Ancient Answers

Guidance for Today from Scripture and Early Christianity


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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.


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Powers and Principalities Then and Now

 

Jesus encountered constant opposition and criticism for breaking sabbath rules and the taboos of society. In the healing of the woman in Luke 10:10-17, the synagogue leader could not tolerate Jesus healing on the sabbath. He was following the biblical rules that clearly prohibited work on the sabbath. Jesus responded that healing was not a work but a grace. If it was permissible to untie animals and let them drink, certainly it should be permissible to untie a woman from her bondage. The leader could not see that mercy might be more important than rigid rules or that God might work in new ways that open wide the flow of grace. Jesus was opening wide the curtain to reveal the truth about God.

Jesus actually broke more than the Sabbath rule by touching her! Both her illness and her gender forbade such an act. By touching her, Jesus himself became unclean according to the rules that governed people’s lives. Imagine that! But Jesus was only concerned to restore her identity as a “daughter of Abraham”. He brought her from the margins back into the center of the community, and he did it on the Sabbath. The choice was between law and grace, between rules and healing, between tradition and newness. What if God is working in new ways?

Note however that Jesus did not call this an act of healing; rather, he spoke of being in bondage and being set free. The language of being in bondage and being set free is the language of the exodus. One of the main reasons that keeping Sabbath is so important for Jews is that it serves as a reminder that God has brought them out of bondage. Jesus is reminding his listeners that Sabbath keeping is freedom to be God’s people, just as when they were set free from slavery in Egypt.

But what does it mean for Christians? We were not set free from slavery in Egypt. We are not under obligation to keep the Sabbath. Tell that to people who want to install the Ten Commandments in public buildings! Note especially Exodus 20:2 & 8.

But are we free? We are not in bondage in Egypt or to Satan. But are we in bondage nevertheless?

Ephesians 4:11-13:

Put on the whole armour (πανοπλίαν) of God,

that you may be able to stand firm

against the stratagems of the devil (μεθοδείας τοῦ διαβόλου). 

For we are not contending against flesh and blood,

but against the principalities (ἀρχάς),

against the powers (ἐξουσίας),

against the cosmic masters of this darkness (κοσμοκράτορας τοῦ σκότους),

against the spiritual powers of wickedness in the heavenly places (τὰ πνευματικὰ τῆς πονηρίας ἐν τοῖς ἐπουρανίοις).

Therefore buckle on the whole armour of God

that you may be able to offer resistance in the evil day

and be prepared in every respect to stand firm.

Statue of Artemis of Ephesus

Christians in Ephesus would have been under pressure to worship the emperor at the newly constructed temple of Domitian. Ephesus was also a thriving commercial city and the cultic center of goddess Artemis. They’re a little closer to us than the Hebrew slaves in Egypt. They could understand the language Paul uses of powers and principalities.

Temple of Artemis of Ephesus

William Stringfellow spoke of the time when he lectured on the biblical idea of “powers and principalities” to divinity students at Harvard. They found the terminology outdated; their theology was too sophisticated to accept such mythological language. But when he addressed students in the business school, who had done time serving at the church of realism, they recognised the language immediately.

Paul’s language is not outdated, it is very modern. It is the language of money, sex, fashion, sports, politics, consumerism, and religion. It is language that exposes our bondage to the powers: racism and segregation, organized crime and corruption in high places, addiction, depersonalization and loss of identity, economic and political authoritarianism, pornography, the celebrity culture of glamorized Bad Girls and Boys, and genocide.

Paul even exposes powers in the heavenly places – a passage that caused much trouble for the early Fathers of the church. In our more cynical age, it is less difficult to imagine evil in the heavily places – or the places that we think are heavenly!

Paul does not call us to make war on the devil or any of the powers – but to be prepared to defend ourselves – through prayer, faith, thoughtful living, through knowledge of scripture, and above all, through the work of the Holy Spirit in our lives and in our churches.


