Sunday, February 25, 2018

Jesus' Cross, Our Cross

Genesis 17:1-7, 15-1       Psalm 22:22-30        Romans 4:13-25       Mark 8:31-38

The history of the Jews is a tale of constant suffering. The Scriptures provide little explanation for why. Sometimes it is a punishment for sin, but there is also persecution and innocent suffering. The prosperity gospel, promising blessings on the faithful, is in tension with another revelation about the pain of being faithful.

When Jesus tells the disciples that the son of man will be rejected, suffer, die and rise again, He speaks as the Messiah. His divine power and authority as ‘Son of Man’ gets a shocking twist. It is so horrible that Peter does the unthinkable and rebukes his master. ‘Rebuke’ is a code word for exorcism in the Gospel. Does Peter think the Master has a demon? Peter’s rebuke brought shame on himself and shame on Jesus. The Lord, in response, rebukes Peter. Jesus looks to the other disciples calls Peter Satan. Peter's mind (nous) is still dark and his heart is ruled by sinful passions. Peter thinks like a human and not with a mind and heart united with God. Peter is afraid. Peter is me and you.

The suffering messiah is a mystery. Why have the Jews suffered so? Why must Jesus suffer rejection, suffering, and death to be God's salvation? Why? Obviously it is the nature of creation—truth beyond science and human reason—but we have no explanation. There is much we cannot see or understand, so we must trust.

Jesus speaks of suffering often. He tells us that we must suffer as well. We must carry a cross and follow Him. It is hard to keep it all in balance. Jesus dies to save us from our sins, He does it for us. Yet, He tells us that we must suffer and die as well. It is a painful mystery and a terrifying mystery. How many of us pray that we can die peacefully in our sleep? How many say we are not afraid of death, but we do not want to suffer. We claim to follow Jesus, yet leave own cross out of the discussion.

White, middle class Christianity has generally been a pleasant practice. The growth of aggressive anti-Christian sentiments has surprised us. Whatever the future of the church here, however, in many parts of the world carrying the cross as a disciple is the norm. Right now more people are martyrs for the faith than at any other time in history. Today, Christians are persecuted, tortured and killed for Jesus. Around the world these Christians faithfully follow Jesus to their own passion and death.

Like Peter, we recoil at the thought of such discipleship. We think like rational humans and we are often tools of satan. Our Gospel is infused with Americanism--a gospel of personal freedom and prosperity. The cross is a symbol of servanthood and loss of power and control. The cross is self-emptying, suffering love in union with our Lord and His Father…

Lent is a time to leave “peter” behind and get a new mind (nous) and new heart. Our doubt and fear is the fertile ground for all the deadly sins to flourish. We must forget ourselves and turn from our fear of suffering and loss. We must embrace Jesus and follow him. Our Lenten discipline must be a dress rehearsal—combat training in self-denial and death. It is said that Peter was crucified in Rome several decades later. He repented. Do we love Jesus enough to repent and follow Him, where ever He leads? 


"pascho" is the Greek word and it means "to undergo and experience (good or bad), feel, passion, suffer, experience in the body" The Hebrew word, pecach (Passover, Passover sacrifice) is also translated as pascho in the Septuagint.

The Word pascho occurs forty two times. Many refer to Jesus' own suffering, but some to ours.

Hebrews 5:8 Although he was a Son, he learned obedience through what he suffered;
1 Peter 2:21 For to this you have been called, because Christ also suffered for you, leaving you an example, that you should follow in his steps. [1 Peter 3-5 has ten uses of the term. Calling us to suffer for the right reasons and not for sin, reminding us that suffering can free us from the power of sin]
revelation 2:10 Do not fear what you are about to suffer. Behold, the devil is about to throw some of you into prison, that you may be tested, and for ten days you will have tribulation. Be faithful unto death, and I will give you the crown of life.
Acts 9:1 The Lord sais "he [Paul] will suffer for my name
Philippians 1:29 For it has been granted to you that for the sake of Christ you should not only believe in him but also suffer for his sake,
2 Timothy 1:12 and therefore I suffer as I do. But I am not ashamed, for I know whom I have believed, and I am sure that he is able to guard until that Day what has been entrusted to me. 1 Corinthians 12:2 reminds us of our bond with the suffering Christians "[because the church is one body] if one suffers all suffer together."
2 timothy 1:12 and therefore I suffer as I do. But I am not ashamed, for I know whom I have believed, and I am sure that he is able to guard until that Day what has been entrusted to me.

