Ancient Answers


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Who are you on Golgotha?

On this Sunday after the Elevation of the Cross, this is a Holy Friday sermon. Something very important is missing from all our icons and depictions of the Crucifixion of Christ….

There is no text version of this sermon, only the audio:

A rare example of an icon that includes the two criminals crucified with Christ


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A Sermon not on John 3:16

 

What remains to be said about John 3:16 that hasn’t been said a million times by millions of priests and preachers? These days, watch any football game on TV and you’ll probably see someone hold up a banner that says John 3:16. That’s what this great Bible verse has become: a slogan, a banner at football games. So I wasn’t going to say anything about John 3:16 today. I planned to say something about Marcus Aurelius instead. He was emperor of the Roman Empire (161-180) but is best known for the Meditations, Τα εις εαυτόν, which he wrote in Greek as a journal for himself, for his own self-improvement. But as I reflected on Marcus I ended back in John 3:16 after all.

So he tells himself in his journal (7.56): “Think of yourself as dead. You have lived your life. Now take what’s left and live it properly.” Strong stuff to say to oneself. Another day he writes (2.1): “When you wake up in the morning tell yourself: The people I deal with today will be meddling, ungrateful, arrogant, dishonest, jealous and surly. They are like this because they can’t tell good from evil. But I have seen the beauty of good, and the ugliness of evil, and have recognized that the wrongdoer has a nature related to my own – not of the same blood or birth, but the same mind, and possessing a share of the divine. And so none of them can hurt me. No one can implicate me in ugliness. Nor can I feel angry at my relative, or hate him. We were born to work together like feet, hands, and eyes, like the two rows of teeth, upper and lower. To obstruct each other is unnatural. To feel anger at someone, to turn your back on him: these are obstructions (αντιπρακτικόν).” Such wisdom is found throughout the Meditations.

As I read more of Marcus, I came upon this phrase (7.67): ὅτι ἐν ὀλιγίστοις κεῖται τὸ εὐδαιμόνως βιῶσαι – “Remember this, that the happy life depends on very little”, or, more simply, you don’t need much to live a happy life. The word εὐδαιμόνως brought to mind ευδαιμονία, the word in Ancient Greek for happiness, well-being, a flourishing life. A happy person is ευδαίμων. I curious so I did a little research and was surprised to discover that the word does not occur in the New Testament. Of course the NT has many words for joy, but the closest that the NT comes to a word meaning happy is μακάριος (makarios) – but almost always in connection with a state of blessedness and always in a theological context, as in the Beatitudes (Matthew 5:1-12). The only people who are just happy with life are presented in negative light – for example the rich fool (Luke 12:13-21) who is content with all he has and tells his soul to eat, drink and be merry. An Ancient Greek would not have thought anything bad about such a man, but Jesus passed harsh judgment on him; for good reason, admittedly. 

Is it wrong to just be happy? Must everything pass under some sort of divine judgment, standard? Does God look at every moment of our lives, and are we not allowed to just be happy for a bit? Must we always love our neighbor, even when we wish he’d move to another neighborhood? Is it wrong to enjoy something that gives us pleasure? Do we mess up some great universal balance if we just enjoy life once in a while? Can’t we once in a blue moon forget about the neighbor we’re supposed to love? Can’t we be ευδαίμονες in addition to μακάριοι once in a while?

The word for a happy man is a combination of the prefix ευ that means good and the noun δαίμων. What is a δαίμων? In the NT and Christian tradition it’s a demon, an evil spirit. But in Ancient Greek it usually referred to the divine spirit in each human being. The ancients would speak of someone’s δαίμων = the spirit that animated his or her life, or the spirit that represented the person’s life and purpose. So, the happy man is ευ-δαίμων = possessing a good spirit that creates happiness in that person.

