Monday, August 9, 2004

John 3:1–21

I think a lot of people have memorized this verse. Not surprising, because it gets treated as if this were the whole point of the Gospel. And yeah, it is indeed pretty important. But I tend to resist (ok, I totally reject) the picking out of one doctrine or verse or tenet and saying, “This is the standard to measure all the rest by.”

Lutherans measure everything by the measure of “salvation by faith alone,” which is not so much false as one-sided. It led Luther to essentially reject an entire book of Scripture as an “epistle of straw.” This is a good sign that something has gone wrong, and if Luther were as serious about his sola scriptura as he claimed to be, he would not have so easily rejected the letter of James simply because it didn’t agree with Luther’s reading of Paul. Luther had at least two other choices: admit that James and Paul are in tension (or even disagreement) but both still canonical, or admit that his interpretation of Paul might be incorrect. But he chose neither; instead we get a tendentious reading of James, grudgingly allowed in the canon, and a dogged insistence that Luther’s interpretation of Paul must be correct, the rest of scripture notwithstanding.

Recently a correspondent, happy with the doctrine of the infallibility of scripture, decided that to actually expect worship to be based upon scripture and conform to its guidelines (particularly in the matter of the Lord’s Prayer) was more or less not necessary. In my opinion, she had decided what proper worship looked like, and it didn’t matter much whether that comported with scripture or not; the scripture had to be interpreted however necessary to make it fit. And that has consequences: to maintain this view, she had to claim that the entire sermon on the mount is not meant to be taken literally. (Presumably on the grounds that it is too hard.)

So I am not willing to take John 3:16 as the be-all and end-all of Scripture. It is one verse, it is important and memorable, but it is not a summation of the whole story. And the best clue of that, of course, is that it isn’t even the end of the pericope. The point of this conversation between Jesus and Nicodemus is about darkness and light, and about understanding why some people just don’t “get it.”

Nicodemus has asked Jesus what is the basis of his authority, and he says in reply first, that Jesus has authority because he speaks of what he knows; second, that Jesus has come down from heaven and will be lifted up, for the the sake of eternal life; and third, that the purpose of this enterprise was not to condemn anyone, but that some will still be condemned because they reject him, and yet, their condemnation is not a result of their rejection, but rather, their rejection is a consequence of their desire to continue in the evil they do.

And that third part is, of course, the point here. The second part--the verse everyone remembers--is only the set up. The point here is that Nicodemus had better understand what is at stake, and to knowingly reject the light is motivated by one’s own desire for darkness. There are, it seems, two reasons people reject Christ: they do not know it is Christ, or they do not want to confront or admit their own darkness.

Index of Comments on Scripture

Sunday, August 8, 2004

2 Corinthians 11:21b–31

Why does Paul trot out these punishments? He wants to shame the rich and secure church in Corinth to realize that he has far more claim than others on their attention.

Isn’t this the politics of victimization? Paul is saying Who is weak, and I am not weak? Who is made to stumble, and I am not indignant? His point, indeed, is that he suffers for the sake of all, and in this he is conformed to Christ, and in that, he has a claim upon the Corinthians for their attention, and obedience.

But isn’t this the politics of victimization? Does being beat up really make you better? It is certainly rhetorically effective. But we resist (or do we?) this kind of argument, precisely because we know it’s a matter of trotting out one’s injuries as if they made one’s message true. Such is, indeed, a non sequitur.

So is Paul just using a rhetorical trick? (I don’t believe he’s above that, when it is the right thing to do, by the way.) I don’t think he is. I think he’s saying something rather more interesting, and maybe even important. God’s favor is not measured by whether one is rich, important, well-respected, or powerful. Note how he concludes: Who is weak, and I am not weak? Who is made to stumble, and I am not indignant? It is because Paul is identifying with the pain of all: when anyone is weak, he is weakened, when anyone stumbles, it is Paul who is indignant.

That is, he has identified himself with the sufferings and trials of others, and (assuming we take him at his word in this) he is thereby worthy of the respect and even obedience which he demands of the Corinthians.

But why is that so? Even supposing he does, isn’t he just like Clinton, saying “I feel your pain”? No. Because the problem with Clinton is that he didn’t feel others’ pain: he understood it, empathized with it, wanted to alleviate it, but he didn’t actually feel it. Paul, however, says the he does feel it.

And if that makes no sense, then the cross must be emptied of power. Paul is (see the whole chapter here) saying that if you want to distinguish the true apostles from the false, you can tell by seeing who suffers along with everyone, and who holds themselves apart from that suffering.

And at this point, I submit, we see the problem with the anti-gay folks. Secure in their righteousness, confident in their rightness, they inflict suffering on gay people. They tell themselves that this suffering is necessary; that it will only make gay people better (by encouraging them to become straight, I suppose, is how it’s supposed to go)--and by falling back on the statement that they aren’t causing the suffering, but gay people bring it on themselves, or in the alternative, that it is God’s righteous punishment. But admidst it all, we see no willingness on their part to share in the suffering. And this, I believe, exposes them as the false apostles they are.

