Sunday, April 29, 2012

Resurrection Challenge: Feed My Sheep

I’ve been hanging out on the beach with John, Peter, and the others, trying to understand what Jesus is up to.

I’ve seen the evidence of the resurrection, but I’m wondering: Now what? Should we all go fishing? Hang our hammocks between some trees and whistle Kumbaya?

After a wasted night out on the water, we hear him calling: “Throw your net on the other side.”

Do You Love Me? Feed My Sheep, Hanna Varghese,
2001, Malaysia
Seriously? It’s the same water on both sides of the boat.

But John says “It’s the Lord,” and Peter throws himself into the lake, and then there are fish, 153 of them (which makes me wonder – who’s counting? And why?)

And Jesus himself is cooking fish on the beach. There are lots of fish in this story. Not metaphorical fish, either. Fresh, fleshy fish. Char-grilled fish. And bread. Waiting to be eaten.

John’s gospel ends with the fish on the beach story, and Jesus’ questions for Peter: Do you love me? Feed my sheep. Do you love me? Feed my lambs. Do you love me? Feed my sheep.

We jump quickly to the assumption that the instruction is metaphorical. Or rather, spiritual. Share some good spiritual food. Have a Bible study. Preach a sermon.

But maybe not. Jesus had just shown his own love for Peter, by feeding him. Real fish. Real bread.

John’s story reminds us of the earlier fish miracles: Jesus was teaching, the crowds gathered, and people were hungry. “Feed them,” Jesus said. The disciples were alarmed. Surely he was kidding? Or speaking metaphorically?

Apparently not. Five loaves and two fish were multiplied, and thousands were fed, with baskets of leftovers. Metaphorical? Those details about leftover fish sound way too specific. Someone was counting.

Hungry people don’t listen well. I learned that the hard way. For years I was part of a children’s outreach in a low-income neighborhood in Philly. One evening I watched a young teen slouch on the cracked cement steps, watching his friends play soccer. I asked why he didn’t go join them.

“Too hungry.”

I asked what he’d had for lunch (our program started at 5 PM).

Dumb question. Lunch, for hungry kids in the summer, is an interesting idea. And breakfast? None.

“So when did you eat last?”

Feed My Sheep, Kimberly Burgess, 2006, Illinois
He couldn’t remember. I broke out the snacks – against all rules – an hour early, and later that evening our team restructured our program to give snacks from the minute the kids arrived, and to make sure we were offering snacks that would at least partly fill a hungry teen.

But back on the beach with Jesus: isn’t it strange that this is how John chose to end his gospel? Not with a final sermon, but a meal. And instructions: “Feed my sheep.”

I’ve heard warnings, ad infinitum, against “the social gospel.” The priority of the church is the saving of souls, not the feeding of the hungry.

Which is how we know that when Jesus said “Feed my sheep” he was speaking of souls. Not hungry stomachs.

How are we so sure? We do this too much: divide the good news into spiritual and physical, not seeing that a divided gospel is no gospel at all.

Go back to that troubling passage in Matthew 25:
“Then the King will say to those on his right, ‘Come, you who are blessed by my Father; take your inheritance, the kingdom prepared for you since the creation of the world. For I was hungry and you gave me something to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you invited me in, I needed clothes and you clothed me, I was sick and you looked after me, I was in prison and you came to visit me.’
 “Then the righteous will answer him, ‘Lord, when did we see you hungry and feed you, or thirsty and give you something to drink? When did we see you a stranger and invite you in, or needing clothes and clothe you? When did we see you sick or in prison and go to visit you?’ 
“The King will reply, ‘Truly I tell you, whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you did for me.’
From what I can tell, Jesus was talking about real food, real clothes. Real, visible activity on behalf of the hungry, poor, imprisoned. Social gospel stuff – as a prerequisite for his kingdom.

After listening and watching for over fifty years now, I’ve learned to recognize resurrection people by the way they handle this question of priority. Real food, or spiritual food? Social gospel, or verbal proclamation of the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ? Faith, or works?

For the Least of These, Soichi Watanabe,
2004, Japan
Anyone who puts the two in opposition is playing the same game played by the expert of the law who came looking for Jesus’ approval:
“Teacher,” he asked, “what must I do to inherit eternal life?”
“What is written in the Law?” he replied. “How do you read it?”
He answered, “‘Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength and with all your mind’; and, ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’”
“You have answered correctly,” Jesus replied. “Do this and you will live.”
But he wanted to justify himself, so he asked Jesus, “And who is my neighbor?”
Once we see that our neighborhood is as wide as the globe, that our own needs don’t come first, not even our need to be right, or comfortable, or safe, or to have others agree, then we can start the hard work of love, which includes feeding the hungry, clothing the naked, working to supply clean water where children drink from filthy ditches, and yes, along the way, as we go, as we’re asked, as the Holy Spirit leads us, sharing what we know and have seen of the good news of Jesus Christ.

