Sunday, May 27, 2018

God's work in us and through us

 (Trinity Sunday)

Isaiah 6:1-8
Romans 8:12-17
John 3:1-17

The insight of mystical theology is that one can have an experience of God in this life. However, the masters teach that it is a struggle to find God. We are flesh and blood living in a fallen world. The words flesh and world, therefore, are double meaning. Incarnation and creation are God, God's creation. They are also used negatively to indicate the rebellion against God and the barrier to communion with God. It is the latter, negative, sense which we encounter in Romans and the Gospel of John today.

Humans are not God's children in he sense that Jesus is. Paul says we are children of God by adoption. Adoption in Roman culture was a socio-political process to raise someone to a higher status. God adopts us to share in the divine status of Jesus--it is a work of the Holy Spirit. In the Gospel, Jesus says that we are 'born from above' by the Holy Spirit to enter the kingdom. What we were--sinful flesh in the rebellious world--is changed by the life breath of God Himself.

One model of our experience of God is Nicodemus. The Fourth Gospel uses intentional language to portray this Jewish leader, and it is vital that we understand this story. We begin with the end of chapter 2, where we read: "When he[Jesus] was in Jerusalem during the Passover festival, many believed (pisteuo) in his name because they saw the signs that he was performing. But Jesus on his part would not entrust (pisteuo) himself to them, because he knew all and needed no one to tell him about humans (anthropos); because he knew was in humans (anthropos). Now listen to chapter 3... 

There was a human (anthropos) of the Pharisees named Nicodemus... and he said..."no one can do these signs that you do apart from God." He came at night, nux is the hour of darkness when no one can work and the time of betrayal. This is also our situation, we are in the dark, drawn to Jesus by His miracles, but our faith is not always an entrusting of our selves to Him. 

"God so loved he world that He sent His only Son; not to condemn the world but to saved it." God's intent and goal is to bring the rebellious world and flesh into union with Himself. This is why Jesus came. The problem is the darkness. In John 1 the author provides a summary of the Gospel which will help us here. Jesus is life and light, a light shining in darkness. The darkness cannot (katalambano The Greek means to comprehend, it also means to seize) overcome the light but neither does it understand the light. John 1 continues, those who believe in him, he gave power to become children of God, [not any human agency]...but of God. The same concept of God adopting us or being born from above.

Jesus came to share the life of God with us. Jesus came to make us what he is. The problem is that we are in a broken creation and we have broken minds and wounded hearts. The "world and flesh" cannot get Jesus. Like Nicodemus, we half understand, in part because we live in darkness and care more about signs than Jesus.

The experience of world and flesh are part of Isaiah's horror in seeing God. "Woe is me!" he exclaims. I am a sinner living in a nation of sinners. There is no discipline by which Isaiah can make himself presentable to God. Purification is a divine gift. But note what happens, a burning coal is placed on His (unclean) lips. The coal is a burning piece of wood. Typologically, wood is the cross and fire is the Holy Spirit. Like Isaiah, we are made clean by the cross/Jesus and fire/Holy Spirit. We are born from above. But Isaiah's experience is not for the experience of "being saved." The voice of God asks "Whom shall I send? who will go for us?" Salvation (theosis union with God) is for the sake of mission. We share in the mind of God His goal. We are now called to be Jesus to the world
As The Father sent Him, so He sends us. We are the body of Jesus in the world. We are on mission, he mission of Jesus. That is our purpose and that is our reason for being. 
As it is Trinity Sunday I want to share some insights into how the early church read Isaiah and found the Trinity there. This was part of my original homily but as is often the case the third draft is a new work completely. Even so, it is still of value to share, I hope:
Isaiah had an experience of God. It is one of many varieties, including Noah, Abraham, Moses, and many prophets. However, as Theodoret (5th C Antiochene) makes clear "Isaiah has revealed the Father's existence but not his essence (which cannot be seen). In other places God reveals himself in ways that also demonstrated no one has seen his essence...God is incorporeal, indivisible, simple, invisible and inaccessible."  So while in a real sense no one can see God; the passage says Isaiah saw God. The Hebrew verb "to see" (ra'ah) has a special connotation (1 Samuel 9:9 "what we now call a prophet was once called a 'Seer') and illustrates the prophetic substance of this narrative. God is high and lofty; the title "The Most High" appears over one hundred times in the Jewish Bible and reminds us of the limits of our human experience of God.

The Christian view of this short reading connects it the Trinity. The six winged attendees to God are called seraphim. Origen (3rd C) said that his Hebrew teacher told him that the two seraphim were Jesus and the Holy Spirit. Other church Fathers focus on triple--Holy, holy, holy--the earth is full of His glory. Ambrose says  "that even in a hymn you may understand the distinction of persons in the Trinity and the oneness of the Godhead." Likewise, Theodoret says that when they repeat "holy" three times...they are referring to the one essence of Deity. Further "their song praise[s] the eternal essence for having filled both heaven and the entire earth with his glory. This happened through the incarnation." Cyril of Alexandria and St. Jerome both state that this declares the Holy Trinity exists in one divine nature; and Cyril agrees that the incarnation of Jesus fills the earth with God's glory. Clearly, the ancient Fathers read with a heart of faith, so they find the Trinity in the Jewish Bible. We, too, can bring our faith to every day experiences and discern Trinity.

