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Thursday in Holy Week: Maundy Thursday

Today, Christians in the Western tradition of the church enter a single worship service spread over three days: Maundy Thursday, Good Friday and the Great Vigil of Easter. It begins with the story of the Last Supper Jesus had with this friends, and concludes with the proclamation of the resurrection of Easter.

Maundy Thursday is so named for the new commandment, mandatum novum. At the Last Supper, Jesus gave a new commandment, to love one another as he loves us. It is the commandment under which we live to this day. It is the first of the Great Three Days, the holy triduum. The gospel record says that the Last Supper was celebrated on or near the Jewish feast of Passover, and there is a strong metaphorical relationship between them.

Passover remembers the deliverance of the Hebrew people from bondage in Egypt. When God passed over the homes of Hebrews enslaved there, ‘he’ delivered them from death, and gave them life. It meant salvation, freedom from their days of bondage. A path was opened for them to become the people of God. Moses, God’s chosen agent, lead them to a promised land of their own, teaching them on the way what it meant to be a people of God. It was not an easy path, but it is one that has been trod by generations of faithful Jews for more than 3,000 years. For us, it was a foreshadowing of a greater deliverance from death and bondage, and a new path toward a greater land of promise, led by the Word of God made flesh, Jesus. The symbolic blood of Jesus, our paschal (which means passover) lamb signifies for us deliverance from death to life extending into eternity with God. It signifies our deliverance from bondage to the burdens of life that deter us from intimacy with God, not for some, but for all humanity.

On this first day of the Triduum, we read from John’s gospel that adds to the story of the Last Supper by remembering how Jesus took the role of a slave, stripped down, knelt and washed the feet of his disciples. As has been explained many times, it was a disgustingly dirty task only a slave could be forced to do, and Jesus did it. Then he commanded the disciples to go forth and do the same for those whom they would serve in years to come. Not all congregations practice washing feet on Maundy Thursday, but for those who do it is a powerfully emotional act. Whether done or not, it is a reminder to all clergy and parishioners of their proper role as followers of Jesus.

We also read from Paul’s first letter to the church in Corinth, providing us with the earliest description of the institution of Holy Communion at the Last Supper. It comes at least a decade or two before the first gospel record was written, and he says Jesus personally told him about it. Later he also says it had been explained to him by those who were present. Both can be true. In any case, Jesus took bread and declared it his body given for them. He took a cup of wine and declared it his blood, the blood of the new covenant. He is not only the paschal lamb delivering us from death into life, he is truly present with us and in us whenever we participate in the Holy Eucharist. We Episcopalians affirm that Jesus is truly present in the consecrated bread and wine. It is, in every way, Holy food and drink, so we take joyfully, but seriously. Other denominations have other views, but I’ll go with something Queen Elizabeth I is often cited as having said: “Christ was the word that spake it. He took the bread and break it; and what his words did make it, that I believe and take it.”

One final word for the curious: No, Jesus and his friends did not sit on one side of the table looking out at an artist painting the scene.

The Politics of Holy Week

I write commentary on the political scene, but some may feel it out of place during Holy Week. I can understand that, and I’m not going to dwell on current events here. Yet it can’t be ignored that the events leading to Jesus’ crucifixion were driven by political interests. It was politics that got him killed. Theology had little to do with it.

Jerusalem’s religious leaders had worked out a tolerable rapprochement with their Roman overlords that kept them in political control and assured them a pathway to economic success. It was tenuous because a restive population could upset the whole arrangement if they got out of hand. For their part, Roman procurators had to generate a flow of income to Rome, keep local rulers from asserting too much independence, and be quick to put down any sign of rebellion. They were already in an undesirable place, and any failure on their part could lead to something even worse. In Judea’s case, the Herod family had found ways to ingratiate themselves with the Caesars, so social back channels made it treacherously difficult for Jerusalem’s Jewish and Roman leaders to keep their balance.