Sunday, February 18, 2018

Lent 1: Connecting the Dots

Genesis 9:8-17     Psalm 25:1-9     1 Peter 3:18-22     Mark 1:9-15

As we ponder the Jesus story there are many dots to connect in Scripture. The Jews of Jesus' time called it stringing pearls--connecting the Scriptures through a word or a theme found in different places.

For example, in the Noah story, God sends send rain upon the earth for forty days and forty nights. Jesus will be in the desert forty days. 1 Peter draws a parallel between baptism and the ark.  At Jesus' baptism the Holy Spirit descends like a dove. Noah also releases a dove from the ark. Forty* is a pearl, it is one of the dots found throughout the Bible.

In the Exodus story, Israel will wander for forty years in the desert. Moses spends forty days on Sinai with God. In the book of Kings, Elijah walked for forty days through the wilderness to that same mountain. Moses, Elijah, Jesus—all went without food 40 days.

Jesus is baptized in the river Jordan. Joshua (Hebrew for Jesus) will split the river and lead the Israelites through the same river. Both the prophets Elijah and Elisha will also split the river in two. As Jesus stands in the River Jordan God will split the heavens in two.

The prophet Isaiah said (Is 64:1) "O that you would rend the heavens and come down, that the mountains might quake at your paniyim/face (presence)." At the Jesus' baptism the heavens are rent and God has come down to save His people. Mark will use the word “schizo= rend” one other time. When Jesus dies the curtain of the Holy of Holies is rent in two by an earthquake (in Matthew). The Jewish temple was on a mountain, Mount Moriah, the same mountain where Abraham went to sacrifice his “beloved son.” Elijah will also be on a mountain with an earthquake when God comes to him. The Hebrew word paniyim occurs frequently in the first creation account, where the Holy Spirit hovers (like a bird) over the face of the waters.

The voice from heaven says "My son, my beloved." The first time these words are written in the Bible was Genesis 22:2 when YHWH told Abraham to sacrifice Isaac. In that same story, Abraham told his son that God would provide a lamb. In the Fourth Gospel John the Baptist will call Jesus "the Lamb of God." 

There is more, so much more. It would take hours to connect all the dots. But know this; the Lord Jesus fills up the Scriptures. The Bible is not simply filled with predictions. Jesus, the Word Incarnate, is the source and fullness of the written word. When we say Jesus fulfills the Scripture, it means that He is the one who makes sense of them. Genesis, Exodus and the prophets: every book of the Bible finds new and deeper meaning in the Jesus story. He redeems every story of the Bible. He does the same with our story. Some of us wonder how He can redeem our story, but those who have read the stories in Scripture as adults will find the great figures of Scripture are sometimes worse than we are! The sanitized children stories in "Heroes of the Bible" edit out the more mundane reality of the human beings we find there. 

So how do we connect the dots to our own lives? Lent is our forty day journey with Jesus. Forty days to fast and pray. Forty days to battle the sinful passions and Satan’s test. Forty days to be flooded by God’s judgement and washed clean. Forty days to meditate on God’s declaration, “You are my beloved child.” Forty days to let Jesus connect the dots of our life with the Scripture and make you a new creation.

