Category: The church

the Easter uprising

Holy Week recounts the story of Jesus’ march to Jerusalem, his teachings and disruptive actions in the Temple, his arrest, trial, and execution. And on Easter Sunday, we hear of his resurrection from the dead as a vindication by God of his life and message. On Easter, we celebrate the uprising of Jesus, an uprising that has the power to transform lives and the course of history.

According to the synoptic gospels (Matthew, Mark, and Luke), sometime in his third year of healing and teaching in Galilee, after building the core of his movement, Jesus set his sights on Jerusalem in Judea. He decided to go here to confront the Sadducees—the rich and powerful rulers of the people—at their symbolic seat of power. He entered the city in a noisy act of political street theater and then interrupted the operations of the Jerusalem Temple with a demonstration for economic justice.

Jesus clearly understood that imprisonment, torture, and death are always potential and likely consequences of the pursuit of justice in an unjust society. He cautioned his followers that in order to follow him, they must be willing to risk public execution on a cross—the Roman penalty for civil disobedience and insurrection by impoverished and dispossessed people. It was a time requiring courageous decision. Jesus was heading towards a confrontation with power that risked his life and the lives of his followers.

When Jesus was arrested late on Thursday night and brought before the chief priest on Friday morning, the Sadducees sought evidence for a capital crime. The chief priest asked Jesus if he was the messiah—a long-foretold peasant warrior who would challenge imperial rule, foment a violent revolution, overthrow the established order, and proclaim a new kingdom. When brought before Pilate, Jesus was asked if he claimed to be king of the Jews. In both cases, Jesus turned the accusations back on the accusers and never answered directly. He was charged by the Sadducees with blasphemy, but Rome executed him for sedition. On the cross was a sign that listed his anti-government crime—king of the Jews. The cruelty of his crucifixion revealed what imperial authorities do to one who attempts to subvert the domination system. For those who witnessed this event, the cross was not a symbol of divine sacrifice or the taking on of unmerited suffering—it was the price of resistance to the social and economic devastation of empire.

Six agonizing hours after his crucifixion began, on a spring afternoon in the year 30 CE, Jesus died. His heart stopped beating and his brainwave activity ceased. The spirit of life that had animated him at birth, left his body. The biblical tradition says that the body was then removed from the cross and placed in a tomb, sealed with a large stone. But, the Roman practice of crucifixion did not usually allow for burial. The corpses of lower class criminals or revolutionaries were not buried. Instead, the naked bodies of crucified victims were left hanging on the cross, to rot as they were exposed to the elements, and be eaten by carrion, a meal for crows and hungry dogs. In any event—whether he was left on the cross or buried in a tomb—we simply do not know what eventually became of Jesus’ corpse. In the gospel accounts, the women who went to the tomb on Easter morning were unable to find it. It was never seen again. The earthly Jesus, the pre-Easter Jesus, was gone from history. But he was not to be forgotten.

The resurrection accounts of Jesus in the New Testament are not stories about a resuscitated corpse, a reanimation of dead tissue. What the first disciples of Jesus experienced was far more than a revived earthly body. What they experienced was something completely new and different. The resurrection was a mystical experience of the living presence of Jesus among those who knew him, loved him, and followed him.

The wealthy and powerful thought that the execution of Jesus would eliminate the threat he posed. But the movement he created did not end with his death. In a very real sense, Jesus was resurrected in the people who believed in his message of hope and justice and who followed his example. They felt his presence among them, and this presence gave them the courage to transform their lives with passion, zeal, and courage for the sake of the world. They began a small but passionate uprising in the confident hope that they could create a better and more just society.

Clarence Jordan (1912–1969), a New Testament scholar and translator of the “Cotton Patch Gospels” once wrote: “The proof that God raised Jesus from the dead is not the empty tomb, but the full hearts of his transformed disciples. The crowning evidence that he lives is not a vacant grave, but a spirit-filled fellowship; not a rolled-away stone, but a carried-away church.”