John 3:16 – a great verse. “ For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life.” But why is the focus always on eternal life? Why can’t I also be happy in this life? The closest that Jesus ever came to saying something like that is when he said “I came that they may have life and have it abundantly (John 10:10).” Now that’s a statement that an ancient Greek or Roman could relate to. And why in the Beatitudes I can only be μακάριος if I’m poor in spirit, pure in heart, meek, peacemaker, weeping, persecuted? Why can’t I also be μακάριος because I love Mozart? Or because I’m a doctor, or a scientist? Why can’t I be ευδαίμων in addition to μακάριος? Marcus also uses the verb ευζωήσεις in one of his meditations (3.12) – another wonderful verb that means live a good life; ευζωέω = to live well. It was always understood by Marcus and all the other Greek and Roman philosophers that to live well also meant to live virtuously. The happy life was also the good, virtuous life. But it was a happy life nevertheless. And I just wish the NT had once or twice incorporated one or more of the words for happiness. We all need some happiness in our lives.


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Why I love the Bible

Today’s Gospel reading is the last in a series of Gospel readings from Matthew that dazzle me with their judgmentalism and violence. 

Three weeks ago we heard the parable of the unforgiving servant and how the master in the parable threw him and his wife and children into prison for the rest of their lives – an act clearly meant to symbolize eternal damnation. Last week we heard the parable of the wicked tenants with its violent content. Today is the latest in this series of brutal Gospel readings. Brutal because of its violence and because it goes beyond what is needed to tell us about Jesus and the Kingdom of God. Luke also has this parable, but without the conclusion where one of the men is thrown out into “the outer darkness” – a symbol of eternal hell. And here is something that needs pointing out. We read Luke’s version every year on the second Sunday before Christmas. Did you hear the last sentence of our reading today: “For many are called, but few are chosen.” Matthew has that; Luke does not. But the church added Matthew’s last sentence to Luke’s version that we read in December! (Compare Luke 14:16-24 to Gospel reading of the 11th Sunday of Luke, two Sundays before Christmas, which this year will fall on December 16th.)

Do people like violence and exclusion? Why did the Church add Matthew’s punchline to Luke’s version, where Luke wrote no such thing? Which version is right, Matthew’s version, where a man is thrown out to eternal hell, or Luke’s version, which ends with the gathering of as many people as possible to enter the dinner? Which do you prefer? Would you draw pleasure to see some people thrown out of the Kingdom into eternal damnation? It’s an honest question, and I know many Christians who want to see people in hell! They get eternal life for themselves; and too bad for those others who end up in hell – whatever hell might be.

I’m not trying to re-write the Bible. I don’t need to re-write the Bible, because I take the Bible as it is. It contains words that are inspired by human beings listening to God. But it also contains words inspired by our having to live with people like us – people who often have hateful, violent thoughts right next to thoughts of love and spirit. Have you ever read Psalm 139? It’s beautiful; a long series of life-celebrating affirmations. But something happens along the way. See if you can catch it.

O Lord, you have searched me and known me.
You know when I sit down and when I rise up;
    you discern my thoughts from far away.
You search out my path and my lying down,
    and are acquainted with all my ways.
Even before a word is on my tongue,
    O Lord, you know it completely.
You hem me in, behind and before,
    and lay your hand upon me.
Such knowledge is too wonderful for me;
    it is so high that I cannot attain it.

Where can I go from your spirit?
    Or where can I flee from your presence?
If I ascend to heaven, you are there;
    if I make my bed in Sheol, you are there.
If I take the wings of the morning
    and settle at the farthest limits of the sea,
10 even there your hand shall lead me,
    and your right hand shall hold me fast.
11 If I say, “Surely the darkness shall cover me,
    and the light around me become night,”
12 even the darkness is not dark to you;
    the night is as bright as the day,
    for darkness is as light to you.

13 For it was you who formed my inward parts;
    you knit me together in my mother’s womb.
14 I praise you, for I am fearfully and wonderfully made.
    Wonderful are your works;
that I know very well.
15     My frame was not hidden from you,
when I was being made in secret,
    intricately woven in the depths of the earth.
16 Your eyes beheld my unformed substance.
In your book were written
    all the days that were formed for me,
    when none of them as yet existed.
17 How weighty to me are your thoughts, O God!
    How vast is the sum of them!
18 I try to count them—they are more than the sand;
    I come to the end—I am still with you.