Irish theologian Peter Rollins has captured attention with his intentionally offensive assertion:
“Without equivocation or hesitation I fully and completely admit that I deny the resurrection of Christ. This is something that anyone who knows me could tell you, and I am not afraid to say it publicly, no matter what some people may think.”
He goes on:
“I deny the resurrection of Christ every time I do not serve at the feet of the oppressed, each day that I turn my back on the poor; I deny the resurrection of Christ when I close my ears to the cries of the downtrodden and lend my support to an unjust and corrupt system. 
“However there are moments when I affirm that resurrection, few and far between as they are. I affirm it when I stand up for those who are forced to live on their knees, when I speak for those who have had their tongues torn out, when I cry for those who have no more tears left to shed.”
We affirm the resurrection when we feed the sheep. When we buy a bag of groceries for a family short of cash or bring a box of our favorite soups to the food pantry at church, When we advocate for the hungry with letters to our representatives. or spend time learning about food systems and small farmers and the causes of rising food prices and hunger in places where food was once plentiful.

James, Jesus’ brother, wrote:
Suppose a brother or a sister is without clothes and daily food.  If one of you says to them, “Go in peace; keep warm and well fed,” but does nothing about their physical needs, what good is it?  In the same way, faith by itself, if it is not accompanied by action, is dead.
But someone will say, “You have faith; I have deeds.” Show me your faith without deeds, and I will show you my faith by my deeds.  (James 2)
Resurrection people understand this amazing mystery: we are both physical and spiritual. The resurrection was a historical fact, a visible, material demonstration of an invisible, spiritual victory. Our faith is an internal reality, and an external, practical call to action. We need physical food and spiritual food, care of our bodies as well as care of our souls.

And love of God and neighbor, the inescapable commandment, is best shown with fish and bread, prayer and carefully chosen words, and time together on the beach, or breadline, or cracked cement stairs, anywhere hungry, waiting people gather, hoping for evidence of resurrection.

Christ of the Breadline, Fritz Eichenberg, 1953, New York

This is the fourth in a series about the resurrection:
Risen Indeed: The Hermaneutic Community 
The Great Reserval: A Resurrection People 
Earth Day Shalom: Ripples of Resurrection  
For comment on the social gospel and the good news of Christ from a non-American perspective, check out Vinoth Ramachandra’s Whose Gospel, Which Priority.

As always, your thoughts and comments are welcome. Click on the   __ comments link below to post.

Sunday, April 22, 2012

Earth Day Shalom: Ripples of Resurrection

How long will the land lie parched  and the grass in every field be withered? 
Because those who live in it are wicked, the animals and birds have perished.                      (Jeremiah 12:4)

Pollution Yellow Skies, Kay Jackson, Washington DC
What would Jeremiah say about oceanic dead zones? Or the growing man-made deserts in Central Asia and North Africa? Mountain top removal? Or the lingering sludge of the tar sand spill lining the Kalamazoo?

There is a tight correlation in scripture between the health of the land and the appetites of its people. Adam and Eve’s greed in Genesis spilled immediately onto the ground itself: “Cursed is the ground because of you.”  In Leviticus, God’s people were warned that the productivity of the land would be tied to their obedience in the use of it. Plow and plant for six years, let it lie fallow the seventh, and God would provide far more than they needed:
“If you follow my decrees and are careful to obey my commands, I will send you rain in its season, and the ground will yield its crops and the trees their fruit. Your threshing will continue until grape harvest and the grape harvest will continue until planting, and you will eat all the food you want and live in safety in your land.” (Leviticus 26)
In the prophetic books, Isaiah, Jeremiah and others warned of environmental devastation resulting from misuse of the land, injustice toward the poor, disobedience of God’s laws. They warned of drought, famine, crop failure barren fields, thorns and thistles, roving jackals.