The gospel records of Holy Week are about Jesus teaching us his final lessons, demonstrating what it means to follow him, and giving us his presence in the holy food and drink of the Eucharist. The records are about God’s salvific work and the shredding of all that separates humanity from intimacy with God. They’re about forgiveness, love, healing, reconciliation, and the visible triumph of God’s love over all that would oppose it. They’re all of that and more, but not about politics, at least not for those who followed Jesus to the cross, nor to us who are immersed in the narratives of the week.

To Jerusalem’s leaders it was all about politics. It was never about anything else. They had little interest in Jesus’ religious teachings. Peddlers of odd religious ideas came and went. There were lots of wonder workers and magicians who claimed miracles at least as good as his. What made him dangerous was the growing public conviction that he might be the messiah, the political leader who would restore Israel’s independence and face down the emperor. The proclamation that he was not beholden to Caesar’s authority, his apparent ability to unify Jews, Samaritans, and Gentiles, and his appeal to the lower classes, asserting that they found favor in God’s eyes, it was these that made him dangerous.

They’d gotten rid of John the Baptist with no problem. Making quick work of Jesus should be a piece of cake. It didn’t work out as they planned. They’re dead and gone, Caesar too, but Jesus is still here, and still dangerous for the same reasons.

Crucifixion was tried once and failed. And what a dismal failure it was. No point in trying again, but there are other ways to neutralize him. Some try to domesticate him, removing him from the realm of politics to the inoffensive realm of platitudes and tea parties. Others divert attention away from Christ’s way of love by appropriating his name to sell snake oil cures and investment opportunities guaranteeing riches (for themselves). The more sophisticated force his teachings into their political agenda, then box it up and nail it shut. They know well that letting Jesus take the lead, and following where he goes will not be to their liking.

It won’t work, no matter what it looks like at the moment. The tomb is empty. Death had no power over him, neither did Caesar. The trivialities of domestication, diversion, appropriation, and political legerdemain are the last resorts of charlatans used to delude the gullible, but God is not amused, and Jesus will not go away.

Wednesday in Holy Week

There is a steely determination in the lessons for Holy Week, a determination to complete the work Jesus was called to do, no matter what the consequences. Consider that he hosted a dinner party for his closest friends and followers, knowing two things. One, in only a few hours he would be led away to his mock trial and execution. Two, not only Judas, but everyone around the table would betray and abandon him. And he knew something else; in the disciples’ moment of greatest weakness would be sown the seeds for the strength they would need for the years to come.

We, of course, know the end of the story, but they didn’t. They couldn’t imagine the next hour, much less the next three days. We know the end of the story as recorded in the gospels, but like the disciples, we have no idea what the next hour or day will bring. Our most concrete plans are always conditional. If nothing else, it’s demonstrated by the sudden onset of COVID-19 and stay at home orders that have disrupted everything.

When we left Maui for Walla Walla, the airport was as crowded as ever. The plane was full. Arriving late in the evening in Seattle, we stayed overnight in a nearly vacant airport hotel. The next day we went back to SeaTac for our Noon flight to Walla Walla. The airport was all but empty – very spooky. Spookier it’s become these last few weeks. We had well laid plans for medical appointments in Portland, and family visits in Texas and Virginia. They were not to happen. When will it be over, and what will we do when it is? We have no better idea than the disciples did about what lay ahead of them.

What we do know is this, Jesus is the Son of God, and the events we will remember over the next few days culminate in his resurrection. We know his disciples went forth to proclaim the good news of God in Christ Jesus to the whole world. The writer of the letter to the Hebrews urged that being surrounded, as we are, “by so great a cloud of witnesses, let us lay aside every weight and the sin that clings so closely, and let us run with perseverance the race that is set before us, looking to Jesus the pioneer and perfecter of our faith…”

There is too much to unpack in those words right now. Suffice it to say this: the sin we are to lay aside is not our moral failing, but our reluctance to follow where Jesus has led. When the text calls him the pioneer of our faith, it means he did more than blaze the trail, he prepared it to perfection so that we might more confidently follow him on it. And on it we will be in the company of a great cloud of others who went before, walk with us, and will follow in our footsteps.

