Sunday, 29 January 2017

Power and the Way of the Cross

The Corinthian church was a mess. Paul’s letter to the Corinthians is one of the earliest Christian writings (53-54AD) and isn’t it interesting that it is a letter written to a church full of problems. It is a church dealing with incest, lust, pride, greed, division, members dragging one another to court, church members visiting prostitutes, confusion about eating food dedicated to pagan idols, arguments about which spiritual gifts are more important, divisions based on which leader they wanted to follow, … among other issues.

Corinth was a busy boom town. People looking to make a buck flocked to the city from all over. It had a mixture of people from all kinds of backgrounds. It seemed to have the moral standards that often go with a boom town- lots of greed- lots of desire to buy pleasures. The city boasted a temple of Aphrodite that housed 1000 temple prostitutes. The issues we find in the city are dragged into the church with the people. … The church is always dealing with what is considered culturally normal. The church often has to confront what is acceptable in the broader culture and call the members to a higher standard.

In Corinth, some in the church seem to be using the old worldly ways of power. So Paul has to teach them that power works differently in the church:
1:18 For the message about the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God. 1:19 For it is written, "I will destroy the wisdom of the wise, and the discernment of the discerning I will thwart." 1:20 Where is the one who is wise? Where is the scribe? Where is the debater of this age? Has not God made foolish the wisdom of the world? 1:21 For since, in the wisdom of God, the world did not know God through wisdom, God decided, through the foolishness of our proclamation, to save those who believe. 1:22 For Jews demand signs and Greeks desire wisdom, 1:23 but we proclaim Christ crucified, a stumbling block to Jews and foolishness to Gentiles, 1:24 but to those who are the called, both Jews and Greeks, Christ the power of God and the wisdom of God. 1:25 For God's foolishness is wiser than human wisdom, and God's weakness is stronger than human strength.

The world (Meaning, the world that tries to make it on its own ignoring God) is willing to manipulate, or play political power games, have popularity contests, and battle egos. It uses shouting matches where the angriest person wins. It uses threats of violence or manipulation of resources. … But the church isn’t supposed to be like that.

The temptations of Jesus to turn stones into bread, to lead an empire and an army, and to manipulate the leadership of the temple with a miraculous show of power was all arguably about a temptation to use power in a worldly way. Jesus wasn’t going to be the military Messiah he was expected to be. Paul highlights the way of Christ as being about the cross.

To Roman citizens Crucifixion was incredibly brutal and disgusting. It was a method that could never be used on a Roman Citizen. It was reserved for slaves and terrorists. Crucifixion was not to be mentioned in polite conversation. It was vulgar. It had a social stigma attached to it that we don’t understand. One scholar said “in the cross of Christ God affirmed nothings and nobodies”. Crucifixion was the lowest and vilest and so were those it was used on.

It seems like some in Corinth were trying to move beyond the cross to a more power-centered spirituality (something like the Prosperity Gospel maybe). But Paul reminds them that the cross is right at the center of who they are. They owe everything to Christ and his cross and the cross is the model of how we are to be. The death of our ego is right at the center of what it means to be a Christian, so fighting to get our way is contrary to what we stand for at our very core. We see this all through Christ’s ministry.

Jesus’ first sermon is the Sermon on Mount and it starts with the Beatitudes (Matt 5:1-12). There we see the kind of power and wisdom Paul is talking about when he talks about the cross. 
"Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted. Blessed are the meek, for they will inherit the earth.” 
Jesus begins with the poor, the mourning, and the meek. That is not who the world says are blessed. The world says, blessed are the confident, those who work hard, those who crush the competition, and those who take what they want. The beatitudes end with Jesus saying, 
"Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness' sake, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. Blessed are you when people revile you and persecute you and utter all kinds of evil against you falsely on my account.” 
This is a very different image of power. We see the way of the cross right at the beginning of Jesus’ ministry.

