PONDERING Pastor

I PLEAD GUILTY TO THE CHARGE of` DENYING THE RESURRECTION

BUT I AINT LEAVING!!!

            Blogging is new to me and I must say that I am overwhelmed by the responses to yesterday’s post about resurrection.  While many have emailed or posted their ardent “amens” others have been scathing and some hostile to my remarks.  I am grateful to everyone who has responded.  All of your comments help me as I continue to ponder the theological and practical implications of the Easter story.  For those of you who have suggested that I have no business calling myself a Christian or a pastor and have suggested that I ought to consider leaving the church, I offer the following.

            Last year, I got together with clergy colleagues to talk about the challenges of preaching during Holy Week. When the subject of the crucifixion and the resurrection came up, the conversation became very lively as the traditionalists challenged the progressives. Toward the end of our conversation, it became clear that because I was unwilling to concede to the notion that Jesus corpse was physically resuscitated; I stood accused of having denied the resurrection.

            Some colleagues rose to my defense and insisted that I wasn’t saying anything different than what we all learned in seminary. But they also insisted that most lay-people simply don’t want to hear it. So, I asked them if they were going to preach about what they had learned in seminary and beyond and the general consensus was that there are too many guests on Easter Sunday to tackle theology.

            Some said, they were simply too afraid of the fundamentalists in their congregations to ever even attempt to preach what they knew. A few confessed that they were working up to it; but not on Easter Sunday.

            The traditionalists in the group were disgusted. One colleague went so far as to insist that I had no business being in the church because my very presence puts the beliefs of the faithful at risk. He wondered aloud, “Why do you stay in the church if you don’t believe?   If the church’s theology no longer works for you, why don’t you just leave?”

            “Why do you stay?” is a question I am all too familiar with.

            Well, before I can answer that, I have to say, that I’ve taken a leaf out of Joan Chittister’s book. Chittister insists that we should all be asking ourselves why we stay.  She cautions that those of us who stay, need to respect those who decide to leave and those who leave must respect those who stay. Chittister also insists that while we continue to ask ourselves why we stay, we ought to remember that “if we go, we must not go quietly and if we stay we must not stay quietly”. We must speak out because the church needs us to speak out.

            I confess that I am constantly asking myself why I stay and there are days when I feel like leaving, days when I feel like staying quietly, and days when I am convinced that it is in the church were I must not only stay but echo the words of Luther with gusto:  for in here I stand!

            I stay, because I still believe that it is possible to change the church from within. I stay, despite the fact that each time I go out into the wider church, the traditions and traditionalists that I meet there often make me want to leave. But then I remember all of the people in the faithful community that I serve. I remember their wiliness to dwell in the questions of our faith. I remember their courage and their determination. I remember their thirst for knowledge. I remember the amazing ways they reach out to the people outside the walls of the church. I remember their faithfulness, their love,  and their keen sense of justice. I remember the image of Christ that I see in their faces and I know without a doubt that the church is where I belong, even though I know that as a community we will continue to ask ourselves,  “Why do we stay?”  And I know that if we stay we will not stay quietly. And if we should ever decide to leave, we will not leave quietly. I stay because in the church community that I serve, I have encountered the Body of Christ.

            Here in the church, I have seen the risen Christ reach out to our neighbours in need, fight for justice, and love God with all our hearts, with all our souls and yes with all our minds.  So, I stay surrounded by such a great crowd of witnesses.  But like so many before us, we must not stay quietly. Together we must continue to speak out for change in our church.  And together we must continue to explore what the best minds of this century have to teach us about the nature of our God.

            My desire to work together with others to move the church into the 21st century is precisely why I preach the sermons I preach on Good Friday and Easter Sunday mornings.  And for the most part, despite the dire warnings of some of my clergy colleagues, our visitors take it all very well. Indeed many are relieved to hear that there is more than one way to follow Christ.  But there was this one person last Easter Sunday, who on the way out the door, insisted that I had denied the resurrection.  This person was quite distressed and wondered aloud how a Christian could deny the resurrection and still call themselves a Christian.

            Now even though I assured this person that I do indeed believe in the resurrection, it was clear to me, what this person heard me say was not exactly the same as what I actually said.  So, let me make it clear. There is, and there has always been, from the very beginning disagreement among the followers of Christ as to the exact nature of the resurrection. And things aren’t any different today than they were in the first century. There is a distinct disagreement between the Christianity of biblical scholarship and the Christianity of fundamentalists.  And 21st century Christians can be found faithfully following Christ all along the spectrum of beliefs about the resurrection.

            Fundamentalists are quite sure of their truth.  On Easter the crucified Jesus, who was laid in the grave as a deceased man on Good Friday, was by the mighty act of God, restored to life on Easter. Jesus had broken the power of death for all people. If the body of Jesus was not physically restored to life, the fundamentalists claim, then Easter is fraudulent. There can be no compromise here. Those who waver on this foundational truth of Christianity have, according to this perspective, abandoned the essential core of their faith tradition.

            Well, to borrow the words from an old song and say, “”Tain’t necessarily so!” When you read the New Testament in the order in which these books were written, a fascinating progression is revealed.  Paul, for example, writing between the years 50 and 64 or some 20 to 34 years after the earthly life of Jesus came to an end, never describes the resurrection of Jesus as a physical body resuscitated after death.  There is no hint in the Pauline corpus that one, who had died, later walked out of his grave clothes, emerged from the tomb and was seen by his disciples.

            What Paul does suggest is that Easter meant that God had acted to reverse the verdict that the world had pronounced on Jesus by raising Jesus from death into God. It was, therefore, out of God in a transforming kind of heavenly vision that this Jesus then appeared to certain chosen witnesses. Paul enumerates these witnesses and, in a telling detail, says that this was the same Jesus that Paul himself had seen. No one suggests that Paul ever saw a resuscitated body.

            The Pauline corpus later says, “If you then have been raised with Christ, seek the things which are above, where Christ is, seated at the right hand of God.” Remember, the story of the Ascension had not been written when these Pauline words were formed. Paul did not envision the Resurrection as Jesus being restored to life in this world but as Jesus being raised into God. It was not an event in time but a transcendent and transforming truth.

            Paul died, according to our best estimates, around the year 64 C.E. The first Gospel was not written until the early 70’s. Paul never had a chance to read the Easter story in any Gospel. The tragedy of later Christian history is that we read Paul through the lens of the Gospels.  So, we have both distorted Paul and also confused theology.

            When Mark, the first Gospel, was written the Risen Christ never appears. The last time Jesus is seen comes when his deceased body is taken from the cross and laid in the tomb. Mark’s account of the Resurrection presents us with the narrative of mourning women confronting an empty tomb, meeting a messenger who tells them that Jesus has been raised and asking these women to convey to the disciples that Jesus will meet them in Galilee. Mark then concludes his Gospel with a picture of these women fleeing in fear, saying nothing to anyone.  So abrupt was this ending that people began to write new endings to what they thought was Mark’s incomplete story. Two of those endings are actually reproduced in the King James Version of the Bible as verses 9-20. But thankfully, these later creations have been removed from the text of Mark in recent Bibles and placed into footnotes.  The sure fact of New Testament scholarship is that Mark’s Gospel ended without the Risen Christ ever being seen by anyone.

            Both Matthew, who wrote between 80-85, and Luke, who wrote between 88-92, had Mark to guide their compositions. Both changed, heightened and expanded Mark. It is fascinating to lift those changes into consciousness and to ask what was it that motivated Matthew and Luke to transform Mark’s narrative. Did they have new sources of information? Had the story grown over the years in the retelling?

            The first thing to note is that Matthew changes Mark’s story about the women at the tomb. First, the messenger in Mark becomes a supernatural angel in Matthew’s story. Next Matthew says the women do see Jesus in the garden.             They grasp him by the feet and worship him. This is the first time in Christian history that the Resurrection is presented as physical resuscitation. It occurs in the 9th decade of the first century.  It should be noted that it took more than 50 years to begin to interpret the Easter experience as the resuscitated body of the deceased Jesus.

            I don’t have time to go into the details of the development of this interpretation. But you can trace its growth through the gospels of Matthew and Luke until finally at the end of the first century to the Gospel of John. And when you read these chronologically, you will see that the Easter story appears to have grown rather dramatically over the years.

            Something happened after the crucifixion of Jesus that convinced the disciples that Jesus shared in the eternal life of God and was thus available to them as a living presence.   This experience was so profound that the disciples, who at his arrest had fled in fear, were now reconstituted and empowered even to die for the truth of their vision.  This experience had the power to force the Jewish disciples to redefine the God of the Jews so that Jesus could be seen as part of who God is. Finally this experience was so profound that it ultimately created, on the first day of the week, a new holy day that was quite different from the Sabbath, to enable Christians to mark this transforming moment with a liturgical act called “the breaking of bread.”

            When these biblical data are assembled and examined closely, two things become clear. First something of enormous power gripped the disciples following the crucifixion that transformed their lives. Second, it was some fifty years before that transforming experience was interpreted as the resuscitation of a three days dead Jesus to the life of the world. Our conversation about the meaning of Easter must begin where these two realities meet.

            As for those who condemn those of us who choose to follow the biblical strains of our resurrection theology as non-Christians, well there will always be those who will insist that it is their way or the highway.  As for the person who greeted me on the way out the door last Easter Sunday and questioned my ability to call myself a Christian, I would say, “Thank-you!”.  This question allowed me the opportunity to communicate clearly and concisely my thoughts on the resurrection, so please allow me to repeat myself. To those who have responded to my blogs, I say, “Thank-you!”  I thank-you for engaging me in the questions of our faith.  I thank-you because your questions make me a better follower and I trust that my questions will do the same for you.  Let us together be the church in our own time and place and have the courage to follow where-ever Christ leads.

            So, without equivocation or hesitation I fully and completely admit that I deny the resurrection of Christ. This is something that anyone who knows me could tell you, and I am not afraid to say it publicly, no matter what some people may think.  I deny the resurrection of Christ.  Theologian Peter Rollins puts it far better than I ever could, and with him, let me just say:

             “I deny the resurrection of Christ every time I do not serve at the feet of the oppressed, each day that I turn my back on the poor;  I deny the resurrection of Christ when I close my ears to the cries of the downtrodden and the oppressed.

            Every time I do not serve my neighbour, every time I walk away from the poor.

            I deny the resurrection every time I participate in an unjust system.

            However there are moments when I affirm that resurrection, few and far between as they are.

            I affirm the resurrection when I stand up for those who are forced to live on their knees,

            I affirm the resurrection when I speak for those who have had their tongues torn out,

            I affirm the resurrection, when I cry for those who have no more tears left to shed.

            I affirm the resurrection each and every time I look into your eyes and see the face of Christ.”

             Christ has died. Christ has risen.  Christ will come again and again.

            This is the mystery of our faith.

            Christ is Risen!

            Christ is Risen Indeed!  Alleluia!

            Christ is risen in you and in me. 

            In the words of Martin Luther:

            “This is most certainly true!”

            Can I get an Amen?

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RESURRECTION: Giving up the notion of a physical resuscitation.

Christ is risen 11

               Christ is Risen! Christ is risen indeed.  Alleluia!

             Let me follow that proclamation up with a good Lutheran question:“What does this mean?”  What does it mean that Christ is risen? What does resurrection mean?