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Blind Spots

 

Chapter numbers were introduced into the Gospels about a thousand years after they were written. So I like to think of Luke 17:20-19:10 as comprising one unit in the Gospel of Luke, and ignore the division into chapters. This section is the culmination of Jesus’ trip to Jerusalem and his fateful encounter with the powers and principalities opposed to the rule of God. And indeed, this section of Luke’s Gospel is precisely concerned with the rule of God – conventionally called the “kingdom of God.”

At the end of what is called chapter 17 in our Bibles (Luke 17:20-37), Jesus is questioned about the coming of the kingdom. He goes on to describe “the days of the Son of Man” – what most of us refer to as the second coming. But that’s not the coming of the kingdom! Jesus says, the kingdom of God is not coming in ways that can be observed – the kingdom of God is among/in the midst of us!

He then goes on to describe various situations that are related to the presence of the kingdom – chapter 18 in our Bibles.

Luke 18:1-8 The parable of the persistent widow, who continues to pester a judge to give her justice. So also God will give justice to his people. “Nevertheless, when the Son of Man comes, will he find faith on earth?” One of the most heart-rending questions Jesus ever asked! And he asked this not about people in general, but about those who presume to be his followers and who call themselves “Christians”.

Luke 18:9-14 The parable of the pharisee and the tax collector…we read this in one of the Sundays before Lent begins.

Luke 18:15-17 “Let the children come to me, for to such belongs the kingdom of God.”

Luke 18:18-30 The incident of the rich ruler, who turns away from Jesus after he hears what Jesus asks of him.

Luke 18:35-43 Jesus’ encounter with the blind beggar. Mark’s version identifies the blind man as Bartimaeus – son of Timaeus. A Gentile? His father had a Greek name. I think of Plato’s dialogue Timaeus. A gentile? A Hellenist Jew? Perhaps the reason why the crowd was trying to silence him? Yet this gentile or hellenist Jews called out, Jesus, son of David!

Regardless of ethnic identity, this man recognised Jesus in messianic terms – son of David! He shouted out, and shouted out even more as the crowd tried to silence him. He would not allow any obstacle to stand between him and the presence of God’s kingdom in the person of Jesus of Nazareth.

Luke 19:1-10 Jesus’ encounter with Zacchaeus – a Gospel passage we read every year in January or early February as part of our preparation for Great Lent.

From this unit in Luke’s Gospel we learn some things about who belong to the the kingdom of God:

Those who can receive it with the simplicity and purity of children.

Those who recognise their sinfulness and repent of it.

Those who are persistent – like the widow and the blind beggar – and don’t allow obstacles in their way.

On the other hand, the kingdom does not belong to:

Those like the pharisee who are deceived by their own good deeds and who think they have God all figured out.

Those like the rich ruler who turn away from Jesus the minute they hear something they don’t like, when they hear something that challenges a blind spot.

We all have our blind spots. Most Christians are against abortion, but many have no problem with capital punishment or pushing for war or a nuclear strike. They’re against killing babies in the womb, but have no problem killing babies, children and adults. And there are Christians who oppose war and capital punishment, but have no problem with abortion! Blind spots galore. What about Christians who say character is important in government, yet have no problem voting for someone in Alabama accused of sexual harassment? Or support a congressman also accused of sexual harassment because he was a civil rights hero? And there are blind spots closer to home, closer to our own personal lives.

Be careful with blind spots. They can become so powerful and controlling that we end up turning away from Jesus and the kingdom of God. But if we stay, if we continue calling out, the kingdom will fill our hearts and minds and heal us of our spiritual blindness and moral double-talk. Because the kingdom is among us, in our midst! Bartimaeus regained his sight and followed Jesus, glorifying God. Let us glorify  and thank God that we are here today. We haven’t given up. Here, in the Liturgy, we trust that salvation will become real in our lives – not as something future, but as something that transforms us here!


