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Saturday, March 31, 2012

Mark's Passion 5

So the soldiers blind fold and beat Jesus, mocking Him to "prophesy!" And, unbeknownst to them, His prophesies to Peter are played out just as He said. Traded for Barabbas, the Lord begins the journey to His death. We can assume that the physical, mental and emotional toll on Jesus is the reason that Simon is compelled to carry the cross. Perhaps the spiritual weight of the event.

The mention not only of Simon, but of his sons Alexander and Rufus are a tantalizing detail. Obviously, Mark is writing for people who knew the sons. We can speculate what Simon's experience was like, maybe it led him (and his boys) to the faith. We only know these brief words.... How they remind us of Jesus' invitation to carry the cross if we would be His disciples. "Suffer with Me," says the Lord.

The ongoing mocking continues. Everyone wants Jesus to do somethnig amazing and come down from the cross. How similar that is to the prayers of many Christians. Aren't we sometimes (often?) inclined to say, "IF you are who you say you are THEN do something about this!!!" We prefer winners, people who overcome the bad guys. We do not want to be counted among the victims. Yet, there Jesus is. Powerless and suffering, He embraces the cross and shows us the way.

Mark says Jesus was crucified at nine and died by three. Six excruciating hours.The summary found in the words, "My God, my God, Why have you forsaken me?" These words succinctly summarize the event. Everyone has deserted Jesus, even the Father. The horror of sin: broken relationship. God made Him to be sin who had never sin, on our behalf. I preached on these words tonight (and will again tomorrow). SO many have felt the absence, the distance of God. God, in Jesus Christ, redeems that experience of desolation. In all of our lives these words have resonated at some point.

Jesus cries out and dies. The Temple curtain is torn in two. Is this a sign of  mourning? Is it God's response to the high priest who tore his clothes? Is it an indication that God is absent from the holy of holies? Is it the sign that in Jesus the access to God is complete and perfected? It is a sign. We know that. And the sign is paired with words, "Truly, this man was the son of God." The third time we are told this in Mark. The first two, by God, at the baptism and Transfiguration. The last time, by a Gentile, a Roman Centurian. The Gospel is preached by someone outside of God's People. We fall to our knees and quake with fear and we worship God. What more can we say or do?

Jesus is buried in the tomb of Joseph. A man of standing in the community. Several woman watch. They are named, probably because it is their testimony which we hear. The men are long gone. Only the church ladies remain behind. They watch. They see where the body is laid.

What feelings must they all have had. Even though Jesus had told them again and again. Here is happened. Death, predicted or not, still has a sting. Even when we know what is coming, we are never quite prepared.
The stone is rolled across the tomb's entrance. In the dark silence the corpse of Jesus lies. The mystery of death is compounded by His death. The son of God dead? What happens in the unseen dimensions? What is going one with God and Jesus? We do not know. All we see is a battered corpse. Where once He spoke and looked and smiled, He is now ashen. He is gone. He is dead.

Friday, March 30, 2012

Mark's Passion 4

When you think about what a small amount of material there is covering the life of Jesus, it is interesting that so many verses have been taken up with Peter's denial (14:66-73). So often a brief summary ("Jesus taught the people" or "Jesus cured the sick who were there") stands in the place of what could be a short novella. One can assume the triple denial had great importance in the early church, probably because Peter had great importance in the early church. Also, the Gospel is making clear that the predictions which Jesus made are coming true. This is vital to remember, after all, because the biggest prediction He made, that He would rise, is tied to the other predictions.

We can wonder about Peter's psychological state. What was he thinking as he saw Jesus dragged off? What kind of fear drove him to deny not once, not twice but three times that he even knew Jesus? And what of Mark? Why has he so consistently shown the followers of Jesus to be so inept? There is an authenticity to the documents in their honesty.

Chapter 15 begin early in the morning (as will chapter 16 and the resurrection). A decision is made to bind Jesus and take him to Pilate. The willingness of the Jewish leaders to hand Jesus over to the Roman oppressors is shocking. He is one of their own, a member of the people of Israel, yet they willingly initiate contact with Pilate. Pilate asks the question, "Are you the King of the Jews?" Jesus confirms that He is. A key insight I came to rather late in life is that the crucifixion of Jesus has a geopolitical component. As a child I was taught that Jesus died to save me from my sins and open the gates of heaven. It was quite clear to me. However, this approach is sometimes one dimensional. It ignores the tangible context of the Jesus story: Roman invaders, Israel/Judah's rich history as a nation, the political ramifications of the title king.

Much of God's battles are in our midst here and now. The war between His kingdom and the "prince of this world" is very much a concrete historical thing (with an eternal- spiritual dimension). The rulers of this earth which are in oposition to God (most recently Nazis, Communists; sadly our own nation seems to be moving in that direction) are "Rome" (or Babylon to use the more Biblical terminology). Jesus is always at odds with those who would rule in place of God (the sin of Adam/Eve). The world is always trying to crucify Jesus ever chance it gets.