The political nature of the Jesus movement and its threat to the status quo of empire is unmistakable. Blasphemy and sedition were frequent charges aimed at the followers of Jesus in the first three centuries after his death and capital punishment was the fate of many of the key leaders of the movement. According to tradition, Peter was crucified in Rome and Paul was beheaded there by the emperor Nero (37–68). The Jewish historian Josephus (37–100) reports that Jesus’ brother James (the Just) was stoned to death by Temple authorities in Jerusalem. Legends reported by Christian historians Hippolytus of Rome (170–235) and Eusebius (263–339) say that four other disciples met similar fates: Andrew and Bartholomew were crucified, Stephen was stoned, and James, the son of Zebedee was beheaded. Something was going on in the early Jesus movement that clearly threatened authorities of the domination system.

Jesus died as he lived, leading an uprising for justice. It is wrong to simply view Jesus as a spiritual savior with a heavenly goal. He was concerned about our lives in the here and now, not in the hereafter. He had a political vision for how society should be structured and what values it should embody. He taught about the coming new reality and he modeled it in his own life. He created a movement to carry it on after his death, and the early church continued to live out his vision of communities of sharing and equality for many decades, perhaps even centuries, after his crucifixion.

Last fall, I traveled to Ireland and learned a bit more of their Easter Uprising. On Easter Monday, April 24, 1916, a group of Irish nationalists proclaimed the establishment of the Irish Republic and, along with some 1,600 followers, staged a rebellion against the British government in Ireland. The rebels seized prominent buildings in Dublin and clashed with British troops. Within a week, the insurrection had been suppressed and more than 2,000 people were dead or injured. The leaders of the rebellion soon were executed. This is the kind of uprising that the Sadducees and Romans feared that Jesus intended and that his followers would foment. But the uprising of the kingdom of God as proclaimed by Jesus is different.

The way of Jesus is a conspiracy of love, compassion, justice, and peace. Jesus led his small movement in a concerted action to subvert the normality of civilization and the prevailing domination systems of his society. He called for economic justice, he shared meals with those who were considered outcasts and rabble, he taught creative nonviolent responses to domination, and he publicly demonstrated at the seat of political and religious power. He was executed for daring to challenge the status quo that benefited the top 1 percent of his society.

As he began his ministry, Jesus announced his sole purpose and mission: “The decisive time has arrived, for the conspiracy of love is rising up to challenge the unjust systems of the world. Change your whole way of thinking and living, and risk everything for this radical message of hope.” (My paraphrase of Mark 1:14–15)

The way of Jesus is a path toward a vision of the way the world ought to be, the way it is meant to be. It is a freely chosen path, but not without risk. There is never any assurance of success; only a promise of continuing challenge. It is a matter of trying and failing, and sometimes succeeding, but always continuing. Guided by the vision, the journey itself is the most important thing.

In 2005, I had the opportunity to travel to El Salvador to commemorate the assassination of Archbishop Oscar Romero (1917–1980) who was shot down while celebrating Mass on March 24, 1980. Romero spoke out against the suffering of the people of El Salvador and pointed out those who were responsible for his country’s violence and injustice. He exhorted the rich to share what they had with the poor. He roundly condemned the violence of the military in the countryside and encouraged people to turn to social justice to avoid further bloodbaths. In the name of God, he demanded that the orders and commands of the military and police to kill innocent people be disobeyed. For Romero, this was not about meddling in politics. It was simply preaching the Gospel and defending human life.

Romero said, A church that does not join the poor in order to speak out from the side of the poor against the injustices committed against them is not the true church of Jesus Christ.” He also said, “A church that doesn’t provoke any crises, a gospel that does not unsettle, a word of God that does not get under anyone’s skin, a word of God that does not touch the real sin of society in which it is being proclaimed—what gospel is that?”

