no theology can plumb – which is why in the Orthodox tradition we have the apophatic approach, which is the way of unknowing, the admission that regardless of what we can say about God the reality is much greater, much beyond our understanding. My first explorations in this question of the Son of man tells me that Jesus was far more mysterious, far more unique, than even our Nicene and Chalcedonian theologies will ever tell us. Let us humbly admit that our theologies are only markers on the road to union with God in Christ.

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The Emperor Constantine with Fathers of Nicaea and the first words of the Nicene Creed

 


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Different Kinds of Blindness

 

Who is really blind in today’s gospel reading (John 9)? The man, the people around him, his parents, the Pharisees? My quick answer: all of them!

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The various actors in the drama of John 9

The man was blind – but he had become invisible to everyone who saw him day after day. Their blindness was one of ignoring him. They passed him by every day, they hardly noticed him. Have you experienced that, in the street corners of Portland? On some corners I see the same person day after day, and it is easy to get suspicious and to simply roll up your window and hope the light won’t be long to change. This is the blindness of looking the other way.

There is the blindness of fear and conformity The parents were not blind in recognizing him, but they were blinded by the authority of the Pharisees and they shied from saying anything that would cause them trouble. They were the typical cowards, afraid to speak out. They are everywhere: in every totalitarian country, in every corporation, in the church, in the neighborhood! People are afraid to speak, afraid that they would lose their job or their privileges, or even land in jail or disappear!

And so we come to the Pharisees. Theirs is the blindness of power. (We say someone is “blinded with power.”) This chapter is the most detailed description of the kind of controversy that Jesus faced with the Pharisees every day. We see them carry out an inquisition! No wonder the parents were afraid to say much to this inquisition. They have many weapons in their arsenal, and their greatest weapon was Moses – not only Moses the giver of the laws that governed their daily life, like Sharia law in some Muslim societies; but Moses who spoke with God! Today we know that Moses did not write the first books of the Bible, we know that the laws that governed life in Israel were created by priests over the centuries. So today the Moses weapon wouldn’t carry much weight. But in that day, it was big. The Pharisees inadvertently spoke the truth at the same time as they were attacking the man. They accused him of being Jesus’ disciples, whereas they were Moses’ disciples!

This was one of the big ideas in John’s Gospel. Back in chapter 1, we read: For the law was given through Moses; grace and truth came through Jesus Christ. This is indeed the central issue, the choice that the Gospel puts before us: Law OR grace and truth. The Pharisees were correct: they were disciples of the Law. The blind man became a disciple of Jesus, a disciple of grace and truth. He experienced grace in healing and his eyes were opened not only to physical reality but to truth. While they remained in their spiritual blindness, the man was healed physically and spiritually.

His spiritual blindness was lifted gradually in the narrative. His spiritual blindness was the same as we all have. It’s the blindness of not knowing. For example, he made the statement that God does not listen to sinners! So deeply had he been brainwashed by the religious teachings of his time that he repeated such lies without questioning. He wasn’t that different from the apostles when they asked who sinned that this man had been born blind!Man-born-blind

Notice how his own understanding of Jesus evolved:
  • the man called Jesus
  • he is a prophet
  • man from God
  • Son of Man – explicitly revealed by Jesus himself.

Notice Jesus’ absence from the middle 2/3 of the chapter! He sends the man to wash in the pool of Siloam – which means Sent – and then leaves the scene until the end of the chapter when he finds the man he had healed. In the middle 2/3 of the chapter, the man is alone to face the Pharisees and everyone else who questioned him. He was sent! And he was sent alone. This was the growing experience he needed before Jesus would reveal himself to him as Son of Man.

Many times we experience the distance of God in our lives. I believe God moves to the background to allow us to grow in grace and truth. The man reached the limits of his own wisdom, and then Jesus came back into the picture to finish the job of opening the man’s inner eyes.

But there is another blindness, the blindness of stupidity:

A Catholic Priest, a Baptist Preacher and a Rabbi would get together two or three times a week for coffee and to talk shop. One day, someone made the comment that preaching to people isn’t really all that hard, a real challenge would be to preach to a bear. So they decided to do an experiment. They would all go out into the woods, find a bear, preach to it, and attempt to convert it to their religion.

Seven days later, they all came together to discuss their experiences.

Father Flannery, who had his arm in a sling, was on crutches, and had various bandages on his body and limbs, went first. ‘Well,’ he said, ‘I went into the woods to find me a bear. And when I found him, I began to read to him from the Catechism. Well, that bear wanted nothing to do with me and began to slap me around. So I quickly grabbed my holy water, sprinkled him and, Holy Mary Mother of God, he became as gentle as a lamb. The Bishop is coming out next week to give him first communion and confirmation.’

