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Posts Tagged ‘Jesus

John Dominic Crossan, Jesus: A Revolutionary Biography, A Startling Account of What We Can Know about the Life of Jesus, New York: HarperOne, 1994, 232 pp.

Crossan BiographyAs Holy Week approaches, I want to immerse myself in the story of Jesus, to walk with him and imagine his life and personality. I find myself looking many years for something to read that will further that effort. This book was originally purchased to read on my trip to the Holy Land in 2012, but I never got around to it. Too late for the Holy Land, but right on time for Holy Week six years later–24 years after its publication.

Crossan is a leading member of the Jesus Seminar and historical Jesus movement. This book was a shortened version of his more scholarly work examining what we can actually know and prove from history about Jesus of Nazareth. I suspected that I would discover much of the content of this book had been reshaped and rehashed in later Crossan works about Jesus, including God and Empire. However, I was pleasantly surprised to find much of the material was new to me, and the approach offered me a fresh, updated look at Jesus as I approached my Holy Week services.

Over the years, Crossan, Borg and other Jesus Seminar scholars have softened their approach. Their original attempts to segregate the Jesus of history from the Christ of faith drew hard-edged lines, yet in spite of the fact that this book comes from that era, it is clear throughout that Crossan (himself a Catholic priest) is devout in his faith and dedication to Jesus. He seems less interested in destroying a traditional view than in painting a more accurate picture.

The hard scholarly edge remains in his sourcing. Crossan shapes a story of Jesus that relies on the biblical accounts as the least reliable sources, positing only those aspects of Jesus that are attested in non-biblical sources and situating him thickly within the politics and culture of first-century Roman Palestine.  While it is still disconcerting to read from time to time that Crossan believes some of my favorite New Testament narratives are pure fiction (including the Last Supper), I’ve heard those arguments many times now and breeze right past them to the more interesting elements–the consistent elements of Jesus’ identity, ministry and practices that are attested in both biblical and non-biblical sources, and make sense within the sociological and political world he inhabited.

Crossan’s Jesus is a peasant leader from Galilee, whose ministry is for the peasant classes of that region. One of the most interesting chapters is “The Jordan is Not Just Water,” in which he examines the political implications of baptizing people in the Jordan River, symbolic of entry into the Promised Land. He also articulates his well-known connection of Jesus and the Cynics, carefully charting what Jesus borrows and changes from their practices. Crossan affirms some core practices that remain central to both the Jesus of history and the Christ of faith: his dedication to a “kingdom of nobodies,” the sharing of radical meals free of social distinction, the breaking of boundaries.

The chapters on the body and the cross spoke to me powerfully during Holy Week. Both spoke to the harshness of life in the Roman colony, with rampant death from disease and violence alongside social death and expulsion based on fear and superstition. Both chapters spoke about human bodies and Jesus’ body–their real pain and suffering, the exposure and mutilation of the cross, and the social alienation of victims of state terrorism by crucifixion, whose bodies usually could not be buried and were left to the dogs. The stories made Jesus seem very small, vulnerable and invisible within his world, like thousands of others—yet thanks to his disciples, his witness was unique enough to have survived.

This was a good refresher for me on the Jesus of history, and offered insights and perspectives that were new to me, even though the book is more than 20 years old.

 

 

Jesus Feminist: An Invitation to Revisit the Bible’s View of Women, Exploring God’s Radical Notion that Women are People, Too by Sarah Bessey, Howard Books, 2013, 235 pp.

Jesus FeministThis book was chosen for a UCC clergy book group in which I participate, and I was very disappointed in this book as a choice for that group. We have been a church ordaining women and embracing feminism for 150 years, and this book seemed far too basic for our conversation. Bessey’s argument is about why women should be included in church leadership–a debate we are no longer having.

I am trying to separate my frustration with the choice of this book for that group and my feelings about the book itself, which are not nearly as negative. There are still far too many places in the church where women are not understood to be equally created in the image of God and qualified for spiritual leadership. There are countless women who are silenced, by their churches, by this theology, and by themselves. Bessey’s book speaks faithfully and well to those audiences, especially to those who find themselves with a hopeful suspicion that Jesus actually welcomes women to live up to their full spiritual leadership.

Bessey is a poetic writer, and her book is all heart. Her heart is beautiful, beckoning, pleading with the heart of her readers to be moved to open themselves to God’s plans for women in a more expansive way. This is lovely. She says things like, “Patriarchy is not God’s dream for humanity.” (14) She offers spiritual insights like these:

Let’s be done lobbying for a seat at the Table. I want to be outside with the misfits, with the rebels, the dreamers, second-chance givers, the radical grace lavishers, the ones with arms wide open, the courageously vulnerable, and among even–or maybe especially–the ones rejected by the Table as not worthy enough or right enough. (4)

That’s the thing when we say yes to God–it’s not about that one yes. Our one yes keeps resounding and spreading, like ripples in a pond after a pebble is thrown into it, until the yes of God and the yes of our hearts and the yes of Jesus’ love and the yes of us all sweep over the world. (149)

On losing her faith:

I hold almost all of it loosely in my hand now, all of it but this: the nature, identity, soul, action, and character of God is love–lovelovelovelovelovelovelove. Everything was resurrected on that truth. (50)

However, as a reader I needed more “head” to go with the heart, more substance and scholarship to make her case. Bessey’s understanding of the issues showed little or no research or understanding of biblical scholarship, and especially feminist biblical criticism. I have spent much of my adult life immersed in Christian feminist scholarship, and her book’s ignorance of these conversations was frustrating in every way. She presented ideas and concepts about Jesus, Paul and their attitudes toward women that have been explored in depth for more than 30 years–yet she talks as though she just found them herself in the scripture. While she may indeed have come up with them on her own, her versions lack the depth and perspective of so many ongoing conversations. I wish she had done just a little more homework, to discover that such a world even existed–she writes as though these are new ideas, and they are not. They are shallow, oversimplified (and sometimes even discredited) ideas about the interpretation of scripture about women. She never even questions or critiques the use of exclusively male language about God.

