Living Holy Us

Based on John 3:1-17 for Holy Trinity

Perhaps we could say that religion is like the house or the temple or the building dedicated to the Living Holy Other of that which we call God. But surely even using the word “God” already conjures up a variety of images and doctrines that either offer us some limited comfort of a tradition and/or a healthy congregation, or conversely, torment us with wounds and stridency from our encounters with “people of faith”, or with how we have been warped by bits of pieces of philosophy and theology we’ve breathed in from the world around us, from our parents, or peers.

Who or what is “God”? It turns out that our problem with “God” may be just that: “God”, the quotes suggesting in an ironic way that our “God” is a construct of what we have learned, heard, experienced often in the context of a particular religious tradition, or the lack of a tradition, in which case our sense of “God” is an amalgam of bits and pieces of our place in cultural history.  We struggle to find words to adequately express the nature and qualities of an encounter with the divine.  Religion becomes a distillate of experience, enshrined in normative dogm and practice.

Thus Christ, in John 3 is, like a good teacher, engaging Nicodemus in an adventure of a different sort of faith, an adventure of letting go of old constructs and opening up to the possibility of the Living Holy Other lurking within Nicodemus’ religion: GOD. GOD is beyond all definitions and beyond the strictures of religion. GOD as Living Holy Other can never be grasped or manipulated in the ways we attempt to do that with each other.

But this same Living Holy Other, as the very presence of the Christ, is the white light of yearning for depth relationship with creation, with creatureliness, with us. Indeed, in the Christ, we glimpse, as did Nicodemus, that which brought him to the Christ in the dead of night:  the possibility of a Holy Living Us!

This, then, is how I understand the complex and incomprehensible concept of the Trinity. As Rublev’s icon of the Holy Trinity portrays, it is about profoundly relational love. It is about “God” beyond all our abstractions. It is about “God” becoming for us GOD, the Holy Living Other become the Holy Living Us.  The Spirit invites us, the Christ takes up residence among us, and the Creator molds us all into a Holy Living Us, an abiding wholeness and life, born from above and beyond mere religion.

Course-Altering Confrontations (Mark 1:40–45)

Mark 1:40A leper came to him begging him, and kneeling he said to him, “If you choose, you can make me clean.” 41Moved with pity, Jesus stretched out his hand and touched him, and said to him, “I do choose. Be made clean!” 42Immediately the leprosy left him, and he was made clean. 43After sternly warning him he sent him away at once, 44saying to him, “See that you say nothing to anyone; but go, show yourself to the priest, and offer for your cleansing what Moses commanded, as a testimony to them.” 45But he went out and began to proclaim it freely, and to spread the word, so that Jesus could no longer go into a town openly, but stayed out in the country; and people came to him from every quarter.

After his dark of the morning solitary prayer and discernment, Jesus said to his disciples, “‘Let us go on to the neighboring towns, so that I may proclaim the message there also; for that is what I came out to do.’ And he went throughout Galilee, proclaiming the message in their synagogues and casting out demons.

What follows immediately is the confrontation with the leper, a man ritually unclean, a man who was not supposed to approach or touch anyone, and vice-versa. Yet he comes up to Jesus and kneels before him, saying, “If you choose, you can make me clean.”

Mark records Jesus’ response this way: Moved with (some sort of deep emotion—either pity or anger) Jesus stretched out his hand and touched him, and said to him, “I do choose. Be made clean!”

Check the commentaries and even the notes to the text of the New Revised Standard Version of the Bible, and you will see that there are divergent opinions about the nature of the forceful words used in telling the story of Jesus and the leper. Was Jesus moved by pity or by anger? The koine Greek text indicates either translation is possible, based on the textual evidence.

Let’s do a thought experiment and suggest that the word to be used in verse 41 is anger, not pity. Interesting things happen if we make that choice.