In closing, let us remember in prayer our Jewish brothers and sisters for whom Passover begins on April 8. They are the forerunners of our faith, and among the great cloud of witnesses traversing the centuries who have trusted in God for deliverance, even as the world conspired against them.

Tuesday In Holy Week

Readings from the Hebrew and Christian scriptures for Tuesday in Holy Week include a passage from Isaiah in which God declares that ‘his’ Word is not for Israel only, but for all of humanity. A letter from Paul to the Corinthians admits it looks like foolishness, but God’s wisdom is not like ours. In John’s gospel, some curious Greeks seek out Jesus’ friends Philip and Andrew, asking them for an introduction to Jesus. The Psalm was written by an old person, vulnerable, in trouble, but trusting in God no matter what.

God made Israel to be a light of God’s presence, self revelation and truth shining out in a world struggling to grasp an idea of the holy. It was never intended to be for them alone. When the time was right, the light they had tended for two thousand years became a blazing beacon of pure love shining into every nook and cranny of the world. Not that the powers of darkness didn’t try to overcome it, but they failed.

Philip and Andrew bringing curious Greeks to meet Jesus symbolized what today is called a tipping point: a point at which the time has come for everything to fall into place as something new is brought into being. The Greeks who came looking for Jesus are place holders representing all of humanity, including you and me. They had heard about Jesus, maybe they’d seen him from afar, they were foreigners, not Israelites, not even Samaritans, and they wanted to meet him. Philip and Andrew brought them to Jesus just as Paul and all the disciples would do for the churches they started.

Perhaps it was coincidental that the Roman Empire was more or less at peace for a very few years surrounding the time of Jesus. Roads connected much it, and fleets of ships connected the rest; travel was relatively safe; one could even send letters back and forth. Major cities and towns in the eastern Mediterranean were likely to have a modest Jewish population and a synagogue or two. It was the right time, maybe the only time, when it was possible for the good news of God in Christ to be spread throughout the empire: and so it happened in the thirty years following his death and resurrection.

God works in mysterious ways. They can look foolish to our human eyes, but God’s wisdom is not our wisdom, ‘his’ ways are not our ways, ‘his’ thoughts are not our thoughts. What looks foolish to us, is the wisdom of God at work. And what is that work? It is the saving grace of God extended to the whole world, all of humanity, all of creation, and for you and me. It would be nice, wouldn’t it, if that blazing beacon of pure love shined again, especially now. It can. Jesus said that in him each of us would become a bearer of the light of the world. My lamp may flicker and sputter, so may yours, but together we can be a blazing beacon of hope. That’s what those Greeks who sought out Jesus wanted to see. Philip and Andrews took them. Who can we bring?

The Theme of Holy Week is Deliverance

The theme of Holy Week is deliverance. It was last year, it is this year, it will be next year. In the midst of pandemic we might be inclined to ask, as does the psalmist, “Why are you cast down O my soul and why are you disquieted within me?” And then comes the answer, “Hope in God; for I shall again praise him, my help and my God.”

The story of deliverance starts in the beginning with God doing a new thing: creating the universe and bringing life into it (Episcopalians have no problem with science, big bangs, and evolution). It continues with God doing new things on nearly every page of scripture. For all of it, God had long promised another new thing to come, something yet more astounding than anything before.

As Jesus rode into Jerusalem, humble, on a donkey, Zechariah’s prophecy was being acted out as an announcement that the new thing had arrived (Zech. 9). The servant of whom God had spoken through Isaiah was Jesus, and the promised new thing was about to be fully revealed (Isa. 42). It would be the sealing of the new covenant God had promised through the voice of Jeremiah so many centuries before (Jer. 31). It was to be a new covenant sealed in blood.

