Proper 24, Year B
This isn't a great month for taboos, is it? Last week, we talked about money, which is hard enough for a lot of us to discuss without flinching. This week, we're going to talk about something that's even harder for many of us to talk about.
We're going to talk about power.
That's a scary thing to talk about for a lot of people. Some of us find it scary because they think of power as something only bad people would want. If we want power (and who doesn't?), we feel guilty even thinking about it, so we prefer not to think about it. Can we talk about something less difficult, please? Not as long as we're entering into God's word, living and active, able to judge the thoughts and intentions of the heart.
But power is what allows someone to see her or his values enacted in the world. Without power, my values are just ideas, daydreams I can shake off or indulge just to pass the time as other people -- the ones with power -- have their way with the world. If I care about the world -- if I want to see an end to extreme poverty or I want broader opportunities for children to get a decent education and good health care, for example -- that means I want power as well.
That might sound harsh in a context of sentimentalized and introspective Christianity, and that's OK with me; I want to challenge that kind of Christianity. We've made Christianity all about feelings -- warm, fuzzy feelings of "love" for others, emotional rushes of feeling "close to God" in worship, guilty feelings that do nothing to repair relationships torn by our behavior. And what God really wants from us, we too often think, is generous FEELINGS. "It's what's in your heart that counts," people say, and when it comes to something like poverty, many would say something that I heard at a Christian conference not long ago and blogged about here, namely, "It doesn't really matter what you do. Just round up the kids on a Saturday morning, make sandwiches, and go out to hand them to homeless people in your town. Results don't matter, as long as you do it with a heart to serve."
Here's the problem that leaps out at me from that statement, though: Results DO matter -- particularly to the person in need. If what I need is medical treatment for an infection and what you give me is a peanut butter sandwich, you haven't helped me at all. What you've done is use me to get your own charge of self-satisfaction ("Gosh, I'm generous!") before you go back to your nice, warm house and comfortable life. Here's what I said about that in February:
... I remain suspicious of our intentions as long as our supposedly generous intentions perpetuate a world order that lines our pockets, increases our privilege, and kills other people's children. We can give sandwiches to the homeless or send grain to another nation, and that's something. But it seems to me that we guard most jealously something that we value more:
We hand out sandwiches, but we maintain a death grip on power. And I mean that “death grip” phrase: this puts us in a position of very serious spiritual danger. We hand out sandwiches while retaining the power to decide whose child eats and whose child dies. We get a twofold payoff from that: we feel generous, and since we're still in power, we can get off on our generosity whenever we want. We give and we take away, and either way, we get a fix of power over others, a power to which we are addicted and which rightly belongs only to God. That's idolatry of the worst sort as well as murder.
This Sunday, when together we read that "even the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve and to give his life as a ransom for many" (Mark 10:45), let's not indulge that same sentimentality and speak of Jesus' ministry among us as some kind of emotional posture of false humility, by which I mean drumming up supposedly "humble" emotions and then behaving in the same way we've been behaving for years, behavior that screams things like this:
- "This is MY planet, and I can use it up in any way I like."
- "I work hard for what I've got; I deserve it." (Honestly, can I really say with a straight face that I work harder and am therefore more deserving than all of the people who don't have what I've got? Go to the Global Rich List to see just how many people you'd have to be better than to make that claim.)
What does real humility look like? I doubt anyone will be surprised to hear me say that it looks like Jesus. Let's take this Sunday's gospel as a case study in what real humility, Jesus' humility, is.
For even the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many.
My pals Bruce Malina and Richard Rohrbaugh point out something implicit that's worth drawing out in this "ransom for many" phrase as we reflect on humility. One person can only serve as a ransom for multiple others if that person is worth a LOT materially and socially; otherwise, the captors wouldn't accept the trade. A lot of folks see Jesus' reference to "the Son of Man" here as both a self-reference and a reference to Daniel 7, in which "one like a son of man" is appointed by God as judge of the nations. If that's so, Jesus is in this verse making the astonishingly bolshy claim that he is God's appointed judge.
But even a reader who doesn't see a reference to Daniel 7 in the "Son of Man" phrase has to recognize the bolshiness of Jesus suggesting that his own life is a suitable "ransom for many." When I re-read Mark 10 this week, the phrase that popped into my mind was "a king's ransom." That's essentially what Jesus is saying the gift of his life is. And that brings me to point #1 about what true humility -- Jesus' humility, the kind that can transform and is transforming the world -- is:
True humility isn't about pretending you're worth less than you are; true humility requires recognizing who and how valuable you are. If Jesus had responded to his sense of vocation the way a lot of us think of as "humble," he would have heard God's call, shrugged, and hung around the back of his synagogue every now and then to see whether there was a rabbi who would take as a student someone who was the wrong age to be asking and whose background was "colorful" at best; he wouldn't have felt authorized or empowered to abandon conventional obligations (e.g., his mother, sisters, and brothers!) to become an itinerant teacher. And if you're thinking, "well, that's Jesus -- his followers shouldn't be thinking that way," it might be worth thinking about what Jesus said last week on that subject. It is not hubris to think that you have a role to play in changing the world! It's a sensible conclusion to draw from our being created in God's image, members of the Body of Christ, empowered by God's Spirit as a member of the Church that saw Pentecost. Of course we are invited to participate in God's mission of healing and reconciling the world; it's what we were born for! Scaling back that expectation serves no one and nothing but the status quo, and especially if the status quo serves you as well as it serves me, that's an incredibly selfish, prideful way to think and be.
And in the service of that end, true humility doesn't shirk power; true humility requires claiming power. You are about something larger than yourself. That's how God made you. Thinking that the world and its needs take second fiddle to your leading tune of "ME!" is, whether it's a "the world will just have to wait for some more worthy soul to speak up against the injustices I see" or a "I'm just too busy advancing my own interests," a form of pride. And if you think the only important thing in the world is what's going on in your "heart" or emotions, that's also a form of pride. Your personal wholeness is important to God, and you'll find it most fully when you're most fully engaged in God's mission. That's where you'll see Jesus in the face of a neighbor or enemy from next door or the next continent, and in my experience, that's where you'll see and know who you are -- in relation to others in communities seeking reconciliation. And if you're truly seeking something larger than yourself, some real change in the world, you're talking about claiming power to see something you value made real, given flesh in the world. "Creativity" is a good word for that, in my opinion, and that kind of creativity is part of what it means to be made in the image of God the Creator. Whenever you're blessed to sense that kind of personal power -- the power of creativity in the image of God's creativity, the power of claiming your identity and vocation as a child of God -- I beg y'all to go with it.