Despair, you farmers, 
   wail, you vine growers; 
grieve for the wheat and the barley, 
   because the harvest of the field is destroyed. 
The vine is dried up 
   and the fig tree is withered; 
the pomegranate, the palm and the apple tree— 
   all the trees of the field—are dried up. 
Surely the people’s joy 
   is withered away.  
       (Habbakuk 38)
Explicit condemnation of exploitation of the land echoes through the prophetic warnings:
“As for you, my flock, this is what the Sovereign Lord says: I will judge between one sheep and another, and between rams and goats.  Is it not enough for you to feed on the good pasture? Must you also trample the rest of your pasture with your feet? Is it not enough for you to drink clear water? Must you also muddy the rest with your feet?” (Ezekiel 34)
The Great Promise to the Creation, collage
Jae-Im Kim, Korea, 2007,
Yet amid the prophetic warnings are promises of shalom: God’s peace, but more than peace. Nicholas Wolterstorff, in Educating for Shalom, wrote:
“…Shalom is the human being dwelling at peace in all his or her relationships: with God, with self, with fellows, with nature. . . But the peace which is shalom is not merely the absence of hostility, not merely being in the right relationship. Shalom at its highest is enjoyment in one’s relationships. A nation may be at peace with all its neighbors and yet be miserable in its poverty. To dwell in shalom is to enjoy living before God, to enjoy living in one’s physical surroundings, to enjoy living with one’s fellows, to enjoy life with oneself. . .”
The coming shalom described by the prophets invariably includes a healed creation: mountains and hills shout for joy, trees dance and sing, streams gush into barren places, abundant harvests bless humans and hungry creatures alike:
The desert and the parched land will be glad;
   the wilderness will rejoice and blossom.
Like the crocus, it will burst into bloom;
   it will rejoice greatly and shout for joy. (Isaiah 35)
You will go out in joy
   and be led forth in peace;
the mountains and hills
   will burst into song before you,
and all the trees of the field
   will clap their hands.
Instead of the thornbush will grow the juniper,
   and instead of briers the myrtle will grow. (Isaiah 55)
The Tree of Life, Helen Siegl 
If the resurrection was the sign of the great reversal, it was also the sign of the coming shalom. When the resurrected Jesus greeted his friends, his first words were “peace be with you.”  In his letter to the Colossians, Paul insists that all creation is woven together by the creative, sustaining power of Jesus himself, and that the resurrection is the start of reconciliation and God’s shalom for “all things - on earth - or in heaven,” not just for humans, but for all creation:
The Son is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn over all creation. For in him all things were created: things in heaven and on earth, visible and invisible, whether thrones or powers or rulers or authorities; all things have been created through him and for him. He is before all things, and in him all things hold together. . . For God was pleased to have all his fullness dwell in him, and through him to reconcile to himself all things, whether things on earth or things in heaven, by making peace through his blood, shed on the cross. (Colossians 1)
Can Christians be green? Tim Keller, of Redeemer Church in New York, gave a terrific sermon on this topic not long ago. His conclusion is the same as church fathers through the centuries: Christians are called to live as passionate promoters and protectors of creation.

Keller offers examples:
Stuart L Pimm, winner of the Hieneken Prize for Environmental Science:
“I’m a believing Christian. “God so loved the cosmos that he gave his only son.” That’s an injunction from St. John. To me, this says that Christians have an obligation to look after the world — stewardship. We cannot pointlessly drive species to extinction and destroy forests and oceans. When we do that, we are destroying God’s creation.”
Joel Salatin of innovative, “beyond organic” Polyface Farm in Virginia: “We want a farm that builds soil, builds immune systems, builds nutrient density. Ultimately, as a farmer, I am in the land redemption business . . . (We need to) step in as loving land stewards, caretakers, as an expression of God’s grace, abundance and redemptive capacity.”   
St. Francis Preaches to the Birds,
Sadao Watanabe, Japan, 1985
I’m not a farmer, or environmental scientist. But my knowledge of Christ’s shalom calls me to extend that experience of welcome and safe haven. On our own suburban half-acre, I’ve been working to build a place of sanctuary for bugs, butterflies, and birds. Native plantings, non-chemical lawn care, and lots of bird feeders and water supplies have helped create an oasis of bird song. Nesting in our yard this year are bluebirds, downy and red-bellied woodpeckers, tufted titmice, chickadees, white throated and song sparrows, blue jays, cardinals, and two very dignified crows.

I know, though, that the world is bigger than my yard. Over the years I’ve helped plant trees on a city street, organized landscape days for a local elementary school, planted wildflowers around the edge of a townhouse complex. I’m currently trying to help organize a group of stewards for a neglected wetland near our home.

But resurrection ripples outward, from local community, to nation, to world. We’ve given to organizations like Heifer Project, World Vision, and Mennonite Central Committee for tree-planting, bee hives, and sustainable flocks of ducks and chickens. And we support Arocha, an international group of  “Christians in Conservation” begun in Portugal in 1983. Our son spent a summer interning with Arocha Vancouver, living in a tree house with an owl as his nearest neighbor. Now in DC, he's helping launch an Arocha chapter "to conserve Christian conservationists."

Harder, for me, than active practical engagement or support of environmental groups is the call to advocate for the captive, groaning creation. Paul wrote:
For the creation waits in eager expectation for the children of God to be revealed. For the creation was subjected to frustration, not by its own choice, but by the will of the one who subjected it, in hope that the creation itself will be liberated from its bondage to decay and brought into the freedom and glory of the children of God. (Romans 8)
As a child of God, what role do I have in seeing the world freed from its bondage to decay, not just in the future, but now? Is it enough to sign a petition against fracking, or do I need to do more? Is it enough to buy organic, local food, or do I need to speak out on behalf of sustainable farming?