I have written before about the importance of blood as the symbol of a binding covenant. Hebrew scripture affirms that blood flowing through all living creatures is holy, the bringer of life that is God’s own gift. Therefore, something sealed in blood was holy and irrevocable. Other cultures have understood it in other ways. The custom of making blood brothers/sister by exchanging blood was common world wide, not just in old cowboy movies. It confirmed a seal that could not be broken. At God’s command, Moses took sacrificial blood, splattered it on the altar and then on the people as the seal of the covenant between God and God’s people (Exodus 24). It was the first covenant.

In Christian scripture, the writer of the letter to the Hebrews attested that Jesus is the mediator of the new covenant, not in the blood of an animal, but in his own blood, making us, in a sense, his blood brothers and sisters. We renew that covenant every time we participate in the Holy Eucharist (Holy Communion). It is a costly exchange. Not only was Jesus crucified, we are asked to surrender our very souls to him. We like to think we’re self sufficient and can earn our own way, but as the psalmist wrote, “Truly, no ransom avails for one’s life, there is no price one can give to God for it. For the ransom of life is costly, and can never suffice that one should live on forever and never see the grave” (Ps 49). Indeed, in Christ no ransom was paid. The new covenant in Christ’s blood is the fulfillment of God promise, that we are his by grace, not for today only, but for eternity. It is sealed.

It is a covenant of healing, reconciliation, justice, and peace. Our obligation as Christians is to live into it as best we can.

Noted Critic Sam Woodward Interviews Me about Country Parson

I was interviewed recently about my blog, Country Parson (stevenwoolley.com), by noted Kindle book critic, Sam Woodward. Here’s a partial transcript for those of you who may have missed it on NWPB.

Woodward: I understand you’ve been publishing Country Parson for over a decade.

Me: Yes, I started it shortly after I retired. It was something to do, and writing is passion.

Woodward: Blogs are so dated, no one reads them anymore, don’t you feel a little out of step with the times?

Me: Well, I’m a little dated too. Videos and podcasts are just not my thing. Give me a little credit for hanging in there with the written word.

Woodward: Speaking of which, you write on politics, economics and religion, is that right?

Me: Yes, those are my three subjects, with occasional nonsense thrown in. Maybe I’ll publish this interview, it’s about as nonsensical as they come.

Woodward: That’s a little cruel considering I’m a well known book critic doing you a favor. And by the way, A quick read of a few of your columns reveals grammatical and spelling errors, with commas randomly scattered about.

Me: OK, well, I type very fast, and sometimes miss things, then my eyes aren’t what they used to be, and besides, my editor is an abstract artist and you know. Look, it’s really about content, not commas.

Woodward: Back to the question about content, do you actually know anything about any of this?

Me: A little bit. I spent thirty years in and around politics, much of it in public policy consulting. From time to time I’ve been the source de jour on television and radio. Even done some teaching. Then I went off to seminary and became an Episcopal priest.

Woodward: Does anyone read your stuff?

Me: Not many. I once had nearly 2,000 subscribers, but it turned out they were mostly bots. I’m down to less than 200 I believe to be real people. On a good day there might be 10 or 20 who wander in off the internet. Aren’t a lot of good days.

Woodward: Of your three subjects, which one generates the most readers?

Me: Politics, especially when I write about Trump and his devoted followers from my center-left perspective. Then I get attention from places like Egypt, Pakistan, and China. Russia used to be there, but I think they’re farming out their bots these days.

Woodward: And the least?

Me: Religion, or more particularly Christianity understood in the Anglican traditions of the Episcopal Church. I’m offering some pieces on Holy Week right now, and for the most part they’re flops. Now and then a piece gets more hits when I can work in sex, violence and revenge. It attracts the Netflix crowd.

Woodward: What about economics, you said that didn’t you?