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The Logos of Advent

 

Advent is a time of rich liturgical and popular traditions in the western churches, especially in the Catholic, Anglican and Lutheran churches. But it is a much undeveloped liturgical time in the eastern churches, where it is primarily observed as a fasting season, probably thanks to the disproportionate influence of monastics in the evolution of the Orthodox tradition. Our loss, I guess one can say. In fact, the Orthodox liturgical tradition has only one hymn that could be accurately called an Advent hymn – and it is the Kontakion we sing in the season before Christmas:

Ἡ Παρθένος σήμερον, τὸν προαιώνιον Λόγον, ἐν Σπηλαίῳ ἔρχεται, ἀποτεκεῖν ἀπορρήτως. Χόρευε ἡ οἰκουμένη ἀκουτισθεῖσα, δόξασον μετὰ Ἀγγέλων καὶ τῶν Ποιμένων, βουληθέντα ἐποφθῆναι, παιδίον νέον, τὸν πρὸ αἰώνων Θεόν.

Today the Virgin comes to the manger to give birth in a mystery to him who is the eternal Word. Hear this and rejoice all the earth and glorify with the angels and the shepherds; for the pre-eternal God now comes to us as a new child.

It is a beautiful hymn, expressing not only the anticipated joy but also the profound theology of the Logos, the Word. It comes from the opening 18 verses of the Gospel of John:

Ἐν ἀρχῇ ἦν ὁ λόγος, καὶ ὁ λόγος ἦν πρὸς τὸν θεόν, καὶ θεὸς ἦν ὁ λόγος. οὗτος ἦν ἐν ἀρχῇ πρὸς τὸν θεόν. πάντα δι’ αὐτοῦ ἐγένετο, καὶ χωρὶς αὐτοῦ ἐγένετο οὐδὲ ἕν. ὃ γέγονεν ἐν αὐτῷ ζωὴ ἦν, καὶ ἡ ζωὴ ἦν τὸ φῶς τῶν ἀνθρώπων· καὶ τὸ φῶς ἐν τῇ σκοτίᾳ φαίνει, καὶ ἡ σκοτία αὐτὸ οὐ κατέλαβεν….Καὶ ὁ λόγος σὰρξ ἐγένετο καὶ ἐσκήνωσεν ἐν ἡμῖν, καὶ ἐθεασάμεθα τὴν δόξαν αὐτοῦ, δόξαν ὡς μονογενοῦς παρὰ πατρός, πλήρης χάριτος καὶ ἀληθείας….θεὸν οὐδεὶς ἑώρακεν πώποτε· μονογενὴς υἱός [θεὸς] ὁ ὢν εἰς τὸν κόλπον τοῦ πατρὸς ἐκεῖνος ἐξηγήσατο.

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. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it….And the Word became flesh and pitched his tent among us, full of grace and truth; and we have beheld his glory, glory as of the only-begotten Son from the Father….No one has ever seen God; the only-begotten Son [God], who is in the bosom of the Father, he has made him known.

Notice the textual variation in the last sentence, indicated by the square brackets? The majority of manuscripts have μονογενὴς υἱός, the only-begotten Son. But two of the earliest papyrus manuscripts that we possess (from around 200 AD), 𝔓66 and 𝔓75, and some other early manuscripts read θεός instead of υἱός. Scholars now speculate that θεός was replaced by υἱός in later manuscripts to bring John’s statement more in line with standard trinitarian language of Father, Son and Holy Spirit. But it is very likely that John did indeed write θεός to wrap up this majestic opening of his gospel, in which he unveils the Logos in his full divine and cosmic glory.

The police drama Columbo was very popular in the 1970s. Unlike other police dramas, it showed the crime and the perpetrator at the beginning of each episode. So we the viewers knew whodunnit before Columbo, brilliantly played by Peter Falk, came on to the scene, with his usual battered coat.