Sunday, May 20, 2018

Apocalyptic, Prayer and the Holy Spirit

"We know that the whole creation has been groaning in labor pains until now; and not only the creation, but we ourselves, who have the first fruits of the Spirit, groan inwardly while we wait for adoption, the redemption of our bodies."  [also 2 Corinthians 5:2, "here indeed we groan and long to put on our heavenly dwelling"] Paul speaks of this life as a time of groaning and struggle; not because life is bad, but because the new life of the Kingdom is being born.  (see also Jesus in Mk 13:8, 1 Thessalonians 5:3, Revelation 12:2). The Bible declares that the world as we know it is passing away. Jesus said it (Mt 5:18; Mk 13:31). Paul said it to the Corinthians in two letters (1 Cor 7:31; 13:10; 2 Cor 5:17). 1 John said it (2:17). Seven times we read this in the book of Revelation (17:8, 11; 18: 14, 21; 21: 4, 11; 22:5). Jesus said it will come unexpectedly, like a thief in the night (Mt 24:42-44; also 2 Peter 3:10).

Jesus uses the language of Jewish Apocalyptic* literature and many early Christian writings do the same. The Apocalyptic worldview rejects the notion of progress, predicting that chaos and destruction will increase. The apocalyptic world view is of a creation that will be consumed and something new will replace it--much like the death and resurrection of Jesus. Humans cannot and will not progress into a brighter future; only God and His Messiah can save humanity. Salvation, though, is a painful process, like giving birth to new life. So anguish and physical duress are part of the process, in part because the world, the flesh and devil are in open and hostile rebellion to God's healing work. While some might find this message bleak, it does seem to reflect the real world. If the apocalypse says that bad things will happen to God's people, maybe we should not be surprised when bad things happen. This is why Jesus told us to expect trouble but not to despair. We are neither optimistic nor pessimistic. We are Christians who know that Jesus is Victor, even if the victory is not fully revealed. This is why Paul says that we have hope--we hope for what we do not see and we hope in patience awaiting it to arrive.

The truth is, life can be hard and we get discouraged. We are weak---but the Spirit of God helps us in our weakness. Paul says that weakness is manifested in the inability to pray as we ought. The Spirit, he says, intercedes on our behalf. There are many excuses for not praying, but in the end the core reason is we do not want God at the center of our life. We literally choose darkness and death rather than light and life. It is why creation groans---our sins and offenses. It is why we suffer--sins and offenses. It is why we need to be saved and it is why only God can save us.

Prayer, then, is an encounter with the God who saves. Responding to His Love, prayer unites us to Abba Father. Paul says that deep prayer may have no words. The groaning of our hearts, lifted to God, is the best kind of prayer. And the Spirit does it within us.

The challenge is to set aside time to turn to Him. The challenge is to be quiet and say, "Here I am, Abba." We seek Abba--not to get, not to ask--but to simply be with Him. Prayer is so simple that a young child can do it, yet so sublime that a spiritual master never becomes competent. Prayer is our duty and it is God's gift to us. Remember, the Holy Spirit is praying in us, give over your heart and stop worrying about the words to say. The Bible gives you all the words you need.

Our foundation for prayer is the daily office. Take a verse and sit with God: "To you, Lord, I lift up my heart, in you, God, I put all my trust." "Create in me a pure heart, Lord, and put a right spirit within me." "Jesus mercy." "Thank you Father." Simple words from our groaning heart. Again. Again. Again. Letting the words become part of us and allowing the Spirit to make us one with God.
Now do it each day.

*For a simple introduction to the literature see

Sunday, May 13, 2018

Jesus Came to Make a Church?!

Acts 1:15-17, 21-26
psalm 1
1 John 5:9-13
John 17:6-9

Lesslie Newbigin's insight on John 17 captures the heart of what I would like to meditate on with you today. ("The Light has Come, p 228)

"The work of Jesus is the communication of the name of God to a community. He does not bequeath to posterity a body of teaching preserved in a book--like the Qur'an. He does not leave behind an ideal or a program. He leaves behind a community--the Church.

This community exists not because of decisions which its members have made. It is not constituted by the faith, insight, or moral excellence of its members. It exists because God has called its members out of the world by His own actives and given them to Jesus."

Wow, this is an amazing thought: God sent Jesus to make the church--a community participating in the love of God. Jesus’ declaration, “I love you,” and His command, “so love one another,” open us to a new way of understanding salvation. The transformative union with God—theosis—consists of godly communal love. Yes, only the Holy Spirit make us holy, but we work with God in holy synergism*. As we abide in Jesus, we are slowly purified of the sin which darkens our nous (mind/soul) and the passions which kill our heart.