            The truth is that there are about as many different explanations of Christ’s resurrection as there are Christians.  And that’s a good thing, because the question of the resurrection is a question that lies at the very heart of Christianity. So, is it any wonder that Christians have been struggling to come to terms with resurrection since the very first rumors that Christ had risen began to circulate. Over the centuries the various responses to the question of resurrection have divided Christians as various camps work out various responses.

            For many Christians and non-Christians alike Resurrection is the dividing line. But this is nothing new.  Indeed the drawing of that line can be seen in the earliest Christian writings that we have. The Apostle Paul himself, wrote to the community of followers at Corinth:

            “If there is no resurrection of the dead, then not even Christ has been raised. And if Christ has not been raised, then all of our preaching has been meaningless—and everything you’ve believed has been just as meaningless.”

            There are many believers and non-believers alike who point to these line’s in scripture and say,” Aha, there it is, either you believe in the resurrection or you don’t!”

            For atheists, agnostics, and people of other religions the physical resuscitation of Jesus’ body is simply out of the question because it lies beyond reason. For a whole lot of Christians, and I dare say many of you,   “believing in the resurrection” means believing in the actual physical resuscitation of Jesus’ body. And there are a whole lot of other Christians who don’t believe that believing in the resurrection means that you have to believe in the actual physical resuscitation of Jesus’ body.  And there are a great many Christians for whom the actual physical resuscitation of Jesus’ body is a moot point; that the entire argument is simply irrelevant.

            So, on Easter morning, when we gather together to celebrate the resurrection, the question of whether or not we believe in the resurrection hangs in the air like an unwelcome smell.  A smell made all the more pungent by our 21st century sensibilities.

            Last year, an American polling group from the southern Bible-belt conducted a poll of North Americans that for once included, Mexicans, Canadians, and Americans. The results of that poll confirm that the issue of resurrection has lost its grip when it comes to Easter. When questioned about the significance of Easter, fewer than half of those polled even mentioned Jesus. It seems that for many, the Easter bunny is a more plausible character than Jesus.

            It is clear that Christianity’s preoccupation with the strange events that happened after Jesus’ death has become a stumbling block that prevents a great many people from ever hearing the actual teachings of Jesus. The idea that a dead man came back to life some 2000 years ago is simply too much for 21st century minds to accept.

            So, while a good many sermons will be preached this Easter morning that clearly declare that Jesus physically rose from the dead, the Bible itself is much less clear on the details of the resurrection.

            Mark, the oldest gospel, written at least 40 years after Jesus died, ends with the mystery of an empty tomb, with no appearances by Jesus. In the other gospels, we have various confusing and conflicting details about the resurrection appearances: in some Jesus is not recognized, even by his former disciples who spent years following Jesus under the most intimate of circumstances. In some of the appearance stories, Jesus takes on ghost-like qualities by suddenly appearing in and then disappearing from locked rooms.

            These scant, confusing and conflicting accounts, don’t give us much to go on, and yet without this strange experience of resurrection, whatever it actually was, we would not have Christianity as a religion.

            So, what are we 21st century followers of the teachings of Jesus to do?             Must we check our brains at the door?  Do we suspend reason and experience and simply accept, despite what we know of reality, that Jesus physically rose from the dead? Or, do we simply avoid the issue altogether?

            I must admit that I’m tempted to avoid the issue.  After all, on Easter Sunday, most worshippers have places to go and people to see.   On the whole, I suspect what most worshippers want from the worship service is some lovely uplifting music, and a short sermon, so that they can be on their way rejoicing. But if the issue of a physical resurrection is standing between 21st century minds and the teachings of Jesus, then surely we must not avoid the issue. Surely Easter is precisely the day when we ought to focus our attention on the resurrection.  I believe preachers must address the inconsistencies in the biblical witness together with the plethora of historical and theological information that has been made available by the writings of best-selling authors who have opened up the scholarship of the academies and seminaries to the average worshipper.

            So, here I offer my own notes about the resurrection as I prepare to lead worship and preach on this high feast of the church year. As always, I am indebted to those scholars who have moved me beyond the dogma and doctrines of my own tradition and echoes of their work permeate what follows:   John Shelby Spong, John Dominic Crossan, Marcus Borg, Peter Rollins, Bernard Brandon Scott, Glynn Cardy and the members of my congregation.

             The Apostle Paul wrote his first letter to the church in Corinth, about 20 years after Jesus was crucified, died and was buried. Scholars tell us that the letter was written between the years 53 and 57. That’s at least 20 years before the Gospel according to Mark, 30 to 40 years before the gospels according to Matthew and Luke and probably nearly 50 years before the Gospel according to John.

           The writings of the Apostle Paul contain the earliest writings that we have on the subject of the Resurrection.  And the Apostle Paul’s understanding of resurrection was good enough for the early followers of the way.  Paul’s description of resurrection does not conflict with our 21st century inability to accept the suspension of the natural order of the universe.  You see, Paul never described Jesus’ resurrection as a physical resuscitation of Jesus’ corpse.              Indeed in 1 Corinthians 15 the apostle Paul denies that Jesus’ resurrection was an actual physical resurrection.

            Paul  writes:  “Perhaps someone will ask, “How are the dead to be raised up?  What kind of body will they have?”  What a stupid question!  The seed you sow does not germinate unless it dies. When you sow, you do not sow the full-blown plant but a kernel of wheat or some other grain. Then it is given the body God designed for it—with each kind of seed getting its own kind of body.            Not all flesh is the same. Human beings have one kind, animals have another, birds another, and fish another. Then there are heavenly bodies and earthly bodies. Heavenly bodies have a beauty of their own, and earthly bodies have a beauty of their own. The sun has one kind of brightness, the moon another, and the stars another.  And a star differs from other stars in brightness.  So it is with the resurrection of the dead.  What is sown is a perishable body, what is raised is incorruptible. What is sown is ignoble, what is raised is glorious. Weakness is sown, strength is raised up. A natural body is sown, and a spiritual body is raised up. If there is a natural body, then there is also a spiritual body.”

            As a Pharisee, Paul believed in the resurrection of the dead and certainly he believed that Jesus had been raised from the dead. But as for our question about an actual physical body, Paul insists that this is simply a stupid question.  For heaven sake, when you sow a seed into the ground and it bursts forth into new life, that new life doesn’t come in the form of a seed, it comes to life as a plant! Not all bodies are the same! The Apostle Paul did not need there to be an actual physical resuscitation of a body in order to believe that Jesus is risen from the dead.

            To ask the question of whether the resurrection is true, and to mean by this that only a resuscitated corpse constitutes such proof, is to impose the standards of the modern mind upon a pre-scientific culture of myth and magic. The dualism of body and soul was a Greek idea, for the Jews there could be no resurrection without a resurrection of the body. After all, could one rise without a body to rise in?

            What we refer to as the soul was a foreign concept to first century Jews.  And so the question about the kind of body the risen Jesus had was, as Paul puts it, quite simply stupid. “There are heavenly bodies and there are earthly bodies.” Not all bodies are the same.

            The question of a physical body makes no sense to the ancients. Christ was alive to those early followers. Paul insists that there are natural bodies, which he equates with earthly bodies what we would call physical bodies and there are spiritual bodies which Paul equates with heavenly bodies.

            According to Paul, the earthly body; they physical body must die in order for the heavenly or spiritual body to be born.  “A natural body is sown, and a spiritual body is raised up.”

            This spiritual resurrection that Paul describes gave birth to Christianity, within the Jewish context. It wasn’t until Christianity moved beyond Judaism that it came into direct conflict with the Greek understanding of reality, which insisted upon the dualism of body and soul. Faced with the task of communicating the gospel, the early followers of the risen Christ, began to articulate their experiences of the risen Christ in ways that the Greek influenced Roman Empire could understand. And the question of a physical resurrection arose (pardon the pun).

            However, the vision that Paul credits with having changed his view of Jesus is clearly that, a vision; a vision of a heavenly body. Some scholars argue that the resurrection was either a mass hallucination or that the stories were simply made up by Jesus’ followers after the death of the man they had believed to be their Messiah. But would hallucinations, or fictions have the power to sustain a movement that would become Christianity?

            Is it possible, that something our 21st century minds would describe as deeply spiritual happened, but that something was not a supernatural resuscitation of a corpse?  The supernatural resuscitation of a corpse  not only violates the laws of science,  it is also difficult to reconcile a physical resuscitation with the details that are recorded in the Scriptures.

            What if the experience of Jesus was one in which his followers truly saw the power of God within a man to an extent that they had never encountered before? If we see God as the ground of our being, then Jesus can be viewed as a unique, but human man in whom this ground was not a distant source of existence buried under layers of ego, but was the very center of his being.             Jesus life, his teachings, his compassion, his ministry of healing all radiated this power of the divine.

            Jesus opened up his disciples’ eyes to this power of God. After the human Jesus died, what if his followers still experienced the power of God that they had seen within Jesus, even though their teacher was no longer with them?

            In an age in which, what we would define as supernatural visions, were commonplace, this experience of the power of the divine that their teacher had opened them to could have been interpreted as if the spirit of their teacher had never died because the power of God never does die.

            I believe that the biblical accounts of the risen Christ, represent the powerful stories told by the first followers of Jesus. Stories not about the supernatural, but about the mystical experiences of the living power of God in the world. As these stories were told and interpreted over decades in a time that expected to encounter God in the world, these stories developed in which the resurrection is conveyed with bodily imagery. We need not take these stories literally, but we must take them seriously.

            When we examine the story of Jesus’ death and the mystical experience of resurrection in metaphorical terms,  we can see in the story of the crucifixion the very human nature of Jesus: we see suffering, pain, doubt, and death itself  —  the inevitable conditions of being human. Yet in the story of the resurrection, we learn that this human condition is not the conclusion — hope exists for all of us.             Behind the suffering of existence lies a power:  the power of existence itself that is eternal and infinite. This power thus “conquers death” because it is the source of existence and of life.

            The powerful message of Christianity  becomes one of light and hope:             just as Jesus was able to tap into this power and just as Jesus’ life was centered on the power of the divine and radiated it. We too can do the same. We can also experience the divine ground within ourselves and within all of creation.

            When Paul talks about the risen Christ he speaks of Jesus as the one who was raised up into the fullness of God.

            Being raised up into the fullness of God… Now that’s a resurrection I can hope for.

            Although Paul speaks about Jesus’ resurrection as God’s victory over death, the Resurrection isn’t some glorious taming of death, because in the end, we still die – death is still real for us … many of us know that only too well.             When Paul paraphrases the prophet Hosea: “Death has been swallowed up in victory.  Where, O death, is your victory? Where, O death, is your sting?” Paul is not negating the reality of death – he is  reminding us that death and the grave are no longer to be feared.

            Paul insists that death and the grave are very much a part of the journey into the fullness of God’s love – the journey into the presence of the Living God – the journey into the heart and soul of the Living God.

            Resurrection reminds us that ultimately God and God’s love for us in Christ Jesus will bring life out of death.  And there is more good news about Easter. Easter is more than something that happened in the past. Easter is more than a day on the calendar. Easter is not just about the resurrection of Jesus or the hope that we to will be resurrected when our time on this mortal coil has ended. The good news about Easter is that resurrection is not limited to Jesus, nor is it limited to the end of our life. Resurrection is not limited to life after death. Resurrection happens throughout creation, over and over throughout our lifetimes. Resurrection can and does happen here and now.

            You see the miracle of Easter is not so much about the resurrection of Jesus as it is about our own resurrections. If the rumors about the empty tomb are to be believed, then we need not look for the living among the dead. Jesus has left the tomb, and if we are to follow Jesus then we too shall have to leave our tombs.