That’s something like what John did in the opening of his gospel: he told us up front who he is going to reveal to us. The Advent Kontakion does something similar. It tells us up front, it’s the Logos who is coming into the world. It is the human manifestation of the Logos that Christmas is all about. It is not Santa, it is not just my personal Lord and Saviour. It is the Word of God – the reason for all creation, the reason why we have life, the reason why there is light in the world, even if sometimes the darkness seems to prevail. But “the darkness has not overcome it,” John tells us.

John’s use of the Logos locates his understanding of Jesus in the Hebrew scriptures, the dabar yhwh; but also in the Greek philosophical tradition of the Logos going all the way back to Heraclitus (535-475 BC). Thus, Logos helped John combine Hebrew and Greek insights into the origin, purpose and cosmic scale of our existence! Look at the map below, compiled by astronomers, showing our neighbourhood of the universe. Click it once and click it again to expand it and fill your computer screen. How can you look at the scale and movements of the galaxies and not believe that there is Logos behind the magnificent complexity and marvel of the universe?

Currents of galaxies (white spheres) are drawn by gravity toward galaxy cluster and even more massive cosmic pileups like the “Great Attractor.” Red and yellow show zones of attraction; dark blue shows the voids that galaxies flow away from. (Credit: Courtois, Tully, et al.) (Click to enlarge)

This cosmological map helps me understand Jesus better than any icon does. I see the cosmic scale of God’s creative and redemptive purposes. And I am in there too, in that section called the Milky Way; and I am part of the big picture. We are part of the big picture! Don’t reduce Jesus to be your little saviour. His is an ecumenical, cosmic birth. The οἰκουμένη rejoices and dances with the angels and the shepherds – because a new child is born, the pre-eternal God.

We have a hard time conceiving infinity. Think about pi, π. (See excellent Wikipedia article.) π is the ratio of a circle’s circumference to its diameter. It is usually represented as 3.14; but in actual fact, π can be expanded to an infinite number of decimal places. It just goes on and on as we increase the precision of calculation:

π = 3.141592653589793238462643383279502884197169399375105820974944592……

How far do you go in contemplating infinity, eternity? And what lies beyond infinity, beyond eternity? The mind stops; we can’t conceive the inconceivable. So in our hymnography we don’t even use words like “eternal” to speak of God the Word: he is “pre-eternal” – before and beyond eternity!

Christmas is the profound mystery of the pre-eternal God crashing into our universe, into what he created. We are his, the entire οἰκουμένη is his, all creation is his. “Lord save your people and bless your inheritance,” we sing in one of our most popular hymns. The earth is his inheritance. It belongs to him, and he comes into his inheritance. He comes into his own, even though his own more often reject him than welcome him. We reject him when we reject his work, his inheritance, our place in the cosmos. We reject him when we misuse his inheritance, when we treat it as our own possession. What happened 2,000 years ago is like the opening of a Columbo episode. It told us everything we need to know about the story of Jesus down through the ages. It all played out there – and it has played out in identical ways for 20 more centuries. Let us not be among those who reject him. Let us be among those who welcome him – not just as an excuse for mindless shopping. Let us welcome him as the source of truth, life and love. The Word is God…and the Word became flesh.


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The Cross is not a political slogan

Living in Montreal and two other Canadian cities in the 1970s I became aware of the politics that ruled the Greek Orthodox churches in Canada. As a matter of fact, it came to the point, at least in Montreal, that the Hellenic Community administration that governed all the Greek churches of Montreal was split along the lines of the political parties of Greece!

The politicization of the church has been a fact since the unfortunate transformation that the emperor Constantine initiated. We are still living in the Constantinian era. And not only the Orthodox Church! Even those churches that do not consider Constantine as a saint are nevertheless living under the shadow cast by his reign.