+++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++additional notes *The number forty, like three, seven and twelve, occurs frequently. There are numerous references to Israel's desert wandering and Moses' sojourn, but there are many other uses of the number forty. Noah opened he window of the ark on day forty. Isaac is forty when he marries Rebekah; Essau marries at the same age. Jacob is embalmed for forty days after his death in Egypt. Four times in Exodus we are told that there are forty bases of silver to hold the frames of the tabernacle. When the spies are sent into the promised land they spend forty days reconnoitering and for forty years Israel is punished for unbelief. Joshua declares he was forty when he led that group of spies. Three times we read in Judges that the land had forty years of rest, while the Philistines oppress them the same number of years for their sins. We are told Saul, David, Solomon and Joash each serve as king forty years and as does the priest Eli. The mobile inner sanctuary is forty cubits and in Ezekiel's vision of the new temple both the nave and the courts include a forty cubit measurement. Ezekiel lays on his side forty days to prophesy a forty year punishment. Ezekiel also prophesies a forty year exile to Egypt. There are several times where Israel has an army of forty thousand.

Other words are also pearls to string: tebah, the Hebrew word translated as ark, only occurs in the Noah and Moses stories. Noah and Moses have many parallels--both are men who pleased God, they receive blueprints from God for construction, they are seen as prophetic and priestly figures by the rabbis. Noah is the mediator of the covenant with the world, Moses the covenant with Israel. Jesus is potrayed as the New Moses, especially in Matthew's Gospel, or in my approach the Fullness of Moses.  
The Word 'face' (paniym) connects creation and exodus stories and I have written about this in the past. 

Wednesday, February 14, 2018

Ash Wednesday 2018

"Lord, fill me and make me yours," a simple prayer, but not easy. It is not easy to be filled with the Lord when we are filled with other things. It is not easy to be His own when we have given ourselves to another. (Please hear this, I a not referring to human relationships or the daily duties and requirements of life.)
Human love is not a barrier, but whatever steals your heart from true and faithful love is. The false 'loves' which kill your body, soul and spirit are barriers. The barriers are always sin.

Sin is a power within us and death is its fruit. Sin is the perversion of our thinking, feeling, perceiving and understanding. Sin includes every desire, intent, choice, and act which turns us and closes us off to God and one another. Sin works from the inside out and the outside in. Sin is our deadly alliance with the unholy trinity (world, flesh and devil). Sin separates us from the Father as we banish God to the periphery of our life and blame Him in the process.

Today is Valentine's Day, so why don't we renew our romance with God? Let's embrace the Lord and allow His Spirit to breathe new life into us. Let us break down the barriers to theosis (union with the Holy Three).

There are different lists of these barriers in Classical Christianity. They are understood in various ways with a different emphasis. They are sometimes called the seven deadly sins. Some add to this number. They are also called temptations, bad thoughts and bad desires (or deadly passions). They are always understood as poisons which harm us, so, even as Jesus heals us and the Spirit sanctifies us, we must battle against them. We cooperate with grace by practicing the virtue which is the opposite of each vice (think of it as a vicious inclination):

Pride, combatted with humility.
Anger, defeated by patience
Envy, uprooted by kindness
Lust, bridled by chastity
Greed, swept away by generosity
Gluttony, quieted by moderation
Sloth, overcome by diligence
Acedia, conquered by faith and discipline...

From Pride (be it self-righteousness, arrogance, or the refusal to accept help) to Acedia (despair, sadness and indifference) each of these passions has multiple dimensions which are uniquely at work within each of us. We are all broken and wounded people in different ways. We are also, of our own volition, selfish sinners. We are in need of healing and forgiveness. We must learn to repent, trust and love more and more.

The problem is we often do not see or understand how broken, wounded and sinful we really are. We deceive ourselves, comforted in the belief: "I am not so bad." Personally, I think it is true. Most of us are not so bad, but good and bad are really not the issue. Loving God is the issue. I am not so bad, but I do not passionately love Jesus. I am not so bad, but the Father wants my whole heart, not the thin slice I toss Him from time to time. I am not so bad, but I am also not so good, not so free, not so alive as the Father created me to be. I am not fully in union with the Lord who made me for Himself.

This Lent I want to grow in love in the Holy Three. I want divine fire to be aflame within me and divine light to shine in and through me. You are here. You want it, too. So let us begin together!

