Ancient Answers

Guidance for Today from Scripture and Early Christianity

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God of the gaps is no God

I love reading from Bonhoeffer’s writings, especially in the series of the complete works in English translations put out by Fortress Press. Bonhoeffer is perhaps best known for his “Letters and Papers from Prison,” written between April 1943 (when he was arrested for conspiring against Hitler) and January 1945, three months before he was executed by the Nazis. These letters and papers were published after his death and became classics of Christian faith and expression in the 20th century. Today I came across this letter, dated May 29, 1944, and I want to share it here with you, from the translation in the Fortress edition. It was written to Eberhard Bethke, Bonhoeffer’s closest friend and the one who did the most to get these “letters and papers” published after the war. It is the kind of “Christian” writing that is so absent in the superficial Christian “religious” writings of today. Bonhoeffer could stand comparison to any of the giants of Christian history. Note how he speaks of the “fullness of life” from his own perspective of imprisonment and war, and how Christianity puts together the fragments of our lives. I love his calling life “polyphonic” – surely inspired by his great love of music. What he wrote in the concluding paragraph about God as the “stopgap” is extraordinarily important. He rejects any notion of God being the god of the gaps! “God is the center of life and doesn’t just ‘turn up’ when we have unsolved problems to be solved.” Perhaps this is part of what we mean when we declare on Easter night, “Christ is Risen, and life politeuetai!” And I do not translate that Greek word, because I want to write an article on just that word. But please do read this letter of Dietrich Bonhoeffer. Read it more than once! It’s the answer you may need for many questions in your life. TRULY THE LORD IS RISEN!

Dear Eberhard,

I hope that despite the air raids you both are enjoying to the full the peace and beauty of these warm, summery days of Pentecost. Inwardly, one learns gradually to put life-threatening things in proportion. Actually, “put in proportion” sounds too negative, too formal or artificial or stoic. One should more correctly say that we just take in these daily threats as part of the totality of our lives. I often notice hereabouts how few people there are who can harbor many different things at the same time. When bombers come, they are nothing but fear itself; when there’s something good to eat, nothing but greed itself; when they fail to get what they want, they become desperate; if something succeeds, that’s all they see. They are missing out on the fullness of life and on the wholeness of their own existence. Everything, whether objective or subjective, disintegrates into fragments. Christianity, on the other hand, puts us into many different dimensions of life at the same time; in a way we accommodate God and the whole world within us. We weep with those who weep at the same time as we rejoice with those who rejoice. We fear—(I’ve just been interrupted again by the siren, so I’m sitting outdoors enjoying the sun)—for our lives, but at the same time we must think thoughts that are much more important to us than our lives. During an air raid, for example, as soon as we are turned in a direction other than worrying about our own safety, for example, by the task of spreading calm around us, the situation becomes completely different. Life isn’t pushed back into a single dimension, but is kept multidimensional, polyphonic. What a liberation it is to be able to think and to hold on to these many dimensions of life in our thoughts. I’ve almost made it a rule here for myself, when people here are trembling during an air raid, always just to talk about how much worse such an attack would be for smaller towns. One has to dislodge people from their one-track thinking—as it were, in “preparation for” or “enabling” faith, though in truth it is only faith itself that makes multidimensional life possible and so allows us to celebrate Pentecost even this year, in spite of air raids.

At first I was a bit disconcerted and perhaps even saddened not to have a letter from anyone for Pentecost this year. Then I said to myself that perhaps it’s a good sign, that no one is worried about me—but it’s simply a strange drive in human beings to want others—at least a little—to worry about them.

Weizsäcker’s book on the Weltbild der Physik continues to preoccupy me a great deal. It has again brought home to me quite clearly that we shouldn’t think of God as the stopgap [Lückenbüßer] for the incompleteness of our knowledge, because then—as is objectively inevitable—when the boundaries of knowledge are pushed ever further, God too is pushed further away and thus is ever on the retreat. We should find God in what we know, not in what we don’t know; God wants to be grasped by us not in unsolved questions but in those that have been solved. This is true of the relation between God and scientific knowledge, but it is also true of the universal human questions about death, suffering, and guilt. Today, even for these questions, there are human answers that can completely disregard God. Human beings cope with these questions practically without God and have done so throughout the ages, and it is simply not true that only Christianity would have a solution to them. As for the idea of a “solution,” we would have to say that the Christian answers are just as uncompelling (or just as compelling) as other possible solutions. Here too, God is not a stopgap. We must recognize God not only where we reach the limits of our possibilities. God wants to be recognized in the midst of our lives, in life and not only in dying, in health and strength and not only in suffering, in action and not only in sin. The ground for this lies in the revelation of God in Jesus Christ. God is the center of life and doesn’t just “turn up” when we have unsolved problems to be solved. Seen from the center of life, certain questions fall away completely and likewise the answers to such questions (I’m thinking of the judgment pronounced on Job’s friends!). In Christ there are no “Christian problems.” Enough on this; I’ve just been interrupted again.