And then the second part, no less important than the first since it can't happen without it: true humility uses that power to empower others. Not claiming your power is a very powerful way to serve the status quo, and that's not God's call to any of us. But those of us who have internalized the powerful and empowering Word of Creation and Incarnation are called also to the word of Christ crucified, resurrected, and ascended with respect to power. Even the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve and to give his life as a ransom for many. The word for "life" here has a resonance that includes something like our phrase "heart and soul"; to "give your life" isn't necessarily or solely to die, but to pour out your very life's breath, your heart and soul, for something. And the testimony of scripture is not that Jesus poured out his life like a libation of wine into the ground in front of the grave of someone once held dear, just giving something up to someone who can't taste life; scripture testifies that Jesus poured out his life for the life of others: as a "ransom for many," for the life of the world. In other words, it most certainly DOES matter for what God's precious gift of life is poured out. Jesus the Christ, as our image of what authentic humanity made and lived in God's image, pours out self not as a worthless gift easily discarded, but FOR OTHERS, for God's mission of reconciling all others to one another and to God's self. In Creation, in Incarnation, on the Cross and in the Resurrection, and in every Pentecost event from the upper room of Acts 2 to gatherings of Christians empowered for mission tonight, God pours out creative power to enable all of us created in God's image to live into who we are as children of that Creator.
God loves you. God loves you just as you are, and receives any gift you offer as a gift, though all our gift to God return to our Creator what God created. But the fullness of God's call to us as individuals are to live into God's call to humanity, to Creation: to live into God's mission. None of us serves God's mission by false modesty, calling a liar the God who gave us gifts to serve that mission; we serve it rather by praying for the courage to see as fully as we can the powerful agent for God's mission that God calls us to be, and by living into that courage, that vision, that mission, as we can best discern (and God pours out gifts of the Spirit for discernment!) in each moment.
That process comes full circle, as eventually true humility calls us to recognize the worth of every other person. If my power is God's creative power, and if I have it by virtue of my having been created in God's image, recognizing that truth will inevitably lead to my recognizing that image of God, that identity as God's child, that power to change the world in the service of God's mission in every other human being. That's how we can do what some people say is an evolutionary impossibility: we can recognize EVERY child -- not just those who are in some literal (and, in God's kingdom, utterly meaningless) sense "flesh of my flesh, and bone of my bone" -- as God's child, precious beyond counting, powerful with the power of God's Holy Spirit, and called to participate as fully as I in God's mission of healing and reconciliation, in the enjoyment of God's good gifts.
This is God's Good News for us and for all God made and loves, this week and in every moment in which we draw the gift of God's breath of life. And for God's sake, I pray we will receive that gift as fully as Jesus received it, and use it as fully and as fully to God's ends.
Thanks be to God!
Proper 21, Year B
O God, you declare your almighty power chiefly in showing mercy and pity: Grant us the fullness of your grace, that we, running to obtain your promises, may become partakers of your heavenly treasure; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.
-- Book of Common Prayer, Collect for Proper 21
I blogged a little last week about how our romantic views of childhood can sometimes distort our reading of biblical texts involving children. I don't feel the need to repeat any of that this week, though, for a fairly simple reason:
There is no mention of children in this Sunday's gospel.
The word used here for the people whom we are called to serve such that we provide no cause for their stumbling is mikros, as in our prefix "micro-." It means "small" or "short" with respect to quantities and distances. When it's used of people in Greek literature of the period that produced the New Testament, my quick survey suggests that it's used far more often to name adults of lowly status -- widows and orphans, those in poverty and those whose status in other ways shuts them out from what they need to get by and from the communities that might otherwise receive them -- than it is for children. It is true now as it was then that children are often among the very least of "the least of these"; when food, clean water, and medicine are in short supply, they're usually the first to die, and when abandoned or orphaned, they have little hope of surviving. But the "little ones" in this Sunday's gospel are not so much like the well-scrubbed cherubs in the Sunday School classrooms of middle-class parishes as they are like the mentally ill homeless woman we drive past on the way to brunch afterward.
So why, then, do we read the passage as if it were about children (as I have to admit I did until I took a closer look at it today)? Indeed, since the National Association of Episcopal Schools has designated the first Sunday in October as "Episcopal Schools Sunday," I wouldn't be at all surprised if there weren't even more sermons than usual this Sunday suggesting that the "little ones" here are students in private Episcopal schools -- some of which are quite diverse and do offer scholarships to poor and at-risk students, but many of which include few or none of the "lowly ones" of whom Jesus speaks.
I wonder whether some of it might have to do with fear. In my experience, few adults experience children of any perceived race or status as threatening, while that same adorable child might a few years later be treated with suspicion in the same crowd ("He dresses like a gang member! Is he from around here?"). Photographs of children in need of food or medicine elicit pity, while photographs of adults in similar circumstances sometimes strike a little too close to home, reminding us adults that, contrary to what our consumerist culture tells us, no amount of money or goods, education or status can shield us entirely from danger and disease, and in my pastoral experience, those who have most often suffer most from the creeping anxiety that it won't be enough to protect them from suffering.
Some of us respond by trying to accumulate increasing wealth, power, and status in hopes that it will insulate us from what we fear. Personally, I think that approach doesn't work, and that's part of why so many adults are so uncomfortable an adult who is very sick or very poor. I think envy and rivalry -- the kinds of behaviors against which Jesus speaks in the gospel as he refuses to condemn those who heal and restore people to community without seeking authorization from authorities first; and for which Moses chides Joshua in this week's reading from Numbers -- come from a similar place in our hearts. Too many of us spend too much time and energy in a constant state of anxiety because we imagine "the good life" to be a very narrow band of experiences -- the good job, the good house, the good school, the good retirement plan, the good doctors, and the good lifestyle that will guarantee that we'll live a good, long time, free of pain and worry, secure that we've finally accumulated enough -- and that we deserve it all.
Anyone who's tried this long enough and who's honest enough will, I think, admit that this approach doesn't work at all. No amount of power over others we can seize will make as invulnerable as we like to pretend we are. We are creatures, after all, not the Creator, and I suspect on some level we always know this; otherwise we wouldn't find it so painful to be reminded of the fact by our encounters with "lowly ones" at the margins.
Personally, I think St. Benedict's prescription, odd as it sounds at first in today's culture, is an effective one for our condition: "remember that you will die." In essence, that's a distillation of what our extended reading from James for this Sunday is trying to do. James reminds us of how futile and joyless it is to try to convince ourselves we'll live forever by accumulating possessions and resources that are just as transitory. The letter reminds us that no amount of scrambling for status will make us as powerful as part of us wants to be -- powerful enough to be invulnerable -- and no amount of condemning our neighbors' faults will really convince us of how God loves us, because that isn't how God loves us.
God loves us in our vulnerability. Indeed, God made us vulnerable. After all, we are made in God's image, and if we want to know what God's image revealed as fully as we can receive it in the life of a human being looks like -- if we want to see what full, authentic humanity in God's image looks like -- we can look to Jesus. We look to Jesus, whose suffering with the "lowly ones" who suffer started long before his being sentenced to a slave's death on a Roman cross. Jesus journeyed with the "lowly ones" throughout his ministry. By this point in the gospel, his face is set toward Jerusalem, and he knows what he faces there. Having accepted that, he doesn't need to look away from others' pain; indeed, he identifies with all in need of the most basic, immediate necessities -- a cup of water, a day's bread, a moment of compassion.