For each of us the answer will be different. But for each of us, the call is the same: creation waits to see the children of God revealed, as sustainers and protectors of the earth God has entrusted us, as agents of shalom, as resurrection people speaking deliverance and life in places of death and bondage around this wounded, waiting world.

The Deliverance of Creation, Yelena Chersakova, Russia, 1997
This is the third in a series about the resurrection:
Risen Indeed: The Hermaneutic Community
The Great Reserval: A Resurrection People
As always, your thoughts and comments are welcome. Click on the   __ comments link below to post.

Sunday, April 15, 2012

The Great Reversal: A Resurrection People

“Jesus's resurrection is the beginning of God's new project not to snatch people away from earth to heaven but to colonize earth with the life of heaven. . . . Our task in the present . . . is to live as resurrection people in between Easter and the final day.” ( N.T. Wright, Surprised by Hope)
What does it mean to live as resurrection people? As agents of hope in a world where hope is in short supply?

How do we demonstrate – in our daily actions – our confidence that death is no longer the final word?

What does it look like to live so aligned with Jesus, so like him in word, deed, motive, that people who see us see evidence of resurrection?

The sermon on the mount is a good place to start. Looking back, it becomes clear that Matthew 6 is the proclamation of the Great Reversal: a new kingdom coming, a new way to live. Jesus says: Look, you do it this way. Turn it upside down.

Blessed are the rich and powerful? No – blessed are the poor and humble.

You love those who love you? Love those who don’t as well.

You worry? Learn to trust.

You want your own way? Want my way instead.

This reversal shows up in small ways through the gospels: tax collector Zacchaeus, stunned by Jesus’ acceptance and forgiveness, decides to give half his possessions to the poor and pay back four-fold anyone he’s cheated.

Woman at the Well, Hyatt Moore, US
The Samaritan woman at the well starts her story afraid to draw water at the normal times, reluctant to talk with Jesus, a secretive woman burdened by shame. She ends her story sharing the news of Jesus with everyone in town; according to Orthodox tradition, she was renamed Photini, "Equal to the Apostles,” and went on to witness in Africa and Rome before being martyred for her faith.

Were there others whose lives demonstrated a reversal of intent, a radical, visible change? Certainly people were healed. Lives were redirected. The teaching and example of Jesus attracted plenty of attention.

But in the gospels, although Jesus taught about the coming kingdom, it wasn’t really visible in the lives of his followers. The sons of Zebedee, James and John, were still wondering how to maneuver their way to power. Peter, self-focused from the start, was busy with his own off-beat agendas. Mary and Martha bickered about the proper role for a spiritual woman. All seemed convinced their own ideas, their own plans for the future, would somehow work better than whatever Jesus had in mind.

What Jesus had in mind, in his cross and resurrection, took their ideas, plans, hopes, vision of how the world should work, and shredded them. Completely.

Want power? Turn the other cheek. Again.

Want a future? Let your best hopes die.

Want to be an insider? Part of the gang? One of the club? Align yourself with the marginalized, forgotten, despised. Set your reputation with theirs. Claim their abandonment as your own.

The resurrection isn’t some sweet idea of spring and tulips and happy thoughts rising as the days begin to lengthen.

It’s God’s deep song of joy, rising up from the very darkest place of pain and grief: the story isn’t over. The hardest word is not the last. The thing you feared most is the best gift yet. The deepest loss is the avenue to deepest joy.

Beyond that, with the knowledge of that, everything changes.

The Crucifixion of Peter, Filippino Lippi,
c. 1581 , Florence
The disciples, once fearful, found themselves courageous beyond imagining: singing in the face of imprisonment, merry in the face of floggings, buoyant when confronted with crosses, lions, vats of oil, stones, beheading, new instruments of torture. Their persecutors exhausted themselves trying to find more frightening forms of execution. And still the disciples, and those who came after, women, teens, thousands on thousands, went to their death rather than deny the truth they’d come to believe: Jesus was God himself, raised from the dead, bringing freedom for anyone who would follow.

Origen, an early church theologian, at seventeen lost his father to beheading, lived most of his life under the threat of persecution, spent years in hiding and more years suffering a mix of ingenious tortures. In his “Principles,” he wrote:
“When God gives the Tempter permission to persecute us, we suffer persecution. And when God wishes us to be free from suffering, even though surrounded by a world that hates us, we enjoy a wonderful peace. We trust in the protection of the One who said, ‘Be of good cheer, for I have overcome the world. . .  From His victory we take courage.'”
The power of the Christ’s victory showed up not just in the courage of the new followers, but also in outrageous generosity.