Reverend Billy Bob the Baptist, spoke next. He was in a wheelchair, had one arm and both legs in casts. ‘WELL, brothers, you KNOW that we Baptists don’t sprinkle! I went out and I FOUND me a bear. And then I began to read to my bear from God’s HOLY WORD! But that bear wanted nothing to do with me. So I took HOLD of him and we began to wrestle. We wrestled down one hill, UP another and DOWN another until we came to a creek. So I quickly DUNKED him and BAPTIZED his hairy soul. And just like you said, he became as gentle as a lamb. We spent the rest of the day praising Jesus. Hallelujah!

The Priest and the Reverend both looked down at the Rabbi, who was in a body cast and traction. He was in really bad shape. The Rabbi looked up and said: “Looking back on it, circumcision may not have been the best idea!”


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Spirit and Truth

It seems I’m not the only one who read carefully the article about millennials and the church in the Washington Post. It obviously created significant buzz in some circles. A friend of mine sent me an article by David French in a certain magazine, without endorsing its content. It was a rather hateful attack on the same Post article that I referred to last week.

He accuses that millennials will destroy the church because:
  • They want an end to the culture wars. They want a truce between science and faith.
  • They want to be known for what they stand for, not what they are against.
  • They want to ask questions that don’t have predetermined answers.
  • They want churches that emphasize an allegiance to the kingdom of God over an allegiance to a single political party or a single nation.
  • They want their LGBT friends to feel truly welcome in our faith communities.
  • They want to be challenged to live lives of holiness, not only when it comes to sex, but also when it comes to living simply, caring for the poor and oppressed, pursuing reconciliation, engaging in creation care and becoming peacemakers.

When I combine this list with what I read in that Washington Post article – authenticity, inclusivity, sacraments, faith, community – I don’t see much difference from what Jesus preached and did. And yet, this David French, asserts that if you want to destroy your church, do what these millennials are asking!

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Let’s see what Jesus says and does in the Gospel reading of the Samaritan woman. It’s not far from what the millennials look for in a church.

  • He broke down barriers – he spoke with a woman; a Samaritan; and a sinner by the definitions of religion!
  • He is inclusive. He treats the woman as anyone else, no distinction of nationality and religion.
  • His vision of salvation is universal.
  • His vision of worship is spiritual, not tied to any tradition. “In spirit and in truth” – that’s what millennials call authenticity!

Do you think Jesus would have treated her differently if she were lesbian? Or conservative? Or liberal? Or Chinese? Or Cuban? We label people AND ideas too easily. And have you noticed? We usually label people we don’t like or we disagree with. So labeling is primarily negative, not positive!

Our Gospel reading is a powerful reminder of what was most important to Jesus: People, not labels or categories! This woman was by herself at the well in the hottest part of the day because she was labeled and everyone gossiped about her. When others gossip about you the last thing you want to do is go to the well in the morning when all the other women are there – who will look at you and whisper about you. Jesus does exactly the opposite. And he brought this woman right into the kingdom.

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The first thing the Samaritan woman did after her encounter with the kingdom of God was to preach to the people who had shamed her!

 

The church has given her a name – a Greek name, as was customary in that unique form of Byzantine cultural imperialism. She obviously was not Greek; but it’s a good name, nevertheless: Photini. The name means shining with light! According to church tradition, she became an evangelist and was martyred in Rome with her two sons and five sisters during the persecutions of Emperor Nero. She brought the light of Christ to many, starting with some of her own townspeople, maybe even some of the women who used to shun her!

st-photine-the-samaritan-womanHere’s what her Apolytikion (Feb 26) says: Illumined by the Holy Spirit, you drank with great and ardent longing the water that Christ the Savior gave to you. With the streams of salvation you were refreshed, and you abundantly gave to those who were thirsty. O Great Martyr and equal of the Apostles, Photine!

She was labeled, she was judged – but not by Jesus. He brought her into the kingdom of God and the church wisely elevated her to the status of apostle. We are all called to be full of light and light-givers to others. Just like the Samaritan woman!

 

The story of the Samaritan woman at the well was one of the first gospel scenes to receive iconographic representation, as in one of the catacombs of Rome in the late 2nd or early 3rd centuries, illustrated here. (click to enlarge)

The story of the Samaritan woman at the well was one of the first gospel scenes to receive iconographic representation, as in one of the catacombs of Rome in the late 2nd or early 3rd centuries, illustrated here. (click to enlarge)


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Church Without Gimmicks

 

Sermon of 3 May, 2015, Audio file:

 

miracle-healing-of-the-paralytic-sheeps-poolJohn is called the Theologian in the Orthodox Church, for good reason. There is much theology in today’s reading of John 5:1-15; but there is theology in all the miracle stories in the Gospels, as I always try to point out. At the heart of today’s miracle story is a rejection of superstition – and religious beliefs practices that are little more than superstition! Thus the double attack in this reading: the water and the sabbath!