19 O that you would kill the wicked, O God,
    and that the bloodthirsty would depart from me—
20 those who speak of you maliciously,
    and lift themselves up against you for evil!
21 Do I not hate those who hate you, O Lord?
    And do I not loathe those who rise up against you?
22 I hate them with perfect hatred;
    I count them my enemies.
23 Search me, O God, and know my heart;
    test me and know my thoughts.
24 See if there is any wicked way in me,
    and lead me in the way everlasting.

Did you catch that, what happened between verses 18 and 19? But that’s human nature, that’s the human heart. We can speak beautifully to God one moment and then turn with hatred and violence toward our fellow human beings. The Bible is not just God’s words to us; it’s also our words to God! And sometimes our words and our thoughts are not so beautiful. Did Matthew embellish the parable with that epilogue? Why doesn’t Luke have it? I asked similar questions about our other recent Gospel readings. And why did the church take Matthew’s “many are called, few are chosen,” and stick it to the end of Luke’s version, when Luke did not write that sentence?

Now if you are a fundamentalist and you believe that every word in the Bible came straight from the mouth of God, you will recoil that I’m even asking such questions. How dare I?

But here’s a little secret. This is one of the reasons I love the Bible. There are passages I don’t like, but then there are days and things in my life that I don’t like. Life is sometimes ugly, and painful, and life many times brings out the worst in us. So when I turn to Psalm 139 and I come to those words near the end, I take comfort that David wasn’t all that different from me. He also had his days, and the Bible says that God loved him. So perhaps God can love me, even in my worst days. I can be miserable, I can be negative, and still God can love me. Because God’s love is infinitely greater than my offenses.

In a couple of weeks we will celebrate the Feast of the Cross. And then we go back to the beginning, but this time with Luke’s Gospel – a Gospel that seems to be more focused on showing us the ways of compassion and forgiveness. We can only turn to Luke after the Cross; and the Church showed great wisdom in going to readings from Luke after the Elevation of the Cross. The cross of Jesus Christ is where forgiveness came into the world; where the compassion of God was most starkly revealed; where God’s love transcends all the hatred in the world. God is amazing, and the Bible is his amazing book – and our amazing, honest book!


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How is our vineyard doing?

The Parable of the Wicked Tenants (Matthew 21:33-46) provides another example of a problematic Gospel passage that begs for context. Unfortunately, the way the Orthodox Church reads this parable on the 13th Sunday of Matthew only increases the difficulty of reading this parable with an open mind.

But before we consider the difficulties of this parable, let’s look at a couple passages in the Book of Isaiah. In chapter 46 of Isaiah, God speaks to his people:

“Listen to me, you descendants of Jacob,

all the remnant of the people of Israel,

you whom I have upheld since your birth,

and have carried since you were born.

I have made you and I will carry you;

I will sustain you and I will rescue you.

Some pour out gold from their bags

and weigh out silver on the scales;

they hire a goldsmith to make it into a god,

and they bow down and worship it.

They lift it to their shoulders and carry it;

they set it up in its place, and there it stands.

The difference is huge: God carries his people; but worshippers of idols have to carry their idols! But the same God who carries his people also passes judgment on his people. It is a living, unfolding relationship. It was never smooth and it is never smooth. Consider this passage from Isaiah, chapter 5:

I will sing for the one I love

a song about his vineyard:

My loved one had a vineyard

on a fertile hillside.

He dug it up and cleared it of stones

and planted it with the choicest vines.

He built a watchtower in it

and cut out a winepress as well.

Then he looked for a crop of good grapes,

but it yielded only bad fruit.

What more could have been done for my vineyard

than I have done for it?

When I looked for good grapes,

why did it yield only bad?

Now I will tell you

what I am going to do to my vineyard:

I will take away its hedge,

and it will be destroyed;

I will break down its wall,

and it will be trampled.

I will make it a wasteland,

neither pruned nor cultivated,

and briers and thorns will grow there.

I will command the clouds

not to rain on it.”

The vineyard of the Lord Almighty

is the nation of Israel,

and the people of Judah

are the vines he delighted in.

And he looked for justice, but saw bloodshed;

for righteousness, but heard cries of distress.