Of course there are many (in and out of the church) who will scoff at this saying it’s impractical. It has always been so. People will try to use the world’s way of power in the church, but the church always becomes sick when that happens. … But there are many beautiful examples of those who embraced the way of the cross. One of my favorite saints is St. Francis of Assisi. He was born in the late 1100’s. The mediaeval church was powerful. The church and the state almost seemed identical in wealth and political power. Christian towns went to war with the city past the next hill over resources, or grudges, or just to get the upper hand politically. Francis was the son of a wealthy merchant and one of the who’s who of the towns youth. At first he thought he might want to seek his fame and fortune as a soldier. And no doubt his father hoped he could turn over his growing business to his son. … But Christ got a hold of him. Francis began giving everything away to the poor, even things that belonged to his father. … While praying in the dilapidated church of San Damiano he heard Christ tell him to rebuild his church which had fallen into disrepair. Francis always took Christ literally and so he started finding stones to repair the little church. Francis became filled with the life of Christ. He was full of joy and simplicity. One person commented that Francis didn’t seem so much a man praying as “prayer made man”. He became a beggar and a preacher of the gospel. Soon Francis had people following him and he was told to talk to the Pope. … The Pope at the time was Innocent the 3rd who was a man who was very much like a politician- even able to call on the power of an army. … This Pope had a dream. He saw the church falling apart. In many ways it was. People were suspicious of the church’s wealth and power in comparison with the people and the example of Christ in the Gospels. There were cracks forming in the church. All the world’s power was poisoning it. In the Pope’s dream he saw the church starting to collapse, then he saw this simple beggar catch it and hold it up. The Pope saw this as Francis. Francis’ simple (but challenging) way of following Christ turned the world upside down and the Franciscan movement had an incredibly reforming influence on the church at the time.

The way of the cross that Francis walked seemed like foolishness. It seemed weak. But it was God’s power to transform the world. As Paul says, “God chose what is foolish in the world to shame the wise; God chose what is weak in the world to shame the strong” (1 Cor 1:27). Anyone looking at the church of the time probably would not have said it needs someone like Francis, but that is exactly what the church needed.

The church now is probably more in need of the way of the cross than it is in need of what we usually think we need. Maybe we just need a few more willing to walk the simple way of Francis, who was said to have prayed, 
“Lord, make me an instrument of Your peace. Where there is hatred, let me sow love; where there is injury, pardon; where there is doubt, faith; where there is despair, hope; where there is darkness, light; where there is sadness, joy. O, Divine Master, grant that I may not so much seek to be consoled as to console; to be understood as to understand; to be loved as to love; For it is in giving that we receive; it is in pardoning that we are pardoned; it is in dying that we are born again to eternal life.”


Monday, 16 January 2017

The Revelation of the Lamb of God

We have entered into the season after Epiphany. It is a time of revelation. The sheet is drawn back and we see something we didn’t see before. It is revealed to John the Baptist that there is something deeper about Jesus. He says, “I saw the Spirit descending from heaven like a dove, and it remained on him”, which was the sign God told John to look for. This man would baptize with the Holy Spirit, which is the baptism John’s Baptism symbolized. John is convinced that this is the Son of God and the Lamb of God. … These are things that were revealed to John. They aren’t things he figured out. They are things God told him.

Unless God reveals Himself to us we are hopeless to really know much of anything about God. But revelation comes with a number of difficulties. One of them is, how can we really grasp God? The way many atheists get God wrong is when they think that God is a being like superman- just a really powerful human being. They often see God as a very powerful creature that exists within the universe. The Christian idea of God is much more vast. The Christian idea of God is that God underlies the fabric of all reality. God is a being beyond matter and beyond time. To ask a question like, “where did God come from? Or who created God?” is to show that the God you are thinking about is too small. This God doesn’t exist in time. This God created time itself and so isn’t subject to being “before” or “after”. Questions having to do with time don’t really apply to God. This God gives rise to the very fabric of existence- matter and time are His creations- He is not subject to them.

Imagine how huge the universe is. Allow your mind to drift above this town and into space. Allow yourself to see the sun and the little blue speck that is the earth. 1.3 million Earths would fit in our sun. And our sun isn’t even all that big when compared to some of the stars out there. For example, you can fit 9.3 billion of our suns into the star VY Canis Majoris. Then allow your mind to drift our of our solar system. Some estimates say that the edge of the universe is 46 billion light years away. Which means if you had a spaceship that could travel at the speed of light it would still take you 46 billion years to get to the edge. And the universe is always expanding, so it would be an edge that would always be retreating. Keep in mind that calculations say that our universe is just under 14 billion years old. So you would be traveling for longer than the universe has existed. … We know a tiny bit about our universe. So if our universe is so unimaginably vast, then what are we to say about the God that created it?

There are people who wonder what it would be like to meet an alien race, if there is one out there. Some people imagine that they might be so much more intellectually advanced that these aliens trying to talk to us might be like us trying to have a conversation with our pet dog. If that is true, then how much more is God beyond our comprehension? How could God communicate with us?

If God doesn’t reveal Himself in a way that we might begin knowing Him, then we are hopeless to know much, if anything, about God. No doubt this revelation will always be somewhat strange and difficult to wrap our minds around.