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Be astonished, O disciple of Christ!

Without us knowing it, and perhaps without the Church intending it (!), the Sundays of Lent have done something of a discipleship catechism for us struggling disciples of Christ. I had never realized this, until I sat down to work on this sermon.

The First Sunday of Lent promised visions of glory: You shall see the angels of God ascending and descending upon the Son of Man. A good way to begin Lent, with vision of final glory.

The Second Sunday brought us into the confusion of everyday life where there is little glory, but where nevertheless forgiveness and healing are possible – indeed probable!

The Third Sunday brought the promises of the two previous Sundays to a focus on the Cross of Christ. the heart of the catechism.

The Fourth Sunday of Lent once again brought us into a chaotic scene of everyday life and everyday disappointments and failures. But we heard Jesus teaching his disciples that he and they together were heading toward the Cross. They did not understand what he was saying to them.

The Fifth Sunday – today – shows plainly that they did not understand. Jesus continues telling them about his coming death on the Cross. And what is the immediate reaction? They want privilege, they want first places in the kingdom – which shows they have no understanding of what that kingdom is going to be!

Jesus sets his face for Jerusalem and the Cross

“Behold, we are going up to Jerusalem,” Jesus tells them today. They are going to the holy city, where they think he will establish his kingdom. Indeed, he will enter Jerusalem next Sunday as a king, but a different kind of king – not riding a magnificent military horse, but sitting on a donkey. Have you ever ridden on a donkey? I have; there’s nothing royal about it. If you think you have trouble understanding Jesus you’re in good company. The disciples themselves did not understand what he was saying to them. But they did understand after his resurrection… Well, no, not even then, for they were still asking the same questions about the kingdom even 40 days after his resurrection, when he was ascending to heaven.

No, the understanding came with the Holy Spirit, 10 additional days later. Do we understand? Don’t we receive the Holy Spirit at our baptism? Shouldn’t we have the same understanding as the apostles did after the day of Pentecost?

Where are we today in our own understanding? Are we James or John, asking for special privileges? Are we one of the other disciples, angry and jealous at someone else who might seem to have a closer relationship with God? Are we like the ones Jesus singles out who want to be served?

Or are we those who follow Jesus in the path of service? He came not to be served but to serve. Our reading today starts at verse 32 of chapter 10 of Mark. But we only hear the last portion of verse 32. Listen to what Mark wrote: And they were on the road, going up to Jerusalem, and Jesus was walking ahead of them; and they were amazed, and those who followed were afraid. And taking the twelve again, he began to tell them what was to happen to him… That whole first section is omitted. Why? Ἦσαν δὲ ἐν τῇ ὁδῷ ἀναβαίνοντες εἰς Ἱεροσόλυμα, καὶ ἦν προάγων αὐτοὺς ὁ Ἰησοῦς, καὶ ἐθαμβοῦντο, οἱ δὲ ἀκολουθοῦντες ἐφοβοῦντο. Luke 9:53 says, “his face was set toward Jerusalem.” τὸ πρόσωπον αὐτοῦ ἦν πορευόμενον εἰς Ἰερουσαλήμ – look of determination. No wonder they were filled with fear and astonishment.

θαμβέω = to be astounded, astonished, amazed

φοβέομαι = to be afraid

Are we ever astonished? Does hearing the Gospel ever fill us with fear, with a profound upsetting of our normal thoughts and values? That is the real challenge today: Are we ever shocked by Jesus? If we’re not shocked by him, we’re not taking him seriously. The gospel is dangerous. That is why Jesus warns his disciples today: “The cup that I drink you will drink; and with the baptism with which I am baptized, you will be baptized” – and he is not talking about having a beer with him or crying at our baby baptism. He is talking about a life that is challenging, that goes against the flow of normal human thinking.