Resurrection people, from the start, have shared things with each other, and with those in need. Not just now and then. Not just when the harvest is exceptional, or the person in need a particular friend.
“All the believers were together and had everything in common. They sold property and possessions to give to anyone who had need. . . They broke bread in their homes and ate together with glad and sincere hearts, praising God and enjoying the favor of all the people” Acts 3. 
The early resurrection people acted as if they understood, and could trust completely, what Jesus had said: we don’t need to worry about our own stuff. We can let go of the anxiety, the fear of scarcity, the competitive worry that if I feed you today, my family will go hungry tomorrow.
Ignatius of Antioch:  "I prefer death in Christ Jesus
 to power over the farthest limits of the earth. . .
 He who rose for our sakes is my one desire."

Justin Martyr, in one of the earliest histories of the church, wrote:
“We who used to value the acquisition of wealth and possessions more than anything else now bring what we have into a common fund and share it with anyone who needs it.”
Clement, describing the change visible in any person who took on the name of “Christian,” noted:
 “He impoverishes himself out of love, so that he is certain he may never overlook a brother in need, especially if he knows he can bear poverty better than his brother. He likewise considers the pain of another as his own pain. And if he suffers any hardship because of having given out of his own poverty, he does not complain.”
Clement, like the others who chose to live the resurrection, put a high value on love: your pain is my pain. Your poverty is my poverty. Your illness is my illness.

In Philippians 2, Paul says “Do nothing out of selfish ambition or vain conceit. Rather, in humility value others above yourselves, not looking to your own interests but each of you to the interests of the others.”

Who does that? Who puts the interests of others first? Not occasionally, but daily? Not when it’s easy, but when it costs health, future, personal safety?

When plague devastated the 3rd century world, Christians cared for the sick, gathered and took into their homes people thrown into the street by family members fearful of becoming infected.

When Romans and others threw their deformed, surplus, unwanted babies on trash piles or into rivers, Christians gathered them up, fed them, cared for them as their own.

John Chrysostom taught, "If you see anyone in affliction, do not be curious to enquire further... [the needy person] is God's, whether he is a heathen or a Jew; since even if he is an unbeliever, still he needs help."

As Justin Martyr observed:
“We used to hate and destroy one another and refused to associate with people of another race or country. Now, because of Christ, we live together with such people and pray for our enemies.” 
Inexplicable courage, outrageous generosity, sacrificial love. There have been glimpses of those in every culture, in every age.

But only in gatherings of resurrection people do these traits become visible on a scale that rearranges history.

St. Francis and the Leper, Frederic Loisel
1961, France
Resurrection people were the first to imagine free, generous care for the sick.

Resurrection people were the first to offer financial and emotional support for the aging who had no families to care for them.

Resurrection people started the first orphanages, the first free schools, the first homes for the mentally unwell.

Resurrection people worked, and continue to work, to end the ugly sin of slavery.

The story goes on and on, from the first centuries following the resurrection, through stories of Benedict and Francis, through the leper colonies of Africa, mission to untouchable Dalits in India, prison ministry in forgotten holes of misery around the globe.

Yes, generosity shows up in people of other faiths, and no faith. So does courage. So does love.

And yes – people calling themselves Christians have done great harm, in many ways. That’s a story for another day.

But the sheer volume of care, poured out by resurrection people, year by year, country by country, gives proof to a reversal of agenda with no other explanation than Christ’s defeat, through love, of hate and death, and his invitation to live as new people in a new, unending kingdom.

Where that reversal is visible, God’s glory is made clear, the good news is heard and joyfully received, and God’s people “shine like stars as they hold out the word of life” (Philippians 2:15).

This is the second in a series about Resurrection.

As always, your thoughts and comments are welcome. Click on the   __ comments link below to post.

Sunday, April 8, 2012

Risen Indeed? The Hermaneutic Community

Easter morning worship is the high point of the Christian year. I look toward it through the reflections of Lent, the fasting of Good Friday, the inner stillness of silent Saturday, with a sense of  anticipation.
Orthodox icon: Resurrection

Annie Dillard, writing of church attendance, asked:
"Does anyone have the foggiest idea what sort of power we so blithely invoke? Or, as I suspect, does no one believe a word of it? . . . It is madness to wear ladies' straw hats and velvet hats to church; we should all be wearing crash helmets. Ushers should issue life preservers and signal flares; they should lash us to our pews." (Teaching a Stone to Talk)
I feel that most strongly on Resurrection morning. We gather to celebrate God’s power breaking through, the proclamation of life in a world of death, the promise of all-things-new in a world where we have been held captive far too long by the burdens and the boundaries of the old.