Mark's story is clear. The people make the choice. In the Bible it is usually about the group. The crowd rejects Jesus and chooses Barabbas, whose name 'son of the father', is ironic. Jesus is the true Son of the Father. Mark has the crowd recommend crucifixion. Pilate is portrayed as a reluctant participant, asking what they want, asking what crime Jesus committed, doing the deed to please the crowd. Historians and theologians have long debated this. Some question if the Gospel writer is shaping the text to please Roman authorities. However, the crowd rules. In the days ahead this crowd will continue to call for blood, culminating in the rebellion which leads to the destruction of Jerusalem in 70AD. Enough has been said about mobs that I have nothing to add, merely restating the obvious: when large groups of people get together the use of reason diminishes proportionately. (and note the term is the crowd, not the Jews)

The soldiers mock and abuse Jesus. The brutality, captured in the movie The Passion of the Christ, is easy to underestimate. Jesus is helpless, and it seems that can generate greater cruelty in the heart of the bully. The blows which battered him and the wounds inflicted by the scourge could be sufficient to kill by themselves. He was a bloodied mess and the physical toll weakened His body considerably. Coupled with the psycho-spiritual torment, we can understand why His crucifixion ended relatively quickly.

How did this suffering save us? As I shared in Bible study Wednesday, we live in a world where there are connections. Jesus, God become man, shares in the life of all humans. Our sins impact us all, individuals to groups. Our shared nature is a sort of field. We are all connected, literally and spiritually. The evil we do impacts each other in ways we can not understand. The pain we endure, mental, emotional and physical, is some how shared by all. It is this which Jesus redeems, by taking it on Himself. That is what Kings do for their kingdom. I do not understand it, but I believe this mystery. Tomorrow we will look more closely at this.

Thursday, March 29, 2012

Mark's Passion 3

The transition to the next scene is complete as the mob descends upon Jesus. Who exactly are these men? We are told that they were sent by the chief priests and lawyers but beyond that little else beyond their weapons: swords and clubs. We live in a world where such mob violence is still a reality. My middle class world tends to view it from afar, although even here it touches us. How does it happen that Jesus falls victim to such a crowd?

Judas kisses Jesus. This leads me to think that they did not know what Jesus looked like. In our age of photos and TV coverage images are instantly available. It is easier to understand that Jesus could be hidden in plain view if we remember that such images were not at their disposal. So Jesus must be pointed out.

In the other Symoptic Gospels the Lord speaks to Judas (Mt. "Friend why are you here; Lk "Judas would you betray the Son of Man with a kiss?") but here there is no emphasis added. The horror of such betrayal with a sign of friendship is a reminder to us, when we are betrayed, that our Lord has taken that experience and redeemed it.

Someone draws a sword (the Fourth Gospel names Peter and the victim) and strikes. One theory is Peter is unnamed by Mark because such an offense could be evidence to prosecute him (and after his death he is named in a later Gospel). Scholars debate. Mark leaves the brief moment of resistance without remark. Clearly, Jesus is not leading an armed resistance movement. (Something Christians must ponder as we debate on various social issues.) Jesus upbraids the men who have come for Him. He also ties the events to the "filling up" of Scripture. [Side note, the Greek word, to fill, is usually translated as 'fulfill' in English Bibles. This language implies predictions/fulfillment and has led to misunderstanding. In reality, Jesus recapitulates the story of salvation (OT) and fills it to perfection. The stories of the past find new and complete meaning in the story of Jesus. The story of Israel  finds its deepest meaning in the story of Jesus)

"Everyone deserted Him and fled." Pause to think about this. Totally alone.
14:51 includes the odd story, found only in Mark, of a young man who is seized, but flees, naked, leaving his linen cloth in their hands. There is much speculation on this young man. Is it Mark himself? Is it an angel (at the resurrection such a man is present) and a sign that Jesus is all alone? Is it a play on Jesus' command that the disciple must leave everything to follow Him (and now the man leaves everything to flee)? Is it a connection to Adam and the other Garden where sin revealed nakedness?

The "trial" of Jesus is not a trial as we understand it. However, the injustice of the Justice System is portrayed. Here we see an abuse of power. The evidence, we are told, is false testimony. Reference is made to Jesus saying He will destroy the temple and rebuild it in three days. (Something Jesus does NOT say in Mark but in John; a reminder that each Gospel leaves out far more than it contains of the Jesus story) Too often we assume that our courts will provide justice. Fallible humans are not so adept.

The key moment is Jesus' answer to the direct question, "Are you the Messiah, the Son of the Blessed One?" We already know the answer, a voice from heaven has twice made this clear (at the baptism and transfiguration) and the second witness is Peter, who declares this in chapter 8. However, for the first time, Jesus Himself confirms His identity. In answer to the question He says, "ego eimi/ I am" which is, of course, the Divine Name revealed to Moses. "I Am." There can be no doubt who this Jesus is, will the leaders embrace their King? No, they tear their robes, declare Him a blasphemer and condemn and abuse Him.