Romero was bitterly attacked and labeled both as a communist and as a terrorist by the wealthy, by the military, and by many conservatives sectors of the church. He once told a newspaper reporter, “I have often been threatened with death. I must tell you, as a Christian, I do not believe in a death without resurrection. If am killed, I shall arise again in the Salvadoran people.”

Today, Romero’s martyrdom is celebrated in popular culture. “They can kill the prophet, but not the voice of justice,” are the words of one of the many songs popularized by the Christian base communities following Romero’s assassination. The chorus concludes, “They will impose silence, but history will not be silent.” In a similar spirit, author Anne LaMott (b. 1954) declares, “Easter means you can put the truth in a grave but you can’t keep it there.”

Easter happens whenever the followers of Jesus have the passion, zeal, and courage to rise up to confront the powerful in the name of the powerless. French theologian Jacques Ellul (1912–1994) wrote: “Christians were never meant to be normal. We’ve always been holy troublemakers, we’ve always been creators of uncertainty, agents of dimension that’s incompatible with the status quo; we do not accept the world as it is, but we insist on the world becoming the way that God wants it to be. And the Kingdom of God is different from the patterns of this world.”

Other martyrs have given their lives in the same pursuit of peace and justice. Most are unknown, but a few like Mohandas Gandhi (1869–1948) and Martin Luther King, Jr (1929–1968) are remembered for their social uprisings against the domination systems of their time.

Social issues are biblical issues, because any serious review of the Hebrew Bible reveals a deep-seated concern about social justice. Injustice is not just a concern of modern social movements; it provokes God to rise up in protest: “’Because the poor are despoiled, because the needy groan, I will now rise up,’ says Yahweh.” (Psalm 12:5)

Jesus rises up whenever the conspiracy of love rises up, whenever compassionate and courageous acts of the kingdom of God are present, whenever the reign of love is made manifest in this life. Following Jesus is a response to his call to establish justice and peace in the world. It makes one a troublemaker, a revolutionary, a seeker of change. It calls on one to be an agent of transformation, or as Jesus said, to be like a mustard seed in a tidy garden, a pinch of yeast in a large bowl of bread dough, a dash of salt in a pot of soup, or a small lamp in a darkened room. It is to add your light to the sum of lights so that little by little a violent, hungry, and suffering world can be renewed for the sake of its children.

Easter means that in the face of defeat, we will arise and stand once more. In the face of overwhelming odds, we will rise yet again. In the face of deepest despair, we will continue to rise. For in the darkest days, hope rises and will not be extinguished. Love rises and will not die. In and through our struggles against threatening powers and principalities, whenever we rise, Jesus too rises again, and again, and again. He rises through our protests against war, injustice, and suffering. He rises in our uprisings for justice and peace. Jesus rises through us and in us. Only when we stand up, speak out, and act with passion, zeal, and courage can we boldly proclaim to the world: “He is risen! He is risen indeed!”

the two gospels

I recently heard a Christmas Eve sermon titled “Mary Had a Little Lamb,” recited entirely in rhymed couplets and delivered by the preacher without a manuscript. Running for nearly eleven minutes, it was quite a remarkable feat.

The gospel text was John 1:29: “Behold the lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world.” The theme is introduced in this way:

Mary had a little lamb;
Its fleece was white as snow.
And everywhere that Mary went
The lamb was sure to go.

Herein these words from childhood dear
Contain the gospel message clear:
Mary, the mother pure and mild,
The lamb is Christ her sinless child.

Here are words to young and old,
A message that had been long foretold,
That God would send the holy lamb
Who would die for sinful man.

(You can see and hear the entire sermon here)

The point of the pastor’s message was that Jesus was born primarily to die for the sinful nature of humanity. This is standard Christian theology that proclaims that a sacrificial death was the central purpose of Jesus’ life on earth—essentially thirty-three years of marking time until he could die on a cross—enabling us to join him and our loved ones in heaven. For many Christians, this is the essence of the gospel. In fact, the historic Apostles’ Creed takes us immediately from Jesus’ miraculous birth to his agonizing death with nothing in between:

He [Jesus] was conceived by the power of the Holy Spirit and born of the Virgin Mary. He suffered under Pontius Pilate, was crucified, died, and was buried.