As a child, I attended a small, somewhat somber church. Our organist appeared to meditate before each change of chord. Our hymns echoed in a space too large for our meager few. But Easter morning we took part in a sunrise service with other congregations in a nearby park. I loved the trumpets, often off-key, and the exuberant songs sung together in the early-morning chill:
 Up from the grave he arose;  with a mighty triumph o'er his foes;  he arose a victor from the dark domain,  and he lives forever, with his saints to reign.  He arose! He arose! Hallelujah! Christ arose!
Watching adults I’d come to know and respect, I could see: they believed it. They sang with rare energy and conviction.

When my own children were small, we attended a much larger church where the rector (our lead pastor) encouraged everyone to bring bells and tambourines to the Easter service. At every proclamation of  “Christ is risen” we were to ring the bells, shake our tambourines or car keys. Our rector himself set the example, with exuberant banging of his tambourine, and our most staid and proper parishioners joined in the buoyant clamour. “Christ is risen!”  “The Lord is risen indeed!”

The Empty Tomb, Bertrand Bahuet, France
At my current church, sharing of space between two services led to the practice of renting a large tent for our contemporary Easter service. The worship community gathered to roll out carpet, arrange potted flowers, hang banners, truck in a large stone to remind us of the open tomb. As we gathered for the service it was with a sense of joyful awe: the community itself was a gift, those gathered were a gift, and we were there because we had seen, lived, experienced together the resurrection power we were there to celebrate.

Our worship itself can be an avenue to encountering God, and we have many in our church family who sat uncomfortably in the back row until God spoke to them in worship, until the resurrection power drew them further into the center of our celebration.

One Easter, as part of our worship, we prepared a visual way of sharing some of our stories. It still makes me cry to watch, as I reflect on the power of the resurrection in the lives of those I know and love.

I regret the few Easter mornings, a guest in other churches, where I’ve found myself listening to talk of “the ‘Easter story,” a weary myth passed down as part of a time-worn liturgy, metaphor for spring, occasion to speak of cocoons and butterflies.

“Go home,” I’ve felt like saying. If it’s just about spring, let’s go outside and pick tulips. I grieve that in far too many churches of my own Episcopal denomination, Easter will be celebrated with pomp, lovely music, and scant awareness of the power invoked and far too often ignored.

Without the resurrection, Christianity is just one more religion: a tattered set of rules, a philosophical construct patched together to shield us from our fear. As the apostle Paul said emphatically to the doubting Corinthians,
“If Christ has not been raised, our preaching is useless and so is your faith. More than that, we are then found to be false witnesses about God . . . And if Christ has not been raised, your faith is futile; you are still in your sins. . . .If only for this life we have hope in Christ, we are of all people most to be pitied.”
Over the years I’ve come to value thoughtful affirmations of the logical, historical evidence for a resurrected Christ. C.S. Lewis’ classic Mere Christianity was helpful early on. More recently, Tim Keller has done good work in defending the resurrection in an accessible way, while N. T. Wright takes a more scholarly approach in the Anglican tradition.  (Both have written books on this, but summary articles and video are available online: Keller in Relevant Magazine, and Wright in a summary video.) For a wider view, Telford Work of Westmont University offers a helpful summary of approaches, with some useful links.
Christ Resurrected, Anna Kocher, 2006

For me, though, the proof of the resurrection goes far beyond logic and historical record. The resurrection is visible in human lives across continents, across centuries. Dig back through the stories of Augustine, Jerome, or Patrick, any of those early saints whose lives were upended by the voice of the risen Christ, calling them to lives of forgiveness, compassion and bold witness of the resurrection.

Or listen to the stories of  Brother Yun of China, who came to know Christ through the miraculous healing of his father and the subsequent discovery of a Bible long hidden in rural China after the Cultural Revolution had done its best to suppress all knowledge of the Christian faith.

Spend time with Christians from other places and stories surface: men and women who met Christ in dreams or visions; teens dramatically transformed by an encounter with the Father who will never leave them; healings on sidewalks in London, under trees in Africa, on hillsides in Bolivia: resurrection power still pouring out, sometimes through human hands and voices, sometimes through the voice of God alone.