            To follow Jesus we will have to leave the old trappings behind like shabby grave clothes, if we are to live in the Light of Christ. The resurrection to which Easter calls us—is our own—and resurrection requires that we prepare to find God where God is by opening ourselves to the world around us with our eyes and ears open wide to new life.

            This means that we must be prepared to be surprised by God in strange places, in ways we never though we’d see and through the words of those we never thought we’d hear.

            We must allow others—even those whom we have until now refused to consider—for they too are in need of resurrection and we must open our hearts to things we do not want to hear.

            We must release the voice of God in everyone, everywhere.

            In Jesus, his followers heard the voice of God.

            In Jesus, his followers discovered the wisdom of God.

            In Jesus, his followers experienced the love of God.

            Those who followed and loved Jesus experienced life in ways that were so earth shattering, so mind-blowing, that their lives would never be the same again. The power of the love they experienced in their life with Jesus could not be constrained or ended by Jesus’ death.

            Long after they found the empty tomb, Jesus’ loved ones continued to experience his presence in very real ways. In the breaking of the bread, and in the meals they shared together; as they walked the pathways they had walked with Jesus, and fished the waters they had navigated with Jesus.

            There in those places they encountered the power of Jesus’ love that could not be limited by death.  That love had the power to raise them from their own tombs. And that love has the power to raise us from our tombs.

            Those dark caves that hold us captive and keep us from living.  By the power of LOVE we can leave behind the tattered grave-clothes that bind us so that we can follow Christ into the light.

            Christ is risen!

            Christ is risen indeed. Alleluia!

            Christ lives and breathes and has being, in with and through us!

            That dear sisters and brothers is the Good News on this Easter morning.

            Christ is risen! Christ is risen indeed!  Alleluia!

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PREPARING FOR MAUNDY THURSDAY

When you don’t believe that Jesus was a sacrifice for sin!

I was asked by a colleague, “So, if you do not believe that Jesus died for your sins, then why bother celebrating the events of Holy Week?”  Behind this question lies the assumption that the only way to understand Jesus’ death is to frame it within the context of the theology of “penal sacrificial atonement” ie “we are judged to be sinful creatures, punishment is required, God sends Jesus to pay the price for our sin”.  That Anslem’s theory of sacrificial atonement was formulated in the 11th century and continues to hold sway in the minds of so many followers of Christ is a testament to the power of our liturgies and hymns to form our theology.  However, Anslem’s theory is not they only faithful way to understand Jesus’ death. 

         When one seriously engages the question, “What kind of god would demand a blood sacrifice?” the answers often render God impotent at best and at worst cruel and vindictive. I have often said that atonement theories leave God looking like a cosmic son of #%#%# !

         Progressive Christian theologians are opening up new ways of understanding the death and resurrection of Jesus that empower the faithful to see new possibilities. 

         To my colleague, who fears that I am leading the faithful astray, and to those who find little comfort in the theories of an 11th century monastic, I the following notes, crafted in my preparation to lead Maundy Thursday worship.

Jesus said, “I give you a new commandment:  Love one another.   And you’re to love one another the way I have loved you. This is how all will know that you’re my disciples: that you truly love one another.”

That we should love one another is not a new commandment. There have been many before Jesus and many who came after Jesus who have commanded, advised, encouraged, implored, and even begged us to, “love one another.”

What is new about Jesus commandment is that we are to love one another the way that Jesus loved us.

Which begs the question:  How exactly did Jesus love?

I believe that Jesus loved in ways that I am only beginning to understand. I believe that Jesus was so open to the power of the LOVE that is God; that Jesus was able to live his life fully without fear.

I believe that Jesus wanted more than anything else for his followers to be so open to the power of LOVE that is God so that they too would live their lives fully without fear.

I believe that that’s what Jesus meant when he said, “I have come that you might have life and live it abundantly.”

I believe that Jesus lived life abundantly and that means that he loved abundantly and without fear.

Jesus was so open to the power of LOVE that is God that Jesus would not let the powers of darkness stop him from loving and living fully.

The kind of LOVE that Jesus embodied and taught has no boundaries.  No darkness, no power, no fear, not even death can limit the power of LOVE.

For if LOVE is limited by death, then love will always be qualified and quantified.

That Jesus was willing to LOVE without boundaries, came at great cost to himself.

But Jesus was willing to pay that price in order to show  others the way.

The way to LOVE without limit, without fear, without boundaries.

LOVE without boundaries is abundant life.

That Jesus’ LOVE endured the worst that the world could send his way, that Jesus’ LOVE was for all the world, dead and buried, and yet bursts free from the grave, bears witness to the power of LOVE.

That Jesus LOVE could not be destroyed, not even by the thing we fear the most, death itself, saves us from the need to fear death.

Jesus has shown us the way.

         We can live abundantly lives that are free from the fear of death. Because Jesus has shown us the way we are free to live fully, to love extravagantly and be all that we were created to be.

LOVE shines in the darkness and darkness shall not overcome LOVE.

If Jesus, life, death, and resurrection teach us anything, surely they teach us not to be afraid.

Not to be afraid of the darkness.

Not to be afraid of living fully.

Not to be afraid of loving extravagantly.

Not to be afraid of the powers of evil.

Not to be afraid of the power of death.

LOVE will endure.

All will be well.

Jesus can’t save us from life.

There is evil to contend with.

There will be darkness and there will be death.

Jesus couldn’t save himself and he cannot save us from life. Darkness and death are part of life.  Each of us must walk into the darkness that lies before us.  We can beg God to take the cup from us!  But the darkness will still come.  And there will be days when the darkness will triumph.  There are good Fridays too many to mention out there.  We can shout all we want for Jesus to save us, but in the end we too will have to take up our cross and find a way to follow Jesus into the darkness and beyond, trusting that even though it feels for all the world that God has forsaken us, we will make it beyond the darkness.

The cross will not look the same for each of us. But there will be crosses to bear. Jesus has showed us the way. If we are to follow Jesus, then we must love one another they way that Jesus loved.  It is the way beyond the darkness. Do not be afraid of evil, of death, or of the darkness. Follow Jesus who by love frees us from the power of darkness to hold us captive to our fears so that we can have life and live it abundantly.

How exactly did Jesus love?

Without limit.

What did Jesus save us from?

Our fears.

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Please Don’t Ask Me to Take On Any Lenten Disciplines!

JOHN OF THE CROSS wordsIt’s February. It’s cold outside. I have places to go, people to see, and by the time the driveway is shovelled, the ice is scraped, the windshield juice is topped up in my car and all the extra time it takes to navigate the roads in this weather, I can barely complete the regular tasks this busy modern life of ours demands, let alone feel guilty because I’m not adopting some contemplative spiritual exercise! I heard someone say, “If you are currently not experiencing any stress in your life, you should immediately lie down because it appears that you may be dead.” So, please don’t ask me to take on any Lenten disciplines!

I have also heard it said,  that in Canada the most common response to the question “How are you doing?” is the word “Busy!”. Canadians and I suspect Americans, Europeans, and most inhabitants of the so-called First World, seem to feel the need to justify our existance by assuring others that we are leading busy lives. While I am absolutely convinced that lives lived in the twenty-first century are busier than the lives of our ancestors, I’m not so sure that being busy is something we ought to be proud of.

Growing up, I remember all sorts of predictions about how life in our immediate future would be filled with so much leisure time as a direct result of the technology that would be at our fingertips. But as technology advances, our ability to work wherever and whenever the need arises has severely curtailed our leisure time. Our lives are busy and we have forgotten what it means to be human beings because most of us have become human doers. We have forgotten how to simply be.

I find it reassuring, comforting even, that our ancestors understood that our Creator as YAHWEH, which translated can be understood as “I AM WHO I AM or I SHALL BE WHO I SHALL BE. That the name of God should be understood as the verb “to be” helps me to understand myself as one who is created in the image of the great I AM and not the I DO. I am a human being not a human doer! What I need from a season like Lent is not a prescription for more things to do. But rather, the encouragement to simply be. 

Might I suggest that we can begin this encouragement to simply be by simply greeting people with a simple word of peace. If such a greeting seems awkward to you then perhaps simply asking people how they “are” rather than how they are “doing” will suffice. Such a subtle change may not be enough for some people to refrain from telling you what or how they are “doing” and you may find them insisting that they are indeed “busy”. But a little gentle persistence may enable some to respond about their very being. Reminding one another that we are beings and not just doers might lead us toward some peace. Shalom, As-salam alaykum, Peace dear beings, Peace…..

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Giving Up Theories of Atonement for Lent

in Favour of Listening for God’s Laughter

Laughter St Teresa

Traditionally the season of Lent is a mournful time filled with calls to repentance and self-examination as we follow Jesus into the wilderness to be tempted and then on that long march to Jerusalem where the powers that be will have their wicked way with him. Our liturgies take a mournful tone as we lament our woeful human existence, confess our sinfulness, and hear exultations to take up our crosses so that we too can follow Jesus to the bitter end. Over and over again we are asked to remember that we are in bondage to sin and cannot free ourselves, as we gaze upon the cross remembering that Jesus our savior bled and died as a result of our wicked sinfulness.

Lent is a strange season that harkens back to a forgotten era. Unlike so many of the seasons of the church year it’s not exactly a season that attracts people to church. Not many of you got out of bed this morning and said, “Yippy it’s the first day of Lent. Oh goodie!  We get to be reminded that we are sinful, that life is miserable and unless I’m willing to take up my cross and follow Jesus all the way to Golgotha, there’s precious little hope cause we’re all going to die and when the time comes we want Jesus to remember us.”

Now I know that there are some people who just love Lent and I must confess that I like the quieter, more somber tone that our liturgies take. I actually enjoy the opportunity to slow things done and be more reflective in our worship together. I savor the silences and the opportunities to be more contemplative. I love the colour purple with all its vibrant hues and the best part of all is that the beginning of Lent means that spring is just around the corner. What I don’t like about Lent are the signs, symbols, hymns and stories that make it so easy for us to fall back into the 11th century.

It is so easy for us to lean not on the ever-lasting arms of Jesus but on the scales of St. Anslem and find ourselves not looking forward to the promise of resurrection and the gifts of eternal life, but rather dreading judgment day knowing that the scales of justice must be balanced and fearing the moment of truth when our sins are piled onto the scale and knowing that our only hope for reconciliation with our Maker is that Jesus is sitting on the other end of the scale.

“Woe is me.  Woe is me for I am sinful. My sins are too numerous to count. There are all the things I have done and all the things I have left undone. Thank God Jesus died for me. Somebody had to pay the price for my sinfulness. Jesus died for a reason, and you and I dear sisters and brothers are that reason. A blood sacrifice had to be paid. God’s justice demanded it and Jesus paid the price with his very own blood.   Jesus took our place up there on that cross and the least you and I can do to say thank-you is to spend some time shouldering our own crosses as we retrace Jesus steps to Jerusalem.”

The season of Lent with all of its liturgical trappings makes it so easy to fall back upon St. Anslem’s theory of atonement.  St Anslem the 11th century English monk, a legal scholar who came up with the theory about why Jesus died on the cross known as substitutionary satisfaction. Jesus stood in on our behalf to satisfy the debt that had to be paid.