Me: Yes. I write not as an economist, but as an informed observer of the economic scene. It used to make sense, but under Trump all the normal rules were annulled, so I’m less inclined to say much these days.

Woodward: Economics is a big word, can you narrow it down a little for me?

Me: I tend to follow Krugman and Pikkety. I’ve actually read Pikkety’s “Capitalism in the 21st Century.” Can’t say I followed the math very well, but that’s another story. In the old days I was interested mostly in how local economies worked, and how they related to each other.

Woodward: And people find this interesting?

Me: No, they don’t. Except for the libertarian right wingers. I can get them going. They’re still upset with FDR, think Keynes was a commie, and love Friedman. That is to say, they would if they knew who any of them were. When I’m bored I can entice them to create a little excitement.

Woodward: I’d hoped this interview could be shopped around to big media, but frankly, the ramblings of an old man about things he used to know about don’t have much of a market. I’ll see what I can do.

Me: OK, I guess, I’d hoped for more, but enjoyed the conversation just the same. Was a little surprised at all the gin you drank while I sipped on tea, but what can you expect from an ebook critic in a Hemingway beard and tweed jacket. Bet you even have a pipe in there somewhere.

Holy Week: Walking Out of Darkness Toward the Light

There is no question that Holy Week can feel like a downer. It seems to go deeper and deeper into darkness so that the glory of Easter might shine the brighter. The intentions are good. Sometimes we need to be shaken out of our complacency, but it has its limitations, especially in a season like the one we’re in now.

Let’s try for another way to approach it starting with this from Friday’s Morning Prayer: “Almighty God, whose most dear Son went not up to joy but first he suffered pain and entered not into glory before he was crucified: Mercifully grant that we, walking in the way of the cross, may find it none other than the way of life and peace…” The way of the cross is the way of life and peace. It’s the way of deliverance from death to life. Walking in the way of the cross is to have a rich foretaste of the life and peace that lies yet ahead. Holy Week is not about walking into darkness; it is about walking out of darkness toward the light; it is about deliverance; God’s promises fulfilled, not for a few but for the whole world.

Walking in the way of the cross seems counterintuitive, but it works. At my dad’s funeral, a local minister said that he was the rare man who had always walked on the sunny side of the street. It wasn’t true. He’d survived the Depression, survived the South Pacific in WWII, had emotionally wrenching disappointments on the way to business success, had to retire early, and died from complications related to debilitating disease. But, his life was spent walking in the way of the cross, and in it he found and radiated life and peace to those around him.

Holy Week often raises questions about atonement. What does it mean to say Jesus died for our sins? In a recent note to my congregations, I cited Karie Hines Shah who wrote in Christian Century that “Jesus suffers not because it is horribly rare but because it is horribly common.” Popular among many Christians is the “doctrine of substitutionary atonement” that says we are such miserable sinners, undeserving of God’s love, that we need to be punished for it. But God, in his mercy, heaped all of that punishment on Jesus in our place. Mel Gibson’s 2004 movie, “The Passion of the Christ” was a hit sensationalization of the doctrine, but really gross and really bad theology.

Jesus suffered as thousands of others had, and would for centuries to come. He joined with the suffering of both the guilty and unjustly convicted right through the very end, but it wasn’t God’s punishment for our sins, and it wasn’t unique. It was the final and most profound instance of the fullness to which our Lord would share in the reality of our lives, and a sign that we would share in the fullness of his. Can an omnipotent God really, truly know what you and I go through as mere human beings? Yes, God does because God has.

Substitutionary atonement is but one of many doctrines of atonement that have come into and gone out of favor over the centuries. The Anglican tradition, as expressed in the Episcopal Church, doesn’t dogmatically teach any of them. All of them have something worthwhile to say, and provide endless opportunities for academic theologians to write books. But for us it is enough to say that in Christ and through Christ our sins are forgiven. “In him, you have delivered us from evil, and made us worthy to stand before you. In him, you have brought us out of error into truth, out of sin into righteousness, out of death into life.” We accept this in faith as a holy mystery to be lived into, not explained.