Leslie Newbigin, missionary in India from  1936 to 1974, returned to the UK to find a skeptical culture dismissive of the Christian faith. Wrestling with the question of apologetics, he asked:
"How can this strange story of God made man, of a crucified saviour, of resurrection and new creation become credible for those whose entire mental training has conditioned them to believe that the real world is the world which can be satisfactorily explained and managed without the hypothesis of God? I know of only one clue to the answering of that question, only one real hermeneutic of the gospel: a congregation which believes it. Does that sound too simplistic? I don't believe it is."
Continuing in his discussion of Evangelism in the City, he noted:
“The hope of which the church is called to be the bearer in the midst of a famine of hope is a radically other-worldly hope. Knowing that Jesus is king and that he will come to reign, it fashions its life and invites the whole community to fashion its life in the light of this reality, because every other way of living is based on illusion. It thus creates signs, parables, foretastes, appetizers of the kingdom in the midst of the hopelessness of the world. It makes it possible to act both hopefully and realistically in a world without hope, a world which trades in illusions. If this radically other-worldly dimension of the church's witness is missing, then all its efforts in the life of the community are merely a series of minor eddies in a current which sweeps relentlessly in the opposite direction.”  
Over the years I’ve watched many people come to faith, and many fall away. Those who see their faith as a list of rules to follow or services to attend, who have seen the church as an arbiter of dogma or shared "values" more than community of grace, are not likely to remain.

The Risen Christ, He Qi, China
Those who have seen, experienced, become part of a living community convinced of resurrection power begin to live that power in their own lives, to share it with others, in ways that build hope, and faith, and deepen love. As walls fall down between rich and poor, educated and illiterate, racially and ethnically divided, as God’s people demonstrate the freedom that comes from full forgiveness and the compassion that springs up from the knowledge that all that’s needed is provided, as gifts are affirmed in women, children, the marginalized, the previously ignored, resurrection becomes visible, inescapable.

If the truth of the resurrection is held in doubt, it’s not our apologetics that needs attention, but our lives together as visible community of love. 
“Jesus's resurrection is the beginning of God's new project not to snatch people away from earth to heaven but to colonize earth with the life of heaven. That, after all, is what the Lord's Prayer is about. . . . Our task in the present . . . is to live as resurrection people in between Easter and the final day.”  ( N.T. Wright, Surprised by Hope: Rethinking Heaven, the Resurrection, and the Mission of the Church )

This is the first in a series considering what it means to be “Resurrection People.”

For others:

The Great Reversal: A Resurrection People

Earth Day Shalom: Ripples of Resurrection

Resurrection Responsibilities: Feed My Sheep

It’s also part of the April Synchroblog examining the truth of the resurrection. Here's a list of bloggers who contributed to this month’s Synchroblog.

And for poetry and more resurrection art, visit Resurrection.

Christ is risen! The Lord is risen indeed!

As always, your thoughts and comments are welcome. Click on the   __ comments link below to post.

Sunday, April 1, 2012

The Call of the Cross

Black Crucifixion, Fritz Eichenberg
And God held in his hand
A small globe. Look, he said.
The son looked. Far off,
As through water, he saw
A scorched land of fierce
Colour. The light burned
There; crusted buildings
Cast their shadows: a bright
Serpent, a river
Uncoiled itself, radiant
With slime.
On a bare
Hill a bare tree saddened
The sky. Many people
Held out their thin arms
To it, 
As though waiting
For a vanished April
To return to its crossed
Boughs. The son watched
Them. Let me go there, he said.
  ("The Coming," R. S. Thomas)

There is something familiar about the story of Palm Sunday. Crowds gathered to cheer a likely candidate, one of their own who could draw a crowd, who could take back Jerusalem from the evil empire, who could promote their agendas and ensure their safety.

It’s easy to picture the crowd. The palm fronds might be different, but the energy is the same.

It’s not so easy to picture Jesus, riding the donkey through the crowd. Luke says, "as he approached Jerusalem he wept.” Did the crowd notice? Did they wonder why?

With the cheers of the adoring crowd echoing in his ears, Jesus went on to the temple, where he upset the economic order by throwing over tables: money changers, merchants of sacrificial doves, commerce sent scrambling. The accommodating religious leaders were enraged: how dare he?

From there, he went on to tell a series of stories meant to alienate the insiders, the holders of power, those most convinced of their own righteousness.

Then the Passover meal, with talk of sacrifice and death, and the embarrassing scene with the bowl and towel.