Biblical scholar and commentator Brian Stoffegren shows us the dilemma Jesus faced: “I wonder if Jesus’ negative emotions could have been caused by the fact that this leper put him between a rock and a hard place. The leper presented himself before Jesus with sufficient trust for a miracle to happen, but for Jesus to perform the miracle, Jesus had to bring the sick man’s uncleanliness and unsociability upon himself. This would make open entrances into the towns and synagogues more difficult, if not impossible. Jesus was forced to make a change in the way he had planned to minister to the people. Yet, the crowds continued to come to Jesus out in the deserted places.” (http://www.crossmarks.com/brian/mark1x40.htm)

The ministry of proclaiming the good news (and occasionally using words!) is sometimes lived out under radically disjunctive and/or hostile circumstances—a Markan path. There is no doubt that Jesus was deeply passionate about his mission, and yet the way he had envisioned it had just been changed. He faced a bind. For a time a least he could not do what he had just determined to do. Or, to put it another way, the Christ journey is an unfolding journey of discovery, and much of it is not pleasant.

Perhaps this is like the saying, attributed to John Lennon, “Life is what happens to you while you’re busy making other plans.” It seem to be similar for the purposeful life of ministry and mission to a world shadowed by misery. Something comes along to interrupt our agenda. A family crisis makes us cancel a pleasant day at the park. A problem in the church changes a congregation’s attitude about their new pastor. Or, just when it seemed that one’s life was finally finding a pleasant passage here came the existential earthquake and the storm. Or, just when the economy seemed to be barreling along, came the financial collapse. Millions of live and plans changed almost overnight, and the waves from that tsunami still are hitting us.

What then do we do? Notice that Jesus in his wisdom formed a community around himself. He sought out people who would walk with him, even when, as Mark’s gospel shows us, they were by no means clear on what this journey would be. They too had to face, with Christ, many changes of plan—and of heart.

In walking in the second path (in which suffering and confrontation with that which disturbs us is a regular feature), we need to surround ourselves with an intentional community, with people we sense we can trust and with whom we make mutual commitment of flesh and blood time and accountability.

And as Spirit’s wisdom confronts us in course-altering ways, in faith we continue our journey together, dealing with our anger, not trusting our visions as much as our trust in the journey itself toward others, toward the touch of the “unclean”, toward the communities that do not initially welcome, toward the uncomprehending voices, toward the cross on the far hill, and toward the new life in outback spring of God, to which the people still keep coming when they’ve nowhere else to go.

The Baptism of our Lord: Mark 1:4-11

4John the baptizer appeared in the wilderness, proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins. 5And people from the whole Judean countryside and all the people of Jerusalem were going out to him, and were baptized by him in the river Jordan, confessing their sins. 6Now John was clothed with camel’s hair, with a leather belt around his waist, and he ate locusts and wild honey. 7He proclaimed, “The one who is more powerful than I is coming after me; I am not worthy to stoop down and untie the thong of his sandals. 8I have baptized you with water; but he will baptize you with the Holy Spirit.”
9In those days Jesus came from Nazareth of Galilee and was baptized by John in the Jordan. 10And just as he was coming up out of the water, he saw the heavens torn apart and the Spirit descending like a dove on him. 11And a voice came from heaven, “You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased.”

The Baptism of our Lord is archetypal stuff.

In Mark’s gospel, this is Jesus’ first public act. Jesus, “the Beloved; with whom God is well pleased” is baptized by wilderness prophet John. This is not the same as the gift Christians receive in Holy Baptism. This is a different baptism, a plunge into the chaotic river of humanity, a jump into the evils lurking in coursing, cursing human history. This and all that follows: the calling of disciples, the healing of the sick, and the casting out of demons, the teaching and gathering and controversies with the religious leaders, and finally his suffering, death, and resurrection, all of that, the whole thing, is “the beginning of the Good News of Jesus Christ, the son of God.” It is his mission alone. And such is the power and immensity of his mission that not even a prophet like John is worthy to untie his sandals (typically the work of the lowest slave in those days).