That is a harsh critique, but it is not the end of my assessment of the book. Bessey’s book still matters, it still has a place, it still fulfills a need, and I would still recommend it to certain readers in certain circumstances. Those just emerging from the closed world of conservative fundamentalism or evangelical Christianity will find a soul sister in Sarah Bessey. Women and men just beginning to question the hardened gender categories of biblical womanhood and pastoral leadership will find a handy introduction and invitation to open their hearts and minds a little wider.

I can imagine people to whom I would recommend this book, and to them it would be life-altering. However, that audience is small and targeted, and does not include the many of us who have already decided that women are to be fully integrated into the life and leadership of the church and have moved on to living it, doing it, and watching the consequences and changes women bring.

 

The Life We Claim: The Apostles’ Creed for Preaching, Teaching and Worship by James C. Howell, Abingdon Press, 2005, 173 pp.

This is the fourth of five book reviews on the Christian creeds (and a book in heresy), which I read in preparation for a sermon series entitled, “I Believe: Christian Creeds in Context.” Those sermons can be found here.

The Life We ClaimJames C. Howell wrote the excellent commentary about the creeds for the Narrative Lectionary series that inspired me to preach my sermon series on the topic, so his book was among the first I sought.

The Life We Claim lives up to its subtitle as a resource for preaching, teaching and worship. The book is structured in 35 short “lessons,” which includes both a line-by-line breakdown of the Creed and introductory materials. Each small group of lessons is followed by a sample sermon on that section, 14 total. The appendix even includes suggested hymns, songs and anthems to accompany a related sermon series.

The most helpful part of Howell’s book, for me, were the sample sermons. I struggled to find ways to preach on the components of the Apostles’ Creed that was more than theological instruction. Howell’s contribution was to move beyond teaching into preaching, a way of telling the good news and challenge in each section of the creed. He offered ways to see the lines of the creed as an invitation to spiritual connection in daily life, including many helpful illustrations and metaphors.

For example, his sermon on God as Father imagined God’s experience of fatherhood based on his own. He describes his experience of fatherhood, then imagines God’s.

I have been dizzied by unanticipated delights, and my heart has been broken in places I didn’t know were there. Question: is it like that for God? If God is our Father, our “Abba,” does God look down at us and at one moment it’s an unexpected delight, and then the next moment God’s heart is broken? (20-21)

Later, his discussion of Jesus’ suffering on the cross urges us into places of suffering in God’s name.

The Creed mercifully reminds us that Jesus suffered under Pontius Pilate. It’s not that suffering is over there and God is over here, and we must rush away from suffering to get back to where God is, because where God is there can be no suffering. If you want to find God, look into the face of suffering; visit the place of suffering. Wherever there is human anguish, loss and pain, God is there. (67)

One of the most controversial lines in the Apostles’ Creed is about Jesus’ “descent into hell.” Howell’s succinct argument was the most persuasive and accessible of any of the authors I read.

Because Jesus descended into hell, we know there is no such thing as a godless place. Whenever we as the Church go to hell, we find that Jesus is there ahead of us, and we discover that we at long last are actually close to the Jesus for whom we long. (78)

Howell writes with a pastoral heart. This book offers just what it promises–tools for teaching, preaching and worship focused on the Apostles’ Creed. I recommend it highly for that purpose.

The Misunderstood Jew: The Church and the Scandal of the Jewish Jesus by Amy-Jill Levine, HarperCollins, 2006, 250 pp.

Misunderstood JewI had several seminary students and colleagues who raved about this book and the unique voice Dr. Amy-Jill Levine brought to Jesus scholarship as a Jewish scholar of the New Testament. I was surprised by how much of the book felt like old and familiar information, but also by the parts that felt new and intriguing. I found the first half of the book a bit boring, because it felt like something I have read many times in many places. However, the second half of the book covered new and interesting territory for me.

The introduction outlines Levine’s personal journey toward becoming Jewish scholar of the New Testament, and the unique project of this book to simultaneously illuminate the Jewishness of Jesus in the New Testament and the ways Christian interpretations of Jesus’ Jewish context continue to jeopardize interfaith relationships.

The first section of the book covers familiar territory recognizing that Jesus was faithful to his Jewish practices. While he occasionally broke the rules, he did not set up his ministry as a counter to the prevailing Jewish practices of the day. He wore tzitzit (fringed prayer shawl), kept kosher and Sabbath, drew on the Shema (Deuteronomy 6) for the Golden Rule. His parables and conversations over the meaning of the law follow Jewish rabbinical practices. In a commentary on the Lord’s Prayer, Levine makes an excellent case that Jesus’ use of the word “Abba” for God is not unique either, undoing an oft-repeated sermon topic. Her second chapter examines the unfolding division between Jewish and Gentile Christians, the missionary controversies between Peter, Paul and James, and why Jews did not perceive Jesus to be the Messiah.