With the fear of God, with faith, and love draw near – is the invitation every Liturgy. I see it however, as a statement about life in general. The Christian lives with fear of God, faith and love. They go together. When it is joined with faith and love, the fear of God is not like fear of being robbed or attacked. Faith and love are not sentimental trivialities when they are joined by a sense of awe, amazement, astonishment – such as the disciples had going to Jerusalem. We are also going to Jerusalem and we will arrive there next Sunday. Can we go this week with some sense of amazement and profound inner anticipation? Try it. Wake every day with a sense of profound ταραχή as we say in Greek – a shaking of all our senses and thoughts. Look upon each day as a journey with Christ. Who you encounter and how you react to situations. Imagine being with Jesus in your encounters this week. Imagine…

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Our privacy for sale

In case anyone still has doubts as to who rules our lives, consider this: Today the US Congress voted to kill privacy rules which would have prevented Internet providers from selling our online habits and personal data. Because of this act of Congress, there will be no limits to the amount of advertising that will clutter our computer screens or pop up while you’re trying to read something online. Our medical information, our political preferences, and much more can now be sold to any corporation at any price. Privacy is gone forever. This is just another example of how deeply corporations control our lives. I wrote about powers and principalities the other day. Here is a perfect example of the powers and principalities at work. Corporations working with Congress and White House to undermine what is left of our democratic ideals. And all for what? Money.

The Guardian newspaper – one of the best newspapers in the world – has two excellent articles about what all this means for every one of us:

US consumers lose privacy protections for their web browsing history

Your browsing history may be up for sale soon. Here’s what you need to know


Behind the Curtain

The Guardian newspaper published an article today about the super-rich of Greenwich, Connecticut, and how they benefit from a tax code loophole called “carried interest”. As a result of this loophole, they pay taxes at a much lower rate than most Americans. People are beginning to wake up, and today’s article in the Guardian was provoked by peaceful demonstrators who upset the morning quiet of Greenwich neighborhoods this past Saturday. These super-rich are mainly Wall Street tycoons and hedge fund owners. Many of them have personal wealth in the billions of dollars.

I have very little or no understanding of such things as hedge funds. And I’m not particularly interested in learning about the esoteric practices of Wall Street manipulators. I’m not interested because I understand these practices and their practitioners by the rubric of the “powers and principalities” that Scripture speaks of:

For we are not contending against flesh and blood, but against the principalities, against the powers, against the world rulers of this present darkness, against the spiritual hosts of wickedness in the heavenly places. (Ephesians 6:12)

And you, who were dead in trespasses and the uncircumcision of your flesh, God made alive together with him, having forgiven us all our trespasses, having canceled the bond which stood against us with its legal demands; this he set aside, nailing it to the cross. He disarmed the principalities and powers and made a public example of them, triumphing over them in it [meaning the cross – but many translations finish the sentence as “over them in him,” which makes no sense]. (Colossians 2:13-15)

For I am sure that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor principalities, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord. (Romans 8:38-39)

Who are these powers and principalities? Are they mythical beings like demons and angels? That probably was the understanding of the early Christians who read these letters of Paul. But even within the Hebrew and Christian scriptures, there is another stream of understanding. Consider Chapter 10 of Daniel:

In those days I, Daniel, was mourning for three weeks…. And behold, a hand touched me and set me trembling on my hands and knees. And he said to me, “O Daniel, man greatly beloved, give heed to the words that I speak to you, and stand upright, for now I have been sent to you.” While he was speaking this word to me, I stood up trembling. Then he said to me, “Fear not, Daniel, for from the first day that you set your mind to understand and humbled yourself before your God, your words have been heard, and I have come because of your words. The prince of the kingdom of Persia withstood me twenty-one days; but Michael, one of the chief princes, came to help me, so I left him there with the prince of the kingdom of Persia…. But now I will return to fight against the prince of Persia; and when I am through with him, lo, the prince of Greece will come.

What we have here is a peek behind the curtain. Behind the wars and struggles of our worldly existence there are battles in the heavenly and spiritual realms. Who are the prince of Persia and the prince of Greece that this passage refers to? They are angels that personify the character of each nation. They are appointed by God as guardians of the nations, according to Deuteronomy (32:8-9): When the Most High apportioned the nations, when he divided humankind, he fixed the boundaries of the peoples according to the number of the gods; the Lord’s own portion was his people, Jacob his allotted share.