Herein lies the problem of Jesus. How can anyone claim Him to be a great moral teacher while ignoring this fundamental claim which He makes. If we are honest we must face this. Too many of the "hate the church, love Jesus" crowd side step the issue of His identity. He is the KING. He declares He will "sit at the right hand... and come in the clouds." This Jesus makes amazing claims. Our response to Him cannot be to say He is simply, merely, only a teacher of a better morality. We must acknowledge Him as King (or join the crowd which rejects and crucifies Him). Sadly, too often, we use our power to bully and abuse. We take advantage of the weak instead of serving the Master. We, too, stand condemned with those who kill the Lord.

Wednesday, March 28, 2012

Mark's Passion 2

(Mk 14:22) Having declared the death sentence (on Hmself and His betrayer) suddenly Jesus takes bread and announces it is His body.

These words are a source of great conflict in the Christian Church. In one of the great ironies, people who identify themselves as believing the Bible is "literally true" do not think what Jesus said is literally true. In fact, most of them rarely even celebrate the Lord's Supper. Whatever the eucharistic understanding one might have, clearly the words convey a significance which cannot be understated. "My Body" "My Blood" are connecting the ritual meal with His impending death. It is one obvious way that Jesus is redeeming the act of violence which will occur. It is our share in the new Passover.

One issue about time; in John's Gospel Jesus is crucified at the time that the Passover Lamb is sacrificed. While in Mark, the Passover meal takes place the day before Jesus dies. Many scholars have worked out theories to explain this. Quite possibly one or the other Gospel is placing "accuracy" about time to the back burner in order to make a theological point. John may be connecting the cross overtly, or perhaps Mark is blending the last supper with Passover to connect the meal and cross. In either case, the "season" of Passover is writ large in the story of Jesus' last meal and death.

The impending darkness is palpable. Jesus tells the apostles that they will all leave Him. The horror of isolation is easily overlooked in the story. Jesus will be alone, this night, and that fact is emphasized again and again. It is a help to us when we feel isolated in our pain. Jesus has redeemed that isolation, He has redeeemed those moments when we are destitute and bereft of any companionship. But as the darkness grows, so too, a glimmer of hope. The promise of resurrection is repeated with a new element. Jesus promises to go before the disciples to Galilee. Even as He led them to Jerusalem (where He will soon die) He promises a return trip home.

Peter, missing the point, focuses on himself. "I will never betray you!" His manly courage seems so sufficient. The other disciples also make the same claim. This is often overlooked, Peter is not the only one who confidently asserts his fidelity. They all do. It is just Peter's failure has been the center of focus. As disciples each of us (you and I) share in this overconfidence and infidelity. I dread the long list of "I will never..." that will  be part of my own judgment. Big talk and little else is not unique to Peter.

Beginning with verse 32, the next ten verses display the passion of Jesus in His struggle in the garden. The parallels between this garden and the first garden are interesting. In each case the central issue is obedience. Adam failed, in communion with Eve. Jesus will obey. Adam brings death, Jesus brings life. Adam lives to die. Jesus dies to live.

The disciples sleep. No explanation is given as to why. Throughout the Gospel they have failed to "get it" over and over. Perhaps they are tired and sleep because they do not get it, though with so much talk by Jesus it is hard to understand why they do not understand. Maybe they are worn out from the emotiona and confusion. These last few months (with a baby) I have been very tired. It is amazing how being tired can make us (me) not care about anything else. The desire to sleep is powerful. I do understand the desire to "just get some sleep." Maybe this is all there is to it; our bodies betray us because they are weak. Whatever the reason, it means that Jesus is alone to struggle with the fear in His own heart. Alone to beg the Father for deliverance from His fate. Alone to declare His willingness to suffer and die. Jesus goes to redeem us, "asleep" and unaware, from our sins and disobedience.

Sunday, March 25, 2012

Mark's Passion 1

Next week is Palm Sunday. It is also Passion Sunday. In the lectionary of the church, the Sunday before Easter we read about the crucifixion. For most people, that is when they hear the story. Of course, in our tradition we celebrate Maundy/Holy Thursday and Good Friday, so on those days we read the sections again.

There is a three year cycles on the Gospel readings, alternating Matthew, Mark and Luke. John finds his way in during different times of the year spread out through the three year cycle. This year we read frmo Mark.

Next Sunday we will read Mark's passion account. I thought this week I would reflect on some of the content to provide a little insight into those chapters we will be reading, culminating in a look at his account of Easter Sunday.

Mark 14:1 begins with the statement that it was two days before the Passover. The time frame is crucial. In the Old Testament 'redemption' refers, first and foremost, to the rescue from slavery in Egypt. The Passover meal is a celebration through which later generations participate in that blessed event. The connection of the Jesus story and the Passover story is theologically vital. The decisioin is made to arrest Jesus "by stealth and kill him." The death of Jesus is, at one level, a political act. The work of the Jewish leaders to do Him in is as mundane and evil as all other such acts.