Index of Comments on Scripture

Friday, August 6, 2004

Office Readings for the Transfiguration

1 Kings 19:1–12
2 Corinthians 3:1–9, 18
Exodus 24:12–18
2 Corinthians 4:1–6
Daniel 7:9–10, 13–14
John 12:27–36a

We look today, with this wealth of readings (and these are just the ones appointed for the daily office, to say nothing of the Eucharistic lections!) at light and appearance. For that is what is in common to all these: the manifestation of God, now not in an Epiphany spirit, where the focus is on the fact of the manifestation and what is made manifest, but in a different spirit.

As Paul says, God has shone in our hearts. We bask, as it were, in reflected glory, glory multiply reflected. Moses’ face shone, with reflected glory, after he spoke with God, and God shines still more brightly in the face of Jesus Christ. The tradition says that the Transfiguration of Jesus on Mount Tabor was a vision of the uncreated light--the light which simply is God.

That light, at first, blinded Peter so that he spoke out so foolishly trying to contain it in a tent; rather like Moses and his veil to protect the Israelites from the fearsome sight. And the fearsome, awesome nature of this light, this Christ, is seen in Daniel’s vision also; first the Ancient One, whose throne was fiery flame and its wheels were burning fire and then the one like a human being comes, and everything there is is given to him. And that’s our Jesus!

But lest we get swept up into all this grandeur, we remember that the fourth gospel, the only one which does not actually depict the Transfiguration, gives us its most poignant description: And I, when I am lifted up from the earth, will draw all people to myself. For the Crucifixion and the Transfiguration are the same event, really; and for the Gospel of John especially is the Crucifixion the moment when Jesus’ true nature is most plainly manifest.

Amid all the court splendour, the burning bushes, the fiery thrones, we remember that the glory in question is not that of a great and powerful Oz, but that of a carpenter’s son, killed most ignominiously, in service and self-giving to others. And to hear that message, that sound of sheer silence we have to be stilled, and quiet, and patient. We must let the great wind, the earthquake, and the fire subside and pass by, and keep our gaze fixed on Jesus, who was lifted up for us.

And that is the knowledge which has shone in our hearts.

Index of Comments on Scripture

Thursday, August 5, 2004

Acts 4:1–12

I’m reading a very nice book by Raymond Smullyan, called Who Knows?: A Study of Religious Consciousness in which he talks about lots of stuff. It’s a cool book and a fun read, filled with amusing little stories and touching bits and all the rest. And one question he treats at length is hell. He doesn’t believe in it: and more to the point, he thinks that hell might just be a reductio ad absurdum. If that’s necessary, then clearly the whole thing is crazy.

Well, I’m not going to talk much about hell today. But I am going to ask: if Peter is right that Jesus is the only name which we must be saved, then, what must we be saved from?

And the fundamentalists have an easy answer: hell! But I think that’s wrong. First off, note that nothing in the text supports that answer. Moreover, as verse 4:1 makes clear, he is defending himself before the Saducees, who do not believe in any resurrection. And the Pharisees, who do so believe, believe that the irredeemably wicked are annihilated, not tortured forever. So Peter can’t possibly be talking about hell.

So what is Peter talking about? Since he is not telling his audience that Jesus is the only way to be saved from hell (since his audience doesn’t believe in that in the first place), what must we be saved from?

The answer is not supplied, but that’s because it’s easy. Whatever you need saving from, the only name given by which it must happen is Jesus. See how easy that is? Jesus is the end to self-reliance (sorry Emerson). Now how does that match with the rest of Peter’s defense to that point? Look and see!

If we are questioned today because of a good deed done to someone who was sick and are asked how this man has been healed... Ah! Remember, we’re talking about that poor disabled person who can now walk. He has been saved, from his infirmity, and a ruckus ensued, and that’s how we got to this little police examination. More evidence that this has nothing to do with hell.

So now what? Let it be known to you, and to all the people of Israel, that this man is standing before you in good health by the name of Jesus Christ of Nazareth for it was at Peter’s command, in the name of Jesus Christ of Nazareth, stand up and walk--see exactly the same phrasing of the name--it was in virtue of this prayer. But is the point that he prayed to Jesus, and Jesus did this? Not quite. The point is that Peter is calling on the power that raised Christ from the dead. In other words, it is because Christ was raised, that those who have faith in him (and thus in his resurrection, and the power which raised him) can call upon that same power for their own infirmity.

You see, Jesus was saved, and because he was saved, we can be saved by calling on his name. Now those who think this salvation is salvation from hell have nothing to say here; they cannot explain this. But since the salvation is from whatever we need saving it is clear that Jesus too required saving from death, and it is that very salvation which we lay claim to.

What’s my warrant for saying this? Well, see how Peter justifies this: whom you crucified, whom God raised from the dead. Jesus is “the stone that was rejected by you, the builders; it has become the cornerstone.” Splendid then! Jesus was saved from death, by God, and through faith in him and calling on his name, we lay claim to that same power to save ourselves. In this case, to save this poor disabled man from his infirmity.