God gives John the Baptist a revelation, as He gave revelation to prophets before him. But John is just a finger pointing to the moon. The true revelation Is Jesus himself. The unknowable has made Himself known in Jesus. God, the creator, has become a creature.

In solidarity with humanity, Jesus gets baptized. Jesus took on the sin of humanity as his own. I sometimes imagine the sin we have all washed off as then sticking to Jesus as he comes up out of the water. Jesus is truly in the mess with us. God did not stand far off waging his finger at us. He came to be one of us. And to deal with the sin that blinds us to the ultimate reality of God.

St. Paul had a couple of ways of thinking about sin. One is as sins, which are actions that are against how God created us and against His command. Sins are actions that violate our love for God and our neighbour. But Paul also thinks about a power that exists in the world called Sin. It is a state we live in, more than actions we do. Actually the sinful actions we do are mainly because of the state of Sin that oppresses us, as it oppresses all of humanity. Humanity is enslaved to this power and is powerless to free itself. When we think of being free from sin, I think we often think more of being freed from the guilt of our sinful actions, but the healing Jesus want to bring us is bigger. He wants to bring freedom from our slavery to Sin. Which means that we are not only freed from the guilt of our sin, but that we are set on the road to being free from sinning at all.

When John saw Jesus walk by, he exclaimed, "Look, here is the Lamb of God!" What went through their minds when they heard him say this?

The people of the time were expecting a messiah who would bringing God’s salvation. In the Bible the people of Israel are sometimes described, metaphorically, as a flock of sheep that need care and protection (Jeremiah 23:1-4; 50:6-19; Ezekiel 34; Zechariah 10-13). In the book of Enoch (a extra-biblical book), written shortly before the time of Jesus, one of the lambs from this flock rises up and becomes incredibly strong, symbolized by the growing of horns and being given a sword.[1] The enemies of the sheep are destroyed and the flock is protected. We see this symbolism in the book of Revelation as well- a wounded lamb against a great dragon.

So when these men heard John tell them that Jesus was the Lamb of God, this idea that one of their own would arise to defeat evil probably came to mind. But the image of the Lamb is an image with a few layers.

We read in the Book of Hebrews (9:22), that “without the shedding of blood there is no forgiveness of sins.” Dealing with sin is the major goal behind the ritual sacrifice system in Ancient Israel. But it wasn’t just Israel that did this, blood sacrifice has been a part of almost all cultures of the world. For the Hebrews, Sin is something that separates us from relationship with God. And the bloody sacrifice of a particular animal was the way to deal with sin. As Anglicans we have a tradition of Morning and Evening Prayer. In ancient Israel they sacrificed a lamb every morning and every evening, every day of the year. The sacrifice of the lamb would have been basic and common.

The sacrifice of the Lamb also has a connection to the story that defined Israel’s identity, which is the Exodus story. The people are enslaved in Egypt and the Pharaoh is refusing to let the people go. Plagues are being released on the Egyptians, which are increasingly intense. The final plague is a destroyer that will sweep through the land. The only way for the Hebrews to protect themselves is to place the blood of a lamb on their doorways. The blood protects them from the destroyer. This is the final plague before the people are made freed from slavery (Ex 12:21-27). This sacrificed lamb becomes known as the Passover lamb.

We see this image again in the Suffering Servant of Isaiah 53. This suffering servant of God takes on the sin of others and goes like a lamb to the slaughter. Of course, as Christians later read this they couldn’t help but think of Jesus.

So the image of the “Lamb of God” would have brought many of these images to mind.

I’m not sure where our society stands with the concept of Sin anymore. Sin might be seen in the act of polluting, buying products produced in a sweat shop, or not recycling enough, or the size of our carbon footprint, or in the atrocities of the past (like the Residential Schools). Surely these are things to still be deal with seriously. But it seems like there is still a belief that we will somehow advance ourselves beyond these sins. ... Others are not so sure. 

Nazi Germany was one of the most “advanced” and progressive nations of its time. And we can hardly think of a more horrifying time. It has become an icon of horror and evil. With the advanced thinking about evolution came thinking about eugenics and the engineering of the human species, which included removing undesired humans from the gene pool.

As soon as we discovered a way to split the atom we made it into a bomb. By many historical accounts Japan was ready to give up in World War 2 when the atomic bomb was dropped by the USA on two cities killing over 200,000 non-military civilians of Japan.