In Bethaty, Jesus is at table in the house of Simon the leper (nice moniker). There are parallels to the story in John's Gospel set in the house of Lazarus. [It is hard to figure all the details of the timeline of Jesus' last days. The narratives are as concerned about the meaning of the events as they are the exact chronology.] At any rate the key point is the woman annoints Jesus for His burial. In Mark's Gospel there are constant predictions of Jesus' passion and death. Jesus instructs the disciples repeatedly and in detail about what awaits Him. This is another prediction. While the main argument inside the story is about the waste of expensive ointment and Jesus' reminder that we will always have the poor to care for; there is another element hidden from contemporary eyes. This is a woman who has enterred the realm of men. In ancient Jewish culture this should not have happened. She did not belong there. Putting aside our own culture (where mixing is considered mandatory) to hear the Gospel one must note this element.

Without any time reference, we are told "then" Judas went to betray Jesus. The role of Judas is much debated, as is his name (literally where the word Jew comes from). Many people see him as the victim, some go so far as to say he is a literary fiction to indicate that the Jewish people have rejected their Messiah. The issue of Judas' free will comes to the fore and I have probably been asked about Judas more than any other person in the Scripture. I will comment on this later, when he comes up again in the story. For now, we have the new setting. The enemies of Jesus now have an insider working with them.

Then Jesus sends some disciples to the city to prepare. They are told to look for "a man carrying a jar of water" and I have never taken note of this (except for the special knowledge Jesus displays). However, in reading the Social-Science Commentary on the Synoptic Gospels (by Malina & Rohrbaugh) there is a note that water is a woman's job. The next day, reading Genesis, I read the story of Rebekah meeting Abraham's servant and giving him water and watering his camels. In our culture a man is supposed to do such things for a woman. The bible is full of stories of women at the watering hole. So why emphasize this? A woman and now a man are portrayed (without comment) as being in the wrong place. A man invading the realm of women to get water would have broken a cultural norm.

I think, one element of the narrative is the introduction of the idea of a person being where they should not be, a reversal of expectations. This is capped in the cross. The (God)man on the cross is innocent. He is not supposed to be among sinners (just as the woman and man are not supposed to be where they are). Perhaps too subtle, and a misreading on my part. It just is interesting.

I will conclude with the gathering and Jesus statement "one of you will betray me." Once more, unexpected, a friend will betray. The new "family" of Jesus, the one group with whom He can be at peace, is now a dangerous place. The disciples all say "not me?" with uncertainty. The Gospel portrays the apostles as a group that "never gets it" and this may be the worst example of their denseness.  The Jesus says of the betrayer, "it would have been better for him not to have been born." Whatever else one might speculate on Judas, these words of Jesus are stunning and clear. Judas is no victim, nor is he misunderstood. He is the lowest of the low, a person who betrays the Master.

We do well to ponder the complexity of the multiple relationships and the concrete reality of this story. As God in Christ plugs Himself into our human reality, we need to plug ourselves into the reality of the Gospel. We need to read, pray over and ponder the multiple threads. We need to come to a deeper appreciation and make a more energized commitmen to respond in faith and love.

Friday, March 23, 2012

Philokalia 2

I am actually lifting a section from the Philokali. It is on page 189 of Volume 1 (Faber and Faber) and expresses the focus on grace even as it exhorts our efforts:

We will travel down the road of repentance correctly if, as we begin to give attention to the intellect, we combine humility with watchfulness, and prayer with power to rebut evil thoughts. In this way we will adorn the chamber of our heart with the holy and venerable name of Jesus Christ...
But if we trust only in our own watchfulness and attentiveness, we shall quickly be pushed aside by our enemies ... lacking the powerful sword of the name of Jesus.

Often times, spiritual disciplines can become foolish self-dependence. We get focused on "me" and what I am doing. We think more highly of ourselves than we should. "I am strong" is true, but it is also true that "I am not that strong." There are limits to what any of us can accomplish on our own. Positive attitudes and self confidence have their limits.

In the spiritual realm there are powers at work which we cannot handle. [One reason why I shudder to hear people self-identify as 'spiritual, not religious'] The spiritual realm is not friendly or good. It contains angels and demons, God and Satan, light and darkness. The Master would have us understand this. He (Jesus) is the power source. His name is the name above all others. Enterring into this world on our own is foolhardy and will end in destruction.

Our activity, therefore, is best when we are doing all in Jesus' name. Repetition of the Name is a source of blessing. It frees the ego from "coming up with a good sounuding prayer" and it allows one to humbly trust the Lord and His power to save. Replacing a bad thought or image with the prayer of Jesus' Name was sound advice fifteen hundred years ago and it is still sound advice today. I hope you are inspired to take up this practice, at least on occassion.