We must, however, understand our situation: "I am no more in the world," says Jesus, "but they are in the world and I am coming to you." At the beginning  of the eucharist today we should have said “Alleluia! Christ is gone! But He will return, alleluia!” We are in the world, but Jesus is gone. The world hates Him so it hates us. He is not of the world, nor are we… Well, in reality we are of too much of the world, but we are not supposed to be. Jesus prays for the Father to protect us because we need protecting. Satan's Kingdom is sin, sickness and suffering. Division, doubt and despair are the fruits of the enemy. Jesus is gone, but the power of God's Name protects us. 

Communion with God in Jesus is communion in His church. Uniting with God is not the heroic battle of a solitary soul. Jesus reminds us that loving God means being one with each other. IF He is gone, He has not left us alone. The Power of God’s name is the "absent-presence" of Jesus and His Father. Yes the world hates us—for our beliefs about marriage, our beliefs about Jesus—and charges us with hate crimes—but we are not alone. We belong to Jesus. We also have one another.

Like Israel, we are an exodus people. We have diverse beliefs and values. We struggle to be one. Diversity is a fact of existence and a source of conflict. The world offers us diversity training, but it does not work. In my training days the HR Director told me that diversity training increases hostility (+). That is because Satan is the prince of division. He inspires us to clamor for our rights and brood over every injustice which we experience. Diversity training cannot heal divisions because it focuses on what divides us. Sinners all, we blame others. We are seduced by power.

Only the true church—that authentic community of Jesus where every life matters and all are loved—can heals division and unites us in our diversity. Jesus had a zealot and a tax collector among His apostles—bitter enemies become one in His love. Someday, in His Kingdom, we will learn to be the church He has called us to be. This day, let us pray, for that slow process of theosis and love to continue to transform us all.


Sunday, May 6, 2018

Jesus Law

Acts 10:44-48
Psalm 98
1 John 5:1-6
John 15:9-17

"As the Father has loved me, so I have loved you; abide in my love. If you keep my commandments you will abide in my love, just as I have kept my Father's commandments and abide in His love."

The centrality of love as a commandment to be obeyed is at the heart of the Jesus faith which we embrace. In the Synoptics, we get a different angle on the same thing. [Mt 22, Mk 12, Lk 10] There is a question: which is the greatest commandment. Jesus declares there are two (from Deuteronomy six and Leviticus nineteen) to love God completely and to love he neighbor as yourself. Jesus says that these laws summarize the entirety of Torah. Love, in other words, is what the Jewish Law is all about.

The challenge, however, is always in defining terms. What is love? In our own age love is equated with an emotive state. Love is a feeling, a power at work within us, like affection, desire or a familial bond. Certainly, there is an emotive/feeling side to love, but is this what Jesus means and is this what the Torah demands?

First of all, remember that Jesus says these things so that His joy will be in us and our joy will be complete. The Lord Jesus wants us to be filled with a perfect joy. Yet, He says that perfect love is self sacrifice--to lay down one's life for the beloved. Is it true that our greatest joy is dying to self on behalf of another? Is it true that when we seek the good of those whom we love, that it is in forgetting ourselves that we find the deepest peace, purest joy and the true meaning of life?

In the Fourth Gospel, the cross is less about torture and suffering than it is about Jesus' power to freely embrace death as the means to give life to the world. That is the mystery behind he mystery, the divine core which transforms this human tragedy of injustice into the wellspring of living waters (the waters which will literally gush from His side after the Roman lance penetrates His heart).

To love Him as He loves us is to die into life and find joy
To love one another as He loves us is to die into life and find joy
To love in obedience to His word is to die into life and to find the greatest joy.

This love of God, however, is not merely meted out to Israel. When God promised Abraham would produce a nation, He also promised, that those descendants would be a blessing to the world. Abraham, Isaac, Jacob/Israel are the human venue through which God makes His Name known and His glory manifest. The king of Israel, David and His heirs, is destined to rule the world, so that all people will stream to her capitol city and worship the Lord in the beauty of holiness. But Jesus, the son of Abraham, the son of David, the son of Mary, the Son of God---Jesus is the fullness of every promise. He is the Torah incarnate, the Word made flesh. He is the love of God in human form. He is God's salvation walking among us.

Peter, a disciple of Jesus, comes to discover (in Acts 10) that the love of God includes outsiders, the Gentiles. God reshapes his understanding of those people who are not Israel. Peter says, all who fear God and do what is right are pleasing to God. Peter says, if the Holy Spirit can fall upon them, how can we withhold baptism. In other words, the love which Jesus declares to His disciples is abundant enough to include us. You and I, Gentile outsiders, are included in the People of God. We believe in Jesus as the Christ/Messiah so we are born of God.

Today we reads such simple words: love, obey, believe... Yet there is such a great depth to each of them that I am unable to explain. What I know is faith and love and obedience are a living whole. Human minds can analyze, divide and theologize, but in the end it is the living and dying of every day life which makes them real. Love is to be to others what Jesus is. Everyone, even the outsider, even the enemy. Obedience to such a command must be grounded in our love for God and the power of His love within us. It is why prayer is required. It is why we must abide in Him. It is why we must read the Word to learn God. It is why we must gather in community. Love requires others: God and Humans.