We are not baptized in that way. We are incapable of Christ’s work. We are instead recipients of the totality of what he was about. Christians are baptized in the life of God: ie, our humanity is adopted and joined into the transcendent life of the Christ; in him we die, and in him we raised to new life. This also is a radical plunge, not into the foul flow of history, but into the scintillating waters of divine grace, a flowing of power and love that transforms us and the world. Jesus is baptized into humanity. We are baptized into the life of God, adopted as brothers and sisters, living in the power of his resurrection.

Let us not, therefore, confuse the Baptism of our Lord, with our own baptisms. Instead, let us set our minds in the manner voiced by the Apostle Paul:
Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus,
who, though he was in the form of God,
did not regard equality with God
as something to be exploited,
but emptied himself,
taking the form of a slave,
being born in human likeness.
And being found in human form,
he humbled himself
and became obedient to the point of death—
even death on a cross.
Therefore God also highly exalted him
and gave him the name
that is above every name,
so that at the name of Jesus
every knee should bend,
in heaven and on earth and under the earth,
and every tongue should confess
that Jesus Christ is Lord,
to the glory of God the Father.

Setting our minds to that sort of pondering we come to understand the most fundamental truth about ourselves: we are not God. We are not the general managers of the universe. We are not pure and unblemished. We are not by ourselves alone, blessed with sainthood. The baptism of our Lord is a story given and remembered so that the ekklesia, (the called out ones) from a place of humble wisdom and holy grace, discovers that the “humiliation” of Christ from start to finish is also his exaltation. The heavens are ripped open and our souls stand on the shore of history, mouths agape, just able to confess in our inadequate ways, that this “Beloved” Jesus Christ is kyrios, is the world plunging ruler of a transcendent realm that is forever and ever the blessed glory of God.

“Not God”: A reflection on John 1:6-8, 19-28

There is a book by Ernest Kurtz about the development and spirituality of Alcoholics Anonymous. It’s title? “Not God: A History of Alcoholics Anonymous”. In the recovery process, a critical point arrives when one becomes conscious of the need to resign as general manager of the universe! This is a sign of the depth discovery, “Hey, I am NOT God!”

John the writer makes sure we understand the John baptizer is not the light. He testifies to the light, but isn’t the light. And he confessed and he did not deny it, but confessed, “I am not the Messiah.” And he is not Elijah, and he is not the prophet. Most definitely he is “not God”. Compared to the Christ, John the Baptizer is but a flickering candle, barely visible in the radiance of the One who comes after him. By the very nature of things: John the Baptizer stands in the shadow of that radiance. He knows his place in the scheme of things. He has an important role to play, but he is not the star.

In fact, John declares: Among you stands one whom you do not know. This is astonishing! If the Christ is the light of the world, how can people miss him standing among them? Maybe it is because those who are convinced of their own righteousness, moral rectitude, purity of doctrine or ideology, are blinded by their own “brilliance”.

If we stop to think about it, we know we are “not God”, but in attitude and practice, we often act as though we were. Indeed, there is a bit of wisdom out there in the world: “The brighter the light, the darker the shadow.” Beware of the brilliant charmers of the world—in the narcissistic shadows behind those bright and shining faces winds a path of spiritual and relational destruction.

As we journey on Mark’s 2nd path (dealing with suffering) John’s third path vision here asks us to recognize how deeply in the shadow(s) we are; that is, how much we are not God.

If we turn over a large rock at high noon in summer, we may find ourselves recoiling at the sight of all kinds of disgusting worms, beetles, and bugs. As we are initially turned over (metanoia!?) to the radiance of the holy and merciful one, we may squirm like bugs skittering away from the light, fearing the exposure. Later on, we become more acquainted with the light and we learn from it our place in the universe. As did John the Baptizer: I am not God. To be humus. To be humble before God and others. To be content like the poet of Psalm 131, also not God:
O LORD, my heart is not arrogant;
my eyes are not raised too high.
I do not occupy myself
with things too great for me
or with mysteries beyond me:
I have set my soul in silence and peace.
As a toddler has rest in its mother’s arms,
so my soul rests in you.
O children of God,
trust in the Lord
now and forever!

