Born of a Woman

MaryIn most churches, the Blessed Virgin Mary is either given very high honor, sometimes exuberantly so, or she is cast out of mind except at Christmas where she might be allowed in a manger scene.

As with many other things, the Anglican Communion is funny about the matter. One sees both extremes and much in the middle. As a result, an Anglican preaching on the Feast of Saint Mary is apt to feel called upon to explain the place, or lack of place, of Mary in Christian devotion in just a few minutes.

Fortunately, St. Paul does most of the job for me with these words from Galatians: “When the fullness of time had come, God sent his Son, born of a woman, born under the law, in order to redeem those who were under the law, so that we might receive adoption as children.” (Gal. 4: 4–5) These words are so sober and so far from holy cards of Mary ascending into Heaven that they might seem to dismiss that sort of thing, but they don’t. The important thing is that Jesus was born of a woman and we know from elsewhere in scripture that her name was Mary. If we are going to take the humanity of Jesus seriously, we have to take seriously the fact that he was born of a woman and suckled by a woman. If we push her off to the side in our theology and devotion, we risk losing the humanity Jesus shares with us by having a human mother. However, Paul not only stresses the humanity of Jesus, but the raising of humans to a divine level in the sense that we are adopted as sons and daughters of Jesus’ heavenly Abba. This adoption obviously includes his mother who gave birth to him and raised the child who would be raised up on the cross and then raised to heaven. Celebrating Mary’s assumption into heaven, then, entails celebrating our assumption into heaven as well. Jesus did a great thing for Mary because Jesus is going to do a great thing for us.

In Mary’s song, the Magnificat, Mary sings that “the Mighty One” has done great things for her and that God has mercy “for those who fear him from generation to generation.” (Lk. 1: 50) To honor Mary, then, is to honor her willing submission to her son’s Abba. Since it is her son’s Abba who does great things, there is no need to appeal to Mother Mary for fear that Jesus or his Abba are having a bad day. On the other hand, Mary wants what her son’s Abba wants for us, and so she prays for all of us as do all the saints in Heaven. Mary goes on to sing about God bringing down the mighty and raising up the lowly, of filling the hungry with good things and sending the rich empty away. That is to say, when a young woman gives birth to a child who is God just as much as he is human, the world is in for a shakeup. Since the shakeup is as gentle as a young maiden saying “Yes,” it is easy to look at the world and not realize that it has been turned upside down. If we haven’t noticed that, we’re missing something

Learning How to Pray to Our Abba

HolyFamilybyGutierrezWhen Jesus’ disciples asked their master how they should pray, he taught them a prayer that has us learn by doing. We are taken aback by Luke’s shorter version of this prayer (Lk. 11: 2–4) since the liturgical use of Matthew’s version with an added doxology causes us to think it is the only form it has. We will find, however, that this shorter version has the main elements of the longer one.

The opening word, Abba, is startling. The English word “father” fails to capture the tone of the Aramaic word believed by scholars to be the one Jesus used here. Even those of us who know this word from preachers and scholars can easily forget the impact of addressing God so intimately, the way a small child addresses his or her father. It is easier to identify with Abraham who speaks deferentially to God when interceding for Sodom and Gomorrah. He seems very much afraid of pestering God too much, perhaps afraid God will rain fire and brimstone on him if he keeps at it. (Gen. 18: 20–32) Unfortunately, many people experience their earthly fathers in this way, and project such experiences on our heavenly Abba.

The petition: “Hallowed be your name,” asks that God vindicate God’s name as when God delivered the Israelites from Egypt. Such acts make God so awesome they make us forget that God is our Abba. But perhaps Jesus is teaching us that what we thought was such an awesome god is really as close, even closer, than a parent to a small child, a different kind of awesome. Miracles can be intimate.

“Your kingdom come” is a prayer for this awesomely intimate God to establish the kingship, the right ordering of human relationships, that Jesus has been preaching in his teaching ministry. Hallowing God’s name in this way and establishing God’s kingship both constitute God’s will being done on earth as in heaven.