Thursday, March 22, 2012


I am reading The Philokalia this Lent. It "is a collection of texts written between the fourth and fifteenth centuries by spiritual masters of the Orthodox Christian tradition." (Introduction, Vol. 1) These works were compiled by St. Nikodimos of the Holy Mountain and St. Makarios of Corinth around the time of the Declaration of Independence. They are a compilation of the best of the ancient and medieval church of the East.

There is a remarkable amount of repetition in the work. Therefore, one finds the core message repeated again and again. This is helpful, especially for people like me (us) who are seduced by innovations and 'the next new thing.'

I am currently in the writings of St. Hesychios the Priest which contains 203 sayings "On Watchfulness and Holiness." What I  have seen, over and over, is the exhortation to do three things.

1. The constant invocation of the name of Jesus. This is the Jesus Prayer. It continually fills the mind with the Lord and prevents evil thoughts and desires from finding a place to rest within our intellect. It is a reminder that deep prayer occurs in connecting with the Lord, not an abundance of flowery words.
2. Be watchful. Constant awareness of one's thoughts allows one to be on guard against any evil inclination. It is reliant on God's help and is the road to purity of heart. An unguarded mind and heart are easily accessed by evil.
3. Grace. We must understand that "sonship is a gift" and contextualize all our disciplines and activities within the framework of grace. Again and again he reminds us of grace.

Reading these words is difficult. They are written for monks. I am no monk. My life is filled with many activities. It is a challenge to understand how such spiritual wisdom is applied to a life where work, family and the mundane duties of daily life press in. Doing the Jesus Prayer all day is not easy when one has so much else to take care of. Yet, even busy people have moments where this is possible. So I can (and do) pray the Jesus Prayer (or the Thank You Prayer) over and over at different times of the day. I can be aware of improper or unhelpful thoughts and invoke the power of Jesus' Name. Maybe not every time, but often enough to make a difference.

The Orthodox Masters live at a level which I have never approached. It is challenging to read the words of such committed Christians. It is also helpful. It reminds me that the task of holiness never ends. It also reminds me that others have been on it and still are. We are not alone on this journey. And we have access to the travel notes of some wonderful people!

Tuesday, March 20, 2012

Message of Doom

I got a letter today. It claims to be from a Christian named James who has received some messages from the Lord. He says in prayer last Summer God told him there would be major devastation in Texas, East Coast and Memphis. The fires in Texas and the hurricane/flooding in the east confirmed the vision. What remains is a major event in Memphis. Soon. He thinks it will  be an earthquake.

The tone of the letter is very humble and measured. In the church business I frequently receive this sort of thing. Much of it is related to money or threats. Every couple of weeks another African millionaire is dying, but wants to share some cut of his money for my willingness to accept the money for church work. For awhile it was one or two a day! There are also any number of warnings which cross my desk, usually based on a unique approach to bible interpretation. Some can be full of great bile while others are more sedate. The common theme is traditional Christianity is a farce and only this particular sect (with a dozen or so "scriptures" as evidence) has got the truth.

But today's letter is different. No money request. No threat against mainline Christianity. No Bible quotes to prove obscure points. Just a threat of an earthquake (soon), a mention of Luke 21:11 (eathquakes and signs of end times) and a humble exhortation to pray for revival.

Prophetic visisons are difficult to process. There have long been people receiving visison ('from the Lord') about pending natural disaster. The thing is, every year there are disasters. It is a safe bet to think somewhere there will be weather or geological events which claim lives. Somewhere a terrorist or an army will wreak destruction. Somewhere something is happening and it is not good.

But James has pinpointed for me a place (my home) and a time (soon). Is this from God? James admits he is not sure, that it might be his own imagination. But he felt a push to warn me (us) because of the confirmation in other places. Promises of bad things (be it the Virgin Mary's messages or some local prophet) have long been part of our extra-biblical "revelation" and it  has long been hard for the church to decipher what to think.

I hope there is no devastating earthquake here. Based on scientists who speak on the topic, it could be really, really bad if that happens. Eventually there will be one. Whether it is in the next few months no one knows. Except maybe James.

I will continue to live my life. I think every day is a gift. Every day something could happen, either locally or globally which could turn my (our) world upside down. Eventually "it" will happen. The main thing is Jesus. The main thing is being a disciple and living out of His abundance (and not all my stuff of my life). It is hard to do. Maybe God is fed up with me (us) living like He is an extra appendage to life. Maybe He is ready to wreak some judgment. We are not doing an amazing job of worship and obedient service. We probably are not grateful for all He does for us. We probably deserve judgment. But I hope James is wrong and I hope we are spared. Again. And again.

Sunday, March 18, 2012

Salvation and the Poseidon Adventure

During my week at home I was wrestling with the issues of grace and works. Now most moments were filled with baby care and transporting big brother to his baseball practices and games, so the reflections were during 'tummy time' and working on learning to sit. (I knew I was preaching on Ephesians  2:1-10 and John 3:14-21.)