The midpoint of the third chapter, for me, marked an entrance into newer and more interesting material. After a basic discussion of the difference between anti-Semitism and anti-Judaism and a recounting of the most famous anti-Jewish passages in the New Testament, Levine begins to explore the separation between Judaism and Christianity. She undercuts theories that Christians were thrown out of synagogues beginning at the end of the first century, naming the Council of Jamnia as a historical fiction and arguing that, if Christians were ejected, it is because they were no longer Jews in any sense of the word, replacing the worship of Yahweh with the worship of Jesus.

The fourth chapter, entitled “Stereotyping Judaism,” was the most new and insightful for me, because Levine levels a stark criticism of liberal Christian interpretations of Jesus.

Christian skeptics thus have an enormous problem. Why remain Christian if Jesus is one of several wise individuals with good ideas for social improvement? The easiest answer to the question is to argue that Jesus does what no one else ever did or could do; he is distinct, special, better. This process means depicting a Jesus who stands out as unique in his Jewish context; it also usually means enhancing the distinction, and this is done by painting the Jewish context in noxious colors. (120)

Those of us who wish to paint Jesus as a social justice leader tend to portray his Jewish context as the exemplar of injustice. Levine deconstructs misunderstandings about the harshness or impossibility of following Jewish law and the perception that all Jews anticipated a warrior Messiah. She then goes on to issue a strong critique, on both historic and anti-Jewish grounds, against the claim that Jesus was a feminist, based on biblical stories of his interactions with the Samaritan woman and his teachings on divorce. As one who has admired Jesus as a feminist based on these arguments, I took Levine’s critique to heart. It’s not that Jesus wasn’t good to women, it’s that our arguments to make that case rely on shaky stereotypes and exaggerations.

She proceeds to offer a similar deconstruction of liberal interpretations of the parable of the Good Samaritan that rely on negative stereotypes of the Pharisee and Sadducee, instead seeing the “punch” of the parable in the animosity between Jews and Samaritans.

We should think of ourselves as the person in the ditch, then ask, “Is there anyone, from any group, about whom we’d rather die than acknowledge, ‘She offered help’ or ‘He showed compassion’?” More, is there any group whose members might rather die than help us? If so, then we know how to find the modern equivalent of the Samaritan. (149)

These deconstructions persist in Levine’s questioning of the characterization of the temple as a “domination system”(154) or “ethnocentric system”(159)  in the analysis of the widow with the two coins and the Syrophoenician woman.

The remainder of the book combs through volumes of contemporary liberation theology for examples of anti-Jewish rhetoric or New Testament interpretation. She indicts everyone from liberation icons Gustavo Gutierrez and Leonardo Boff to multiple publications from the World Council of Churches. Some of those WCC authors have not taken Levine’s critiques seriously, others have revised their arguments accordingly. The final chapters discuss contemporary Jewish-Christian relationships, including perspectives on the use of “Old Testament” or “Hebrew Bible,” the prevalence of Christian seders, and the conflicts around the plight of the Palestinian people.

My overall assessment of the book is that, while the first half was slow, the second half of The Misunderstood Jew was rich and thought-provoking, especially since Levine took aim at some familiar (and even beloved) interpretations of Jesus as feminist and exemplar of social justice. Her critiques of anti-Judaism will impact how I view and preach those stories in the future.

A meditation delivered at the Downtown Jeffersonville Lenten Services, hosted by Wall Street United Methodist Church, based on Joel 2:12-17.

broken-heartI fell in love for the first time when I was 22 years old. I’d had plenty of dates, little crushes and infatuations, romances that lasted awhile here and there, but I’d never fallen in love.

I was out of college, working two jobs just to rent a crummy little apartment at the beach with a roommate, and hanging out with a bunch of her old friends from high school. He was her friend and became mine, and then we fell for each other, pretty fast and pretty hard. I would go to work at 7:30 every morning and return home at 10:30 every night, and still find time to spend hours talking on the phone or hanging out in the late-night diner, just to be together. I couldn’t stand the idea of being apart, and even hanging up the phone felt like torture. I wanted to share every moment together, every little detail of our days. If you’ve ever fallen in love, you know just what I mean.

They don’t call it heartache for nothing.

I remember one particular day. We were hanging out at the crummy apartment, doing nothing special, and I saw him sitting across the room when the thought ran through my mind: “you’re gonna break my heart someday.” I wasn’t accusing him or anticipating anything in particular—but I realized in that moment that someday, some way, by death or by life, something would tear us apart, and I would never be the same. When it came to breaking my heart, he already had. Not because he had mistreated me or stopped loving me or ended the relationship—but because the love I felt for him had broken open my heart, and it would never be the same.

We’ve been married almost 18 years now, and the guy still breaks my heart, more so than ever, because that’s what it means to love—to have someone break into your heart and break it open, to plant themselves in your heart such that losing them, or being apart from them risks shattering your heart altogether, leaving a big, bleeding, broken-hearted hole right in the middle of your chest. It’s not romantic, it’s not a statement about the status of our marriage (which is not especially blissful), it’s just the truth—love breaks your heart, whether that love lasts forever or only for awhile, whether by life or by death, love breaks your heart.