So the upshot is: this salvation is for anyone who looks and says: I need to be saved from that. I will have none of this preaching of bad news to people so that they having something to apply the Good News to. (“First I’ll convince them that they are in danger of hell, and then convince them they can escape the danger.”) No, everyone one of us already has a pretty good sense of what we need saving from. And Jesus is for that, here and now.

Index of Comments on Scripture

Wednesday, August 4, 2004

John 1:29–42

The Gospel of John, not normally noted for its narrative excitement and storytelling, does tell some amazing stories, and this is one of them right here at the beginning. John sees Jesus in the distance and comes out with this incredible Here is the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world. John bears witness, and two of his disciples hear him. One of them we do not know, but the other is Andrew, and Andrew goes and tells his brother Simon, and says, We have found the Messiah.

And then this weird bit of translating, in only a few verses, John explains that Rabbi means teacher; that Messiah means anointed, and that Cephas means Peter. This is a persistent concern with the fourth gospel, and a clear indication that the Johannine community did not have ready access to any kind of understanding of Hebrew or Aramaic.

But I think there is more to it than that. This passage is all about translation, about interpretation. Indeed, the Gospel of John is all about the big question What does this mean? So here is John, saying that this is the Lamb of God, and then saying something of what this means. Jesus is the anointed teacher, the one on whom the Holy Spirit descended. But the narrative does not describe this. John says, I saw the Spirit descending from heaven like a dove, and it remained on him. And unlike the other gospels, I did not know him.

It was seeing this descent of the Holy Spirit--something we, the readers, do not get to see (unlike in the synoptics)--that told John what this person meant. And he tells the two disciples, and Andrew tells Peter. Then Jesus sees Philip, and Philip tells Nathanael. And each time, what is given is the interpretation, the meaning.

So it’s not an accident, I think, that the author of the fourth gospel puts these three words all needing explanation right in a row. It underscores that what is going on here is interpretation, communication, messages handed on from one to another... and not just each person’s direct experience. Peter would not have known the direct love of Jesus if it were not for the mediating work of Andrew, and Andrew not but for John’s confession, and John not but for the one who sent him and his witness of the Holy Spirit’s descent upon Jesus.

Index of Comments on Scripture

Tuesday, August 3, 2004

Judges 7:1–18 and Acts 3:1–11

Judges 7 is all about Gideon and the fight against Midian. Israel is being oppressed, and Gideon is God’s appointed servant to liberate the people. God promises Gideon that a tiny number will serve to defeat the enemy: With...three hundred...I will deliver you, and give the Midianites into your heand. Let all the others go to their homes. From an army of thirty-two thousand, Gideon has already allowed the twenty-two thousand who were fearful to return home, and from the ten thousand stalwarts, God says this is too many. Three hundred is enough.

What happens? Tommorow we will read that these three hundred attack a host of Midianites and Amalekites, who lay along the valley as thick as locusts; and their camels were without number, countless as the sand on the seashore. And the trumpets blast, and Gideon’s three hundred scare the bejeezus out of the Midianites and Amalekites, and after the rout begins, the rest of Ephraim joins in the pursuit.

Oreb and Zeeb, the captains of Midian, become symbols of those whom Israel has defeated, and are used as such in the psalm: Do to them as you did to Midian....Make their leaders like Oreb and Zeeb.

All this--indeed, nearly all of the books of Judges and Joshua--can be a little hard to take. It all seems so destructive, and while we all know that ancient life could be very warlike and dangerous (far more so than the twentieth century, in fact), it’s not easy to hear this and then say “The Word of the Lord.” I think the key is to hear it as we hear the text from Acts 3. The people are being saved from a blight of rather horrible oppression. The point of the passage is not about war, or the glories of war, or the fun of being one of the big onrush of Ephraim looting and pillaging and killing once the enemy has turned tail.

The point is that God has intervened, decisively, to save his people from a blight of oppression. The war is just assumed by the writer; the story he is remembering and retelling is about thankfulness to God for the present freedom of Israel, earned by those heroes of yesteryear. It is, I believe, well and good to cringe at the descriptions of bloodshed and slaughter, but I think the author’s point here is not that bloodshed and slaughter are great fun, but that they are horrible, deeply horrible, and that through this military victory, there will be less, not more of such.

It would be a great mistake to read such a story as sanctioning whatever wars we might want today. The point is not that war is a great way to end war. So what is Acts 3 about? God has intervened, decisively, to save this one poor man from his disability and the poverty and oppression it engenders. It took three hundred to defeat the Midianites and the Amalekites, but it took only Peter and John to save this person. And just as with Gideon, the point is not them, but who really is doing the saving. Why do you stare at us, as though by our own power or piety we had made him walk? The God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob, the God of our ancestors has glorified his servant Jesus.

And that’s the point. To the Midianites and the Amalekites, to Gideon and Peter and John, to the Israelite army fearing oppression, to the disabled man at the Beautiful Gate, to all of them, the message is “It is not all about you. Something much bigger is going on here.”

Index of Comments on Scripture