According to the “number of the gods” – now that’s a strange statement to find in one of the five books of Moses, the Torah! And the Hebrew of this phrase can be translated in other ways, “the sons of God” being perhaps the most popular. The ancient Greek translation of the Hebrew Bible, the so-called Septuagint, translates as “angels of God”, ἔστησεν ὅρια ἐθνῶν κατὰ ἀριθμὸν ἀγγέλων θεοῦ.

The non-canonical Book of Jubilees goes further: … For there are many nations and many peoples, and all are His, and over all has He placed spirits in authority to lead them astray from Him. But over Israel He did not appoint any angel or spirit, for He alone is their ruler, and He will preserve them and require them at the hand of His angels and His spirits, and at the hand of all His powers in order that He may preserve them and bless them....(Jubilees 15:31-32)

The highlighted phrase, “to lead them astray from Him,” is very challenging. Is it a statement that reads history in hindsight? To the Hebrew mind, everything was under the control of God, so if some nations resisted God or fought against Israel, it must be because God ensured that they would be led astray! The Book of Jubilees was written a little before the year 150 BC, roughly around the same time as the Book of Daniel was written. The important thing about Daniel and Jubilees is that they portray the angels (or spirits) of the nations in a negative light. The demonization of these angels of the nations would follow naturally from such depictions.

So when Paul came to write his letters from which I quoted earlier in this article, there was a whole plethora of spiritual beings that came under the broad label “powers and principalities.” Clearly, from the writings of Paul, these powers and principalities were viewed as evil and enemies of God and Christ. In every generation, in every stage of history, the powers and principalities take different form. For Jesus, the powers and principalities were three: Satan (who tempted him three times); the Jewish religious class (who challenged him at every turn); and the authorities of the Roman Empire (who crucified him). All of them celebrated their apparent victory at the crucifixion of Jesus Christ. But behind the scenes, in the spiritual realm, the victor was Jesus!

Clearly the entire apparatus that I have summarized here is primarily mythical and belonging to a different cognitive age than our own. Today I don’t have to think of demons and angels who represent the nations. The nations do a very good job of destroying life without any help from angels or demons. But nevertheless, there is still a “spirit of the age”; there is a spirit of a nation; there is a spirit of the marketplace; there is a spirit of Wall Street.

And that’s what today’s Guardian article represent for me: the spirit of the marketplace. And without any help from angels, the marketplace has done an excellent job of making the rich super-rich and the rest of us… well, the rest. Hedge funds and the other contortions of the financial sector are foreign to most of us. Perhaps the practitioners themselves don’t fully understand how they work, since so much is done in millisecond transactions by computers. Is this how today’s powers and principalities operate, in the hidden realm of billions of dollars moving along fiber optic highways at the speed of light? Have the powers and principalities of our age triumphed where previously they failed? Has the cross of Christ finally met its match? Don’t bet on it.

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Jesus, teacher of the possible

Nasruddin was walking in the bazaar with a large group of followers. Whatever Nasruddin did, his followers immediately copied. Every few steps Nasruddin would stop and shake his hands in the air, touch his feet and jump up yelling “Hu Hu Hu!”. So his followers would also stop and do exactly the same thing.

One of the merchants quietly asked him: “What are you doing my old friend? Why are these people imitating you?”

“I have become a Sufi Sheikh,” replied Nasruddin. “These are my Murids [spiritual seekers]; I am helping them reach enlightenment!”

“How do you know when they reach enlightenment?”

“That’s the easy part! Every morning I count them. The ones who have left – have reached enlightenment!

There is freedom in the ability to laugh at oneself. Nasruddin had this freedom. Unfortunately, it’s not something you’ll find in most “spiritual” people.

Today’s Gospel reading (Mark 9:17-31) brings us into the midst of a turbulent scene. A whole village is in an uproar, with recriminations and blame all around. After an amazing mountain-top experience that Jesus shared with three of his disciples, Jesus comes down from the mountain into this village where the other disciples – the ones who didn’t go up the mountain with Jesus – were incapable to heal an epileptic boy.

We usually focus on the father and the boy, other times we focus on the disciples, but rarely do we focus on the village, the social context in which this miracle took place. This is unfortunate, because the social setting is always important in the activities of Jesus.

“O faithless generation, how long am I to be with you? How long am I to bear with you?” This echoes God’s lament at the Israelites after their deliverance from Egypt:

“How long will this people despise me?” (Numbers 14:11)

“How long shall this wicked congregation complain against me?” (Num 14:27)

This raises a serious question: Is there a connection between the boy’s condition and the faithless generation? “How long has he had this?” Jesus asks. Since childhood, the father answers. Of course the Gospel writer attributes the boy’s condition to a “dumb spirit”. This is normal in a society that didn’t have medical terminology. Clearly from our perspective we say that this boy suffered from epileptic seizures. But is there a deeper spiritual message?