There’s nothing in the story that sounds invented. In fact, it’s told in each of the gospels with a sense of quiet amazement, with a raw honesty unexpected in religious text. Facts outlined, dialogue sketched, strange stories reported as the best candidate for coming king deliberately dismantles the grand expectations of friends, followers and crowd.
Christ Dying between the Two Thieves: The Three Crosses
Rembrandt van Rijn, 1653
Vinoth Ramachandra, a Sri Lankan who has written and lectured extensively about pluralism, world religions, and the uniqueness of the Christian faith, notes in The Scandal of Jesus: Christ in a Pluralistic World:
"If you wanted to convert the educated and pious people of the empire to your cause, whatever that cause may have been, the worst thing you could ever do would be to link that cause to a recently crucified man. To put it mildly, that would have been a public relations disaster. And to associate God, the source of all life, with this crucified criminal was to invite mockery and sheer incomprehension! This was indeed the experience of the first Christians.
"This message, if true, subverted the world of religion. For it claimed that if you wanted to know what God is like, and to learn God’s purposes for God’s world, you had to go not to the sages, the lofty speculations of the philosophers or to the countless religious temples and sacred groves that dotted the empire, but to a cross outside the walls of Jerusalem. The world of the first Christians was every bit as pluralistic, if not more so, than ours- culturally and religiously. But for the Jews a crucified Messiah/Saviour was a contradiction in terms, for it expressed not God’s power but God’s inability to liberate Israel from Roman rule. For pious Greeks and Romans, the idea that a god or son of a god should die as a state criminal, and that human salvation should depend on that particular historical event, was not only offensive, it was sheer madness.
"This message, if it were true, also subverted the world of politics. It claimed that Rome’s own salvation would come from among those forgotten victims of state terror. Caesar himself would have to bow the knee to this crucified Jew. It implied that by crucifying the Lord of the universe, the much-vaunted civilization of Rome stood radically condemned. The Pax Romana was a sham peace. Like all imperial projects, it was built on the suffering of the many. And God had chosen to be found among the victims, not the empire-builders. Little wonder that the Christians’ ‘Good News’ (‘Gospel’) was labeled a ‘dangerous superstition’ by educated Romans of the time.
"Now, it is the madness of this ‘word of the cross’ that compels us to take it seriously. I am a Christian today because there is something so foolish, so absurd, so topsy-turvy about the Christian gospel that it gets under my skin: it has the ring of truth about it. No one can say that this was some pious invention, for it ran counter to all notions of piety. And nothing was gained by it. All who proclaimed it suffered as a result."
White Crucifixion, Marc Chagall, 1938
Ramanchandra goes on to explore further the subversive nature of the cross: it subverts not only our ideas of religion and political power, but of self, autonomy, family, tribe, national identity:
"When illustrating what it means to belong to the kingdom of God, Jesus takes as his
paradigmatic examples those who had least status in his contemporary society. In a world where children had no legal rights, economic possessions or no social standing, he makes them the model for those who receive the kingdom of God (Matt.18: 1-4; Mark 10: 13-16). When, on the eve of the crucifixion, he washes the feet of his disciples like a household slave, and requires them to do the same for each other (John 13:3-15), he makes slaves the paradigms for leadership in the kingdom of God. If the kingdom of God belongs to people such as slaves, the poor, and little children, then others can enter the kingdom only by accepting the same lack of status. The cross brings all human beings, men and women, rich and poor, religious and irreligious, to the same level before God. It is at the foot of the cross, that all human beings, without exception, are revealed as the objects of God’s forgiving and re-creating love. This is the egalitarian politics of grace."
Jesus doesn’t invite us to Palm Sunday, to a triumphal politics of power, a proud exclusionary religion of exceptional righteousness.

He invites us to the cross, to the foot of the cross, to align ourselves not only with him, but with every marginalized, forgotten, condemned person who ever lived.  He calls us to set aside status, entitlement, self-justifying argument, self-protective agenda, and find a new home in his family of grace.

Dietrich Bonhoeffer, struggling to understand the call of the cross in the face of Nazi fascism, wrote: “The Cross is not the terrible end of a pious happy life. Instead, it stands at the beginning of community with Jesus Christ. When Christ calls a man, he bids him come and die.” (from  Discipleship and the Cross )

Come and die. Jesus said “greater love has no one than this than this, that he lay down his life for his friends. You are my friends if you do what I command. . . This is my command: Love each other.”

Christ's Body is Removed from the Cross
Anna Kocher, 2006
The Christian faith is more than words, buildings, organizational structures, theological frameworks, philosophical exposition, like-minded people sharing like-minded values. At its core, the Christian faith is a community of deeply broken, deeply loved people, knit together by allegiance to a dying friend on a distant hill, choosing each day to sacrifice personal preference and self-fulfillment for the needs of a deeply wounded world.

Come and die. Not great ad copy. Not a catchy campaign slogan.

Yet that call sounds across the centuries, and we can trace the outlines of history through the lives of those who have understood and answered that call.

On a drizzly April morning, sipping tea to ease the fever and sore throat shared by some kids I’ve been spending time with while their single mom works evenings, I picture the globe, the son holding it gently in his hands, the people with thin arms still waiting to hear the echo of good news, and I wonder: can we go there? Where will the call of the cross be leading me today?

This is the last in a seven week Lenten series:

     Looking toward Lent
     Lenten Sorrow : Lament and Nacham
     Lenten Silence: Charash, Be Still
     Lenten Sweetness: Tasting Towb    
     Lenten Submission: Rethinking Hupotassō
     Lenten Song: Remembering Ranan

For more about the cross and its meaning and significance: Thank You for the Cross

As always,  your thoughts and comments are welcome. Click on the   __ comments link below to post.