St Anslem’s theory may have satisfied the minds of worshippers in the 11th century but a lot has changed in the last ten centuries. Take for example the sixteenth century — Martin Luther a name near and dear to the hearts of Lutherans everywhere.   Good old Martin Luther was so obsessed with his own sinfulness that he spent many a long night agonizing over those things that he had done and left undone that he often found himself flagellating of an evening. You don’t hear much about flagellation these days; at least not in church. But flagellation was all the rage among the religious of Martin’s day. 

Why Marty would whip himself into a positive frenzy just thinking about his sinfulness; and I do mean whip himself. Flagellation is the fine art of punishing oneself for ones’ sins by stripping down to the waist and whipping one’s back to the point of drawing blood so that you could bleed just like your Saviour bleed for you before he was led through the streets of Jerusalem on his way to Golgotha. Martin became so obsessed with his own sinful nature that his own priest feared for his life. Father Staupitz, the priest to whom Martin was constantly confessing his sins to is said to have become so frustrated with Martin’s obsession with trivial sin. I mean how much can a faith monk, living in a monetary have to confess. Legend has it that Staupitz grew weary of Martin’s confession of every trivial sin, that in desperation he once told Luther to go and sin boldly, perhaps hoping that Luther would at least have something to actually flagellate for.

Happily for Christendom, Martin Luther eventually came to the realization that far from being a harsh judge of our sinfulness, God is actually a gracious God and thus the Luther’s theology of Grace gave birth to the Reformation. No longer did the faithful have to worry about balancing the scales with acts of piety because God’s grace is sufficient. God in Christ freely forgives us all our sins, not because of any merit we might gain from acts of piety but simply because in Christ, God took on human form and travelled to the cross and paid the ultimate price. Thanks to Luther we all know that we are justified by faith through grace.  We are made righteous in the eyes of God through Christ and there is nothing that we can say or do about it.

Now that’s all worked very well for about 500 years. Just a few years ago, even the Roman Catholic Church agreed that when it comes to the doctrine of grace, Martin Luther was correct. We humans it can be and is said, are simul justus et peccator;  we are both sinners and saints all at the same time. Yes we are in bondage to sin and cannot free ourselves, but by God’s grace we are also forgiven, and set free to live in joyful response to God’s amazing grace. So, for about 500 years we’ve been chugging alone, delighted that we are all forgiven sinners and then along comes Darwin.  

Oops. You mean Adam and Eve weren’t actually the very first people on earth? And then along comes archeology. Oh, I see there’s actually a whole lot of bones that tell us that we humans didn’t arrive ready made, that actually over millions and millions of years we actually evolved into the creatures that we are and indeed there’s lots of medical evidence that insists that we are still evolving. Okay, so you mean to tell me that Eve didn’t actually cause us to fall from grace. There is no garden to which we can return to? 

Now how are we going to explain who we humans are? If we are no longer understand the human condition according to the theological concept of “The Fall”, then why did Jesus have to die? The idea that we were once perfect creatures who committed some outrageous sin, and fell from grace and we’ve got to get ourselves back to the garden, just doesn’t jive with the facts on the ground.

So, here we are at the beginning of Lent in the full throws of another Reformation and we are struggling to understand our place in the grand scheme of things. When you reject the theory of “The Fall” and you begin to understand yourselves not as broken people, but as incomplete people, people who are still evolving into whatever it is that we were created to be, well you can’t but help to look at Jesus differently. Couple that with the explosion of historical knowledge that has  brought us all sorts of new insights into the first century in which Jesus of Nazareth actually walked the earth, and you begin to ask yourself, what are we too do when we get together to worship the creator of all that is and ever shall be.

So, that was my dilemma as I was trying to figure out how we should set off on our Lenten journey. I was busy contemplating the theory of original sin. Which dates back not to Jesus day, but rather to St. Augustine of Hippo who lived during the fifth century. The theory of original sin is one way of understanding the Creation story from the book of Genesis. You see as a result of our fall from the garden, humans, who were originally created to live in a perfect relationship with God, were somehow tempted when evil came to the garden in the form of a snake. Because Eve and then Adam, succumbed to the temptation of evil, God got annoyed and kicked them out of the garden and took away the gift of immortality. This fall from grace meant that from that day to this every human is born sinful by nature.

So there I was in my office contemplating the notion of original sin, when I was distracted by the tone on my computer that indicated that a new email had arrived. Tired of thinking about original sin, substitutionary satisfaction and the doctrine of grace, I gleefully succumbed to temptation long enough to open the email.  It was from my daughter in-law. The subject line read:  Happy Addison followed by an exclamation mark. The body of the email included one of those viewing screens above which was this message:  “There is no video, just wonderful sound!” I eagerly clicked play: and to my delight came the sounds of our nine-month-old grand-daughter. She was laughing and laughing and laughing. Her mommy was playing peek-a-boo with her and her laughter was infections.

There is nothing in heaven or on earth quite like the sound of a baby laughing out loud with such  great gusto, that all you can do is laugh right along.  I laughed and I laughed, until tears of joy rolled down my cheeks. And I knew once and for all that the theory of original sin is nothing but a crock of ….Well you get the picture. Babies are not born sinful. Sinful babies are not being born all over the world as a result of an apple being eaten by some mythical creature. Now, I know full well that the doctrine of original sin is nothing more than a theory used to describe the human condition.  I know the dangers of taking theories literally.

If we are indeed in the midst of a new reformation and I really do believe that we are. Then we really do have to begin to examine the theories and metaphors that we’ve been using for centuries to see if they are still life-giving ways of helping us to live in relationship to our Creator. When we no longer see ourselves as creatures born defined by original sin, we are set free to begin to explore human evolution in ways that will help us to evolve into the humans that we were created to be.

Lenten celebrations that flagellate us with words that reinforce a definition of ourselves as wicked sinners who can only be redeemed by a blood sacrifice simply won’t do in the 21st century. Not if we want to equip ourselves to live in communion with our Creator and our fellow creatures. Evolving Christians know that despite our weak and deliberate offences we are not the sum total of our weaknesses for we are fearfully and wonderfully made in the image of our creator; albeit an incomplete image. While we still look to our relationship with our Creator longing for the development of a clean heart with in us, we do so trusting that the Ground of All Our Being works in with and through us to ensure that we evolve into all that our Creator dreams that we can become.

So during the season of Lent we can look to the stories of Jesus of Nazareth who in his time and place revealed to his contemporaries a view of our Creator that challenged their notions of reality. We look to the life and witness of Jesus of Nazareth to see what we can learn about who we are and whose we are. And thanks to the struggles of all those who evolved before us, we can also look to the one we know as the Christ to seek understand of how God works in with and through us to achieve the evolution of humanity into creatures that live in ways that reflect the life of Jesus.

This is an exciting time to be alive. These are exciting days for the church. Excitement can be a wonderful thing, but it can also be frightening. So, sometimes we cling to the things of former days, and we hold on to the familiar. Those familiar comforts are all well and good if they provide us with some sense of security in these exciting times. But those familiar comforts can also be vain comforts if we begin to worship them.

So, during this Lenten season, I invite you to wander off into the wilderness. Now don’t be afraid, because we are after all Canadians and Canadians know how to handle a journey into the wilderness. Take heart for we are not going out into the wilderness alone. Jesus goes on before us. And we will follow his story to see what we can learn from his life and witness. And we’ll take the Mystics along with us to help us see the wisdom of the centuries in new ways.

Imagine if you will a baby in your own life. A baby from your past perhaps, you baby brother or sister, maybe your own babies when they were just new and discovering the joys of creation. Such a beautiful little child.  So much ahead of her. So much to explore. But for now a simple game of peek-a-boo.  Ah, such laughter. You can’t help but laugh along and as you laugh, the tears of joy stream down your cheeks as you begin to imagine the wonders of the beautiful human being this child will grow into. And as you are over-come with joy, you won’t be able to help yourself as you are compelled to thank the Creator of such a beautiful little creature. And as you give thanks, listen to the words of St Teresa of Avila  whose joy echoes down through the centuries to help us evolve into the vision of our Creator: Teresa writes: “Just these two words God spoke changed my life, “Enjoy Me.” What a burden I thought I was to carry— a crucifix, as did Christ. Love once said to me, “I know a song, would you like to hear it?” And laughter came from every brick in the street and from every pore in the sky. After a night of prayer, God changed my life when God sang, “Enjoy Me.”

A Benediction:                             Listen, listen closely,

can you hear the memory of a baby’s laughter?

Such beauty, such potential, such joy.

 Now listen again,

can you hear the voice of God?

Listen carefully,

listen beyond the laughter and you will hear God say:

“Enjoy Me”.

“Enjoy Me!”

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ENOUGH WITH “A MIGHTY FORTRESS” ALREADY SING A NEW SONG

In the spirit of the Reformation motto: semper reformanda – always reforming, what say we abandon the fortresses of our traditions.  Tomorrow, Lutheran churches all over the world will begin their Reformation Sunday worship services vigorously singing “A Mighty Fortress” and I for one wish they wouldn’t.  I suspect that the hymn’s author Martin Luther might just agree with me. After all didn’t Luther write a Mighty Fortress in an attempt to bring the popular music of the day into the church? I am convinced that this particular Reformation Sunday tradition has dear old Martin spinning in his grave at the thought that the church that bears his name is still singing a tired old chestnut like A Mighty Fortress to celebrate the Reformation. The very idea of 21st century Lutheran’s celebrating the Reformation by clinging to the events of the 16th century is an affront to the memory of Martin Luther.

We should be singing this centuries music and rather than smugly resting on the laurels of the past, we should be plotting were the reformation goes from here.  Perhaps in this the 21st century, when so many of the church’s traditions have seen the institution fall into the malaise of irrelevancy, we need to echo the cry: “Semper Reformanda”  —  “Always Reforming” the cry of the reformers who insisted that the church in every age stands in need of reformation.

Legend has it that on October 31st 1517, after taking a long hard look at the Roman Catholic Church and having fixed his sights on what he saw as the source of the rot that threatened to destroy the church’s ability to proclaim the Good News of God’s grace that is revealed in the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ, Martin Luther took his 95 Theses on the abuses of the doctrine of indulgences into the streets of Wittenburg and nailed them on the doors of the church. Within a few short weeks, with the aid of the newest technology, copies of Luther’s 95 Theses spread throughout the Holy Roman Empire and sparked a Reformation the likes of which the church hadn’t seen since the Apostle Paul did away with the need to snip the male anatomy to gain entrance to the church. Luther’s words threatened the status quo of centuries of abuse. And the church as is her way, struck back with force so as to ensure that tradition might prevail. The rest, as they say, is history.

 Ah history, safely ensconced in the past with its hoards of devils. Let the people rejoice because Martin Luther did it all and we can relax safe in the knowledge that we are justified by grace, through faith. Ain’t it great to be a Lutheran!  “A mighty fortress is our God, who himself fights by our side with weapons of the spirit. Were they to take our house, goods, honour, child, or spouse, though life be wrenched away, they cannot win the day. The Kingdom’s ours forever!”

So tell me, if they fought the good fight in the sixteenth century and handed us everything we need, and God is on our side and wins salvation glorious:    Where are the children? Where are the young people? Where are the neighbours?  Where is everybody? How and why did the church of our ancestors manage to fall into such disrepair? How did we become so irrelevant?

Most of us, can look around and see for ourselves how broken the church is. If we are honest, we all have our own particular theories as to why and how this happened. Yet we continue to go about our business, hoping against hope that someone will notice and finally fix it.  Year by year the church slips farther and farther into the morass of it’s own making and more and more people forget the wisdom of the ages and Christ seems to slip further and further from our grasp.  We, who go by the name Lutheran, we can’t do much more than point to our glorious past as if we could only turn the clocks back the work of the reformers of old would save us. But time waits for no one and year after year, people drift away and churches close their doors, and those who are left react with fear.