Consider the 20th century. The official Lutheran Church in Germany quickly capitulated to Hitler, leaving only a small remnant of German Lutherans who remained loyal to the gospel of Jesus Christ rather than Nazi ideology. The Catholic Church in Spain supported the dictatorship of Franco; and in most Latin American countries supported and blessed ruthless dictatorships throughout most of the 20th century. Even in the Greece, the church embraced the dictatorship of the colonels, 1967-73,  and the slogan, <<Ελλάς Ελλήνων Χριστιανών>>, loosely translated as, “Greece, [the land] of Greeks, Christians”. I inserted “the land” which is not present in the original but is one of the ways it can be translated – the other way being “Greece, [for] Greeks, Christians.” I also separated Greeks and Christians by a comma to capture more of the flavor of the original. For the meaning is not that there are Greeks who are Christians – but Greeks ARE Christians. If someone is not a Christian he or she is not Greek, and hence not part of Greece. It was a slogan that perfectly expressed the marriage of church and state and the nationalist identity of every embedded member of that society.

The colonels’ slogan can be equally well applied to other societies. There is a very sizable segment of the US population who would subscribe to something similar for American society. It is all part and parcel of the politicization of Christianity that we have inherited from the fourth century revolution in church-state relationship.

Today politics define the Christian experience in this country to an increasingly alarming extent. Once a label has been attached to a person’s form of Christianity, that person is only allowed to support the politics that go with that label. So, for example, a “liberal” Christian cannot be liberal if he or she is against abortion. A “conservative” Christian cannot be conservative if he or she approves of same-sex marriage. If you were “evangelical” in 2016 you had to vote for Donald Trump; if you were “progressive” you had to vote for Hillary Clinton – you were a traitor to your label if you voted otherwise! So your political or religious label puts you in a straitjacket – hence the polarization that is quickly destroying the social fabric and the possibility of reasonable dialogue.

Nazi insignia combining key symbols, including the cross (click to enlarge).

Typical piece of Nazi “Christian” propaganda (click to enlarge)

This is a frightful situation. Allegiance to the gospel of Jesus Christ is replaced by allegiance to a political slogan or ideology. This is what the church did in Nazi Germany. Nazi Christians even represented the Cross inside or with the swastika! But there were a few Christians who did not fall in line – and many of them paid with their lives. The most famous of the resisters was the theologian and pastor, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, who spent two years in Nazi prisons but was quickly killed by order of Hitler in the last days of the war, as the Allies were about to enter Berlin. During his two years of imprisonment, Bonhoeffer wrote a series of letters and theological essays that were collected after his death by his close friend and relative, Eberhard Bethge. They were published under the title Letters and Papers from Prison, a book which I consider one of the most important books ever written by a Christian. It is a book well worth reading as the line between the cross and political and racist ideologies becomes increasingly blurred.

Like all citizens of a nation, Christians will have their own political views and preferences – but we do not have God’s permission to turn the Cross into a slogan or marry the gospel of Jesus Christ to any political ideology, left or right. Political engagement is important and necessary for Christians. But political engagement is tricky and treacherous. Better to be wrong in your politics than to be wrong in defending your politics with scripture! Venture with fear and trembling. And never assume that God agrees with your politics.

 


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The gospel of enough

 

We live in a time of unbridled greed. There seems to be no limit to how rich a rich person wants to be. And corporations are the greediest persons of all. I call corporations “persons” because that’s what the Supreme Court in its questionable wisdom decided to call them in 2010.

When is enough? Today I want to introduce the term “gospel of enough”, which I first encountered in the December issue of Sojourners magazine. But I view the gospel of enough in two contradictory senses. One is in the good sense of saying I have enough for my own comfort and for my family, let me see what I can give to others, to those in need. How I can contribute to the common good? That’s the good version of the “gospel of enough.”

But there is another version, the one we encounter in the Parable of the Rich Fool (Luke 12:16-21).