Trump’s Approval Rating & Why They Believe

I’m among those dismayed by Trump’s approval ratings. The latest average of ten presidential rating polls show approval at 47%, with wide variation. The trend line over the course of his administration has been bouncing around from a low of 35% to a high of 49%, and a few individual polls rate him well above 50%. The overall trend has been slightly upward in recent months. Some commentators tout the high numbers as they laud his performance. Others note how he’s not getting the bump other presidents have received during times of national emergency, and dismiss the polls as inaccurate. I both distrust them and think they need to be taken seriously.

If Trump is to be defeated this fall, it cannot be ignored that close to a half of those queried approve of him no matter what. It can’t be analyzed away. There it is. A little less than half the adult population approves of a man who lies deliberately about things he knows to be untrue; lies ignorantly about things he knows nothing about; peppers his conversation with crude, belittling insults about anyone who challenges him; and cannot stay focussed on anything long enough to understand it. His history of business failure and corruption are public record – his personal immorality equally so. Receiving an economy in good health and growing, he slowed down its growth, got a tax bill passed that enriched the few and did not do one thing he promised it would, then claimed he’d produced the best economy ever. He single handedly destroyed our standing among the community of nations. He bungled our immigration problems, creating Dickensian conditions for would be immigrants, and unleashed Gestapo like roundups of the undocumented. Mountains of clear evidence proved his malfeasance in office, and a feckless Senate majority didn’t have the moral courage to do anything about it. Now he’s stumbled and bumbled management of the COVID-19 response, yet gives himself high marks for the great job he’s doing.

How is it possible nearly half the adult population can approve of performance like that?

The answer, I fear, is both obvious and disheartening, because I’m not convinced there is much to be done about it. It isn’t simply a steady diet of Fox News running constantly in homes across the nation. Its most popular shows are nothing more than propaganda for the Trump political operation. If Fox is the only television news source one watches, it may be impossible for one’s preexisting right wing persuasions not to be welded in place. That we know, but if we think pouring more truthful or progressive programing out to the public will change their minds, we’re badly mistaken. They’re not watching and don’t trust the mainstream or lamestream news, and they don’t read reliable newspapers.

Fox is the most obvious culprit, but probably not the most dangerous. Local a.m. talk radio stations dominate the radio landscape. Calling themselves conservative, they feature right wing provocateurs, disinterested in truth, and intent on fomenting as much right wing angst as possible. The local station in our community, for example, begins the day well enough with an interview show featuring local news, goofy humor, and interviews with community leaders. It’s worth listening to, but it’s the lead in to a day of Rush Limbaugh, Sean Hannity, Michael Savage and the like. Their crude vitriol is the background noise of homes and shops all over town. Maybe they listen, maybe they don’t, but droning all day, every day does its damage. And some do listen: an acquaintance once told me I should listen because they say some good things. Another said he can’t understand why people don’t like Trump, an honest president who tells the truth.

Television and radio are the front and back doors to an internet community of right wingers and the gullible curious. I don’t mean traditional conservatives; I mean anti government, tax avoiding, racially prejudiced, conspiracy touting extremists who revel in scapegoating targeted ethnic groups and anything liberal as intent on destroying all that right thinking people believe in. Without saying it out loud, they shout Danger! Arm Yourselves! They’re Coming to Get You! Some call it the dark web, but it’s not so dark. It’s right there in the open, anyone can look, maybe not enter the inner sanctum, but at least look.

My Twitter, FB and news feeds favor mainstream media and commentators on the progressive side, and they can give you the impression that everyone knows and understands what’s going on from that perspective, but everyone doesn’t. The right wing internet sites are numerous and have tens of thousands of subscribers. The point is, cable t.v. news, a.m. talk radio, and extremist right wing websites form a substantial collective force that willingly gives Trump their uncritical support with unshakable belief that he’s doing a terrific job and saving their way of life in the process. What is objectively real is either disbelieved or irrelevant.