Despite the fact that we’ve tried to immortalize him, it’s as if Martin Luther never lived at all. Back in the dim recess of memory Luther stands, frozen and impotent. And I can’t help but ask the question:  “What would Martin do?”

Well in good old Lutheran style, a song comes to mind, a song of the people, a song from the streets, a drinking song…

             “If I had a hammer, I’d hammer in the morning, I’d hammer in the evening, all over this land, I’d hammer out danger, I’d hammer out warning…

It’s time to stop celebrating the Reformation as if it is somehow over. The work of reformation continues precisely because the church is always in need of Reformation.

This week I re-read a little book by Matthew Fox. Fox was a Roman Catholic theologian until Mr Ratzinger silenced him. The Roman Catholic church’s loss was the Episcopal church’s gain.   Shortly after Mr Ratzinger made himself pope, Matthew Fox took a long hard look at the church he’d served for so many years and became demoralized. Fox noticed the similarities between the sex-abuse scandals that continue to rock the church and the abuses wrought by indulgences, and asked himself what Martin Luther would do. That’s when Matthew Fox decided to write a few Theses of his own. Except where Luther wrote his 95 Theses to object to the practice of indulgences, Fox wrote 95 Theses to object to the many and various abuses of the church. It wasn’t difficult, over the course of a particularly dark night, Matthew Fox found that 95 Theses came flooding out of him. In the morning, he resolved to take his 95 Theses to Wittenburg and nail them to the very same doors where Martin Luther instigated the Reformation.

Well, things have changed a little over the course of nearly 500 years since that fateful day in Wittenburg. You can’t just waltz up to the doors at Wittenburg and nail things there.  The doors are no longer made of wood and the city councilors require that you obtain a permit to protest at Wittenburg.

Fox was told that he would need to stay at least 500 feet from the doors, lest he interfere with the tourists who flock to visit the very spot were the church of the protester’s was born. Thus proving one of Fox’s thesis that the church has become for many nothing more than a museum for tourists.

Eventually the town council relented and after some careful construction, on October 31st 2005, Matthew Fox nailed his 95 Thesis to the doors of the church in Wittenburg. Rome took no notice.  But the churches in Germany did.  Just as Martin Luther’s action was aided by the invention of the printing press, Matthew Fox’s action was aided by the invention of the internet and thus began a conversation that led to the publication of Fox’s little book: A New Reformation:  Creation Spirituality and the Transformation of Christianity.  I return to Fox’s tome annually as part of my preparation to preach on Reformation Sunday.

Here’s a sample of Fox’s theses:

1) God is both Mother and Father.

3) God is always new, always young, and always “in the beginning.

4) God the Punitive Father is not a God worth honouring, but a false god and an idol that serves empire builders. The notion of a punitive, all-male God, is contrary to the full nature of the Godhead, who is as much female and motherly as masculine and fatherly.

5) “All the names we give to God come from an understanding of ourselves” (Meister Eckhart). thus people who worship a Punitive Father are themselves punitive.

6) Theism (the idea that God is “out there” or above and beyond the universe) is false. All things are in God and God is in all things (panentheism).

10) God loves all of creation, and science can help us more deeply penetrate and appreciate the mysteries and wisdom of God in creation. Science is no enemy of true religion.

15) Christians must distinguish between Jesus (a historical figure) and Christ (the experience of God-in-all-things).

16) Christians must distinguish between Jesus and Paul.

18) Eco-justice is a necessity for planetary survival and human ethics; without it we are crucifying the Christ all over again in the form of destruction of forests, waters, species, air, and soil.

20) A preferential option for the poor, as found in the base community movement, is far closer to the teaching and spirit of Jesus than is a preferential option for the rich and powerful, as found, for example, in Opus Dei.

23) Sexuality is a sacred act and a spiritual experience, a theophany (revelation of the Divine), a mystical experience. It is holy and deserves to be honoured as such.

24) Creativity is both humanity’s greatest gift and its most powerful weapon for evil, and so it ought to be both encouraged and steered to humanity’s most God-like activity, which all religions agree is compassion.

32) Original Sin is an ultimate expression of a punitive father God and is not a biblical teaching. Bit Original Blessing (goodness and grace) is biblical.

33) The term original wound better describes the separation humans experience on leaving the womb and entering the world–a world that is often unjust and unwelcoming–than does the term Original Sin.

59) Fourteen billion years of evolution and unfolding of the universe bespeak the intimate sacredness of all that is.

60) Jesus said nothing about condoms, birth control, or homosexuality.

71) A church that is more preoccupied with sexual wrongs than with wrongs of injustice is itself sick.

75) Poverty for the many and luxury for the few are not right or sustainable.

I’m sure that we all have thesis or two that you would like to nail to the door. I know that if I had a hammer, I’d hammer in the morning, I’d hammer in the evening all over this land, right up to the doors of churches everywhere, and I would nail a few theses to the more than a few church doors. I’d begin with a thesis about the need to move beyond the destructive theories of atonement that have only served to pervert the meaning of the life, death and resurrection of Jesus and separate people from the sure and certain knowledge that neither death, nor life nor anything in all of creation can separate us from the love of God in Christ.

I’d include a theses or two about the dumbing down of our best theology and our acceptance of easy answers that have turned most people’s vision of God into a sadomasochistic father who insists on the death of his own son in order to satisfy our definition of justice.

I’d go on and on about the wonders and beauty of creation, and insist that we confess that we are wonderfully made.

I’d confess our obsession with self that lies behind the sin of avarice that permeates our consumer culture and turns our energies toward violence.

I’d call for a return to the Jewish tradition of Sabbath that called upon believers to read the Song of Songs and make love on the Sabbath.

I’d call the church to its responsibility to instill a love of creation in all people so that we can walk upon the earth lightly.

I’d remind the powers that be that all people are created equally and that sexuality is a gift from God to be celebrated and not used to segregate some believers from the priesthood that belongs to all believers.

On this Reformation Sunday, lovers of the church everywhere need to free ourselves from the shackles of tradition and about our 95 theses.

What wisdom do you have to share with the church?  What needs reforming?           What needs preserving? What needs tossing out? What needs holding up and celebration? When should we cry out in solidarity?  When should we sing out with joy and wonder? What should we do? What should we stop doing?  Semper Reformanda!    Always reforming!

You can watch the video of Matthew Fox talking about his book here

I PLEAD GUILTY TO THE CHARGE of` DENYING THE RESURRECTION

BUT I AINT LEAVING!!!

Blogging is new to me and I must say that I am overwhelmed by the responses to yesterday’s post about resurrection.  While many have emailed or posted their ardent “amens” others have been scathing and some hostile to my remarks.  I am grateful to everyone who has responded.  All of your comments help me as I continue to ponder the theological and practical implications of the Easter story.  For those of you who have suggested that I have no business calling myself a Christian or a pastor and have suggested that I ought to consider leaving the church, I offer the following.

            Last year, I got together with clergy colleagues to talk about the challenges of preaching during Holy Week. When the subject of the crucifixion and the resurrection came up, the conversation became very lively as the traditionalists challenged the progressives. Toward the end of our conversation, it became clear that because I was unwilling to concede to the notion that Jesus corpse was physically resuscitated; I stood accused of having denied the resurrection.

            Some colleagues rose to my defense and insisted that I wasn’t saying anything different than what we all learned in seminary. But they also insisted that most lay-people simply don’t want to hear it. So, I asked them if they were going to preach about what they had learned in seminary and beyond and the general consensus was that there are too many guests on Easter Sunday to tackle theology.

            Some said, they were simply too afraid of the fundamentalists in their congregations to ever even attempt to preach what they knew. A few confessed that they were working up to it; but not on Easter Sunday.

            The traditionalists in the group were disgusted. One colleague went so far as to insist that I had no business being in the church because my very presence puts the beliefs of the faithful at risk. He wondered aloud, “Why do you stay in the church if you don’t believe?   If the church’s theology no longer works for you, why don’t you just leave?”

            “Why do you stay?” is a question I am all too familiar with.

            Well, before I can answer that, I have to say, that I’ve taken a leaf out of Joan Chittister’s book. Chittister insists that we should all be asking ourselves why we stay.  She cautions that those of us who stay, need to respect those who decide to leave and those who leave must respect those who stay. Chittister also insists that while we continue to ask ourselves why we stay, we ought to remember that “if we go, we must not go quietly and if we stay we must not stay quietly”. We must speak out because the church needs us to speak out.

            I confess that I am constantly asking myself why I stay and there are days when I feel like leaving, days when I feel like staying quietly, and days when I am convinced that it is in the church were I must not only stay but echo the words of Luther with gusto:  for in here I stand!

            I stay, because I still believe that it is possible to change the church from within. I stay, despite the fact that each time I go out into the wider church, the traditions and traditionalists that I meet there often make me want to leave. But then I remember all of the people in the faithful community that I serve. I remember their wiliness to dwell in the questions of our faith. I remember their courage and their determination. I remember their thirst for knowledge. I remember the amazing ways they reach out to the people outside the walls of the church. I remember their faithfulness, their love,  and their keen sense of justice. I remember the image of Christ that I see in their faces and I know without a doubt that the church is where I belong, even though I know that as a community we will continue to ask ourselves,  “Why do we stay?”  And I know that if we stay we will not stay quietly. And if we should ever decide to leave, we will not leave quietly. I stay because in the church community that I serve, I have encountered the Body of Christ.

            Here in the church, I have seen the risen Christ reach out to our neighbours in need, fight for justice, and love God with all our hearts, with all our souls and yes with all our minds.  So, I stay surrounded by such a great crowd of witnesses.  But like so many before us, we must not stay quietly. Together we must continue to speak out for change in our church.  And together we must continue to explore what the best minds of this century have to teach us about the nature of our God.

            My desire to work together with others to move the church into the 21stcentury is precisely why I preach the sermons I preach on Good Friday and Easter Sunday mornings.  And for the most part, despite the dire warnings of some of my clergy colleagues, our visitors take it all very well. Indeed many are relieved to hear that there is more than one way to follow Christ.  But there was this one person last Easter Sunday, who on the way out the door, insisted that I had denied the resurrection.  This person was quite distressed and wondered aloud how a Christian could deny the resurrection and still call themselves a Christian.

            Now even though I assured this person that I do indeed believe in the resurrection, it was clear to me, what this person heard me say was not exactly the same as what I actually said.  So, let me make it clear. There is, and there has always been, from the very beginning disagreement among the followers of Christ as to the exact nature of the resurrection. And things aren’t any different today than they were in the first century. There is a distinct disagreement between the Christianity of biblical scholarship and the Christianity of fundamentalists.  And 21st century Christians can be found faithfully following Christ all along the spectrum of beliefs about the resurrection.

            Fundamentalists are quite sure of their truth.  On Easter the crucified Jesus, who was laid in the grave as a deceased man on Good Friday, was by the mighty act of God, restored to life on Easter. Jesus had broken the power of death for all people. If the body of Jesus was not physically restored to life, the fundamentalists claim, then Easter is fraudulent. There can be no compromise here. Those who waver on this foundational truth of Christianity have, according to this perspective, abandoned the essential core of their faith tradition.