The man in the parable amassed a large wealth and decided it was enough for him to stop working. Good for him! He wasn’t greedy like today’s super-rich. But it stopped there. He did not look beyond himself. He was satisfied with his success and wanted nothing more than to enjoy it all by himself or with his family, if he had family – the parable says nothing about family. He was rich for himself only; not rich for God. And how is one rich for God? By sharing with others – because that’s where you find God.

Okay, you’ve heard this message many times before, right? It’s one of the favourite themes of preachers. Well, yes it is, because it also happened to be the favourite theme of Jesus!

But today I see an even more demanding meaning in this parable. Is it possible for the church to be like this man? To rest on our successes? To go into cruise control? To say, okay we have reached a plateau here, we can’t go any further? We’re a respected church in our city, we have taken good care of our buildings, we manage to pay our bills and have a priest…we’re okay.

And that creates stagnation, sameness, lack of vision, apathy, indifference, lack of participation…. All of which we see in many churches today, including our own.

How do we inject new life, to become church as church, as the representatives of Jesus Christ, whose body we are! Here is Saint Paul in his Epistle to the Ephesians:

Brothers and sisters, Christ is our peace, who has made us both one, and has broken down the dividing wall of hostility… And he came and preached peace to you who were far off and peace to those who were near; for through him we both have access in one Spirit to the Father. So then you are no longer strangers and sojourners, but you are fellow citizens with the saints and members of the household of God, built upon the foundation of the apostles and prophets, Christ Jesus himself being the cornerstone, in whom the whole structure is joined together and grows into a holy temple in the Lord; in whom you also are built into it for a dwelling place of God in the Spirit. (Eph 2:14-22)

That is Saint Paul’s vision. It is the foundational vision. Without it we can’t even dream of doing something outside of our walls. We are not members of the church, we don’t come to God’s house. We ARE God’s house, God’s dwelling place in the Spirit. God’s spirit blows where it wills, according to Jesus. God’s spirit is restless, constantly moving to animate life and new vision. May the Holy Spirit blow our way and get us up from our comfortable sleep.

But it starts with prayer. Without prayer, the vision is absent, or it turns into something else. Paul Holmer taught at Yale Divinity School, 1960-87. Here is a prayer he offered at Yale on 11 December 1973. This is the kind of prayer that can reinvigorate a people of God to our mission.

O Lord, Our God, Shepherd of the Fallen and Friend of Sinners:

We thank Thee for song that has enlivened our memory, for words that are promising, for love that made cradle and cross the means of our hope.

Once more, we live by a mercy we did not covenant, a joy we did not deserve, a love we did not seek, a victory we did not win, a peace that is not as the world gives. So, in grace we wander, thankful for Thee who art the light in our darkness and the sufficiency in our weakness.

Amid the splendors of health, of opulence of learning, of youth, of song and good spirit, we wish also to thank Thee again for the deeper dignity given us by belief in Thee, by following Thee and sharing the life and fate of Jesus in this world.

To that end:

Abide with us, and trouble us: when we are thoughtless of the work of others, when we forget the nameless toil and funded labor that gives such bounty to us all;

Abide with us, and trouble us: when we forget the suffering, the blind, the poor, those who are defrauded, oppressed, and betrayed—and may we, for them, learn Godliness and perhaps live for them, where we can not, like Jesus, die for them;

Abide with us, and trouble us: when we confront those who are hurt by hopelessness, tarnished by sins, bruised by grief, undone even by their own deeds, permit us, O God of light, never to forget our own frailty nor to lose sight of Thy image in others;

Abide with us, and trouble us: with the dishonesties that are powerful, the lies that have authority, the sins that are interesting, the gossip that is funny, the ignorance that is irresponsible though hidden—O God, never let us so conform to the world that the truth and life and way are hidden from us;

Abide with us, and trouble us: for the little ones of the world, who are terrorized by enemies, broken by envy, consumed by avarice—those who languish in prisons, fester in poverty, and are thwarted by their life and fate; help us right wrongs, befriend the helpless, bind up wounds. So use us and our talents that God’s glory might shine about them and us;

Abide with us, and trouble us: that with talent, we might not be wasteful; with ardor, we be not irrelevant; with passion, not helpless; with thoughts and learning, never without the love for God and neighbor;

Abide with us and comfort us — in well-doing. And now may God, the Father, Christ, the Son, and the Holy Spirit, be with us this day and forevermore. Amen.