Jesus knows something that our culture finds it extremely hard to understand: God's power -- the power that speaks light from darkness and life from dust, the power that sustains the universe -- is not shown in shutting out those who are less powerful. The richness of God's blessing -- the only riches that can truly bring joy or peace -- is not enhanced by hoarding God's gifts. And Jesus' gift of what John calls "eternal life" -- the kind of lasting joy, peace, and love for which we were made and the universe aches -- doesn't come from vain and futile chasing after immortality. Instead, Jesus' words and example teach us, God's power is experienced in empowering the "lowly ones"; God's rich blessings are found in seeking justice for the poor. And the life of the world comes through Christ crucified; we will see God not by averting our eyes from the suffering "lowly ones" with whom he identified, but by looking with compassion in their eyes until we, like Jesus, can see the world through their eyes -- until we, like Jesus, identify with all who share our humanity, the image of God in us.
Thanks be to God!
Proper 19, Year B
Having taught New Testament and early Christian history in a number of places, I can't tell you how many times I've read the word "Christ" used as little more than a surname -- as if Jesus' parents were "Joseph and Mary Christ." I can even recall one time when a student wrote of "Mr. Christ." In Christianity's first century a lot of Romans were equally confused by what they heard of this person whom some called "Christ"; for example, when the Roman historian Suetonius wrote of Christians, he seems to have misheard the Greek word christos ("Christ") as the common slave name Chrestos, and so he reports that the troublesome "tribe" of Chrestianoi began at the instigation of this slave named Chrestos, who was crucified at Pontius Pilate's orders.
It's not hard to understand his confusion. Christos is simply the Greek translation of the Hebrew messiah, or "anointed," and "anointed" doesn't mean much beyond someone having a damp head unless you make clear by whom this person was anointed and for what. In Greek and Roman cultures, the term didn't have any particular traditional resonance, and so saying that someone or another was "anointed" was unlikely in itself to excite anyone.
The term did mean something -- a great deal in some cases -- to many Jews. However, the picture painted from many pulpits of all Judea and the entire Jewish diaspora longing and waiting with baited breath for THE Anointed One who would fulfill a checklist of qualifications drawn from various psalms and prophetic writings doesn't hold up under scrutiny of Jewish sources from the Second Temple period in which Christianity was born. A significant number of teachers noted that God's promise to King David was that his line would endure forever, couldn't help but notice that Caesar's agents and not any Davidic king were ruling Jerusalem, and spoke of a hope that God would anoint a king to reclaim David's throne and rule as David was remembered at his best. High Priests were also anointed for office, and some teachers hoped that God would anoint a priest who would reform the Temple hierarchy. Prophets were also sometimes literally anointed as well as anointed figuratively by God, and some who anticipated that God would anoint a particular someone or group of someones in a special way to a prophetic vocation spoke of one or more coming 'anointed ones.'
All that's to say that when Peter says that Jesus is "the Christ" in Mark 8:29, we don't really know what he means. It's possible that Peter didn't exactly know what he meant either. When Jesus asks his followers who they say he is, he isn't a game show host holding a card with a "correct" answer of "Christ" on it. At this point in Jesus' story, "Christ" means such a wide variety of combinations of things Jesus was NOT called to do (e.g., achieve military victory over the Romans or serve as high priest in the Temple) with lots of nothing (e.g., Suetonius' thinking "Christ" must be somebody's name) that even if everyone thought that Jesus was a or even the "Christ," that "knowledge" wouldn't be worth much for Jesus' mission -- indeed, it might even get in the way.
That's probably why Jesus' response to Peter's confession -- a confession that Christians centuries later have labeled "the right answer," and that we even celebrate in the Episcopal Church's calendar as a feast day -- is so shocking. The ONLY thing that Jesus says or does in the Gospel According to Mark in response to Peter's declaration that Jesus is "the Christ" is that "he sternly ordered them not to tell anyone about him" and he starts talking about suffering, rejection, and death before vindication from God in resurrection. The tone is unmistakable. In effect, Jesus said, "Shut the f*** up!" It's a response to Peter that Christians found so puzzling that Matthew's gospel (16:16-20) adds a long apology for it in which Jesus in effect says "you're right, of course, and I think it's fabulous that you know the truth about me" before saying, "just don't tell anyone -- I mean it."
A lot of sermons I've heard do that too, essentially telling Matthew's story even when preaching on Mark, and in any case leaping to the rightness of the "right answer" to Jesus' question without entering into the awkwardness that all canonical tellings of the story communicate. But what would it look like if we were willing to enter into the drama of this moment?
To start with, we might want to appreciate the cultural considerations that make Jesus' question one that really is wide open, rather than a catechetical drill with one "right answer." People of cultures around the Mediterranean in the first century (and in many of them now!) had what anthropologists call a 'dyadic personality,' in which a person's sense of identity is NOT the kind of individualistic and internalized product we Westerners experience, but is essentially the sum of others' perceptions fed back to them. The closest analogue I can think of in Western societies is the identity of "leader" in the saying, "if nobody's following you, you're not a leader -- you're just taking a walk." In first-century Palestine, when Jesus asks, "Who do people say that I am?" and "Who do you say that I am?" he's not contrasting the answers with his own internalized card with the "right answer" inscribed indelibly on it; he's gathering the information that tells him who he is in this world. (If you'd like to know more about this, I highly recommend the short, readable paperback The New Testament World.) What is at stake when the disciples answer isn't their rightness or wrongness so much as it is Jesus' mission.
I think that's true to a certain extent even if you don't buy what anthropologists tell us about personality in cultures like Jesus'. If I may leap from anthropological to more theological terms, I'll put it this way: as Jesus' followers we are the Body of Christ in the world. Who Jesus is, at least in effect, in this world is going to be the sum of what we say with our whole lives about who Jesus is. And the question is one about behavior as much or more as it is about words now, as it was then.
In other words, Peter's confession is somewhere between incomplete and misleading because he's using words that don't yet carry the meaning they will for him. People say that Jesus is a prophet, and he is -- but what is his message? Peter says that Jesus is the anointed one -- but anointed to do what? Until we're really clear about that -- and I'll argue that no vocabulary speaks as loudly as actions on this point -- the "right" words will carry no meaning or a misleading one.