Does this child’s silence typify for us what happens in a society that is faithless? In such a society, there are few options available: You conform, or you get out, or you keep quiet. I’m not saying this is the reason for the boy’s silence and epileptic attacks. But I am saying that this miracle story has many levels of meaning. Perhaps not all of these levels were intended by the Gospel writer, but we as readers of the Gospel in the 21st century bring our own awareness to the miracle story. As this is the Gospel reading for the Fourth Sunday of Lent every year, I have had the opportunity to preach on this Gospel passage 28 times! So over the years I have been able to focus on many levels of meaning.

The central episode is the exchange between Jesus and the father: “If you can, have pity on us and help us.” Jesus said to him, “If you can! All things are possible to the one who believes.” Immediately the father of the child cried out, “I believe; help me in my unbelief!” This contrasts with the presumptuous attitude and arrogant self-confidence of the disciples. The father is honest. Notice he said, “Help me in my unbelief” – not “Help my unbelief,” as in all major translations. Πιστεύω· βοήθει μου τῇ ἀπιστίᾳ. The dative requires something like “in my unbelief.”

This is a healthy response, the kind that Jesus always looked for – a response that opens new awareness. I can imagine this man getting out of the suffocating society of the village. Very often enlightenment comes to those who get out, as Nasruddin joked. Get out of what? Perhaps get out of the village. But, more importantly, get out of resignation. Get out of the “impossible” trap. Get out into the wide open spaces of discipleship. The most liberating experience is to follow Jesus. And not drop out like Nasruddin’s followers. The enlightenment Jesus brings is the life of the possible. With him everything is possible.

The above was given in expanded sermon form. But the delivery of the sermon was not satisfactory, so no audio file is included.

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God’s covenant with ancient Israel: circumcision/election, passover/redemption, sabbath/holiness. These were the most essential parts of the Law, the Torah. Sabbath came first, at creation, but it became canonized at Sinai.

Sabbath was the sign of holiness to ancient Israel – and yet it belongs to all humanity from the 7th day of creation. The cross is the sign of holiness for Christians. They are related.

Jesus died on the cross right before the Sabbath – an especially holy Sabbath, for it was Passover. Jesus rested from his labors on the Sabbath (Holy Saturday) and rose early at dawn after the Sabbath.

Jesus often broke the Sabbath laws – not for disrespect of the Sabbath, but because the Sabbath had become something external, legalistic, and had lost its meaning. It was no longer holy, it was just a law. The same has happened to the cross. We wear it as an external adornment. It no longer has any deeper meaning, it’s just a symbol.

The words Jesus speaks in today’s Gospel (Mark 8:34-9:1) strike us as extreme, and they are.

The Lord said: “If anyone wishes to come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross and follow me. For whoever would save his life will lose it; and whoever loses his life for my sake and the gospel’s will save it. For what does it profit a man, to gain the whole world and forfeit his life? For what can a man give in return for his life? For whoever is ashamed of me and my words in this adulterous and sinful generation, of him will the Son of man also be ashamed, when he comes in the glory of his Father with the holy angels.” And he said to them, “Truly, I say to you, there are some standing here who will not taste death before they see the kingdom of God come with power.”

Deny ourselves? Sounds harsh and the exact opposite of every message we receive from our society, the media, school, even church. Deny ourselves? What’s wrong with us, that we have to deny ourselves? Deny our inflated ego, deny our arrogance, deny our ingratitude…..

Søren Kierkegaard (in his Papers and Journals) said something truly profound:

When he had created the whole world God looked upon it and saw that it was good; when Christ died on the cross, the words went ‘It is finished’.

A brilliant statement. What began at creation was completed on the cross. Tetelestai, It is finished. The cross of Jesus Christ is God’s final statement, his final act. And what have we done with it? Constantine turned the cross into a weapon, with which he won control of the Roman Empire – and the cross has never been the same since. We don’t have to deny ourselves now, because our religion won the battle long ago, we are the winners – and winners don’t deny themselves. Winners like their ego.

That is why today’s Gospel reading sounds so strange, so extreme, so depressing really! And yet, it’s the good news of liberation. It’s the good news that we can be delivered from the slavery of our over-inflated egos and selfishness, so we can live for each other and share God’s goodness….