We have a child now. I still remember the first time I left him at home alone with his father, my first love. He was maybe 3-4 weeks old. I just ran up to the grocery store for a few minutes. I trusted my husband completely to care for him, and I knew in my mind that everything would be fine. Still, I cried the whole way there and back. My heart just ached for his little self. He hadn’t done a thing except make my body hurt and kept me up at night and created lots of laundry, but the kid had broken my heart, and I couldn’t bear to be apart from him. That’s what it means to love, to let someone break into your heart and break it wide open.

Hear again these words from Joel: “Even now, says the Lord, return to me with all your hearts. Rend your hearts and not your clothing.”

“Rend” is an old fashioned word. We don’t use it much anymore. “Tear” doesn’t quite capture its meaning—when you rend something you tear it violently, you rip it apart and shred it into bits. Rend your hearts, God says. God is asking us for broken hearts.

broken heart 2We sometimes think that broken hearts are a side-effect of sin, that they are a sign of life’s brutality and our estrangement from God and from one another. But that’s not quite right. In the Bible, it’s clear that sin doesn’t make our hearts broken, it makes them bitter. From Pharoah to Philistines to Pharisees, God’s enemies are described as hard of heart. These hard-hearted ones are those who freeze out kindness and calcify against compassion. The real danger to our hearts is not that they will break, but that they will be unbreakable, that they will be hard as stone, so that they cannot be rendered unto God.

“Rend your hearts,” God says. Break your heart open for me, so that love can come in.

Some people would argue that God is the one that does the breaking—that God afflicts us with loss or separation, death or destruction in order to break us open, teach us a lesson, or somehow improve us. That’s not true either. God doesn’t kill the ones we love or send plagues upon our houses or blow fierce winds of devastation upon us in order to make us more faithful. God cannot compel our love any more than a spurned lover can. God’s love remains unrequited until we return it. The words in Joel are not proclamation of what God will do, they are plea for what we should do.

“Rend your hearts,” God says. Break your heart open for me, so that love can come in.

In her book about her brother dying from AIDS, Susan Wiltshire compares a broken heart like a broken biscuit. “When it’s torn in half, there is twice as much surface on which to spread the butter and honey.” (Dan Moseley, Lose, Love, Live, 18) Picturing the broken biscuits dripping with warm butter and sweet honey at the breakfast table takes me to another table–the Lord’s Table, set for holy communion. We take that whole, perfect loaf and break it, rip it apart, shred it into tiny pieces, so that everyone who comes forward can receive the taste of Christ in broken bread.

Broken breadThe broken bread stands in for the broken body of Christ on the cross. That word “rend” appears again at the cross in Matthew’s Gospel. It’s what happens to the temple curtain at the moment of Christ’s death—the curtain is rent in two, from top to bottom, as the earth quakes and the rocks split open, because the very heart of God has been broken open with love for you and me.

“Rend your hearts,” God says. Break your heart open for me, so that love can come in. “Return to the Lord your God, for God is merciful and compassionate, very patient, full of faithful love, and ready to forgive.” Break your heart open for God, because God’s heart is already broken open for you.

Amen.

The Cost of Discipleship by Dietrich Bonhoeffer, translated by R.H. Fuller and Irmgard Booth, Simon & Schuster, Touchstone edition, 1959, 316 pp.

51G4bZO8VMLThis last Epiphany, the lectionary presented the first two chapters of the Sermon on the Mount. As I approached a multi-week sermon series on those famous words of Jesus leading into the season of Lent, it seemed an appropriate time to re-read Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s classic. I have also been lately pondering the idea of discipleship, its importance in our current context and how, as a church, we direct our efforts toward growing disciples.

The opening chapter on cheap grace versus costly grace always cuts to the quick, and it has made this book such a classic, even though it was written long before Bonhoeffer’s incredible story of resistance to the Nazis. However, in my reading this time around, I focused instead on the themes of discipleship, starting here:

Hitherto the Christian life had been the achievement of a few choice spirits under the exceptionally favorable conditions of monasticism; now it is a duty laid on every Christian living in the world. The commandment of Jesus must be accorded perfect obedience in one’s daily vocation of life. (48)

Reading with different eyes this time, I saw the way that Bonhoeffer’s description of cheap grace accorded with many descriptions of Christian life under Christendom. “The antithesis between Christian life and the life of bourgeois respectability is at an end. The Christian life comes to mean nothing more than living in the world and as the world, in being no different from the world.” (51) Bonhoeffer saw that the easy merger between Christianity and citizenship led to a cheap and shallow faith, because it required neither sacrifice nor dedication to practice it. Authors in our context today refer to this as American Christendom or civic religion–a system of basic weekly attendance, public rituals and shared beliefs that amount to little transformation, and barely resemble the Christianity of Christ. (See Robinson, Dean, and Reese, among others.)

Bonhoeffer then presents the distinct marker of true discipleship: obedience. “Only he who believes is obedient, and only he who is obedient believes… For faith is only real when there is obedience, never without it, and faith only becomes faith in the act of obedience.” (63-64) The next several chapters go on to describe the requirements of single-minded obedience to Christ–not to ideas or principles or communities, but to Christ alone. The foundation of discipleship for Bonhoeffer is simple obedience to Christ in all things. The remaining chapters of commentary on the Sermon on the Mount, and the subsequent section on issues of church doctrine (baptism, communion, saints, community) are all teasing out what it means to be absolutely obedient to Christ.