It's a problem we've still got as much or more in our world. I can say that Jesus is "God from God, light from light, true God from true God," and if what I mean -- and what my life testifies I mean -- when I say "God" is "that very powerful being in the sky who's itching to punish everyone I dislike or find threatening," my supposedly orthodox confession of Jesus becomes empty at best and oppressive at worst. I can say that Jesus is "my Lord and Savior," and if my life testifies that Jesus saves me from responsibility to care for my neighbors in Cambridge or in the Sudan and that Jesus' lordship is a kind of lording it over those perceived as weak or dirty, my confession is a distraction at best -- something to which Jesus himself would say, "get out of here, accuser!" I can say that Jesus is God's anointed, and that leaves entirely open the question of what kind of God anointed Jesus and for what mission.
I think that's Peter's problem in this Sunday's gospel. Peter has heard Jesus' words, but he not going to get who Jesus is until he sees what Christians see as its fullest expression -- the one condemned to the Cross who forgives his killers vindicated in resurrection by the God who called him there and empowered him to love with God's limitless love. The most compact version of the gospel message, I think, might be St. Paul's summary, "we preach Christ crucified" (1 Cor. 1:23) -- that seeming oxymoron pairing "anointed" -- called and honored -- with "crucified" -- suffering and despised by the "right-thinking" people who called with their words and silence, with their deeds and their passivity, for his death. But I can only say that about St. Paul's words because his life gives those words meaning: the man who was so sure he was right that he was willing to participate in the death of those he believed wrong spends the rest of his life pouring himself out -- heart and soul, ink and sweat and blood -- for the people he'd though were too filthy and immoral to be included in God's people, and even for the haughty and self-righteous people within and outside the church who condemned his apostolic mission as the work of the Evil One that undermines the righteous and threatens the very survival of God's people and God's message. I hear St. Paul's proclamation of "Christ crucified" most clearly through Paul's own self-giving love, his testimony to the limitless height and breadth and depth of God's love because of the ways in which Paul himself seemed to find himself stretched by it, rejoicing in one letter at the return of someone he might well have said to "hand over to Satan" in a previous one.
"The Lord GOD has given me the tongue of a teacher," Isaiah says, "that I may know how to sustain the weary with a word." But Isaiah goes on to say what infuses that word with the power to sustain those suffering:
Morning by morning he wakens--
wakens my ear
to listen as those who are taught.
The Lord GOD has opened my ear,
and I was not rebellious,
I did not turn backward.
I gave my back to those who struck me,
and my cheeks to those who pulled out the beard;
I did not hide my face
from insult and spitting.
Isaiah doesn't call this teacher "Christ" -- that association of "God's Anointed" with Isaiah's "suffering servant" was made only in hindsight by Jesus' followers as they reflected on the meaning of Jesus' life, death, and resurrection. "Christ" as a word couldn't say fully who Jesus was and is. When we encounter Jesus as "Christ crucified" -- fully present and limitlessly compassionate in suffering -- we find our lives transformed, the Word made flesh giving flesh to words.
Thanks be to God!
Proper 16, Year B
Do you have to be a loser to be a Christian? The answer from this week's gospel might be "no, but it helps."
It really does, and it always has. Christianity was successful in its earliest days among women, slaves, and outcasts, and it's not hard to see why from our epistle reading for this Sunday. This passage often gets quoted starting with chapter 5, verse 22: "wives, be subject to your husbands as you are to the Lord." Often, this verse even gets set apart from what precedes it by means of a subject heading. For example, my old NIV study bible has "Living as Children of Light" as a subject heading for a section ending at the end of verse 21, and then "Wives and Husbands" as a subject heading for a section starting with verse 22. This is a place where the huge, looming agendas of today's Christians have really messed our English bibles, starting with this:
There is no verb in verse 22. Here's a literal translation of Ephesians 5:22: "wives to your husbands as to the Lord." That's it. The "be subject" isn't in the verse at all, because verse 22 is just the second part of the sentence that starts in verse 21: "Be subject to one another out of reverence for Christ," and then we get a sketch of what MUTUAL submission might look like in the context of Christian marriage -- i.e., wives love their husbands as they love Christ, and husbands love their wives as Christ does the church.
The terms used in that example might sound lopsided at first. I think they are, and I think that's intentional: the terms in which husbands are invited to love their wives if anything demand that the husbands are MORE intentional in exercising humility. Ephesians tells husbands that they are to love their wives as Christ loved the church, and since Ephesians is a letter written very intentionally in pauline tradition, it's worth looking at the central description of just what Christ's love for the church looks like in Philippians 2. Christ's love of the church isn't even remotely domineering; indeed, Christ humbled himself and became subject as a slave to all -- even to the point of death on a cross.
All that's to say that Ephesians puts forward MUTUAL submission as the standard for all Christian relationships, including the relationships between sisters and brothers in Christ who happen to be married to one another. So why the lopsided terminology with respect to marriage, in which women are invited to think of their care for their husbands as service to Christ, while husbands are invited to think of themselves behaving as slaves? It reminds me of a quip I've heard about why there are so many commandments in the Torah that apply to men but not to women, and why St. Paul spends so much more ink yelling at misbehaving men:
It's not that God loves them any less; it's just that they require more supervision.
That's a flip way of describing Ephesians 5's relatively brief comment that women are to be subject to their husbands, followed by much more ink devoted to how husbands are to be subject to their wives. First-century women -- and a lot of twenty-first-century women -- know all too well what submission looks like, but more of the men need a remedial instruction in the concept. That's not because men are particularly dim, but many of them have to overcome far more cultural baggage to be able to emulate Christ's humility -- much as many women have to overcome far more cultural baggage than men do before they can emulate Christ's boldness in proclaiming Good News and prophetically challenging those in power.
So there was a lot about the Christian message that was easier for women to see as Good News. Jesus called women, as he did men, to make an individual and very costly decision to follow him. That gave them a measure of responsibility and a burden to carry that was in many sense far greater and heavier than what their society would give them, but it wasn't hard for women to give up claims to patriarchal authority since nobody thought they could make them legitimately anyway.
But as Scott Bartchy (my supervisor, and author of a forthcoming book called Call No Man Father: The Apostle Paul's Vision of a Society of Siblings) likes to say, patriarchy isn't about the rule of all men over all women; it's about the domination of a few men over everyone else, men and women. In other words, there were a lot of men to whom Jesus' call -- the responsibility of the costly decision to follow him, but also the promise expressed in the Beatitudes that the poor, the meek, the peacemakers, and those despised and persecuted would be honored -- came as equally Good News of freedom from patriarchal domination.
We see that throughout the canonical gospels, as a motley band of misfit women and men are formed into prophets and pastors who will change the world. The path on which we follow Jesus is not easy. Jesus' values are not the world's values, and people who place Jesus' values at the center of their decisions about how they want to spend their money, use their power, and treat other people will find that the more closely the follow Jesus, the more friends, relatives, bosses, co-workers, and onlookers who aren't following Jesus will shake their heads and cluck their tongues.