            Well, to borrow the words from an old song and say, “”Tain’t necessarily so!” When you read the New Testament in the order in which these books were written, a fascinating progression is revealed.  Paul, for example, writing between the years 50 and 64 or some 20 to 34 years after the earthly life of Jesus came to an end, never describes the resurrection of Jesus as a physical body resuscitated after death.  There is no hint in the Pauline corpus that one, who had died, later walked out of his grave clothes, emerged from the tomb and was seen by his disciples.

            What Paul does suggest is that Easter meant that God had acted to reverse the verdict that the world had pronounced on Jesus by raising Jesus from death into God. It was, therefore, out of God in a transforming kind of heavenly vision that this Jesus then appeared to certain chosen witnesses. Paul enumerates these witnesses and, in a telling detail, says that this was the same Jesus that Paul himself had seen. No one suggests that Paul ever saw a resuscitated body.

            The Pauline corpus later says, “If you then have been raised with Christ, seek the things which are above, where Christ is, seated at the right hand of God.” Remember, the story of the Ascension had not been written when these Pauline words were formed. Paul did not envision the Resurrection as Jesus being restored to life in this world but as Jesus being raised into God. It was not an event in time but a transcendent and transforming truth.

            Paul died, according to our best estimates, around the year 64 C.E. The first Gospel was not written until the early 70′s. Paul never had a chance to read the Easter story in any Gospel. The tragedy of later Christian history is that we read Paul through the lens of the Gospels.  So, we have both distorted Paul and also confused theology.

            When Mark, the first Gospel, was written the Risen Christ never appears. The last time Jesus is seen comes when his deceased body is taken from the cross and laid in the tomb. Mark’s account of the Resurrection presents us with the narrative of mourning women confronting an empty tomb, meeting a messenger who tells them that Jesus has been raised and asking these women to convey to the disciples that Jesus will meet them in Galilee. Mark then concludes his Gospel with a picture of these women fleeing in fear, saying nothing to anyone.  So abrupt was this ending that people began to write new endings to what they thought was Mark’s incomplete story. Two of those endings are actually reproduced in the King James Version of the Bible as verses 9-20. But thankfully, these later creations have been removed from the text of Mark in recent Bibles and placed into footnotes.  The sure fact of New Testament scholarship is that Mark’s Gospel ended without the Risen Christ ever being seen by anyone.

            Both Matthew, who wrote between 80-85, and Luke, who wrote between 88-92, had Mark to guide their compositions. Both changed, heightened and expanded Mark. It is fascinating to lift those changes into consciousness and to ask what was it that motivated Matthew and Luke to transform Mark’s narrative. Did they have new sources of information? Had the story grown over the years in the retelling?

            The first thing to note is that Matthew changes Mark’s story about the women at the tomb. First, the messenger in Mark becomes a supernatural angel in Matthew’s story. Next Matthew says the women do see Jesus in the garden.             They grasp him by the feet and worship him. This is the first time in Christian history that the Resurrection is presented as physical resuscitation. It occurs in the 9th decade of the first century.  It should be noted that it took more than 50 years to begin to interpret the Easter experience as the resuscitated body of the deceased Jesus.

            I don’t have time to go into the details of the development of this interpretation. But you can trace its growth through the gospels of Matthew and Luke until finally at the end of the first century to the Gospel of John. And when you read these chronologically, you will see that the Easter story appears to have grown rather dramatically over the years.

            Something happened after the crucifixion of Jesus that convinced the disciples that Jesus shared in the eternal life of God and was thus available to them as a living presence.   This experience was so profound that the disciples, who at his arrest had fled in fear, were now reconstituted and empowered even to die for the truth of their vision.  This experience had the power to force the Jewish disciples to redefine the God of the Jews so that Jesus could be seen as part of who God is. Finally this experience was so profound that it ultimately created, on the first day of the week, a new holy day that was quite different from the Sabbath, to enable Christians to mark this transforming moment with a liturgical act called “the breaking of bread.”

            When these biblical data are assembled and examined closely, two things become clear. First something of enormous power gripped the disciples following the crucifixion that transformed their lives. Second, it was some fifty years before that transforming experience was interpreted as the resuscitation of a three days dead Jesus to the life of the world. Our conversation about the meaning of Easter must begin where these two realities meet.

            As for those who condemn those of us who choose to follow the biblical strains of our resurrection theology as non-Christians, well there will always be those who will insist that it is their way or the highway.  As for the person who greeted me on the way out the door last Easter Sunday and questioned my ability to call myself a Christian, I would say, “Thank-you!”.  This question allowed me the opportunity to communicate clearly and concisely my thoughts on the resurrection, so please allow me to repeat myself. To those who have responded to my blogs, I say, “Thank-you!”  I thank-you for engaging me in the questions of our faith.  I thank-you because your questions make me a better follower and I trust that my questions will do the same for you.  Let us together be the church in our own time and place and have the courage to follow where-ever Christ leads.

            So, without equivocation or hesitation I fully and completely admit that I deny the resurrection of Christ. This is something that anyone who knows me could tell you, and I am not afraid to say it publicly, no matter what some people may think.  I deny the resurrection of Christ.  Theologian Peter Rollins puts it far better than I ever could, and with him, I let me just say:

             “I deny the resurrection of Christ every time I do not serve at the feet of the      oppressed, each day that I turn my back on the poor;  I deny the resurrection of Christ when I close my ears to the cries of the downtrodden and the oppressed.

            Every time I do not serve my neighbour, every time I walk away from the poor.

            I deny the resurrection every time I participate in an unjust system.

            However there are moments when I affirm that resurrection, few and far between as they are.

            I affirm the resurrection when I stand up for those who are forced to live on their knees,

            I affirm the resurrection when I speak for those who have had their tongues torn out,

            I affirm the resurrection, when I cry for those who have no more tears left to shed.

            I affirm the resurrection each and every time I look into your eyes and see the face of Christ.”

             Christ has died. Christ has risen.  Christ will come again and again.

            This is the mystery of our faith.

            Christ is Risen!

            Christ is Risen Indeed!  Alleluia!

            Christ is risen in you and in me. 

            In the words of Martin Luther:

            “This is most certainly true!”

            Can I get an Amen?

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RESURRECTION: Giving up the notion of a physical resuscitation. 

Christ is Risen! Christ is risen indeed.  Alleluia!

             Let me follow that proclamation up with a good Lutheran question:“What does this mean?”  What does it mean that Christ is risen? What does resurrection mean?

            The truth is that there are about as many different explanations of Christ’s resurrection as there are Christians.  And that’s a good thing, because the question of the resurrection is a question that lies at the very heart of Christianity. So, is it any wonder that Christians have been struggling to come to terms with resurrection since the very first rumors that Christ had risen began to circulate. Over the centuries the various responses to the question of resurrection have divided Christians as various camps work out various responses.

            For many Christians and non-Christians alike Resurrection is the dividing line. But this is nothing new.  Indeed the drawing of that line can be seen in the earliest Christian writings that we have. The Apostle Paul himself, wrote to the community of followers at Corinth:

            “If there is no resurrection of the dead, then not even Christ has been raised. And if Christ has not been raised, then all of our preaching has been meaningless—and everything you’ve believed has been just as meaningless.”

            There are many believers and non-believers alike who point to these line’s in scripture and say,” Aha, there it is, either you believe in the resurrection or you don’t!”

            For atheists, agnostics, and people of other religions the physical resuscitation of Jesus’ body is simply out of the question because it lies beyond reason. For a whole lot of Christians, and I dare say many of you,   “believing in the resurrection” means believing in the actual physical resuscitation of Jesus’ body. And there are a whole lot of other Christians who don’t believe that believing in the resurrection means that you have to believe in the actual physical resuscitation of Jesus’ body.  And there are a great many Christians for whom the actual physical resuscitation of Jesus’ body is a moot point; that the entire argument is simply irrelevant.

            So, on Easter morning, when we gather together to celebrate the resurrection, the question of whether or not we believe in the resurrection hangs in the air like an unwelcome smell.  A smell made all the more pungent by our 21st century sensibilities.

            Last year, an American polling group from the southern Bible-belt conducted a poll of North Americans that for once included, Mexicans, Canadians, and Americans. The results of that poll confirm that the issue of resurrection has lost its grip when it comes to Easter. When questioned about the significance of Easter, fewer than half of those polled even mentioned Jesus. It seems that for many, the Easter bunny is a more plausible character than Jesus.

            It is clear that Christianity’s preoccupation with the strange events that happened after Jesus’ death has become a stumbling block that prevents a great many people from ever hearing the actual teachings of Jesus. The idea that a dead man came back to life some 2000 years ago is simply too much for 21st century minds to accept.

            So, while a good many sermons will be preached this Easter morning that clearly declare that Jesus physically rose from the dead, the Bible itself is much less clear on the details of the resurrection.

            Mark, the oldest gospel, written at least 40 years after Jesus died, ends with the mystery of an empty tomb, with no appearances by Jesus. In the other gospels, we have various confusing and conflicting details about the resurrection appearances: in some Jesus is not recognized, even by his former disciples who spent years following Jesus under the most intimate of circumstances. In some of the appearance stories, Jesus takes on ghost-like qualities by suddenly appearing in and then disappearing from locked rooms.

            These scant, confusing and conflicting accounts, don’t give us much to go on, and yet without this strange experience of resurrection, whatever it actually was, we would not have Christianity as a religion.

            So, what are we 21st century followers of the teachings of Jesus to do?             Must we check our brains at the door?  Do we suspend reason and experience and simply accept, despite what we know of reality, that Jesus physically rose from the dead? Or, do we simply avoid the issue altogether?

            I must admit that I’m tempted to avoid the issue.  After all, on Easter Sunday, most worshippers have places to go and people to see.   On the whole, I suspect what most worshippers want from the worship service is some lovely uplifting music, and a short sermon, so that they can be on their way rejoicing. But if the issue of a physical resurrection is standing between 21st century minds and the teachings of Jesus, then surely we must not avoid the issue. Surely Easter is precisely the day when we ought to focus our attention on the resurrection.  I believe preachers must address the inconsistencies in the biblical witness together with the plethora of historical and theological information that has been made available by the writings of best-selling authors who have opened up the scholarship of the academies and seminaries to the average worshipper.

            So, here I offer my own notes about the resurrection as I prepare to lead worship and preach on this high feast of the church year. As always, I am indebted to those scholars who have moved me beyond the dogma and doctrines of my own tradition and echoes of their work permeate what follows:   John Shelby Spong, John Dominic Crossan, Marcus Borg, Peter Rollins, Bernard Brandon Scott, Glynn Cardy and the members of my congregation.

             The Apostle Paul wrote his first letter to the church in Corinth, about 20 years after Jesus was crucified, died and was buried. Scholars tell us that the letter was written between the years 53 and 57. That’s at least 20 years before the Gospel according to Mark, 30 to 40 years before the gospels according to Matthew and Luke and probably nearly 50 years before the Gospel according to John.

The writings of the Apostle Paul contain the earliest writings that we have on the subject of the Resurrection.  And the Apostle Paul’s understanding of resurrection was good enough for the early followers of the way.  Paul’s description of resurrection does not conflict with our 21st century inability to accept the suspension of the natural order of the universe.  You see, Paul never described Jesus’ resurrection as a physical resuscitation of Jesus’ corpse.              Indeed in 1 Corinthians 15 the apostle Paul denies that Jesus’ resurrection was an actual physical resurrection.