Command to sin no more = don’t go back to the same old same old! Follow a new path, the path of Christ, the Word of God incarnate. It is amazing how people can twist the written word of God and each person interpret in his/her own way. But the living Word of God, the one who is a person rather than a page in a book, is different. His way is different. He is the end of religion; not all religion, but religion that relies on rules and magical beliefs.

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In his book, Christianity and the Religions, author Jacques Dupuis quotes the opening prayer of the Koran, the fatiha:516XBCKXN3L
In the name of Allah, Most Gracious, Ever Merciful.
All praise belongs to Allah alone,
the Lord of all the worlds,
Most Gracious, Ever Merciful,
Master of the Day of Judgment.
You alone do we worship and You alone do we implore for help.
Guide us along the straight path –
the path of those on whom
You have bestowed Your favors.,
those who have not incurred Your wrath, and
those who have not gone astray.

 

Some scholars call this the “Our Father” of Islam! I totally disagree. There is almost nothing in common between this prayer and the Our Father. The fatiha could have been prayed by the Pharisee in the parable of the Pharisee and the Tax Collector. The Our Father is not a prayer of religion or the religiously righteous. Thy kingdom come; thy will be done on earth as in heaven; give us this day our daily bread; forgive us as WE forgive; etc. Nothing in here about worship, or judgment, or how we’re different from those who have displeased God and gone astray, etc.

Sin no more, Jesus tells the man. In the context of this miracle story there is ONLY ONE thing that this command could possibly mean: “Don’t go back to the old ways of magical and mechanical religion. I healed you and I will continue to heal you and guide you. I am the way, the truth and the life.” And those are his words to us as well. I value our church practices and traditions. Our worship is beautiful. Religion is God’s gift to human beings; but it is meant only as a guide, a means of sharing life with others who are on the same path. But the path is Jesus. And the end-point is Jesus. Anything that stands in the way of hearing the voice of the Word is an obstacle, like the water was an obstacle for 38 years to this man.

For many people, churches are an obstacle to finding God. And churches often scramble to find new and creative ways to attract people. So churches resort to marketing and gimmicks. Churches try to be current and relevant. Churches try to make worship as comfortable and non-threatening and warm and fuzzy as they can. So I found it very insightful what Rachel Held Evans wrote in the Washington Post last week. She is a millennial. That’s the usual name given to people born from the early 1980s to early 2000s. Here are some extensive quotes from this article (you can read the full article here).

Millennials prefer classic to trendy churches, sanctuary over auditorium. For a generation bombarded with advertising and sales pitches, and for whom the charge of “inauthentic” is as cutting an insult as any, church rebranding efforts can actually backfire, especially when young people sense that there is more emphasis on marketing Jesus than actually following Him. Millennials “are not disillusioned with tradition; they are frustrated with slick or shallow expressions of religion,”

Blogger Amy Peterson: “I want a service that is not sensational, flashy, or particularly ‘relevant.’ I can be entertained anywhere. At church, I do not want to be entertained. I do not want to be the target of anyone’s marketing. I want to be asked to participate in the life of an ancient-future community.”

According to Barna Group, among young people who don’t go to church, 87 percent say they see Christians as judgmental, and 85 percent see them as hypocritical. A similar study found that “only 8% say they don’t attend because church is ‘out of date.’

In other words, a church can have a sleek logo and Web site, but if it’s judgmental and exclusive, if it fails to show the love of Jesus to all, millennials will sniff it out. Our reasons for leaving have less to do with style and image and more to do with substantive questions about life, faith and community. We’re not as shallow as you might think.

You can get a cup of coffee with your friends anywhere, but church is the only place you can get ashes smudged on your forehead as a reminder of your mortality. You can be dazzled by a light show at a concert on any given weekend, but church is the only place that fills a sanctuary with candlelight and hymns on Christmas Eve. You can snag all sorts of free swag for brand loyalty online, but church is the only place where you are named a beloved child of God with a cold plunge into the water. You can share food with the hungry at any homeless shelter, but only the church teaches that a shared meal brings us into the very presence of God.

What finally brought me back was the sacraments. Baptism, confession, Communion, preaching the Word, anointing the sick — you know, those strange rituals and traditions Christians have been practicing for the past 2,000 years. The sacraments are what make the church relevant, no matter the culture or era. They don’t need to be repackaged or rebranded; they just need to be practiced, offered and explained in the context of a loving, authentic and inclusive community.

Did you hear the key words? Authentic, non-judgmental, inclusive, sacraments, faith, community. Not marketing, not trendy, no gimmicks. The water in today’s miracle story is a gimmick, a marketing tool. Jesus ignores it and reaches out to the man in need. That’s what the church should be, and that’s what we will continue to strive to be. Most of all, I love that phrase: “an ancient-future community.” Let’s be that; let’s explore what it means to be that.