Treat poor people with MORE honor than rich people, even rich people who donate very generously to the church? That's nonsense, by worldly terms -- but it's biblical Christianity, according to the letter of James. Prioritize a stranger in need as you would your own mother or brother, even if that means placing strangers above your own flesh and blood? That's crazy talk according to the world's "family values" -- but it's biblical Christianity, according to Jesus. Looking for ways to exercise charity instead of to win lawsuits over someone trying to exploit you? That's just stupid according to the world -- but it's biblical Christianity, according to Paul. Respond with aid instead of violence when you and your family or nation is attacked? That's insanity in the world's reckoning, but that's the witness of the New Testament from Matthew to Revelation, the witness of Christ crucified and then raised and exalted by God.
That's a hard message to preach -- no easier now than it was in Jesus' or Paul's day. It's a hard message for many to receive. Who, then, can accept it?
People like Peter. Jesus knew that what he had to say was nonsense at best and destructive subversion of everything godly or good at worst in the world's eyes. He heard even his closest friends and followers muttering, "This teaching is difficult; who can accept it?" And when he said, "do you also wish to go away?" Peter said, "Lord, to whom can we go? You have the words of eternal life."
I hear two things in Peter's response that have come to be central in how I preach Jesus' hard words. First, Peter knew the cost of his old way of life. I love the way Luke portrays the calling of the first disciples, when Peter decides to follow Jesus. Peter set out that day as a fisher with one question on his mind: Will I catch enough fish today to feed my family? There was rent to pay for the boat, the cost of materials for the nets, taxes imposed by occupying armies and local officials, and it required luck as well as backbreaking labor to have anything left to eat after the rich and powerful had all taken their share. Peter wasn't a recreational angler; he was a poor man trying to get enough to get by, and that can be a very anxious existence. So every day, the question on his mind was "will I catch enough fish today to survive?" More than once, he might have muttered to himself, "this is no way to live!" -- but what choice did he have?
Jesus offered him a choice. It was a hard choice, but Peter was willing to consider it because he knew the cost of NOT following Jesus, of staying where he was and doing what he did, of staying within the network of relationships and obligations he knew.
But that's not all. Choosing to follow Jesus wasn't just about choosing the unknown over "the devil you know." Luke says that on that fateful day by the lake of Gennesaret, the miraculous catch of fish Peter drew was so large that it threatened to swamp the boats. In other words, in one moment the big question on Peter's mind changed from "will I catch enough fish today to survive?" to "can I gather enough people to take in all of this abundance?" That's what made Peter a fisher of people: in Christ, he came to believe that the world in which he grew up -- the world in which we need to be anxious about all of the causes for worry the world gives us -- is passing away, and he had a chance NOW to experience the abundant life of the world to come.
In short, Peter not only knew the cost of staying in his old life, but also had caught a glimpse of the possibilities, however costly they come, of Jesus' new life. So Peter said, "Lord, where else would we go?" -- since the possibilities the world presents have their own cost, and it's far steeper for a far less fulfilling reward -- and "you have the words of eternal life" -- since he saw that the longings for abundant and eternal life instilled in him by God as a human being made in God's image would find their truest fulfillment in Jesus' way, the way of the cross.
People say that every preacher really has just one sermon that gets preached in a slightly different way each time s/he steps in the pulpit. I think I've got about three or four, but this is the sermon I preach on Jesus' hard words. You can see an example here, in a sermon on the Beatitudes I did for a wealthy congregation I knew well. I ask these central questions:
- What is the cost, the difficulty of the point with which God is challenging us? We can't really move forward in discipleship if we're not intentionally walking the path of the cross; if we decide we want to follow Jesus because it's the respectable or easy thing to do, we'll drop everything but the name the second the path proves counter-cultural or difficult.
- What is the cost of staying where we are, of swallowing worldly values of achievement and power-over, of getting as much as we can to call our own and then guarding it jealously?
- How will be more able to take in Jesus' abundant and eternal life if we do choose to follow Jesus, however much that challenges and stretches us? What is that life in Christ like?
The bottom line, I think, is that like Peter, we follow Jesus as Lord because we've seen the toll that following worldly authorities takes, and because we've glimpsed the joy, peace, and freedom that following Jesus can bring. There is much that is challenging and costly moving forward on that road, but it is what we were created to do, and it is the way to full, eternal, and abundant life.
Thanks be to God!
Proper 15, Year B
I must confess that I find the Gospel According to John to be the most difficult of the canonical gospels, and I have to scratch my head sometimes when I hear people say things like, "If always tell people who've never read anything in the bible before to start with John -- it's the clearest of the gospels." The community that produced the Gospel According to John is the same community that produced the biblical book of Revelation, and the imagery that resonated with them as they sought to discern who Jesus is and how they're called to respond to his call in the midst of their profoundly difficult circumstances is at times strange, to say the least, if not not disturbing. This Sunday's gospel reading is an excellent case in point:
"Very truly, I tell you, unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink his blood, you have no life in you. Those who eat my flesh and drink my blood have eternal life, and I will raise them up on the last day; for my flesh is true food and my blood is true drink."
No wonder early Christians faced accusations of cannibalism! This is gross. And yet we recall this kind of imagery every time we participate in the Eucharist. As I receive the bread, I hear the words, "the Body of Christ," and then another phrase, usually, "the bread of heaven." As I receive the wine, I hear the words, "the Blood of Christ," and then usually "the cup of salvation." These four phrases have at least one thing in common:
Their meaning is obscure -- unless, minimally, you've spent a fair amount of time hanging out with and hearing from Christians. "The bread of heaven"? How would those words be understood by us were it not for their association with Christian liturgy and tradition? Another way to think about it is to ask how a hypothetical tourist from Mars who'd memorized a decent English dictionary but had little other exposure to Earth cultures might hear those words. "Bread from heaven," our Martian visitor might muse, "it surely can't be about its origin, as that woman over there bought it from a store called a 'church supply house,' and its ingredients -- none claimed to be extraterrestrial in origin -- are listed on the box. Perhaps they mean 'heavenly,' as in very good or pleasant -- but this stuff tastes like cardboard!" The phrase "cup of salvation" isn't much clearer to those without either significant association with religious people who use this language or at least significant study of them.
And that's half the point, I'd say. Bruce Malina and Richard Rohrbaugh point out a great deal of John's "antilanguage" -- language used by members of a marginalized in-group that only they understand fully, and that both expresses and furthers their sense of close relationship with one another -- in their Social-Science Commentary on the Gospel on John. Both "flesh" in this context and "blood" evoke imagery of sacrifice, and Christians in John's community understand Jesus' sacrifice on the cross to be THE sacrifice, like those commanded in the Mosaic revelation that made the Hebrews a people of the living God, a revelation accomplishing something even greater, broader, and more lasting than what Moses revealed.