As long as we can see and know the light, we can deal with living the shadows.

A Man with No Wedding Garment

On Matthew 22:1-14
Marriage ceremonies can be beautiful and wedding banquets are usually happy occasions, with joy, humor, laughter, friends, and dancing. What fun! We cherish the pictures.

We might not cherish pictures from the circumstances surrounding the wedding celebration in the Matthew 22. Notice a troubling aspect of this “Parable of the Wedding Banquet”: the violence. Is that what the kingdom of heaven is like? The invitation and hope for a great party, met with resistance followed by violence and more violence?

It is highly unlikely that Matthew’s community missed or ignored the violence in the narrative. They recognized it from their own miserable history as slaves. They knew it from the lives of the prophets. They’d seen violence visited upon them by their own leaders. They’d witnessed or heard about the brutality of Jesus’ trial, torture, and death on the cross. They lived through the destruction of Jerusalem and the Temple. They knew about the wrath and rage of rulers. They knew all about violence. But what a strange and deeply troubling conjunction this is: an invitation (to a wedding!) coupled with violence.

Perhaps the presence of violence in Jesus’ wedding narrative is a continuation of his pivotal statement earlier in Matthew’s gospel when John the Baptist is in prison (Mt. 11:12): “From the days of John the Baptist until now the kingdom of heaven has suffered violence, and the violent take it by force.”

In every era of profound change, for example, one like ours now, we can suppose that God is inviting humanity to a deeper appreciation of the marriage of the divine and human; that is to say, the incarnation of the divine in human flesh. Resisting the invitation to admit to such a marriage inherent in deep change is thus coupled not with joy and shalom, but with rage and violence. Why? Violence is the primal human answer to fear and disturbance. America is rife with this now: the death penalty seen as the answer to the chaos and crime around us. Movies, TV, and video games are bloated with violence, so much so that for many, it just feels right to have someone killed. “It is better than one man should die than the whole people perish” is the misguided wisdom that opposes and resists the intrusion of God into the space-time fleshiness of the human condition. For a time after a killing, the familiarity of such violence comforts like an old security blanket and many feel relieved, safe, and possibly righteous, even though they are not. Violence only begets violence. (On this whole matter, check out the thinking of Rene Girard and his followers.)

In every tumultuous change, God is present, inviting, but also letting the powers of this world have their way—within limits, as the hymn “A Mighty Fortress” so powerfully expresses:
God’s Word forever shall abide,
no thanks to foes, who fear it;
For God [in fact] fights by our side
with weapons of the Spirit.
Were they to take our house,
goods, honor, child, or spouse,
though life be wrenched away,
they cannot win the day!
The kingdom’s ours forever!

It is not possible to beat God, no matter how much violence or cynical political power is applied to any situation.

And how can we possibly know such a thing? At the wedding banquet, where all the people, the good and bad, have finally shown up, there is man with no wedding garment. Could this one be the son? The groom? The suffering servant? The Christ? All the king’s wrath and the people’s resistance and sin borne by him? He was even speechless:

He was oppressed, and he was afflicted,
yet he did not open his mouth;
like a lamb that is led to the slaughter,
and like a sheep that before its shearers is silent,
so he did not open his mouth.
By a perversion of justice he was taken away.
Who could have imagined his future? (Isaiah 53)

His future? It is a fearful thing to fall into the hands of the living God. Yet, beyond the outer darkness and the weeping and gnashing of teeth, there is a dawn that reveals God’s way into the unfolding future—a resurrection of hope and vision: the marriage of the divine and human consummated, forever and ever. And so the world, in which many are called, is blessed by the few who are chosen.