Where will you start? Which deadly desire will you seek release from this Lent? How will you structure your life to cooperate with the saving work of Jesus the Word and transforming power of the Holy Spirit? How will you grow in trust and love? The next forty days, together, we embrace the best of romances, the union of the Holy Three God with each and all of us. It begins right now. 

*See The Eight Deadly Sins from John Cassian

this article Wikepedia is also a nice start

Sunday, February 11, 2018

God light, Our sight

2 Kings 2:1-12   Ps 50:1-6   2 Corinthians 4:3-6   Mark 9:2-9

The Transfiguration (metamophoo) of Christ is at the center of the Orthodox understanding of Salvation (theosis).* Western mystical theologians embrace this understanding as well. The manifestation of Jesus' deified humanity to the apostles reveals what will happen to us as well. We need the light of Jesus to shine in our nous/"mind" so that we truly perceive, think, feel and understand. Through His Holy Spirit, the Father shares His divine life in this light. This union has already taken place--the Divine Word and Holy Spirit live in us---yet the process of complete union will last our lifetime and beyond. Until God's light shines in us as it did Jesus on Tabor that day we are incomplete. We are already saved in Jesus, but as the darkness within us testifies, we are not (fully) saved yet!

Let us consider then, this journey into becoming the Light of God, which Paul spells out succinctly in the second letter to the Corinthians: If the Gospel is veiled (kalupto), it is veiled to those who are perishing (apollymi=dying, destroyed, lost, ruined). Jesus is the image of God. So Jesus is the revelation (the apocalypto) or unveiling of God to humans. However some reject Jesus, some will not see God in Him, so they cannot see Him. Paul says such people are dying and dead, lost and ruined---unbelief* is a veil over their eyes and hearts. From whence this veil?

The god of the aeon (age, time period, world) has blinded/darkened the "noema" ("nous"= mind: perception, feeling, thinking, understanding, deciding) of the unbeliever. The darkness and blindness is created by falsehood, the counterfeit wisdom of the world. The darkness is generated by our false desires--the passions--which steal our heart from God and love. The darkness is the fruit of sin and death, it is the environment in which the demonic thrives. Darkness encompasses the powers of this world and its teaching so blindness describes our human perception, our thoughts and feelings, our mental processes and our choices. 

Now, let's be clear. People with diminished sight can still get around. Blind people can do amazing things. I saw a bike for blind people at the museum of Science and Industry in Chicago. Physically blind people learn to live around their blindness. And we have learned to live around our spiritual blindness. St. Paul and the church do not say that spiritual blindness totally incapacitate us. They say the spiritual blindness keeps us from seeing Jesus, from knowing God and from the complete union with the Trinity which is the FULLNESS of life.

The teaching on the process of theosis is contained in this verse. This and other verses like it in the New Testament are the source of the Greek Orthodox** church's teaching and the Western*** Church's classical spirituality. We stand at the brink of Lent, the time set aside to renew and reinvigorate our efforts to become what God created us to be---our true selves, aflame with love, enlightened by truth, living in peace and great joy. Let us enthusiastically embrace the way of life!

*I have written about the salvation issue and non-Christians many times. Jesus is bigger than our ideas about Jesus, so, being a Christian does not mean we fully know Jesus. If our faith and knowledge is incomplete and in progress, then it is possible that Justin Martyr is correct when he describes the divine logos at work in the hearts of those who are responding to God without knowing Jesus the man. Jesus is there and the process is the same: dying to self and uniting with God by the Holy Spirit.
** Christopher Veniamin, The Orthodox Understanding of Salvation: ''Theosis" in Scripture and Tradition. (Mount Thabor Publishing, 2016) see especially p89ff "The Light of Tabor: St. John Chrysostom and the Language of Holy Scripture" and p112ff "The Transfiguration of Christ and the Deification of Man in St. Maximus the Confessor"
***For example, the 16th Century writings of St. Teresa of Avila and St. John of the Cross (Dark Night of the Soul). see also the late Medieval "The Cloud of Unknowing."  An early church (c-4th Century) source which was extremely influential in the middle ages was  (pseudo) Dionysius the Aeropagite

Thursday, February 1, 2018

Two Weeks and It is Lent!