Israel’s relationship with God was never smooth; it had its ups and its downs. The parable of the wicked tenants could have been spoken by Isaiah. Note the similarities with Isaiah 5: There is a vineyard, there is blood and violence, and there is the threat of destruction. It’s God speaking with his own people! But the parable has been misused throughout the Christian era as a rejection of Jews and the replacement of Israel by the Christian Church. This has led to centuries of antisemitism, persecutions and the Holocaust. 

Isaiah and Jesus had the same message: God looks for fruit from his vineyard. Jesus in John 15 spoke of himself as the vine and we the branches; we remain in him in order to produce fruit. It is always about fruit. As it was in ancient Israel it is in the Church. 

Sometimes I wonder why Matthew includes so many attacks on the Jews in his gospel. Is it perhaps because he was a tax collector, which had made him one of the most hated people in Jewish society?

Did you notice the violent response of the listeners to Jesus’ parable? “He will put those wretches to a miserable death….” Jesus ignores their answer and he goes on to quote Psalm 118 about “the stone which the builders rejected…” The liturgical reading on the 13th Sunday of Matthew ends there, but Jesus went on with all-important context:

Therefore I tell you, the kingdom of God will be taken away from you and given to a people (or, nation) producing the fruits of it.”

When the chief priests and the Pharisees heard his parables, they perceived that he was speaking about them. But when they tried to arrest him, they feared the multitudes, because they held him to be a prophet.

Who are the people (the nation) that Jesus threatens will receive the kingdom? Is he threatening the Jewish people that he will take the kingdom from them and give it to gentiles and future Christians? That is the traditional church interpretation – and it has led to 2,000 years of antisemitism. But notice how the priests and the Pharisees interpreted the parable as aimed at them. And notice further that the “multitudes” of the people saw Jesus as a prophet! Before we get too puffed up that God now chooses the Christian people over the Jewish people, let’s look at more of the context in Matthew chapter 21. What came before this parable?

He went to the Temple and drove out the sellers and money-changers. He then cursed a fig tree because it had no fruit. He told the parable of two sons. And at the end of that parable he says the tax collectors – tax collectors like Matthew! – and prostitutes “are entering the kingdom of God ahead of you.” The parable of the wicked tenants follows immediately after that. So who are the people that the kingdom will be given to? Doesn’t Jesus give us the answer here? Tax collectors and prostitutes – in other words, sinners.

God was not looking for a new nation or a new race of people to replace the Jews. God looks for the tax collectors and prostitutes – in other words, those who are not puffed up with their own righteousness the way priests and pharisees of all stripes and all times are. God looked for fruitful living – whether from the Jews or from Christians. The criterion is always the same. The challenge for the church is the same as it was for ancient Israel: Are we producing fruits of righteousness and faith? Are we doing the will of the Lord, or are we doing our will? Is the church his vineyard, planted in the midst of the world for the blessing of all, or is it our little spiritual escape from the world? Is it a vineyard that is full of life? Or is it a vineyard that is dying because of neglect and lack of vision? Indeed, how is our vineyard doing? Is the owner still welcome here? Or have we driven him out? These are the challenges of today’s parable.

A slightly different version of the above was given as a sermon on August 26th:


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Into the Midst of Theology

Transfiguration is often connected to idea of theosis in Orthodox theology. But it’s a static conception of “theosis”: Peter wants to stay on the mountain and be wrapped in the outpouring of divine glory. But Jesus says, no, pack up and let’s go back down where real divine glory is to be found. Abide in me – Jesus is saying – and go, go Into the midst of theology, where theology is not abstract thoughts and speculations about God, but actual experience of God in the most unexpected places. And if we abide in Jesus, we don’t need a mountain, we don’t even need Moses and Elijah! But we do need Jesus – we need to listen to him and let him take us into the dangerous places where our faith and our commitment are tested. This is the message of our double Gospel reading (Matthew 17:1-9 and 17:14-23) today……

The wall icon of the Transfiguration at Holy Trinity Church, Portland ME

Peter wanted to set up tents on the mountain for Moses, Elijah and Jesus – not realising that Jesus himself has set up his tent among us: The Word became flesh and pitched his tent among us – Καὶ ὁ λόγος σὰρξ ἐγένετο καὶ ἐσκήνωσεν ἐν ἡμῖν (John 1:14). The people of Israel lived in tents in the desert after the exodus from Egypt. Jesus invites us today to live in him, in his tent. Abide in me, he tells us. As you cross the desert places of life, abide in him.