I was struck by the power of this idea of obedience in Bonhoeffer’s own context. The Cost of Discipleship was originally published in Germany in 1937, as Hitler and the Nazi regime were consolidating their power over the German people by demanding absolute obedience to the Fuhrer. Obedience to orders was a ubiquitous concept at the time–and Bonhoeffer simply substituted another figure whom we ought to obey. Replacing obedience to “law and order” or the Fuhrer with obedience to Christ and the law of sacrificial love turns everything upside down.

I also ponder how this works in our 21st century American culture, when obedience is loathed as a word and a concept. Especially in my progressive United Church of Christ context, obedience is connected with behavior that is uncritical, unfaithful, immature, and an affront not only to the individual but to God. We like to imagine that we have a more collegial relationship, even with the Almighty. We do not just follow orders (especially since we disagree about what those orders might be), but we see ourselves as evolving on a spiritual journey. We speak of becoming mindful servants, not mindlessly obedient–not even if our mind is replaced by the mind of Christ. It’s tough to imagine an invitation to absolute obedience to Christ generating a lot of interested new disciples.

And yet, I did not disagree with Bonhoeffer’s perspective about obedience (although I did take issue with some other things later in the book). What hope have we for nurturing new disciples if obedience remains a dirty word? How can we speak of the same thing in new ways? The ideas of fidelity, loyalty, dedication, belonging and identity might address the same concept in a way more appealing to 21st century American ears and hearts, yet I think something would be lost in translation. When it comes down to it, discipleship requires saying “yes” to Christ’s command to follow, which means a resounding “no” to much of the ways of the world.

There are, of course, many other things that can be said of this spiritual classic, but I will leave those to another future re-reading. If you’ve never read Bonhoeffer, or never read The Cost of Discipleship, I commend it to you highly. The first five chapters represent some of the most powerful insights on discipleship in all of Christian theology.

 

 

 

I usually reserve sermons for my church blog, but I actually had a manuscript, and several friends asked to see it, so here it is. What I actually delivered was slightly different, to be sure. This Easter sermon, both in its writing and its delivery, felt very personal and pastoral–the coming together of my love for folks as their pastor, and what testimony I wanted to share with them. It’s not fancy or creative or clever, just honest.

 

Our Easter altar

Our Easter altar

I’m always struck by the vast differences between our Easter celebrations today and that first Easter in the garden.

Neva and Becky and I—along with the choir and the liturgist and the bells and everyone else leading today’s service—we’ve been planning and organizing and working for weeks toward this morning’s service, so that we know where everything goes in the Order of Worship, what words to say, what songs to sing, with the music in the right order and the props in the right places. But that first Easter was confusing and disorganized from beginning to end. Mary and Peter and the other disciple went running to the tomb and back, frantic, panic. Where have they laid him? We don’t know where they put him. Sir, if you know where he is please tell me so I can go and get him. Where is he? No one knew what was going on. It was a mess.

And look at all of you here in your Easter finery. We’ve got ourselves and our children looking their best, our sanctuary decked out in all its splendor. But that first Easter had everyone dressed in mourning clothes, bleak, tear-stained faces, carrying the spices to tend to the body, buried in fear and bereft of hope.

Today, we sing “Shine, Jesus, Shine,” with the radiant Christ before us. That first Easter, though, there was none of that—there was Mary, silently standing before the empty tomb, weeping into her hands. Jesus did not appear radiant or majestic or powerful—he was so humble, so earthly, she mistook him for the gardener.

Today, we started with a shout of Alleluia—but that first Easter moment began with a whisper: “Mary.”

And in that moment, everything changed—and Mary went from asking “Where is God?” to testifying to everyone: “I have seen the Lord.”

On the surface, all those contrasts seem so dramatic—our Easter experience and the experience of Mary and the disciples seem so out of sync and disconnected. And yet. And yet I’d wager that more than a few of us came to church this morning—even with our Easter finery on the outside—more than a few of us are still wrestling with Mary’s question, with Peter’s despair, with the unnamed disciple’s doubt.

We may look pretty today, we may have our family together, starched and ironed—but the grief and the pain of day to day living are not far from the surface, are they? Death, illness, loss, financial woes, addiction, family tensions—all this and so much more may have been put aside for Easter Sunday, but they will find us again soon enough—come tomorrow, or maybe even this afternoon.

We are hopeful that showing up to this church service will lead us to joy and beauty this day, that it will make Jesus alive for us somehow—because much of the time we cast about from day to day wondering, like Mary, where he is. Can you tell me where they have taken him? Please, someone tell us how to get back in touch with Jesus again, because he is lost and we are lost without him.

We go along with the Alleluias and the shining glory this morning, because we want it to be true, we want it to be real—but many of us are still wondering if the empty tomb is just, well, empty—if this whole thing isn’t just plain empty, if it all just amounts to nothing.

empty tomb

I believe we all come here this Easter day looking for the same thing Mary was looking for in that garden that morning, the same thing that she sought inside the empty tomb. We come here looking for Jesus. We are here not because we are convinced of the resurrection, confident and assured in all things—we are here in this place of worship because we need to be convinced of it again. We come not because we’ve found Jesus, but because we are still looking for him. We want to hear, even if just a whisper, our Savior call our name, so that our panicked and doubt-filled “where is God?” might be transformed into “I have seen the Lord.”