This is sometimes referred to as the creed with the empty center. Nothing about the life and teachings of Jesus is considered consequential to Christian faith.

But there is another gospel message found in the writings of the New Testament.  As one reads the four gospels and the letters of Paul, it becomes evident that there are two distinctly different messages of good news proclaimed in those ancient writings—two contrasting narratives at the heart of Christianity. The first message of good news that we encounter in the New Testament is presented in the gospels of Matthew, Mark and Luke: the good news announced by Jesus. The second and contrasting gospel is the good news announced by Paul in his letters or epistles, and in the gospel of John. To clarify the difference, we might say that the first is the gospel of Jesus, while the second is a gospel about Jesus.

The gospel of Jesus is primarily a social gospel, announcing good news to the poor. It is the proclamation of the present and future kingdom of God—a just and peaceful human society. The most authentic message proclaimed by Jesus was never about himself or his role in the salvation of the world. Those ideas were later developed by his Hellenistic followers. Instead, the gospel of Jesus was about what he believed God desired in the world, about the radical transformation that God was seeking in human lives and social relationships. It was and is a gospel about redeeming our life together in the here and now. It seeks the common good by elevating the status of those at the bottom of the economic ladder. The gospel of Jesus is good news to the poor.

The gospel about Jesus changes all that. Paul is very clear about the gospel he is proclaiming. In a letter to the house church at Corinth, he says:

Now I should remind you, brothers and sisters, of the good news that I proclaimed to you . . . that Christ died for our sins in accordance with the scriptures, and that he was buried, and that he was raised on the third day in accordance with the scriptures. (1 Corinthians 15:1–4)

The good news proclaimed by Paul puts the emphasis on Jesus himself and the salvation from sin that Paul believed resulted from the death and resurrection of the Christ. Someone once said that as Jesus taught his disciples, he pointed their attention toward the centrality of the kingdom of God, but all the disciples could see was his pointed finger. It was the messenger and not the message that ultimately dominated and shaped the history of the church. The gospel about Jesus is a message of good news that the death and resurrection of Jesus has changed everything for humanity in relation to a wrathful God. It is a gospel aimed at individual lives and their eternal fate.

What is missing from the gospel about Jesus is the kingdom of God. Paul and John rarely refer to it. Paul, in fact, says little about the wisdom tradition of Jesus. The life and teachings of Jesus are not central to Paul’s message. John’s gospel includes none of Jesus’ parables but instead offers us lengthy discourses like those of ancient Greek philosophers. Together, Paul and John present us with a very different figure than the Jesus of Matthew, Mark, and Luke.

The distinction between these competing New Testament gospels and their images of Jesus is extremely important, because which message one hears and responds to will shape one’s Christian faith and life. The gospel of Jesus focuses on personal and social transformation while the gospel about Jesus focuses almost exclusively on individual salvation from God’s wrath. The gospel of Jesus is primarily a social and public gospel; the gospel about Jesus is an individual and private gospel.

One could term this division as the gospel of Jesus versus the gospel of Paul. Writer and activist Jim Wallis (b. 1948) uses a different terminology: the gospel of the kingdom as opposed to the atonement-only gospel. Wallis remarks:

There is the original New Testament message called the gospel of the kingdom, which was intended to transform both people’s lives and their societies; and there is a more modern message that concentrates mostly on individuals, a narrowly focused message we’ll call the atonement-only gospel. By focusing so much on what happens after we die, we have neglected the agenda of Jesus for how we live now. (On God’s Side, page 14)

One’s orientation to the gospel of or about Jesus will determine one’s central mission as a believer or a follower. The atonement gospel of Paul calls his adherents to a mission of evangelization and conversion so that others may experience a heavenly afterlife with God. The social gospel of Jesus calls his followers to transform both individual lives and social structures to deal with the pervasive issues of human suffering: poverty, hunger, shelter, education, and employment. One gospel is afterlife oriented; the other is centered in the present. It is all a question of whether one puts an emphasis on the teachings of Jesus or the teachings of Paul.