The key themes of both readings included the idea of fallen humanity, that all flesh is at enmity with God. The sad truth is "the world" is not what it was meant to be. Even worse, we are not what we were meant to be. One verse, "we were by nature children of wrath" is completely at odds with the assumptions of many Christians today. [They say, "God made me this way so I must be okay."] Paul goes on to say repeatedly that "by grace we are saved" because God is kind and merciful. In John, we hear the famous line "God so loved the world that He sent His only Son." John explains that Jesus was not sent to condemn the world but to save the world. We are saved by faith. However, the bad news, many do not believe and they perish.

How to understand the paradox (better, the mystery)? Grace, works, mercy, salvation, faith, unbelief, condemnation, perishing... All the words are in relationship with one another but there is tension. How exactly does it all work? There are many theories, many contradicint one another. I offer my take:

If it is all grace then what we do does not matter (so say many Christians). But in truth, if our behaviors do not matter than what is the point of giving of our precious time, talent and treasure? If God does not care then it is silly to spend ourselves for others. On the other hand, who can stand before God? Our pile of good deeds pales before the huger pile of missed opportunities and the festering pile of evil which we have also done.

How then can we understand this mystery of salvation as a gift and salvation as a journey of faith and faithfulness? Well, the movie the Poseidon Adventure popped in my head and I will use it to illustrate what I think the Bible actually teaches. The movie, a blockbuster hit which was part of a series of 1970's disaster films with huge casts, came out forty years ago. (If you need a refersher go to Wikipedia) In a nutshell, a luxury cruiser is flipped over by a wave and floats upsidedown in the ocean. People have to figure out how to stay alive.

First of all, Poseidon is a pagan god, so the film name reminds us that we live in a world under demonic influence. As I have shared before, the Bible often equates the seas with chaos and demonic powers. Boats are a symbol of the church and also the world. (Ironically, my last post reflected on these same themes) The people in the ship have a decison to make. They are 'lost' with no hope in their own capacity to get out. All the exits are now under water. They will die. This is a perfect illustration of the human condition. We are in need of rescue. We need someone (Someone) to intervene. Certainly much of the Bible is written from this perspective (as opposed to God being totally in control of everything). We cannot save ourselves. Nothing we can do. Yet....

As the people who survived the ship flipping over ponder their situation there are two groups. One decides to stay put. They hope someone will come to them. This is more wish than hope. It is not a thorough assessment of the situation. Upside down ships do not float forever. It is best to climb higher. A small group decides to climb. Unfortunately for those who stay behind, an explosion leads to rushing waters which take the lives of all of them. Passive faith does not save.

But for those who leave the journey is not easy (because up is down and down is up). They climb in response to faith. They believe there is a place where rescue can occur (in the part of the ship which is thinnest). They hope and believe, so they act. The road  to salvation is "The Way" (and the leader of the group is a priest, who ends up sacrificing himself to save the group; Christ typology). The journey is brutal and several characters die. A reminder that the road is not easy something illustrated repeatedly in the parables of Jesus.

While on their way they encounter another group. They debate which way to go. Just like real life, there are numerous theories about the way to salvation. Just like in real life all ways are not The Way. The other group, headed in the wrong direction, is never seen again.

When the remnant reach their destination, they are found and the movie ends with a helicopter taking them off to life. It is a gift that they are rescued. They worked hard to get to the place, but the place would not have been enough. Someone had to cut a hole through the ship (even though the thinnest part it is still too thick for them to penetrate). The rescue is a grace. There is nothing the characters can do to make the rescuers come to their aid. Just like God, His choice to save is His choice. But, even if we cannot save ourselves, our choices and decisions and actions determine things, too.

Jesus says, over and over again, that we are accountable for what we do. Too often we equate dependence on God with inactivity. Or, conversely, too often we assume our activity is the whole story. I doubt the Poseidon Adventure was intended as a parable of faith and works (although the priest does preach a sermon on "God helps those who help themselves"). Too much emphasis on our activity debases the role of God. But in a time when people seem to presume mercy and minimize sin, perhaps we need to  look a bit more at our duty to climb higher, to follow the Way and to act out our trust in our daily behavior.

Can we save ourselves? No. But we can respond in faith, we can journey in faith, we can climb through the obstacles until we reach the place where God calls and Jesus leads. Once we arrive, we can await, injoyful hope, our deliverance. We are saved by grace, but never doubt our works matter.

Friday, March 9, 2012

Storms, Jesus and the rest of the story

Today's Gospel from Mark is one which most of us know. Jesus is in a boat. There is a storm. Jesus calms the storm. The trip ends well...

Reading the Bible like a newspaper or magazine ("Hey, Honey! There is a great story about a nature miracle and that Jesus guy in today's Tribune!") leads us in certain directions. We think it is inside information on the coolest miracle ever. There is power and excitement and it just fills a person with pride to be on Team Jesus. I am sure that this is an eyewitness account (Peter) and that it is relayed as such. I also think that there is some spiritual/theological depth that is easy to miss. Having done a Lenten reflection this morning on the Gospel I want to share some things.