When I say that I don't mean to participate personally in any "my tribe's miracles are better than your tribe's," but as difficult as it may be for us to accept in our scriptures, it is quite understandably present. Remember, the community that produced John was experiencing direct, severe, and life-threatening persecution from some of their neighbors and perhaps even family members in their synagogues. While it's very easy for me typing in my comfy chair in Cambridge to cluck about supercessionism, it's well worth remembering how different the impact of such language is in a society like John's, in which Christians were the smallest of minorities, and their 'alternative lifestyle,' which many Romans and Jews, also perfectly understandably, saw as anti-family and dangerously disruptive to the social order. In a society like mine, in which those who self-identify as Christian are a large and very powerful majority -- witness our country's very, very evangelical president and the religious leaders he invites to confer with him on matters of "faith-based" policy -- a powerful majority adopting "antilanguage" like that of the Johannine community, which was written to give comfort to a tiny, powerless, and persecuted minority, can wreak great destruction in God's name. Let the reader of the Left Behind series understand! But I digress.
My digression isn't entirely purposeless, though. I think the point is important to raise not only because of the prominence in American political discourse of powerful people making much of their identification as Christian and purporting that they are being marginalized and even persecuted because of it (leading Jon Stewart to muse on The Daily Show, "I dream of a world in which people -- even the president, or a Supreme Court justice -- may openly practice Christian faith, perhaps even openly wearing symbols of their faith in jewelry in public ..."). Jesus' shocking image of his flesh and blood as food and drink is significant not only for what it says about the closeness of its "antilanguage" community at the margins, but also because of what it says about the quality of relationships members of this community are called to live into.
Malina and Rohrbaugh hint at it when they rightly say that the language of "flesh" and "blood" evokes language of sacrifice, the fat and blood which is perceived as the "seat of life" -- life bestowed by God, and therefore belonging rightly only to God, not to be claimed by any other. But I don't think their discussion goes quite as far as I would on that point.
Yes, the Gospel According to John, as all the canonical gospels do to a greater or lesser extent, point to the cross as Jesus' sacrifice. But I find it particularly moving when the Johannine community -- a community keenly feeling fear, isolation, and betrayal in light of the persecution they are experiencing -- speaks of Jesus' sacrifice. John's gospel is one with a lot of bitter words for "the world" from which the community feels so alienated and threatened, but they are painfully, consistently clear in affirming nonetheless that "the world" that hates them is still "the world" which God so loves that he sent his only begotten son (John 3:16).
Flesh and blood are the seat of life -- life belonging only to God, life that can be claimed rightly only by God. And yet in Jesus, God has willingly poured out that life for the sake of the world -- not just the good people, the people who try hard to do the right thing, the people who praise and encourage the saints, but as much or more for the people who hate, and who act on their hatred, even to the point of killing a righteous woman or man, an innocent child. The biblical book of Revelation from this same community imagines what total and final vindication of a victorious judge of the nations and his followers might look like, and it pictures Jesus as anything but a cuddly and approachable pal (even the "Lamb of God" imagery isn't about a cute little sheep, as I've blogged about before), but even in the context of the final judgment, the Johannine Christians are given a "call for the endurance and the faith of the saints" in the strongest of terms that regardless of the violence their enemies inflict, they are not to resist with the sword (Revelation 13:9-10).
In other words, the community that produced the Gospel According to John produced testimonies to Jesus that underscore the community's tough circumstances, but that call for a response that, especially in their cultural context, would look anything but "tough" in the traditional, macho sense. And I'm grateful to those who crafted our lectionary for drawing attention to a point that J. Massynbaerde Ford writes about eloquently in her book Redeemer, Friend, and Mother: Salvation in Antiquity and in the Gospel of John: that there is potentially some strong feminine imagery in John's language about Jesus that we'll read together this Sunday.
Our lectionary's editors make their point in their choice for our first reading. It comes from Proverbs, which like other books in the genre of "Wisdom literature," personifies Wisdom as a woman. This Sunday, we receive in both our first reading and our gospel reading an invitation to see God acting toward humanity in ways associated specifically with the feminine. It's an apt pairing, Wisdom literature with the Gospel According to John; from the prologue to John's gospel (1:1-18) in its association of Jesus with the logos through which all Creation came into being to the gospel's conclusion, we find a great deal of language echoing Wisdom literature like Proverbs, portraying God in traditionally feminine roles of preparing dinner and laying the table, as in our first reading for this Sunday, or nursing children, providing nourishment for them from her own life, her own substance, her own breasts.
That's milk, of course, not blood. But Ford points out that in rabbinic writings and some ancient medical texts, the idea was expressed that breast milk WAS the mother's blood, transformed into milk for the child's benefit, with what was left becoming menstrual blood -- in either case, an expression (literally!) of a mother's pouring out of her own life in her love for her child.
In other words, when our next Presiding Bishop preached at General Convention of "mother Jesus," she was using imagery which is scriptural in John and other canonical portrayals of Jesus as Wisdom, as well as traditional in writings like those of Julian of Norwich. But there's no need to get hung up on the gendering of imagery if that's going to obscure the point -- the point of John's gospel, the point of the book of Revelation, the example of our crucified and risen Christ:
God so loves the world that God poured and pours out God's very life, very self, for our sake -- not because we were so good, but because we were hungry and thirsty and dying, and God made us to share God's wholeness, love, and eternal life. That pouring out of God's self for us is revealed most clearly in our tradition in Jesus the Christ crucified, but our scripture and tradition hold that it is far from a one-time event in the distant past of a distant land. It is a continual and eternal expression of who God is by God's very nature. God poured out God's self in birthing Creation, which teems with the life God gave. And God continues to pour out God's self for us in the call of Wisdom, the love we experience in the Body of Christ as we receive Christ together, in countless daily miracles as lives are transformed in the image of a loving God.
If that's "insider" language, then let it always be coupled with the invitation to come inside, to taste and see this limitless, self-giving love of God.
Thanks be to God!
Proper 10, Year B
Mark 6:7-13 - link to NRSV text
If any place will not welcome you and they refuse to hear you, as you leave, shake off the dust that is on your feet as a testimony against them.
I think the most memorable time I've heard those words was in a sermon by the Rt. Rev. Doug Theuner, then Bishop of New Hampshire, at the consecration of his successor, the Rt. Rev. Gene Robinson. Those words (which Theuner quoted from the parallel passage in Matthew) were part of Theuner's charge to Robinson. If any place will not welcome you, he said, and they refuse to hear you, as you leave, shake off the dust that is on your feet as a testimony against them.
That's harsh. That's saying not only that you won't touch them, but that you won't touch anything they've touched -- not even the dust.
And I don't think that +Gene has taken that advice.
Instead, at the Integrity Eucharist at General Convention this year, the refrain in his sermon was "Love them anyway." Even if you'd been under a rock for several years and had no idea what he'd been through -- the death threats against him and (inexplicably) his daughters, the sneering, the hate mail, the protesters, the constant scrutiny, and on top of it all the burden of receiving countless letters from hurting people who didn't know anyone they could talk to about being gay -- you could tell from +Gene's voice that he was not saying it lightly. He knew just how difficult and painful it could be to take seriously the oneness of the Body of Christ and the imperative to seek and serve Christ in all people. His voice broke several times as he said it.