These two streams of Christianity have existed side by side since the beginning, often integrated by Jesus’ followers in the early church. But today, these two competing gospels are dividing Christians around the world into irreconcilable camps. Because we respond to different gospel messages, we often don’t understand one another, and wonder how those who represent a different gospel message can even call themselves “Christian.”

To fully understand the social gospel of Jesus and to follow the distinctly counter-cultural Way of Jesus, it is important to recover the message and mission of the kingdom of God that has been lost, hidden, or misrepresented in far too many Christian churches. The kingdom of God is not about personal redemption; it is about social transformation. It is about engaging in a conspiracy of love to change the world.

(More about this topic can be found in my book A Conspiracy of Love: Following Jesus in a Postmodern World.)

the words of the eucharist

This post is a response to a recent article on Tony Robert’s blog by guest blogger Lenora Rand, titled “New Communion Words.”

New Communion Words

Rand reflects on her experience distributing communion at the Wild Goose Festival, an annual gathering that focuses on justice, spirituality, music and the arts. The festival is “rooted in the Christian tradition” and is popular among progressive Christians and many involved with the emerging church movement. The name Wild Goose comes from a Celtic metaphor for the Holy Spirit.

Rand said:

I was . . . suddenly so uncomfortable with the words I have always known to say during communion. As they were coming out of my mouth, my head was swirling with questions about whether these particular words adequately reflected my beliefs anymore.

The body of Christ, broken for you.
The blood of Christ, shed for you.

I started thinking about it afterwards though. Wondering, what do I really believe about atonement? And about this sacrament?  What else could I say with conviction during communion?

Rand is raising the issue of how the ancient practice of the eucharist is being impacted by the postmodern world in which many traditional doctrines of the church are being questioned and reevaluated. Continue reading

why I stay in the church

I am often frustrated with the church. I find myself drifting away for periods of time and then wandering back. I am too unorthodox in my theology to be in the mainstream of Christianity, so I linger at the margins. I am often uncomfortable with the theology of the ancient creeds and so I remain silent when they are recited and I am equally uncomfortable with the theology of 21st century happy-clappy praise songs, so I do not join in. For me, the experience of worship should be challenging, not entertaining. It should help us grapple with poverty and injustice, war and oppression.

Through the past half century, I have experienced the church in many settings—as part of a struggling inner city parish, a growing suburban congregation, and a tiny small-town church. I have been a part of churches with many ethnic roots: German, Slovak, Norwegian and African-American. Over the years, I have been a part of the church’s engagement with social, political, and economic issues. As I came of age, I witnessed the church struggle with integration and civil rights, and then watched it segregate itself every Sunday morning for worship. I have seen it wrestle with the evils of war, and watched it feebly respond to U.S. military involvement in Vietnam, Central America, Afghanistan, and Iraq. I have seen the church grapple with women’s social, political, and reproductive rights and their equal right to ordination—which far too many churches still deny. And most recently, I have watched the never-ending debate over the role of gay and lesbian people in the church and their frequent exclusion from equality in the body of Christ and its leadership.

On nearly every one of these issues, the larger church has found itself on the tail end of the struggle for peace and justice. It has rarely been a leader in these movements and all too often has been a distant follower. I have watched churches test the wind on nearly every social issue and adopt positions that will offend the fewest number of its members—often in the name of ‘unity.’ I have observed that many churches rise to speak boldly and prophetically only after the matter has been resolved by society at large and the issue has been settled everywhere but in the church.

Increasingly it seems that the church has become an irrelevant force in the world. Too many churches seem focused entirely on personal salvation rather than addressing the everyday evils of violence, power, and systemic injustice. Too many congregations focus solely on themselves instead of the suffering and needs of their neighbors. Too many pastors find it difficult to speak the truth, challenge the faithful, and rock the boat. In nearly every country the church too often serves as a chaplain to the policies of the state rather than a prophetic voice calling for peace and justice.