I wish I knew how to let the light of verifiable evidence and data driven fact to enter into that world, but I don’t. Maybe you do. A good many residents of that world claim to be Christian. I wish I knew how to let the light of Christ enter into their hearts and minds, but I don’t. Maybe you do. And before someone says it, yes, there’s a far left wing version of the same thing, but it’s minuscule in comparison, and has little influence over the voting public. And no, Bernie is not their flag bearer. He’s way too centrist for them.

Pseudo Christianity in The Time of Pandemic

It surprises no one that a.m. talk radio hosts ridicule the seriousness of the COVID-19 pandemic, blame liberal socialists for insisting that it is, and laud Trump for his decisive leadership of the federal government’s response.  Sadly, it no longer surprises me that so many believe them, preferring their propagandistic screeds to verifiable facts and informed commentary.

What troubles me more are the number of so called Christian figures doing the same, claiming the name of Christ along the way.  They call the pandemic a fraud, assert it’s punishment from God, blame homosexuals and socialists, and deny there is a need to go on with the foolishness of social distancing.  Falwell may be the most well known.  Mormonish Beck is a fellow traveler with a large radioland following.  Paula White,Trump’s spiritual advisor, peddles pseudo Christianity promising miracles and money – for a fee.  Some, such as Jimmy Baker, sell fake cures.  Lesser known are a  smattering of mega church pastors refusing to cancel large Sunday gatherings for a disease conjured up by liberals, or is it a Chinese plot, take your pick.

It troubles me more because they do not faithfully represent or follow where Jesus has led, or what the Church has struggled to truthfully proclaim for two thousand years.  They and their specious theologies are not Christian no matter how often they use his name.  They’ve deceived thousands who have become devoted believers and beguiled funders. 

The immediate response, of course, is: “How dare you!  Who do you think you are?  What gives you the right to challenge my faith?  How arrogant!  What makes you think you know better?”  Unlike Ms. White, I can’t claim God has spoken directly to me, nor can I claim to be an authoritative and respected theologian.  At best I’m a second rate theologian, and an enthusiastic if mediocre student of most everything else.

I dare and claim the right by the words and deeds of Jesus as recorded in the gospels; by the epistles reporting how early congregations of the eastern Mediterranean struggled to understand them; and by the writings of the ethical prophets in the Hebrew scriptures.  I dare and claim the right by the writings of the pre and post Nicene ‘fathers’ of the Church, by the great reformers, and by the inspired writings of today’s deep thinkers.

Centering them are the Sermon on the Mount; the two greatest commandments on which hang all the law and prophets, and the new commandment to love one another as Jesus loves us.  From this center has emerged an abundance of room to express genuine Christian faith in an abundance of ways: genuine even in contention with each other.  

If what is said and done cannot connect directly with the center, they are not of Christ.  I’m reminded of something Jesus said: “Woe to you…hypocrites! For you are like whitewashed tombs, which on the outside look beautiful, but inside they are full of the bones of the dead and of all kinds of filth.  So you also on the outside look righteous to others, but inside you are full of hypocrisy and lawlessness” (Matt 23).  

They’re tough words from a loving Christ, not to be taken lightly.  If you want to follow Jesus, say and do as you are able for the loving good of yourself and your neighbor.  At least do no harm, but I think we can each do more than that.  Ignore those who would have you do otherwise, no matter how often they use the name of Jesus.  They are not of Christ.

Dry Bones & Tombs: preparing for Sunday

Here are a few observations on the lessons for this coming Sunday.  You may find them helpful in preparing for online or at home worship.

The lessons for Sunday, March 29 are from Ezekiel, the valley of dry bones, and John, the raising of Lazarus, both very familiar.  In between is a short passage from chapter 8 of Paul’s letter to the Romans about how new life is ours through the Spirit that dwells in us.