“Give us today our daily bread” is a petition indicating that God’s kingship, God’s will, is that each person have reasonable and needed sustenance and nobody should go without. “Forgive us our sins” as we forgive those “indebted to us” makes forgiveness central to the right ordering of human relationships. The final petition: “And do not bring us to the time of trial” is a prayer that we not suffer the social disorder, turmoil and violence that comes of neither feeding each other nor forgiving one another. This time of trial, of course, is also the evil we pray to be delivered from. These petitions taught by Jesus teach us to pray that we treat people with the same intimacy that our Abba offers us.

Looking back at Abraham’s bargaining for Sodom and Gomorrah, we begin to suspect that it was human violence that destroyed the cities, and not God’s, since Jesus is making it clear that God’s kingship is not about destroying cities. It is worth noting that, although Abraham is afraid of asking too much of God, God shows no impatience with each request and perhaps would have been patient even with bargaining all the way down to zero.

Jesus’ model prayer raises questions about possible differences between our Abba’s intentions and our projections. Would we rather hoard sustenance rather than share it? Would we rather hold grudges than forgive? Jesus speaks to these questions in a pair of mini-parables that elaborate on the prayer he has just taught us. Do we think that our Abba is as grudging and stingy as a family that has gone to bed for the night and does not want to be inconvenienced by a neighbor’s emergency need for three loaves of bread? Would any of us give our own child a snake or a scorpion instead of a fish or an egg? The statistics on cruelty to children suggest that many people do just that. These mini-parables on prayer suggest that if we sincerely pray for God’s name to be hallowed and for God’s kingship to come, then we would willingly suffer inconvenience to give sustenance to a neighbor and would want all children to have fish and eggs rather than snakes or scorpions.

St. Paul admonishes us to be rooted and built up in Christ, (Col. 2: 7) the very person who taught us how to pray. The homely images of Jesus’ mini-parables give way to Paul’s cosmic imagery of “rulers and authorities” who run the world through the violence of withholding necessities and stoking vengeance. Paul says that Jesus has nailed all of this violence to the cross so that the intimacy of nurturing and forgiveness triumphs in Jesus. To be rooted in Christ is to give fish and eggs and forgiveness to one another. This is how the cosmos should operate.

Holding Back the Fire—Embracing the Beloved Community

GuestsoutsideWhen called by the prophet Elijah, (1 Kings 19: 19–21) Elisha asks to kiss his mother and father first. When he is rebuked for this demurral, he slaughters his oxen, breaks the yokes and burns them, and then follows Elijah. That is, he burns his bridges in making a clean break. Elisha makes this break, however, to join a brotherhood of prophets who have set up an alternate community to the violent and idolatrous kingdom of Ahab and Jezebel. Unfortunately, this community is also compromised by violence as Elijah calls fire down on his enemies (2 Kings 1: 10–12) and one of the prophets anoints Jehu to pull of a violent coup d’état. (2 Kings 9)

We see the same dynamics of making a clean break in the stories of Jesus calling his disciples. The earlier callings of Peter, Andrew, James, John and the others were successful as they left their boats and families and followed Jesus. But when Jesus begins his journey to Jerusalem where he will be crucified, we have what appear to be three failed callings. (Lk. 9: 57-62) In each case, Jesus is stressing the homelessness and the break with the culture these people have known, just as Elijah was asking Elishah to do. They will have no place to lay their heads because, with Jesus, they will no longer have a place in the culture. The dead can bury the dead because the culture they would be leaving is dead. Like a farmer at the plow, they must look ahead, towards Jerusalem, not back the way they came.