Love them anyway.
That doesn't erase the hard word about shaking off the dust, and to be completely honest, I'm not totally sure what to do with it. I really, really dislike sermons that take a hard word from Jesus and say something that boils down to "he didn't really mean it." I hope that what I have to say about this hard word doesn't fall into that category.
The first thing that I want to point out about it is the context. Jesus' followers were a tiny, obscure minority in the Roman Empire. The vast majority of people had never heard of Jesus. How much sense would it make for his followers to keep preaching in a town where everyone had heard and no one would listen? I was tempted to say, "and where staying would only get them beaten up or worse," but when you look at the breadth of Jesus' teaching, what his disciples actually did and how many were martyred -- and most importantly, what Jesus himself did in "setting his face toward Jerusalem," being received as a king, and preaching liberation to packed crowds there to celebrate the liberation of God's people from slavery -- I don't think that the danger of sticking around was a consideration. Martin Luther King and Malcolm X predicted that they would be assassinated -- Jesus and his followers didn't need any special revelation to know the risks they took.
They took them repeatedly. They loved them anyway.
And not just that. Jesus not only ruled out retaliation against those who chased his followers out of town; he also sent his followers out with no bread, no bag, no money, no outer tunic. No tunic meant that sleeping outdoors was not an option; no bag meant that they wouldn't be able to collect enough in one place to survive on their own in another. In other words, Jesus lived out and passed on to his disciples not just engagement, but vulnerability. They were to go to people they didn't know and rely on them day by day for food and shelter from the elements.
That's radical dependence on God. I don't mean by that that Jesus or his followers were sure that everything was going to be OK by conventional reckonings. Jesus didn't promise safety -- especially not in the sense of static self-preservation. That's not God's job. God wants something better for us. God calls us out of safe stasis. As the Rt. Rev. Dr. David Zac Niringiye said in a recent interview in Christianity Today:
One of the gravest threats to the North American church is the deception of power—the deception of being at the center. Those at the center tend to think, "The future belongs to us. We are the shapers of tomorrow. The process of gospel transmission, the process of mission—all of it is on our terms, because we are powerful, because we are established. We have a track record of success, after all. ... Those at the center decide that anyone not with us is—not against us—[but] just irrelevant.
God very often is working most powerfully far from the center. Jesus is crucified outside Jerusalem—outside—with the very cynical sign over his head, "The King of the Jews." Surprise —- he is the King of the Jews. "We had hoped ... " say the disappointed disciples on the road to Emmaus, but he did not fulfill our criteria. In Acts, we read that the cross-cultural missionary thrust did not begin in Jerusalem. It began in Antioch, on the periphery, the margins. But Jerusalem is not ready for Antioch! In fact, even when they go to Antioch, it's just to check on what's happening.
... I have come to the conclusion that the powerful, those at the center, must begin to realize that the future shape of things does not belong to them. The future shape of things is on the periphery. The future shape of things is not in Jerusalem, but outside. It is Nazareth. It is Antioch.
Can we begin to read those passages that trouble us, that don't reinforce our cultural centeredness? Let's go back to Matthew 25 and read it in the church in America, over and over. Who are Jesus' brothers? The weak, the hungry, the immigrant workers, the economic outcasts. Let's read the passage of this woman who pours ointment over Jesus. Let's ask, who is mostly in the company of Jesus? Not bishops and pastors! The bishops and pastors are the ones who suggest he's a lunatic! Who enjoys his company? The ordinary folk, so ordinary that their characterization is simply this: "sinners." Can we begin to point to those passages?
Yet this ability to read different passages, to read the Bible differently, won't happen until people are displaced from their comfort zones. I thank the Lord for deep friendships he has given to me beyond my comfort zone, beyond my culture, beyond my language. Until that happens, we will all be tribal, all of us.
... Whether in Africa or America, the Cross is not an easy place to be—it is the symbol of our faith, but we do not love the Cross. "Come down from the Cross" is the cry not just of the Jewish leaders; it's the cry even of us Christians. We want Christ to come down from the Cross. We don't like the Cross.
And the Cross is where God calls us -- out of tribalism, out of nationalism, out of the safety of our comfort zones. I think that shaking the dust from our feet is not ultimately about refusing to be in contact with those who reject us, but refusing to remain in familiar territory with the "devil we know" rather than risk moving out further to the margins and the unknown. As one of my favorite passages from one of my favorite short stories says, "there is no safety," out there or anywhere, but there is, as one of my favorite passages from one of my favorite stories puts it, "wildness and joy, there is love and life within the danger." The way of the Cross, of Jesus' radical vulnerability, is also the way of Life.
Thanks be to God!
Second Sunday in Lent, Year B
Mark 8:31-38 - link to NRSV text
I once heard a sermon suggesting that Jesus' command to deny self, take up the cross, and follow him could involve something as simple as picking up a beer can on the beach and throwing it away.
I don't agree.
I don't think such a thing could even be said in Jesus' time or Mark's. In their time, a cross wasn't a pattern for jewelry, but an instrument of terror as well as torture and death. Here's what I said about it last time I preached on Good Friday:
... the Cross is a dark place, a monument to how we, “blessed with reason and skill,” in the words of one of our Eucharistic prayers, make use of God’s gifts to engineer darker and narrower prisons for ourselves. The Roman culture that invented the cross was known for its ingenuity in making use of simple and natural forms for engineering. Shape stones a certain way, and they form an arch that will support tremendous structures, held together by gravity and friction in a way that makes mortar a mere formality. Chart the right pathway for it, and water can be propelled over a tremendous distance solely by natural gravity in aqueducts.
And perhaps the height of Roman engineering, ingenious in its simplicity, was the cross. Take heavy posts, and set them along the busy roads into the city. Set brackets in them to receive a horizontal beam. Nail or even tie a man’s hands to a beam, set that beam across the pole in brackets, and you have an excruciating form of torture and slow death that takes little time or effort to start but days to finish. Rulers like Pontius Pilate didn't hesitate to use it. It was diabolically simple, cost-effective and highly visible as a public deterrent to those who would oppose the might of Rome. During the Passover season, as Jerusalem became clogged with pilgrims remembering how their God liberates slaves from their oppressors, Pilate lined the roads with hundreds of crosses, each filled with a living tableau of how narrow and dark a prison we can make of our imagination when we set it upon wounding others.
In short, crucifixion was state-sponsored terror meant to keep the populace in line. It made one person suffer unspeakably, obscenely, excruciatingly, and made that suffering a sign for all to see that Rome was the ultimate power, able to bring hell on earth or peace and order.
Is that what the Cross signifies for us, then?
As St. Paul would say, by no means!