Mark 4:35-41 begins telling us it after evening. It is dark. Literally, scary time to be in a boat and theologically connected to evil (and Satan, Prince of Darkness). Jesus says "Let's go to the Other Side." Once again, this literal journey is also full of symbolism. Like Abraham we go with Jesus into an unknown place. The Promise of God present with us, the promise that the future is in His hand, to sustain us. The text mentions other boats with them. It is odd because they do not factor into the story. It is a detail which Peter would remember and mention. It does not progress the story. Perhaps we can understand those boats as filled with us? We are observers and witnesses to the story today!

We read "a great storm of wind" arose on the water. Go back and read Genesis 1. In the beginning there is a great wind over the waters (chaos). Suddenly, this story of a trip becomes a new story of creation. Water is chaos. In Genesis (and in Revelation, where the sea is no more once the Kingdom comes) water is much more than water. Jesus on the water is like God in Genesis. Creating out of chaos. And a boat on these waters echoes Noah and his ark. The disciples, a small band, a remnant, are passing through to the other side. To NEW creation. We are in a boat (the church) as well. We are in storms as well. Chaos surges about us. What hope do we have in such danger. Our vessel (our safe place) may be taking on water. Will we sink? (or like the Three Stooges will we drill holes in the boat bottom to drain out the water, making it worse?)

Jesus is asleep in the story. We all know the word sleep and death are often interchanged in the NT (Jesus and Paul). Sleeping Jesus is a theological image of dead Jesus (or absent Jesus). He is among us, but inefficient to help in the storm. We cry out (with the apostles) "Do you not care????" Jesus wakes, He rebukes the storm (language of exorcism) and all becomes calm.

Then there are questions? Why are you afraid? Have you no faith?
Questions asked of the disciples. Questions asked of the reader of the Gospel. Does any threat lead us to despair, knowing Jesus is Risen Lord? That is the point. The story ends with a question, "Who is this?" That question will be asked again, in chapter 8. Peter will answer, "You are the Christ, the Son of God."

Today we are in storms. God continues to create His world out of the chaos. The seven days of creation are ongoing. Each day new life is constructed. Each day the ark is full of His faithful ones, tossed to and fro on the stormy "sea" of chaos (sin and death). You and I are in the boat with Jesus. Perhaps the boat looks bad to you. Maybe you prefer a better boat, a better church. Be aware, any boat in swimming distance is still in the same storm. There is no escape. The storm will range. But no this, Jesus is asleep because He is not afraid, He expects the same of us. Trust. Faith. Not fear.

We are headed to "the Other Side." Now in this day it is a place of battle with demons. But there is another meaning to "the Other Side," namely "the Kingdom." We are headed there, as well. A place of peace and joy, of worshipping God's glory and enjoying His presence. The storm is nothing compared to that. SO be brave. Have faith. Jesus is more powerful than the storm. The New Creation is issuing forth, at His word, from the chaos of the raging seas.

Thursday, March 8, 2012

Pancreatic Cancer

On Memorial Day Week End, 1999, my father breathed his last, surrounded by all of his children and grandchildren. During those last days, I remember watching the shallow movements of his chest, wondering how on earth he was getting enough oxygen to stay alive. The end was subtle. And final.

Today I got two e-mails. One informed me that the father of a former parishioner has been diagnosed with stage four pancreatic cancer. Those words (pancreatic cancer) impact me in a different way because they are personal. However, more difficult was the other e-mail. A high school student, named Trey, was also diagnosed with pancreatic cancer. He is also stage four and  he has been told that he can expect to live another three to six months, at most a year.

There is something tragic, yet fitting, for someone in their sixties or seventies to die of cancer. No one lives forever. A life cut short in the latter years seems less unfair. But a teen aged football player? A couple weeks ago on a church retreat he complained of a stomach ache. Now he knows the clock is ticking. The family asks for prayers. How many times have we seen a similar situation? Believing, yet heartbroken parents begging God for mercy. Death quietly lurking in the corner, waiting to sweep in and capture another victim to add to his haul.

I have been pondering different models or analogies of salvation the last week or so. Yesterday I wrote of healing. Our souls are sick and need God's touch to make us whole. For these two men, that time is short. How does God weigh the response of an old man (who is reportedly agnostic) or a young boy as they die of pancreatic cancer. Is their suffering redemptive? How completely must they believe and love God? And at what point is their repsonse determinative? Does grace imply God finds a way? Or are their strict rules which allow no wiggle room?

I think that it is clear that God honors our decision to turn away. He lets Sin have its way with us if we choose Sin over Him. I also know that God desires that all be saved. All. Everyone. Regardless of what they are and what they do, God wants them. Words like Love, Mercy, Longsuffering, especially when applied to God, are the foundation of hope. Say a prayer for these two, one young, one not so young. Pray that they will turn to the Lord and live. Pray for their passage into the heart of God. Pray also for those touched by their demise that they will come to know, to love and to serve the Lord. Pray in thanksgiving that such a gracious Lord is our Father in Heaven.