My friends, as your pastor, as one who cares for you and loves you, as one who wants nothing more than to provide a splendid Easter service that sends you all out proclaiming “I have seen the Lord,” the reality is that there is only one thing that I can do before you this day.

It is the only thing that Mary could do, the only thing that has kept this Christianity thing going, year after year, Easter after Easter, resurrection after resurrection for two thousand years. I can testify. I can tell you that I too find myself asking “where is Jesus?” Where have they put him? Why have they taken him away? I may stand up before you looking starched and ironed and put together, but I bear the same burdens of doubt and despair that you do. I too wonder sometimes if the empty tomb is just plain empty, and there’s nothing there, nothing here at all.

But when I sit here in this empty sanctuary, late at night or early in the morning, praying at nothing, wringing my hands with despair, every now and then I hear it—quietly, silently, coming from the back of my mind yet somehow beyond me—I hear the Savior whisper my name.

And then I remember—I have seen the Lord. I have seen the Lord. I stand before you today and proclaim to you that I have seen the Lord, that I believe in the resurrection. I don’t believe in the resurrection because of something that happened 2,000 years ago—I believe in the resurrection because I have seen Jesus today, and he is alive among us.

I have seen lives I thought were over—people whose addiction was so severe that I thought they were lost forever. But Jesus appears to them, calls their name, and they find a way to let go of their addiction and live again. I have seen Jesus, and he is alive.

I have seen relationships so estranged, marriages so pain-filled, parents and children so filled with anger and hurt that I thought they were dead—but somehow Jesus shows up, calls out names, and people find a way back to love again, back to life again. I have seen Jesus, and he is alive.

I have seen people who have been victims of violence and hate and abuse, people who have every reason to be bitter at God and bitter at the world, hear Jesus call their name and stand strong to proclaim instead that “love wins,” because nothing else but love will set them free to heal. My friends, I have seen Jesus, and he is alive.

I have seen tornado survivors, in this congregation and beyond, whose lives have been torn to shreds and scattered across the fields in destruction. Survivors like Louella Akers, who lost all four of her limbs due to a tornado-borne bacteria, then lost her home to foreclosure while she was hospitalized for more than year. She believed her life was over, that she would spend the rest of her days lying in bed, helpless—but Jesus called her name and told her there was more to do. New technology has given her four new robotic limbs, and March2Recovery and New Hope Services gave her a new apartment equipped with everything she needs to adapt and live independently. She started out walking everywhere, but now she can even drive again. My friends, I have seen Jesus, and he is alive.

I have seen my former congregation, the Old South Church in Boston, just feet from the finish line of the Boston marathon and last year’s terrible bomb blast, transform an occasion of terror and catastrophe into a witness of hope and new life. They requested people knit scarves in the blue and yellow marathon colors, to be delivered to runners at their annual Blessing of the Athletes service held this morning, the day before the race. Hoping for a few hundred, they received more than 7,000—and they have been out on the street every day since Tuesday passing them out to athletes, to first responders, to survivors, with prayer and tears and so much love, transforming a scene of blood and death into a place of triumph and love. I have seen Jesus, and he is alive.

I have seen St. Luke’s, once left for dead after conflict and betrayal, hear Jesus call our name, challenging us and reminding us that God still has need of us in this place, serving this community—and watched a miracle unfold here, as we let God remake us in a new way—new people, new worship, new ministry, new building—so that now we are alive and we have been resurrected. My friends, I have seen Jesus, and he is alive.

None of these resurrections are simple, or instant, or magical, or easy, or pain-free—coming back from the dead is not for the faint of heart. It demands faith, and trust, and hope, and often a great deal of hard work. But resurrection is possible. The question of “where is God?,” the doubt-filled emptiness of the tomb, the despair of death—those things are real, as real as the cross on which Jesus died. But resurrection is real too. I have seen the Lord, not 2,000 years ago, but right here in our midst, and he is indeed alive, and he is whispering your name, and he is inviting you to be resurrected with him. Because Jesus is alive, you can be too. Whatever it is that is afflicting you and killing you, Jesus can call your name and set you free. Whatever it is that is burying you and entombing you, Jesus can roll away the stone. Whatever keeps you in the darkness of death, Jesus is the light of resurrection. I have seen the Lord, and he is alive. And that means we can be too. Alleluia. Alleluia. Alleluia.

Beautiful Outlaw: Experiencing the Playful, Disruptive, Extravagant Personality of Jesus by John Eldredge, FaithWords (Hachette Book Group), 2011, 219 pp.

Beautiful-OutlawA leader of my church passed this book along to me as something that opened her to a new understanding of Jesus, and moved her closer to Christ. I was intrigued and thought I might skim it, but ended up reading the whole thing. There were elements I applauded, parts to which I objected, and parts that also moved me in my faith. There was not much that was new or surprising, but I can see how it could be new to lots of people.