Because we know the stories well it’s easy to skim them with a sense they have nothing new to say.  God’s Spirit speaking to us through scripture disagrees.  There is always something new being said to those who listen.  But what could it be?  Let’s see.

About 600 years before Jesus the temple in Jerusalem was destroyed by the Babylonians, and many people were sent into exile in Babylon.  With no temple and the priesthood scattered, what did it mean to be an Israelite?  For that matter, they wondered who exactly is God and what would become of them? How could they hope when the future looked so bleak?  They’re serious questions not unlike a few of our own.  Into that mess came Ezekiel, living in exile with the others, and, according to his own book, more than a little looney.  He acted out prophecies in some very odd ways.  You can read about them for yourself.  But in this passage he offered God’s word of hope in a fairly clear way.  No matter how dead and defeated they were, God intended to give them new life, and had the power to do it.  

It’s likely they understood it to mean new life for the nation of Israel that their decedents would enjoy.  Although God spoke through Ezekiel about his power to restore life to the dead who were no more than dry bones lying scattered about the desert floor, the people of the time couldn’t easily comprehend that it might refer to them personally.  Jewish understanding of personal resurrection and a heavenly afterlife in God’s presence developed in the centuries after their return to Jerusalem from Babylon.  By the time of Jesus, the Pharisees understood it well, but the Sadducees didn’t.  

We’re much the same.  It’s hard to comprehend the new things God is saying when they don’t fit easily with what we think we already know and believe.  The voices of prophecy include many spouting religious sounding words God has nothing to do with.  It takes time to discern what is genuine, and it certainly helps to have prophets less nutty than Ezekiel.   

And so we come to John’s gospel where a new thing so utterly unbelievable was incomprehensible to those who were eye witnesses.

In the form we have it, John’s gospel came late, maybe twenty or thirty years after the others.  There was plenty of time to reflect on Jesus’ life, teaching, death and resurrection, and to consider what was needed to fill in what the others had excluded, or didn’t know about.  The raising of Lazarus, for instance, was not recorded in the other gospels: we don’t know why.  In this passage from John, God made a bold statement: there is no condition of death beyond God’s power to give life to whomever God chooses, whenever and however God chooses to do it. 

I have no doubt Jesus wept because it was a rotten trick to play on Lazarus.  Ripping him from new life in God’s loving embrace to return to ordinary life as an object lesson for the disciples?  It meant he had to live, suffer, and die all over again.  Could we not be satisfied with the reality of Jesus’ resurrection?  I guess not.  The disciples had to witness resurrection in an ordinary human being like themselves.  I think there are good reasons why it came before Christ’s own death and resurrection, and wonder what you think.  Give it some prayerful reflection.

We’re getting close to Holy Week and Easter.  We’ve been following Jesus on his way to Jerusalem for almost forty days.  We’ve seen the power of God at work through what he’s said and done.  If we were among his disciples, we couldn’t possibly understand it wasn’t God’s power working in him.  Jesus is the power of God.  God had been walking and talking with them all this time, but how could they have known.  Lazarus was a clue, but the fullness of the revelation would not come until Easter. 

That same power is as intimately present in our lives today, as it was in their’s so long ago.  We already know about Easter, but the fullness of its meaning may have escaped us, just as the greater meaning of Ezekiel’s dry bones escaped the exiled Israelites, and the meaning of Lazarus’s resurrection escaped the disciples.

Holy Week and Easter are going to be a little weird this year.  In a sense, we’ve been exiled, our churches are off limits, our clergy scattered, sickness and death surround us, our movements are restricted, ordinary life has been put on hold.  It’s dry bones and tombs.  But thanks be to God, we are already living into our eternal life through Christ Jesus.  We can say with Paul: “…Neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor rulers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.”  Jesus doesn’t have the power of life, he is the power of life, and his Spirit dwells in us giving us new and eternal life.