Wednesday, March 7, 2012

Salvation 6 Healed

[a myriad of work related and home related demands has led me to less frequent posting. I want to continue this series on different analogies for salvation and appreciate your patience in my inconsistent blogging]

The Bible often connects sin and illness. One might recall the time when a paralytic was brought to Jesus. Unable to come to the Lord on the ground, his four friends lowered the man through the roof to Jesus' feet. Our Master looked at him and said, "Your sins are forgiven." There was no confession. There was no declaration of faith. There was nothing except the Son of God's gracious declaration of forgiveness followed by the physical healing (to demonstrate His power to forgive sins). This is not the only place where Jesus "saves/heals" (the Greek word, sozo, can mean both) of His own initiative. Jesus came to deliver us from the grip of Satan and from the grasp of sin and death. God heals even those without faith.

In the Eastern Orthodox tradition, sin is viewed as a sickness. Too often the legal model (sin as breaking a law, the divine court as remedy) or the moral model (sin as doing bad, punishment as the proper repsonse) are seen as the only way to understand sin. So "getting off" (escaping legal punishment) or "getting by" (avoiding culpability) become the preoccupation of the sinner. I think that we forget that sin (even in Paul) has an element of power. It is more than just a word to describe wrong actions. It is also "something at work in our mortal bodies and in the world." Like disease, it is something we contract and it is something which can kill us. Sure, there are choices we make, but once we choose, that power is at work in ways we can not have forseen. It is also a power at work in the world, like bacteria or viruses.

Sin as a soul sickness is a long standing Christian concept. Jesus' title, the Divine Physician, is a reminder that salvation is also healing. So, along with conversion, there is a sense of passivity involved in getting saved. It is God's activity. At most we cry out, "Lord, Jesus, have mercy on me!" and await His touch. We cannot earn it. We cannot generate it in ourselves. We cannot make it happen. And healing may be quick & easy or it may be a long process (more often) of pain (like withdrawal or mending body parts).

It helps me to remember that, among other things, I am also sick. It helps to look to the Lord and seek His healing. This analogy of salvation really allows us to understand the grace of divine activity (being healed) coupled with the importance of human response (not engaging in behaviors which make the illness worse).

Sunday, March 4, 2012

Salvation 5 Wash and Eat

How does one enter 'the Kingdom'? While faith and obedience are two components, there are also the sacramental means. Our Christian culture is less adept with sacraments, in large part because we are less comfortable with symbolic acts, which sometimes border on the magical. Abuses of the sacramental system seem to parallel the prophetic condemnation of ancient Israel (i.e., going through the liturgical motions). Acts are emptied of meaning when the heart/will are not engaged. There is also (on a less positive note) the whole influence of the ancient heresy of Gnosticism and the discomfort "spiritual" people have with matter. Faith is pure because it is spiritual, after all, so who needs 'stuff' in their spiritual walk?

In John 6, Jesus makes statements which boggle the mind. I will only quote one verse, but there are others. "Very truly I tell you, unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink His blood, you have no life within you. Those who eat my flesh and drink my blood have eternal life, and I will raise them up on the last day." Obviously, this is a most controversial saying of Jesus and Christians are mightily divided on it. However, it is fair to say that without a predisposition to reject the "plain meaning" what Jesus says here is that eucharist is salvific. So another angle is provided. As a youngster I took great delight in communion because I believed Jesus' promise. I eat and so I am His and He will raise me up. Ironically, those who attack such belief (in the name of the blessed assurance of faith) atack the assurance provided here (and as attacks work, they also make us doubt everything!).

Even wider spread in the NT is the power of baptism. "Unless you are born of water and the Spirit..." or "Baptize them in the Name of the Father, Son and Holy Spirit (and teach them to obey)." I typed the question, "Does baptism save us?" on Google and got 2 million hits. Many Bible teachers are adament that Baptism does not save. They focus on faith (which is not all bad). However, in many places we hear about the power of baptism to wash away sins or let us be born again/from above. The efficacy of baptism is much debated. I am not here to advocate any position. I am merely stating that it is UNTRUE that there is no where in the Bible where baptism is portrayed as a means of salvation.

The idea that getting washed (the literal meaning of baptism) and/or eating (the bread and cup) are a means of salvation are offensive to many Christians. They advocate faith. In fact, they advocate it so strenuously that faith begins to sound like saying "magic words" (I accept Jesus as my personal Lord and Savior) and herein lies the problem. The concept of grace without human response boggles the mind. IF it is all about GRACE then why would God not provide a sacramental means to demonstrate that grace. If someone is baptized why can that not be enough (grace, after all, is super abundant and sufficient)? If one comes to the table, why can that not bind them to Jesus? Why is it some think grace disappears once there are sacraments?

Angles and aspects on the unfathomable mystery. How does God save? There are a myriad of answers which touch on this or that aspect of the answer. Today we eat in my church. Today God is saving us who gather in faith and love. Today God is saving us who trust and obey.