Full sermon on audio file: 


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Small is Beautiful

 

“In the beginning you created me from nothing and honoured me with your divine image…” sings one of the hymns in the Memorial Service. So also in Liturgy at the Great Prayer of the Anaphora: “You brought us into being out of nothing…” But the Anaphora of St. Basil has this: “For having made man by taking dust from the earth…” Which is right? From nothing or from dust of the earth? Clearly the Liturgy of St. Basil has it right. That’s Genesis 2: “then the Lord God formed man from the dust of the ground.” God can and does create out of nothing, but more often than not he prefers to use what is available – it’s the natural order of evolution, after all.

In Exodus 16, we read that the people became hungry in the desert after the exodus from Egypt.

Then the Lord said to Moses, “Behold, I will rain bread from heaven for you; and the people shall go out and gather a day’s portion every day, that I may prove them, whether they will walk in my law or not. On the sixth day, when they prepare what they bring in, it will be twice as much as they gather daily.” 

God promised he would send them bread from heaven, but did you notice the instruction he gave? Gather every day what you need for that day – “Give us this day our daily bread” – but on the sixth day they should gather a double portion so as to have enough for the sabbath, the seventh day. Beautiful economics – no excess, and enough to also honour the sabbath law against work.

In the evening quails came up and covered the camp; and in the morning dew lay round about the camp. And when the dew had gone up, there was on the face of the wilderness a fine, flake-like thing, fine as hoarfrost on the ground. When the people of Israel saw it, they said to one another, “What is it?” For they did not know what it was. And the people gathered, some more, some less. But he that gathered much had nothing over, and he that gathered little had no lack; each gathered according to what he could eat. Now the house of Israel called its name manna; it was like coriander seed, white, and the taste of it was like wafers made with honey. 

Was it bread that God rained down from heaven? Most likely it was some sort of natural phenomenon that God used to provide “bread” for the people. It doesn’t matter. The miracle was in the balance that God ordained – just enough quail and manna to sustain the people, and also honour God’s holy commandments. God uses what is available.

The story of the feeding of the thousands that we read today shows God’s management style. He doesn’t magically create food out of nothing; he uses the resources available. In the sharing, the food multiplies and feeds thousands of men, women and children. In the sharing, the miracle happens. This is undoubtedly the point of this gospel story. There is no emphasis on the miraculous. The emphasis is on the dialogue with the disciples and the actions of Jesus: he looked to heaven, he blessed and broke the loaves and gave to the people. And there was plenty left – 12 baskets of leftovers were gathered up! Sharing is the message to us: Share what you have and don’t worry whether you will have enough.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Whose bread and fish did Jesus use? It’s unclear in our reading today; but in John’s Gospel it’s a boy who has five barley loaves and two small fish. The boy and his family were probably bringing the bread and fish home from the market, but stopped to hear Jesus teach. Did they object when Jesus took the loaves? No, and thus became partners to the miracle. We do not perform miracles; but we can become partners in the miracles that God performs every day!

And God’s management style should also be the church’s management style. Small is good. 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Neil Armstrong understood small when he stepped on to the surface of the moon on that momentous day 49 years ago this weekend. “That’s one small step for [a] man, one giant leap for mankind.” It was a small step for him to step off the lander module lander on to the surface of the moon; but it was a giant leap for humankind, a leap whose consequences created the modern world we are living in today.

Small is good. Small is beautiful, as one bestselling book announced in the early 1970s, a time of growing ecological awareness – an awareness that many people prefer to reject in our small-minded days. It’s okay to be small – but not small-minded. Small can become great when we share, when we’re open to others, when love grows in our midst and overflows to others.

The question for us today is this: Are we small because that’s all we deserve to be, wrapped up in our small-mindedness? Or are we small in an honourable, loving, open way? Then small is indeed beautiful, and that’s a good message to take from today’s Gospel reading.