I wish the church was different. I wish it was more faithful in its calling. Yet I take heart that there are faithful people and communities who, though small, are engaged in the work of God on earth. Jesus often used images of a tiny minority who could accomplish great things—a bit of yeast in a large loaf of bread, a pinch of salt in a great kettle of soup, a tiny mustard seed scattered in a well-tended garden, a feeble lamp in a vast darkened house.

So I often feel alone, on the margins of the church. I find it increasingly hard to be true to Jesus in an institutional church that by its silence validates war and economic disparity around the world. And so I wonder why I stay. Continue reading

the easter chicken

In the first three centuries of the Common Era, Christians were strongly counter-cultural and anti-imperial. It is no longer so. Christians and their churches have become accommodated to their culture.

In his autobiographical book, Brother to a Dragonfly, Will Campbell tells this story of an exchange between himself and P. D. East, a former newspaper editor who had disavowed the Methodist Church of his youth. Speaking of P. D. East, Campell writes:

He referred to the Church as “the Easter chicken.” Each time I saw him he would ask, “And what’s the state of the Easter chicken, Preacher Will?” I knew he was trying to goad me into some kind of an argument and decided to wait him out. One day he explained.

“You know, Preacher Will, that Church of yours and Mr. Jesus is like an Easter chicken my little Karen got one time. Man, it was a pretty thing. Dyed a deep purple. Bought it at the grocery store.”

I interrupted that white was the liturgical color for Easter but he ignored me. “And it served a real useful purpose. Karen loved it. It made her happy. And that made me and her Mamma happy. Okay?”

I said, “Okay.”

“But pretty soon that baby chicken started feathering out. You know, sprouting little pin feathers. Wings and tail and all that. And you know what? Them new feathers weren’t purple. No sirree bob, that damn chicken wasn’t really purple at all. That damn chicken was a Rhode Island Red. And when all them little red feathers started growing out from under that purple it was one hell of a sight. All of a sudden Karen couldn’t stand that chicken any more.”

“I think I see what you’re driving at, P. D.”

“No, hell no, Preacher Will. You don’t understand any such thing for I haven’t got to my point yet.”

“Okay. I’m sorry. Rave on.”

“Well, we took that half-purple and half-red thing out to her Grandma’s house and threw it in the chicken yard with all the other chickens. It was still different, you understand. That little chicken. And the other chickens knew it was different. And they resisted it like hell. Pecked it, chased it all over the yard. Wouldn’t have anything to do with it. Wouldn’t even let it get on the roost with them. And that little chicken knew it was different too. It didn’t bother any of the others. Wouldn’t fight back or anything. Just stayed by itself. Really suffered too. But little by little, day by day, that chicken came around. Pretty soon, even before all the purple grew off it, while it was still just a little bit different, that damn thing was behaving just about like the rest of them chickens. Man, it would fight back, peck the hell out of the ones littler than it was, knock them down to catch a bug if it got to it in time. Yes sirree bob, the chicken world turned that Easter chicken around. And now you can’t tell one chicken from another. They’re all just alike. The Easter chicken is just one more chicken. There ain’t a damn thing different about it.”

I knew he wanted to argue and I didn’t want to disappoint him. “Well, P. D., the Easter chicken is still useful. It lays eggs, doesn’t it?”

It was what he wanted me to say. “Yea, Preacher Will. It lays eggs. But they all lay eggs. Who needs an Easter chicken for that? And the Rotary Club serves coffee. And the 4-H Club says prayers. The Red Cross takes up offerings for hurricane victims. Mental Health does counseling, and the Boy Scouts have youth programs.”

 
Like an “Easter chicken” Christians all too readily become undifferentiated from the dominant culture around them. The Christian church has become a chaplain to the status quo. And the status quo in America is far removed from the kingdom of God.

 

 

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