It seems like the more we “advance” the more we find more advanced ways of committing atrocities. We cannot advance ourselves beyond our sin. In fact, our “advances” seem to give us new ways to dig ourselves deeper into Sin. We cannot get ourselves out of this. It’s beyond us. Hebrews 10:4 says, “it is impossible for the blood of bulls and goats to take away sins.” Human ability will not get us out of it. Our sacrifices aren’t enough.

What is being revealed- the epiphany John receives- is that Jesus is the Lamb of God. God will provide the way out. It will be the work of God made man. He will be the conquering Lamb. He will offer his blood to atone for our sin. He will stand between us and the destroyer. As God seeks to build a relationship with us, God uses the symbols and metaphors around us. Filling them with new power. We will never wrap our heads completely around God. He’s too big. We cannot grasp God, but we can begin to abide in God. Just as we cannot grasp the whole universe, but we can live in it, so we can abide in God without fully grasping God. God will open a door and issue an invitation to enter in- to “come and see”. And there God will draw us out from under the power of Sin as we more and more live under His power and in his kingdom. AMEN

[1] Fleming Rutledge, The Undoing of Death, in the chapter entitled “The lamb of God”

Wednesday, 11 January 2017

Epiphany- The Christmas Dragon

There's a little known Christmas story that I would like to share with you. It is from Revelation chapter 12.
“A great sign appeared in heaven: a woman clothed with the sun, with the moon under her feet and a crown of twelve stars on her head. She was pregnant and cried out in pain as she was about to give birth. Then another sign appeared in heaven: an enormous red dragon with seven heads and ten horns and seven crowns on its heads. Its tail swept a third of the stars out of the sky and flung them to the earth. The dragon stood in front of the woman who was about to give birth, so that it might devour her child the moment he was born. She gave birth to a son, a male child, who 'will rule all the nations with an iron scepter.' And her child was snatched up to God and to his throne.  The woman fled into the wilderness to a place prepared for her by God, where she might be taken care of for 1,260 days.”

It is not the sentimental picture we are accustomed to seeing. We are not accustomed to associating so much danger with the birth of Jesus. However, danger is always looming. With the birth of Jesus power will shift. The messiah will bring with him a kingdom and that kingdom will push into enemy territory.

In this little known Christmas story the dragon is threatened by the power of Christ, and attempts to eliminate the child. The powers of this world are not comfortable with Jesus. The Pharisees are bothered by him. The priests, the Sadducees, and eventually the Roman Empire represented by Pontius Pilate are all disturbed by the presence of Jesus. Those who have power in this world do not want to give it up.

Jesus will deal with constant opposition from the powers in this world and we see the beginning of this in our Gospel reading. King Herod was a bit of a puppet king placed in power under the Roman Empire. One of the things rulers like Herod are most paranoid about is loss of their power. Herod even killed three of his own children for treason near the end of his life. We see this same sort of paranoia in Pharaoh in the Exodus story when he commands the killing of the Hebrew children for fear of a future slave revolt if their numbers were too large. In Herod we see a man with great power who is paranoid about the potential loss of it. He realizes how fragile his power actually is. And so, when he hears about the birth of a particular child, he is especially afraid.

Strangers arrive in Herod's kingdom. They are stargazers or magicians, and somehow from a distant land they noticed something that has happened right under Herod's nose. A new king of the Jews has been born. And of course where else would the king of the Jews be born but in the powerful city of Jerusalem, so that is where they go to look for the child. Herod, the present "king of the Jews" hears about the newly born ‘king of the Jews’ from strangers, who arrive from another land, and who are foreign Gentiles. When King Herod hears this news he is frightened. When you are ruled by a tyrant and your tyrant becomes afraid, you become afraid as well because you know what a fearful tyrant is capable of.

Herod gathers his scholars to find out where Scripture says the child would be born- that is where the Messiah was supposed to be born. His scholars report to him that the Messiah is to be born in Bethlehem. Herod then secretly calls the magi to him to pass on the information. The last thing he wants is for the people to flood into Bethlehem and replace him with a mere child. So he secretly calls them to himself and after finding out how old the child would be according to when the star appeared to the magi, he sent them off saying, "Go and search diligently for the child; and when you have found him, bring me word so that I may also go and pay him homage." And when we hear Herod say this we should hear the hiss of the dragon in Revelation. He has no plans to pay homage. He sees the child as a threat and would have the messiah killed to protect his fragile throne. He would use the magi to find the child, but when the magi escape Herod's manipulative tactics he turns to violence, killing the children 2 years old and younger in and around Bethlehem.