The calendar says that February has begun. This year we have an interesting juxtaposition of dates as Ash Wednesday falls on Valentine's Day and Easter Sunday is April Fool's Day.

April Fool's, a day of gags for delightful tricksters, has resonance with Resurrection Sunday. Some theologians describe redemption as God tricking Satan. Satan, unaware of Jesus' divine nature, destroys Jesus on the cross, only to learn that he was defeated by Jesus' righteous death breaks the curse and Jesus' power over death (which had been Satan's greatest weapon) is then revealed in the resurrection. (Personified) Death consumed Jesus and then discovered that the Man Jesus was God Incarnate--the Word in whom and through whom all things were made--and Jesus destroyed death from the inside because Death cannot contain Life. 

Simplistically overstated, Classical tragedies were generally about the fall of a great figure and comedy was about the rise of an insignificant one. Comedy often relies on things not being as they seem, while tragedy is the sad outcome where things are not as they should be. The crucifixion of Jesus, a shameful death, seems tragic which shifts dramatically Sunday morning into a "comedy," an unexpected and happy ending. The "nobody" is actually the Messiah King!

Valentine's Day, is associated with a third century martyr, who was later connected to courtly love. The Lenten journey, usually associated with prayer, fasting and sacrifice, seems at odds with the typical feasting, flowers and chocolate associated with the Romantic February 14 holiday. However, what an opportunity to re-envision Lent in terms of love! What if we were to see Ash Wednesday as a day to renew our commitment to our first love? What if we looked to our Creator-Redeemer as the one with whom we are beginning a special journey into a deeper relationship? What if we rediscover that the desire of our heart is union with God, and all other human love flows from the font of that Perfect Love who is Father, Son and Holy Spirit?

It is well to consider our Lenten choices prior to Ash Wednesday. I invite my readers to consider Lent as a time of intensifying one's journey into the heart of God. I would ask you to  see the beginning (Ash Wednesday/Valentines) as founded in the love covenant of marriage (as Christ is the groom and the church His bride) and ending with the grand joke (April 1) that all our suffering is in fact a prelude to all things being well, sin is forgiven, pain gives way to delight, sadness becomes joy, and all our human efforts are taken up into heaven to receive new meaning and eternal significance in the love embrace of the Holy Three God.

Lenten suggestions:
1. Fasting from food and other things which cover over your deepest longing for God. Make an empty place within to open your heart and soul to encounter God. Discipline of the appetites is an unavoidable starting place to become holy.
2. Pick something to read and reflect upon--slowly and deeply. Let it soak in and change you. Quality, not quantity. If it makes you know and love the Lord more, than it is a worthy choice.
3. Pick someone to benefit from your generosity--time, talent, treasure. Loving God is connected to loving others. God tells us to be kind to others with the same kindness He has bestowed upon us. God created the world, so in His Name, make the world a better place in a focused, ongoing way. Perhaps you could pray, volunteer, and donate money saved from skipping a meal or some other self-centered entertainment and provide for others to a person in need or some worthy ministry.

Lent need not be about drudgery. Lent is about new life. Sin, especially sins which involve pleasure, are deceitful. They are April Fools gone bad--the joke is on us and the joke is not funny. Sin is tragic in the classical sense. Lent is about love and divine romance, the unveiling of new life and salvation in the Messiah who appeared to be a nobody. A (classical) "comedy" Lent is one which appears bad but ends well. It seems to involve suffering but it actually nourishes life.

This Lent, make choices which will bring you closer to God, the Holy Three. Make sacrifices which will open you to be filled with Divine Light and Life. Engage in practices which will open your mind to truth and purify your thoughts and desires. This Lent, do things which are so beneficial that you will want to continue them on April 2 and beyond.

You have two weeks to figure out what that will be....