            Paul  writes:  “Perhaps someone will ask, “How are the dead to be raised up?  What kind of body will they have?”  What a stupid question!  The seed you sow does not germinate unless it dies. When you sow, you do not sow the full-blown plant but a kernel of wheat or some other grain. Then it is given the body God designed for it—with each kind of seed getting its own kind of body.            Not all flesh is the same. Human beings have one kind, animals have another, birds another, and fish another. Then there are heavenly bodies and earthly bodies. Heavenly bodies have a beauty of their own, and earthly bodies have a beauty of their own. The sun has one kind of brightness, the moon another, and the stars another.  And a star differs from other stars in brightness.  So it is with the resurrection of the dead.  What is sown is a perishable body, what is raised is incorruptible. What is sown is ignoble, what is raised is glorious. Weakness is sown, strength is raised up. A natural body is sown, and a spiritual body is raised up. If there is a natural body, then there is also a spiritual body.”

            As a Pharisee, Paul believed in the resurrection of the dead and certainly he believed that Jesus had been raised from the dead. But as for our question about an actual physical body, Paul insists that this is simply a stupid question.  For heaven sake, when you sow a seed into the ground and it bursts forth into new life, that new life doesn’t come in the form of a seed, it comes to life as a plant! Not all bodies are the same! The Apostle Paul did not need there to be an actual physical resuscitation of a body in order to believe that Jesus is risen from the dead.

            To ask the question of whether the resurrection is true, and to mean by this that only a resuscitated corpse constitutes such proof, is to impose the standards of the modern mind upon a pre-scientific culture of myth and magic. The dualism of body and soul was a Greek idea, for the Jews there could be no resurrection without a resurrection of the body. After all, could one rise without a body to rise in?

            What we refer to as the soul was a foreign concept to first century Jews.  And so the question about the kind of body the risen Jesus had was, as Paul puts it, quite simply stupid. “There are heavenly bodies and there are earthly bodies.” Not all bodies are the same.

            The question of a physical body makes no sense to the ancients. Christ was alive to those early followers. Paul insists that there are natural bodies, which he equates with earthly bodies what we would call physical bodies and there are spiritual bodies which Paul equates with heavenly bodies.

            According to Paul, the earthly body; they physical body must die in order for the heavenly or spiritual body to be born.  “A natural body is sown, and a spiritual body is raised up.”

            This spiritual resurrection that Paul describes gave birth to Christianity, within the Jewish context. It wasn’t until Christianity moved beyond Judaism that it came into direct conflict with the Greek understanding of reality, which insisted upon the dualism of body and soul. Faced with the task of communicating the gospel, the early followers of the risen Christ, began to articulate their experiences of the risen Christ in ways that the Greek influenced Roman Empire could understand. And the question of a physical resurrection arose (pardon the pun).

            However, the vision that Paul credits with having changed his view of Jesus is clearly that, a vision; a vision of a heavenly body. Some scholars argue that the resurrection was either a mass hallucination or that the stories were simply made up by Jesus’ followers after the death of the man they had believed to be their Messiah. But would hallucinations, or fictions have the power to sustain a movement that would become Christianity?

            Is it possible, that something our 21st century minds would describe as deeply spiritual happened, but that something was not a supernatural resuscitation of a corpse.  The supernatural resuscitation of a corpse  not only violates the laws of science,  it is also be difficult to reconcile a physical resuscitation with the details that are recorded in the Scriptures.

            What if the experience of Jesus was one in which his followers truly saw the power of God within a man to an extent that they had never encountered before? If we see God as the ground of our being, then Jesus can be viewed as a unique, but human man in whom this ground was not a distant source of existence buried under layers of ego, but was the very center of his being.             Jesus life, his teachings, his compassion, his ministry of healing all radiated this power of the divine.

            Jesus opened up his disciples’ eyes to this power of God. After the human Jesus died, what if his followers still experienced the power of God that they had seen within Jesus, even though their teacher was no longer with them?

            In an age in which, what we would define as supernatural visions, were commonplace, this experience of the power of the divine that their teacher had opened them to could have been interpreted as if the spirit of their teacher had never died because the power of God never does die.

            I believe that the biblical accounts of the risen Christ, represent the powerful stories told by the first followers of Jesus. Stories not about the supernatural, but about the mystical experiences of the living power of God in the world. As these stories were told and interpreted over decades in a time that expected to encounter God in the world, these stories developed in which the resurrection is conveyed with bodily imagery. We need not take these stories literally, but we must take them seriously.

            When we examine the story of Jesus’ death and the mystical experience of resurrection in metaphorical terms,  we can see in the story of the crucifixion the very human nature of Jesus: we see suffering, pain, doubt, and death itself  —  the inevitable conditions of being human. Yet in the story of the resurrection, we learn that this human condition is not the conclusion — hope exists for all of us.             Behind the suffering of existence lies a power:  the power of existence itself that is eternal and infinite. This power thus “conquers death” because it is the source of existence and of life.

            The powerful message of Christianity  becomes one of light and hope:             just as Jesus was able to tap into this power and just as Jesus’ life was centered on the power of the divine and radiated it. We too can do the same. We can also experience the divine ground within ourselves and within all of creation.

            When Paul talks about the risen Christ he speaks of Jesus as the one who was raised up into the fullness of God.

            Being raised up into the fullness of God… Now that’s a resurrection I can hope for.

            Although Paul speaks about Jesus’ resurrection as God’s victory over death, the Resurrection isn’t some glorious taming of death, because in the end, we still die – death is still real for us … many of us know that only too well.             When Paul paraphrases the prophet Hosea: “Death has been swallowed up in victory.  Where, O death, is your victory? Where, O death, is your sting?” Paul is not negating the reality of death – he is  reminding us that death and the grave are no longer to be feared.

            Paul insists that death and the grave are very much a part of the journey into the fullness of God’s love – the journey into the presence of the Living God – the journey into the heart and soul of the Living God.

            Resurrection reminds us that ultimately God and God’s love for us in Christ Jesus will bring life out of death.  And there is more good news about Easter. Easter is more than something that happened in the past. Easter is more than a day on the calendar. Easter is not just about the resurrection of Jesus or the hope that we to will be resurrected when our time on this mortal coil has ended. The good news about Easter is that resurrection is not limited to Jesus, nor is it limited to the end of our life. Resurrection is not limited to life after death. Resurrection happens throughout creation, over and over throughout our lifetimes. Resurrection can and does happen here and now.

            You see the miracle of Easter is not so much about the resurrection of Jesus as it is about our own resurrections. If the rumors about the empty tomb are to be believed, then we need not look for the living among the dead. Jesus has left the tomb, and if we are to follow Jesus then we too shall have to leave our tombs.

            To follow Jesus we will have to leave the old trappings behind like shabby grave clothes, if we are to live in the Light of Christ. The resurrection to which Easter calls us—is our own—and resurrection requires that we prepare to find God where God is by opening ourselves to the world around us with our eyes and ears open wide to new life.

            This means that we must be prepared to be surprised by God in strange places, in ways we never though we’d see and through the words of those we never thought we’d hear.

            We must allow others—even those whom we have until now refused to consider—for they too are in need of resurrection and we must open our hearts to things we do not want to hear.

            We must release the voice of God in everyone, everywhere.

            In Jesus, his followers heard the voice of God.

            In Jesus, his followers discovered the wisdom of God.

            In Jesus, his followers experienced the love of God.

            Those who followed and loved Jesus experienced life in ways that were so earth shattering, so mind-blowing, that their lives would never be the same again. The power of the love they experienced in their life with Jesus could not be constrained or ended by Jesus’ death.

            Long after they found the empty tomb, Jesus’ loved ones continued to experience his presence in very real ways. In the breaking of the bread, and in the meals they shared together; as they walked the pathways they had walked with Jesus, and fished the waters they had navigated with Jesus.

            There in those places they encountered the power of Jesus’ love that could not be limited by death.  That love had the power to raise them from their own tombs. And that love has the power to raise us from our tombs.

            Those dark caves that hold us captive and keep us from living.  By the power of LOVE we can leave behind the tattered grave-clothes that bind us so that we can follow Christ into the light.

            Christ is risen!

            Christ is risen indeed. Alleluia!

            Christ lives and breathes and has being, in with and through us!

            That dear sisters and brothers is the Good News on this Easter morning.

            Christ is risen! Christ is risen indeed!  Alleluia!

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PREPARING TO PREACH ON GOOD FRIDAY.

Searching beyond the talk of sacrifice to the find the Good News

The Church’s Good Friday obsession with talk of  “sacrifice for sin” has been breed into the bones of this particular preacher.  I have been trained to speak the language of the Church.  I know full well the many doctrines of atonement that have been proposed to explain the reasons Jesus died upon a cross.  I’ve been studying the historical context and the theological consequences of Jesus’ death for more years than I care to admit.   Yet every year, I find myself wanting to book a vacation or call in sick so that I can avoid the awesome task of preaching on Good Friday.

             I’ve put it off tackling the Good Friday texts as long as I dare.  So today, I picked up my copy of “The Last Week” by John Dominic Cross and Marcus Borg, together with my copies of John Shelby Spong’s “Resurrection: Myth or Reality” and “Jesus for the Non Religious” and spent the day in pursuit of a sermon.

            What follows is not the sermon I will preach on Good Friday, but rather, the notes I made to remind myself not to fall into the trap of talking about the events surrounding Jesus’ death in the way I was trained to speak of those events.  I offer up my notes hoping that those who are engaged in the struggle of grappling with how to talk about the cross in the 21st century might find some solace in a fellow struggler’s ruminations. 

            For those of you who don’t have to come up with a sermon for Good Friday, I offer these notes as my humble attempt to see beyond the rhetoric about the cross to the Good News.

            As always I am indebted to Dom and Jack for their scholarship. 

    There are many ways in which our focus upon the cross is disturbing.   Not the least of which is the way in which we as Christians tend to talk about the crucifixion as Jesus’ passion.  I have always thought it a tragedy that we should describe the events of Jesus’ crucifixion as Jesus’ passion. I’ve always understood talk of an individual’s passion to be concern with those things that people lived for. And so to insist that Jesus’ lived to die a horrible death might sooth those who seek to turn Jesus into some sort of preordained blood sacrifice.

            But for those of us who look to Jesus in search of the face of God, such talk seems is indeed a crime against divinity. For what kind of petty, sadistic god would engineer the birth of, foster the life of, and then engineer the death of a beloved child. Surely such a god is no more than a wicked illusion of our own making.

            I wonder what Jesus himself would make of the god we have created. I wonder what Jesus himself would make of our Good Friday commemorations? I suspect that if Jesus is anything like the accounts of his life suggest, he would be mortified, and I mean that literally…I think that Jesus would be mortified …mortified ie shamed to death…of what has become of his life’s passion; for if Jesus’ was passionate about anything, he was passionate about life. Jesus declared, “I have come so that you may have life and live it abundantly.” Jesus’ passion was about living. Living fully, abundantly. 

            Jesus passion was about a world where everyone could live life fully and abundantly. Jesus went from town to town urging people to live. Jesus struggled to free people from their narrow understandings to, open themselves to the wonders of creation, and to praise the Creator who he called Abba, in ways that honored God by loving. Indeed, Jesus defined Abba as LOVE itself.

            Jesus was so in tune with this LOVE that he was able to say, “I and the Abba are ONE.” Jesus embodied LOVE.