And that is the kind of world Jesus is born into. Jesus is born into a world where a powerful king will kill children out of fear. Jesus is born into a world where children are killed to protect the power and control of tyrants. He is born into a world where the powerful get their way- regardless of right and wrong.

The bad news is that we still live in a world where the powerful get their way. Even killing children who threaten their power, control, and ideals. We look back to Nazi Germany and we see Jewish children being killed for the ideals of Naziism. More recently we can look back to the genocide in Rwanda where children were slaughtered over the ideals of an ethnic group. In China there have been strict and brutal policies set concerning who is allowed to have children and how many. If the child does not fit into the government's ideal of the 'one child policy', or the ideal of having sons rather than daughters, then the child may be sacrificed.

Herod lives inside us as well. We can abuse what power we have, overlooking the vulnerable. Our culture can sometimes place our ideals and sense of control over those that aren't deemed as productive members of society. Sometimes we put our ideals ahead of life, and sometimes people who are innocent suffer because of our desire to maintain a certain vision of our life. The homeless, those with mental illness, the elderly, those who are severely disabled, children, and the unborn are all potential victims when people try to hold onto a particular type of power. These individuals are often powerless to fight back when confronted with oppression or even abandonment. When we place ideals ahead of people that can't defend themselves this exposes the Herod within us. If we were to follow the Christian ideal of love, our ideals would always embrace the person that was created in God's image.

The good news is that there is someone to challenge those who use their power to get their way despite right and wrong. The child Jesus and the movement he starts will challenge the power of tyrants. Jesus is born into a world of violence and manipulation. Jesus is born into a world that needs his salvation. The dragon is very real, and it knows the power the little baby Jesus has. It will do everything it can in order to consume him. But within Jesus is a greater power. The power of Jesus breaks that law we live with that says that the powerful always get their way.

When the magi were searching for truth. God gave them a sign in the sky. King Herod tried to manipulate the magi to help him find the Messiah in order to kill the baby who is his competition. However, God used King Herod and his scholars to point the magi in the right direction using the Scriptures. It is God's will that prevails, not the tyrants. God then uses a dream to protect the wisemen. And then another dream is given to Joseph, the baby's father, which thwarts Herod's plans to kill the messiah. God's will prevails.

Eventually, the child is ready to face the dragon. Jesus chooses to stand before the dragon. The dragon pours on Jesus all the brutality it can muster. The powers of the world torture and kill Jesus on a cross. And when the dragon is tired and relieved that the threat of Jesus is behind him, three days after the battle Jesus comes out of the tomb, dusts himself off and asks, "Is that all you got?". And it is. It is all the dragon has. Jesus took it all on himself. Jesus went right to the limit of the dragon's strength- a humiliating tortured death on a Roman cross. And he came back standing and the dragon had nothing else to throw at him.

The power of tyrants has a limit. But the power of Jesus works differently. Jesus’ power is of a completely different order. His is the power that created the stars and keeps them in existence. Though, he was not born in a place of power like a palace in Jerusalem, it was more humble, in the less important city of Bethlehem, and he was placed in a manger used for feeding animals. He will eventually enter Jerusalem on a donkey, not a war horse. He will rule, but it will not be the rule of a Tyrant. Jesus will rule like a shepherd who loves his sheep. He will choose followers, but they will not be Herods, or Pharoahs, or Roman Emperors, each with an army; The followers he chooses will be fishermen, tax collectors, and ordinary people- like us. The kingdom Jesus sets up is an alternative power- its people work differently, its politics function differently. In the kingdom power is not used to crush the defenseless. Jesus even says that it is in the least that we find him and serve him.

Jesus's kingdom and his people cannot be destroyed because that kingdom is Jesus himself and the people are the Body of Christ, which though they may lay in the tomb briefly, will eventually rise again. We, as the followers of Christ, will stand against Tyrants who use their power to kill toddlers to protect their fragile throne.

Herod is dead. The Roman emperors are dead. The Roman Empire is no more. Jesus is alive. His followers are alive and active in the world. We are still confronted by powers that threaten the defenseless- greed for wealth and power are alive and kicking in this world. But, Jesus is still stronger. The power of his love is stronger. His love can transform the Herod we all have within us. His love knows no limits. His love reaches even to the Gentile star gazing magicians- to draw them to himself.

In a world where the powerful seem to always get their way, we can be assured that there is a power that is stronger. It is a power that identifies with the weak and defenseless rather than crushing them or ignoring them. Tyrants will come and go, but the presence of Christ will remain and his followers will remain. Christ and his people will outlast the dragon. Thanks be to God.
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