Eldredge aims to strip away the religiosity and pious purity of our images of Jesus, and reclaim what he calls his “true personality,” his humanity. This is not a new project–many have attempted it before–but the aspects he highlights are solid, and it is always a helpful reminder. Eldredge emphasizes Jesus’ playfulness, especially in his interactions with the disciples. He imagines inside jokes and jocularity among “the boys.” He also develops aspects of Jesus’ fierceness, anger, cunning, honesty and humility. His Jesus refuses to be pastel-colored in a gentle Sunday School painting, which he refers to as “marshmallow.”(144)  He wants us to be able to relate to this Jesus, and to be confronted by him. If I’m in the mood (which I was), I always find these kinds of projects interesting and illuminating.

He is a fan of G.K. Chesterton, and quotes him identifying Jesus as “more human than humanity.”(48) Eldredge straddles a traditionally irreconcilable Christology here–he claims a pre-existent Christ, with foreknowledge of creation from beginning to end, yet the same one who must learn to walk, speak, and live in a human body.  His theology is extremely traditional and conservative, which is what makes it so odd to me that he would take such a vindictive approach to what he calls “religion.” Religion, for Eldredge, is what prevents us from meeting Jesus as he truly is. We can only do that when we leave religion behind. While I understand that church culture or religiosity can white-wash or even obscure the powerful edginess of Jesus, he condemns all church practices as religious in this way, at the same time he is starting his own ministry (aka church) and existing well within orthodox theology shaped and preserved by–you guessed it–the church. He treats Christianity and the church as a straw man throughout, as though he has never seen any merit there.

Nevertheless, there were things that gave me pause and opened me for prayer. One question he asked was, “What do you think Jesus thinks about you?” What limits have we placed on Jesus? What judgments do we hear, and are they accurate? He writes:

Where are you having a hard time with Jesus? Where is your struggle with him?
Do you find it hard to believe he loves you? Or that he loves you because of what you do?
Do you feel like you are always disappointing him?
Is he mad at you? Ignoring you?
Does Jesus seem like a hard man who wants you to work harder?
Does he seem distant–loving, sure, but disengaged? (160)

I find myself right now having definite struggles with Jesus, and these questions helped me move forward in my conversation with him.

Eldredge also offers this gem in his conclusion:

What enormous good would it do in the world if churches would be known as playful, witty, fierce, humble, generous, honest, cunning, beautiful and true? When we hold fast to a bland Jesus, we get a bland church. A two-dimensional Jesus equals two-dimensional Christians. (210)

Indeed. It’s because I have found the church to be all of those things, however imperfectly, that I do not share Eldredge’s anti-religious sentiment.

Beautiful Outlaw is a decent, readable introduction to Jesus beyond the Sunday School paintings, written to invite a devotional personal relationship with Christ. I would hesitate to share it, however, because of its anti-religious sentiments and straw man argument against the church.

A child-safe version of the Bible features a cartoon Jesus on the cover. But a faith based on this two-dimensional caricature won’t hold up in a grown-up world.

At church on Sunday, B got a giveaway bible, just a little pocket New Testament that had been left over from a previous event. He is a budding reader, so he came home that day and sat down to start reading it. J and I were both intrigued with what he might possibly grasp, and wondered how to interpret the gospels with him.

Ever the ardent atheist, J chuckled and remarked, “You know, it always cracks me up that your faith, that the Bible, is not age appropriate. Your God is not safe for children.”

He’s right, of course. From Cain and Abel to the mass slaughter of Canaanites to the stoning of an adulteress to the crucifixion of Jesus Christ, the Bible is loaded with the kind of violence that we would ban from video games and television programs for children.  Biblical clans generally set bad examples for the “traditional family values” that we want to instill in our children—Joseph’s brothers sell him into slavery, sisters Leah and Rachel try to destroy each other over a man, Paul says it’s better not to get married to focus on the Gospel.  Even Jesus disses his family when they try to get in the way of his ministry. Hardships like poverty, disease, natural disaster and corrupt rulers fill every page.

“Last Supper,” by Fritz Eichenberg, shows that Jesus came to dine among the poor, not the pretty.

Then there’s all the sex stuff—and not just the beautiful erotic poetry in Song of Solomon. Abraham tells his wife Sarah to pretend she is his sister and become the king’s mistress. Visitors are threatened with rape in Sodom and Gomorrah. Onan is struck down for “spilling his seed on the ground.” (Yes, that means what you think it means.) Tamar dresses up as a prostitute to trick her father-in-law into getting her pregnant. And we haven’t even made it out of Genesis yet.

God’s story is clearly rated R. When we introduce children to God, we carefully select the stories of Jesus welcoming children and multiplying loaves and fishes, Jonah and the whale, Daniel and the lions, Moses and the ten commandments, Abraham and Sarah laughing at the impossible promise of a baby. We carefully omit the content that is inappropriate for young children, and avoid the parts that would be considered NSFW* as a Youtube video.

While J intended his remark as a gentle taunt, I am proud to claim an R-rated God and an R-rated faith. My life and my world have no need of a squeaky-clean God with a scripture full of nice and pleasant stories. Violence, sex, poverty, broken families, twisted relationships abound in the world we live in. They weigh heavy on the lives of people everywhere and threaten to drown them in despair.  We need a God who can enter that kind of world and still find a way for the divine light of hope, love and peace shine through. I do not need the Divine Disney to create a magic kingdom insulated from poverty, violence, sex and oppression. I need a God who comes to dwell among the grit, the grime and the graphic and somehow finds a way to redeem it all in the end.

“Pieta” by Paul Fryer, a graphic reminder that Christ came to show love to the worst people in the worst circumstances.