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Jesus, the Good Samaritan

In recent weeks we have seen a constant stream of allegations of sexual misconduct against prominent men. One of these is Judge Roy Moore who is running to be elected to a Senate seat in a special election in Alabama next month.

It’s not for political reasons that I mention him. I mention him because of the way the Bible has been used in defending him! One of his supporters, the Alabama state auditor, Jim Ziegler, offered this shocking defence: “Take Joseph and Mary. Mary was a teenager and Joseph was an adult carpenter. They became parents of Jesus.”

Did you ever imagine the Bible – the Gospels specifically – could or would be used to defend possibly criminal behaviour? I don’t know whether Roy Moore is guilty or not, and that’s not my point here. I’m just shocked that the story of Joseph and Mary could be used in such a way. In fact, the Bible does not give Mary’s age, but she could very well have been a teenager according to the norms of her society. But again, that’s not the point. Before we dump on the Bible illiterates of the Bible Belt let’s be honest with how Mary has been used in our own Orthodox tradition to keep women in subjugation.

As one commentator put it, when Christians cite the Bible to defend child molestation, Jesus should sue for defamation.

And an attempt at defamation is what led to the Parable of the Good Samaritan. A lawyer, νομικός, approached Jesus to test him – the verb ἐκπειράζων can mean to test – as in the standard English translations of the Bible – but it can also mean to trap, as in an argument, to tempt, to incriminate. All the meanings are negative, confrontational. This lawyer was a member of the segment of society that was always out to attack and catch Jesus in his words in order to incriminate him and defame him. This was not an innocent questioner.

When Jesus dialogues with him in the conventional manner that any rabbi would have done, the lawyer goes further and asks the provocative question. “And who is my neighbor?” I imagine a cynical tone in the lawyer’s question – like Pilate’s “What is truth?” He asked in order to justify himself, Luke’s Gospel tells us, δικαιῶσαι ἑαυτὸν.

The question Who is my neighbor? is satanic, in Bonhoeffer’s opinion:

“Who is my neighbor? The whole story of the Good Samaritan is Jesus’ singular rejection and destruction of this question as satanic. It is rebellion against God’s commandment itself, [as if to say] I want to be obedient, but God will not tell me how I can be so. The question What should I do? was the first betrayal. The answer is: do the commandment that you know. The question Who is my neighbor? is the question in which disobedience justifies itself. The answer is: You yourself are the neighbor. Go and be obedient in acts of love…

It is the question of disobedience that seeks to justify itself. Who is my neighbor is precisely the lynchpin upon which the gospel of Jesus Christ hangs. It is at the heart of Jesus’ teaching, the teaching aimed at reforming the human heart. Because the neighbor is not just the family next door on your street with whom you exchange the occasional greeting. The neighbor is the complete stranger, the foreigner, the one whose religion you don’t respect. Samaritans were hated by the Jews, and vice versa. And yet, it was a Samaritan who stopped to help a wounded Jew.

An icon of the Parable of the Good Samaritan, showing all the events in the parable and with Jesus as the Samaritan!

Jesus as the Good Samaritan.

In many icons of this parable, Jesus himself is represented as the Samaritan. And there is profound truth in that. He is the stranger in our midst. He is the foreigner. We have moved so far from his teaching that we wouldn’t recognize him if he stood among us. But he comes to us every time we read one of his parables. He comes to us and knocks at the locked doors of our hearts and asks to enter. To become the neighbor who will take care of our wounds and lead us to wholeness. He is the Good Samaritan and we are the wounded by the side of the road.