            I believe that Jesus was so open to the power of the LOVE that is God that he was able to live his life fully without fear. I believe that Jesus wanted more than anything else for his followers to be so open to the power of LOVE that is God that they too would live their lives fully without fear. I believe that that’s what Jesus meant when he said,   “I have come that you might have life and live it abundantly.”

            I believe that Jesus lived life abundantly and that means that he loved abundantly and without fear.  Jesus was so open to the power of LOVE that is God that Jesus would not let the powers of darkness stop him from loving and living fully. The kind of LOVE that Jesus embodied and taught has no boundaries.

            No darkness, no power, no fear, not even death can limit the power of LOVE. For if LOVE is limited by death, then love will always be qualified and quantified.

            That Jesus was willing to LOVE without boundaries came at great cost to himself. But Jesus was willing to pay that price to show us the way; the way to LOVE without limit, without fear, without boundaries.  LOVE without boundaries is abundant life.

            That Jesus’ LOVE endured the worst that the world could send his way, that Jesus LOVE was for all the world, dead and buried, and yet bursts free from the grave, bears witness to the power of LOVE.  That Jesus LOVE could not be destroyed, not even by the thing we fear the most, death itself, saves us from the need to fear death. For Jesus has shown us the way and we can live abundantly lives that are free from the fear of death. Because Jesus has shown us the way we are free to live fully, love extravagantly and be all that we were created to be.

            Jesus taught us that life without fear freed us from the powers of darkness that enslave the world. Life without fear is the first step toward justice.  And justice and not violence is the way to peace. And peace is God’s will for creation.

            The early Christians stood out in the world for a reason.  Those first Christians were called followers of the Way. The Way that Jesus taught them was the path to peace through justice. Jesus called us to usher in God’s reign of peace in the world by seeking justice for all of God’s creation. For justice and not violence is the way to peace.

            Jesus was so passionate about his belief that living life abundantly, without fear would lead to justice that in turn would lead to peace on earth that he was willing to live his life as the embodiment of the LOVE of God. Jesus died not for our sins, but to show us the way. To show us that God’s ways are not our ways: that our ways of greed, injustice, and violence lead only to war and death. But God’s ways of love, grace, and justice lead to peace and life.

            Jesus believed so passionately in the ways of love, grace, and justice that he was willing to live a life that embodied love, grace and justice so that all the world could see the way to peace and abundant life. And that leads me to the other thing that disturbs me about the way so many Christians talk about the crucifixion.

            That we should look upon the cross and see only the symbol of our personal salvation is a travesty that fails to see the magnitude of Jesus life and witness. How can we fail to see the truth that Jesus life and witness were so powerful that death could not contain them is?

            Why do we find it so easy to forget that in Jesus life and witness those first followers of the way were so moved by the power of Jesus life and witness that when they looked upon the cross they saw the Christ, the anointed one, the very face of God on earth?

            Is our preoccupation with our own personal salvation blind us to the reality of Christ?

            We need to broaden our vision.

            We need to see Christ crucified in order to see the terrible reality that Christ continues to be crucified over and over again.

            For just as surely as Christ died upon the cross, those who follow the ways of Christ, the ways of grace, of justice and peace, those who embody Love, continue to be tortured, battered, abused and hauled up upon crosses and executed by the forces of darkness, violence and death.

            The crucifixion didn’t happen once and for all, way back when. Christ is crucified over and over again as the ways of greed, violence, war and death exact their punishment on the innocent victims of the world.

            Christ is crucified all over again when calls for peace through justice go unanswered.

            Christ is crucified all over again in the countless deaths that are claimed by our lust for power and quest for stuff.

            Christ is crucified all over again when creation, scarred and wounded is poisoned by our arrogance and greed.

            Christ is crucified again and again, when we fail to see the face of God in our sisters and brothers of every clan and race.

            Jesus was passionate about his desire that we should have life and live it abundantly.

            Jesus was passionate that the way to achieve abundant life for all of God’s creation was through justice because justice is the way to peace.

            Jesus was executed precisely because the ways of justice and peace threatened the ways of peace through victory.

            The powers that be sought to conquer their enemies rather than love them; to vanquish and kill their way to a peace that could only be maintained through injustice and was only peace if you could number yourself among the conquerors, the victorious, the strong, and powerful. And no peace at all if you were among the weak and powerless.

            Jesus took a stand on the pathway that leads to peace.  And the powers that be nailed him to a cross believing that his death would ensure their power.

            But Jesus life and witness were so powerful that in Jesus people saw the face of Christ, and death could not and will not contain Christ. The powers of darkness will have their day.

            But not even death can contain Christ.

            For Christ comes again and again and is embodied in those who work for peace through justice, grace and love.  And that dear sisters and brothers is the Good News of Good Friday.

            Not even death can contain the life and witness of Jesus who is the Christ the very face of God in our midst!

            May God continue to dwell with us so that we too can bear the face of Christ to the world.

            The gift of life is ours.

            Live it abundantly.

            Let all the world know that we are Christ’s by our love.


6 thoughts on “PONDERING Pastor

  1. Thank you. I have struggled with the idea of Jesus’ physical body rising from the grave but the idea of the spiritoal body make sense to me. I have enjoyed reading your blog and am signing up for new posts by email

  2. I am quite curious about progressive Christianity, but I wonder what you make of Romans 5:8-11: “But God demonstrates His own love toward us, in that while we were yet sinners, Christ died for us. Much more then, having now been justified by His blood, we shall be saved from the wrath of God through Him. For if while we were enemies we were reconciled to God through the death of His Son, much more, having been reconciled, we shall be saved by His life. And not only this, but we also exult in God through our Lord Jesus Christ, through whom we have now received the reconciliation.” Doesn’t this teach about the atoning value of Jesus’ death on the cross? Thanks in advance for any reply…

    • Thanks for the question Cheryl. In order to grapple with the passage from Romans that you are concerned about, I believe it is necessary to set aside some of the baggage that many of us bring to this particular text and seek a new understanding which honours the Apostle Paul’s life as a faithful Jew living in the Roman Empire during the first century. I am grateful for the abundance of New Testament scholarship that attempts to read Paul in his historical context (see for example Borg & Crossan’s excellent book “The First Paul: Reclaiming the Radical Visionary Behind the Church’s Conservative Icon” chapter five “Christ Crucified”).
      Paul’s writings represent a post-Easter attempt to understand why Jesus died.
      While this passage does indeed speak “about the atoning value of Jesus’ death on the cross” it does not speak to the nature of that atoning value. Much of current Christian doctrine about atonement relies heavily on the writing of Anslem and tends to imply that penal substitutionary atonement is the only way to interpret Jesus’ crucifixion ie Jesus took our punishment for sin on his shoulders and died in our place as satisfactory sacrifice for sin. I do not believe that Anslem’s theory of atonement takes into account the expansive grace of God. Jesus was executed by the Roman Empire as a result of the human condition and Paul tried to make sense out of it for himself and his gentile audiences. In Jesus death Paul sees a revelation of God’s love for humanity. That Jesus was willing to go to such extremes on behalf of “the ungodly” reveals to Paul how remarkable Jesus’ efforts were. That Jesus would risk everything to reveal God’s nature is astonishing to Paul “Indeed, rarely will anyone die for a righteous person—though perhaps for a good person someone might actually dare to die.” Jesus died for us, not in place of us. Jesus died to show an alternate way of being in the world; responding to the worst violence that could be dished out at the time not with violence but with non-violent resistance and love. Jesus died as a result of our violent nature, for our benefit. Crossan and Borg call this participatory atonement. In witnessing the lengths to which Jesus is prepared to go we can’t help but be transformed and participate in the love of God.
      Reading any text in isolation from its context is dangerous and leads to misunderstandings at best and corruptions at worst. When we look at this text along side of Paul’s second letter to the church at Corinth (5:14-21) the purpose of Christ’s death according to Paul is not as a substitute for sin but as so that “those who live might live no longer for themselves, but for him who died and was raised for them.” That Jesus would go so far for the sake of love, transforms those who experience his crucifixion beyond the violence of this world into passionate seekers of peace through justice.

  3. Thank you for your thoughtful response, Rev. Dawn. I guess I am not as far from progressive Christianity as I thought. My folks (who would condemn as heresy any suggestion that a physical resurrection didn’t occur) gave me a CD set last Christmas by Timothy Keller, and in it he lays out a very sensible understanding of the Crucifixion. Basically, where any wrong has been done by one person to another, somebody must bear the injury. Either the offending party makes restitution, or it’s up to the offended to repair the damage/suffer the loss. Humanity had become so estranged from God that no restitution could be exacted without destroying us; therefore, God chose to bear all that pain/guilt in the person of Jesus, and His death on the cross was kind of the in-your-face representation of that.

    This, of course, requires a view of Jesus as being “one with God” in a way that the progressive Christian movement might reject. Which brings me to another question: If we don’t believe Jesus was divine in a very special way, unavailable to the rest of us before, and we don’t believe in the resurrection, then does anything distinguish Jesus from any other enlightened spiritual teacher? If not, then why even have liturgy, or keep the name Christian? Because at that point, we become indistinguishable even from some atheists, some of whom have been so hurt by fundamentalist Christians that to tell them you’re a Christian sets up an automatic enmity, and they become wary lest you begin judging or trying to convert them. Why not just drop the label and work happily alongside them for peace and justice in the world?

  4. I found your blog post thought provoking. I am always one to keep an open mind and believe that we should always be reflecting and re-imagining what God is up to in our world.

    In your blog, you ask, “Both Matthew, who wrote between 80-85, and Luke, who wrote between 88-92, had Mark to guide their compositions. Both changed, heightened and expanded Mark. It is fascinating to lift those changes into consciousness and to ask what was it that motivated Matthew and Luke to transform Mark’s narrative. Did they have new sources of information? Had the story grown over the years in the retelling?” Could it be that these came about because of the misunderstanding of the resurrection? They did in fact believe in the physical resurrection of Christ and misunderstandings of the resurrection came about so they needed to clarify things in the Gospel of Matthew, Luke and John.

    If these gospels are not reliable about the physical resurrection of Christ, then what is to say other parts of the Scriptures are also unreliable? Where do you stop? You get my point. This is an argument others, Christians and atheists, have raised up to me before.

    Therefore, I would disagree with you in your thoughts on Christ not physically rising from the dead. I would be interested on your thoughts on this. Also, I would be interested on your thoughts about Christ’s divinity. Was Jesus God?

    • Thank-you for your comments Neil:
      I believe that the question of a “physical resuscitation” with regard to the
      resurrection is not a question that would have concerned the writers of the New Testament in the same way as it concerns our 21st century sensibilities. We read the New Testament through our own lenses. I am convinced by the Apostle Paul’s insistence in 1 Corinthians that the idea of a physical resurrection itself is to quote Paul “stupid”. Paul, who provides the only “eyewitness” account of the resurrection, insists that it was in fact “spiritual”. I find the work of New Testament scholar Bernard Brandon Scott’s “The Trouble With Resurrection” to be most helpful with regard to our very modern problems with regard to interpreting the New Testament. Perhaps, you would find the short video that I have posted on my blog in which Scott speaks directly to this question helpful.
      It can be found here:
      https://pastordawn.com/2012/03/28/preaching-lent-and-easter-bernard-brandon-scott/
      I do not believe that the gospels are “unreliable” provided we seriously engage the work of reading them in context.
      I, like a good many Christians before me both ancient and modern, have no need to believe in a “physical resuscitation of a corpse” in order to believe in the resurrection of Christ.
      Shalom, Dawn

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