The R-rated story of God in the Bible makes possible a mature faith for an adult world. Stories of violence show me that God can go with us into the valley of the shadow of death. Broken families help us to know that we are not alone in our imperfect relationships, and God knows our struggles to love and be loved. Sex in the Bible reveals that intimacy is a gift from God, and sin only enters sexuality with power, violence, deception and manipulation. The prominence of the poor, the ill and the outcast in the Bible teach us that hardship and oppression cannot separate us from God’s love, nor should it separate us from loving one another. The prominence of sinful biblical heroes reminds us that God loves us and God can use even our messed-up lives for good and holy purposes.

The world is not rated G, so neither is our God. The R-rated God comes to R-related people in an R-rated world, to change the “R” from restricted to redeemed, by the power of love. I’ll claim that rating for my faith any day.

*NSFW is code for “not safe for work,” and usually applied to videos or online materials with graphic content.

Jesus: Uncovering the Life, Teachings, and Relevance of a Religious Revolutionary, by Marcus J. Borg, HarperOne, 2006, 343 pp.

As I prepared to travel in the Holy Land, I thought I would want a historical resource book (or two, but I never even opened Crossan’s Jesus: A Revolutionary Biography) to accompany the places and Gospel readings in the experience. I didn’t dig into it until the final few hours of the airplane ride home, so it became more of a way to assimilate all the information. Much to my surprise and delight, Borg also offered a way to process the faith experiences and God-moments that I experienced on the journey. As he has consistently done in recent years, Borg writes about both the historical Jesus and the living Christ with faith and insight.

Much of the content of the book was familiar to me, having read many of Borg’s other books such as Meeting Jesus Again for the First Time, The Heart of Christianity, Reading the Bible Again for the First Time and The Last Week. Borg covers his familiar territory about the pre-Easter versus the post-Easter Jesus, the earlier paradigm versus the emerging paradigm of Christianity, basic Gospel source theory and the difference between John and the synoptics. After this familiar territory, he draws on his lifetime of study of the Gospels, their history and social context to draw a portrait of Jesus in his world.

Borg begins with the factors that influenced Jesus, including the domination system of imperial Rome and the Jewish practices of his day. He then draws out how Jesus experienced God, and portrays him as a Jewish mystic. Only then does he enter the synoptic vision of who Jesus was and what his ministry was about, giving a summary of the pre-Easter Jesus as a Jewish mystic, healer and exorcist, wisdom teacher, prophet and movement initiator. Examining the parables and aphorisms of Jesus, Borg then details what Jesus taught and believed about God. I appreciated the way Borg separated Jesus from God in this way. Christian doctrine claims (and I affirm) that Jesus was God incarnate, and so we often look at Jesus without looking as closely at the one to whom he pointed. Borg pulls out and clarifies what Jesus taught us about what God loves—God loves justice, and yearns for shalom in this world.

Borg summarizes Jesus’ message and mission as an invitation into a way of life, a way that centers on God, dies to self, repents and sees with new eyes, and loves what God loves, which is the world. Christ’s crucifixion was a culmination of following that way, confronting the domination system and overturning conventional wisdom. The stories of the resurrection have a two-fold purpose: they vindicate Jesus’ death, and they continue the movement. His followers realized that the way of Jesus did not die with him, that they still felt his presence among them, and continued the work he had begun.

What I appreciate about Borg, as always, is his ability to hold both the scholarly conclusions about the historical Jesus and the faithful conclusions about the living Christ. As he says about the Easter stories specifically:

The factual question is left open. A parabolic reading affirms: believe what you want to about whether the story happened this way—now let’s talk about what the story means. (280)

That was exactly the perspective I needed upon my return from the Holy Land. As I was reading Borg’s book, I was able to understand and interpret the scenes in the Gospel in new and deeper ways, having seen the land and the ruins with my own eyes. He helped me sort out, from all I had seen and heard, what were likely claims of the pre-Easter Jesus and what were the church’s claims about the post-Easter Jesus. Yet he does not dismiss the post-Easter Jesus as less-than or unimportant. The post-Easter Jesus, the living Christ of the church, is the ongoing experience of the mystical presence of God, like Jesus himself experienced.

As I said many times on my pilgrimage, I came looking for the Jesus of history, but I discovered instead the living Christ of faith. Borg describes it this way, specifically describing the story of Emmaus:

The risen Jesus opens up the meaning of scripture. The risen Jesus is known in the breaking of bread. The risen Jesus journeys with his followers, even when they don’t know it. (286)

This book was a great way for me to relive my pilgrimage experiences and the Gospel readings. Instead of just reminding me of the limits of historical knowledge, Borg gave me language to describe my experiences of the post-Easter Jesus while in the Holy Land.

His writing is a great gift to those of us who accept and appreciate the work of historical-critical biblical scholarship, who incorporate its wisdom and insights into our theology and understandings of scripture, yet still nurture a living faith that believes encounters with the living Christ are still possible, and strive to follow the way of Jesus even now.


About Me

I am a full-time pastor in the United Church of Christ, mother of a young child (B.), married to an aspiring academic and curmudgeon (J.). I live by faith, intuition and intellect. I follow politics, football and the Boston Red Sox. I like to talk about progressive issues, theological concerns, church life, the impact of technology and media, pop culture and books.

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