We can't realize (a word I'm using intentionally) the meaning of the Cross without taking a moment at least to look at what it meant to the empire that occupied Palestine in Jesus' day. If our heart skips a beat, if there's a sharp intake of breath, that's a good sign. The crosses along the roads of the Roman Empire weren't bits of litter that could be picked up and put away by anyone who “gives a hoot.” They formed a long, terrible gash, an open wound in human freedom, in the human imagination, in God's dream for humanity.
And yet it has become a sign of our freedom, our healing, the reconciliation of all Creation with one another and with God.
How is this? How can it be?
It can -- it is -- in Christ Jesus.
Across the Roman world, the cross was a symbol of power -- the power of empire, the power of armies, the power to dominate. As Christians, it still is the case that realizing the Cross' meaning has to involve us looking hard and talking honestly about power.
That's because the Cross isn't just about how Christ died. If the only thing we knew about Jesus was that he died on a cross, we would have no clue that Jesus was special. The Passover season was a time when the people of Israel were called to celebrate their liberation from oppression, and thousands upon thousands of people made their way to Jerusalem each way to do precisely that. Imagine for a moment those crowds on every street corner, and imagine the mood among those gathered to celebrate liberation. The combination made Roman authorities in Judea very nervous, and when Roman authorities got nervous, they tended to crucify first and ask questions later, or never. So in all likelihood, when Jesus died on a cross just outside Jerusalem's walls during the Passover season, he was surrounded not just by two men, but by dozens. In that sense, Jesus' death was nothing special. Even Jesus' resurrection would just be an item for “news of the weird” or grist for an episode of The X-Files or Smallville if all we knew about Jesus was that he died and then was alive again. If I told you that some guy named Jim Gundersen in MInnesota had been executed by the state, certified as dead, but was alive again three days later, Imost of us would be saying, “Huh, That's really weird,” not “Where is he? Tell me, so I can go worship him!”
The Cross isn't just about how Jesus died, nor is it simply a precursor to Jesus' resurrection. Jesus' death and resurrection have meaning for us because of the manner in which Jesus LIVED.
This, by the way, is why one of the most overused Christmas sermon titles is also one of the worst: “Born to Die.” Jesus was born to die, I suppose, in the sense that all of us are. St. Benedict teaches us to remember our mortality daily, much as we remind one another of our mortality on Ash Wednesday. But even that isn't really about death so much as it is about LIFE -- abundant life, a life of wholeness.
Jesus' manner of life, the way around which he gathered women and men and children to journey, infused his death with profound meaning. The Cross is about how Jesus LIVED. It's what St. Paul had in mind when he wrote this in his letter to the Christians gathered in Philippi:
If then there is any encouragement in Christ, any consolation from love, any sharing in the Spirit, any compassion and sympathy, make my joy complete: be of the same mind, having the same love, being in full accord and of one mind. Do nothing from selfish ambition or conceit, but in humility regard others as better than yourselves. Let each of you look not to your own interests, but to the interests of others. Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus,
who, though he was in the form of God, did not regard equality with God as something to be exploited, but emptied himself, taking the form of a slave, being born in human likeness. And being found in human form, he humbled himself and became obedient to the point of death— even death on a cross.
Therefore God also highly exalted him and gave him the name that is above every name, so that at the name of Jesus every knee should bend, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue should confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father.
Doing my lectionary weblog this year, I've noticed anew something about the Gospel According to Mark that I find significant as I think about Jesus' cross and what it might mean for me to take it up.
It has to do with the title “son of God,” which is not Mark's favorite way of talking about Jesus. He doesn't use the phrase much, but he uses it at three crucial points as he tells “the beginning of the Good News of Jesus the Christ, the Son of God,” and all of which we visit over the course of Lent and Holy Week.
We hear the phrase at Jesus' Baptism, when he has a vision of the Spirit descending upon him, and Jesus hears God call him as a beloved son. And empowered by that experience, Jesus enters the desert.
We hear the phrase at Jesus' transfiguration on the mountaintop, as Jesus is called as a prophet alongside Moses and Elijah, and once more hears God saying, “this is my beloved child.” Empowered by that experience, Jesus journeys toward his Passover in Jerusalem.
You may have noticed my saying “empowered.” These are stories about Jesus claiming his power. Is that hard to hear? We need to hear it, though. We need to hear it to understand Philippians 2, to realize the vision of the Cross. Because it's at the foot of the Cross that someone -- a Roman soldier no less, a man whose humanity has been so wounded, so eroded, so subverted that he could put another man on a cross -- finally gets what Peter doesn't get in this Sunday's gospel, and this Roman soldier looks at the broken man above him and says -- knows -- “truly this man was God's son.”
He gets it. He perceives Jesus' power in its fullness -- power made perfect in weakness, power poured out for the powerless.
That's the way of the Cross, of Jesus' cross. Jesus claims his power, God's power, and he gets it -- that real power, God's power, is not a limited thing to be grasped, but a inexhaustible stream flowing freely to refresh and empower the weary and the marginalized.
What, then, might it mean for us to take up our Cross and follow Jesus? It's not a call to martyrdom -- if nothing else, the teaching that Jesus' blood shed on the Cross was a perfect, full, and sufficient sacrifice for sin, it ought to tell us that Jesus' blood was the LAST blood to be shed because of sin. God does not need or want bloodshed. Not another drop. God does not call us to be a herd of lemmings. God calls us to be the Body of Christ, praying as Jesus taught us that God's kingdom would come and God's will done on earth as it is in heaven. Jesus taught us to seek God's kingdom and to seek it first -- to look for and journey toward God's dream given flesh in the world, in communities of justice and peace and hope and abundant, vibrant life.
This is a powerful congregation. We have power by virtue of our education, our relative wealth in the world, our privilege in society, our voice. It can be very tempting -- all too tempting -- to seek nothing more than charity. Charity is a start, but it can take us to a dangerous place in which we release some portion of our resources in order to get more power. We maintain a death grip on the unjust privilege that makes us wealthy, that gives us the illusion of control, and then we give away just enough to feel generous without seriously compromising our privilege.
The way of the Cross -- Jesus' way of life -- calls us to let go of that. Jesus' way calls us to be honest about the power we have -- both the worldly power we've got because of our skin color, our gender, our social class, our education, our birth in the most powerful nation in the world, and the spiritual power we have as a community upon which God has breathed the Spirit -- and then to let all of that pour out -- “let justice roll down like waters, and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream” (Amos 5:24) -- to empower the poor.
We are called not only to make sure that the most marginalized have a place at the table, but also to recognize whose table it is. The table around which we gather belongs to Jesus the Christ, who saw, as Peter in this Sunday's gospel did not, that true power is made perfect in self-giving love, that the way of abundant life leads to the Cross. And the symbol of humanity's brokenness, of power corrupted to become domination, becomes a sign of peace, and freedom, and life.
Thanks be to God!