We normally think the cultures we live in are pretty good. After all, they have nurtured us from infancy and we owe a lot to them. But the story preceding the failed callings shows up the problem with our cultures. The solidarity with our “own” people tends to put us at enmity with those who are “other.” The beginning of Jesus’ journey to Jerusalem takes him through Samaria, where a village there did not “receive” them. Whether or not they were actually rejected by the Samaritans is not clear, but the suggestion of James and John that they command fire to rain down on the Samaritans suggests they probably were. This quick escalation from rejection to total destruction is the trademark of human culture that builds up such enmity and violence. Jesus rebukes his disciples for suggesting such a thing. Interestingly, some manuscripts add a verse where Jesus says: “You do not know what spirit you are of, for the Son of Man has not come to destroy the lives of human beings but to save them.” Even if this added verse is not authentic, Jesus’s rebuke already conveys that sentiment. Rejection and raining down fire is the culture of violence that the disciples and would-be disciples are commanded to turn away from.

Turning away from one’s own culture, in itself, is negative. As long as it is negative, it is fueled by alienation and resentment, which leads to the seething irrational anger of the Underground Man as Dostoevsky calls him. Cutting oneself off from everybody is also a violent act, one that can lead to senseless violence as it does with the Underground Man who eventually attacks another person out of sheer spite. I myself was mired in such alienation and resentment for some years when the problems with my own culture became evident through the Viet Nam War, racist practices and other social ills. This attitude felt like freedom until I was freed by God from the resentment and discovered it had really been a prison.

In Galatians 5, Paul illustrates the culture Jesus is calling us from, what he calls the “works of the flesh,” as “licentiousness, idolatry, sorcery, enmities, strife, jealousy, anger, quarrels, dissensions, factions, envy” and much, much more. It is precisely envy, quarreling, strife and the like that makes human culture so violent that rejection from other humans leads to raining down fire in retaliation. No wonder some people turn away in disgust and resentment. But Jesus would have us turn away from the culture of death and violence, not to close in on ourselves in impotent fury, but to embrace humanity in a much deeper, much more inclusive way. Paul says that the fruits of the Spirit, the spirit that comes to save lives, not destroy them, are “love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control. “ (Gal. 5: 22–23) Just a bit further on his journey to Jerusalem, Jesus illustrates the fruit of the Spirit with the Parable of the Good Samaritan (Lk. 10: 25–37) where the enemy the disciples would rain fire on is the one who shows compassion for an enemy who, in turn, is challenged to accept love from an enemy. Paul says this is crucifying the “flesh with its passions and desires.” (Gal. 5: 24) As Jesus shows at the end of the road to Jerusalem, kindness, generosity, gentleness and the like end up on the cross where the strife, jealousy and envy of the people is absorbed. Once we embrace this culture of love, what Martin Luther King Jr. called “the Beloved Community,” we embrace the culture we have renounced so as to bring it into the culture of the Spirit.

Pastoral Care and Ubuntu

goodShepherdThe Feast of Saints Peter and Paul celebrates the pastoral ministry of the Church initiated by two different personalities with some differences of opinion. Celebrating two formative pastors already points to pastoral ministry as one of relationships. Then there is the whole matter of shepherds, as we often call pastors, in relationship with their flocks.

Having just returned from a conference on the subject of Ubuntu, I am inclined to reflect on pastoral relationships in terms of this social vision. Forrest Harris, President of American Baptist College in Nashville, explained Ubuntu as giving full respect for the being of other people. Naomi Tutu imaged Ubuntu with the African practice of giving a bowl of food to the eldest child in an extended family. This child is expected to share the food with his or her siblings in such a way that all of them, especially the youngest, gets a full share. The oldest child is given to understand that taking more than a fair share may increase the food taken in, but it diminishes that same child even more than it diminishes the youngest who goes without. Ubuntu, then, is so simple that it seems like an insult to one’s intelligence. Even a five-year-old can understand it, which is the point, since the eldest child might be that age.

However, Ezekiel complains of a total breakdown of pastoral care and Ubuntu. The shepherds eat the fat and clothe themselves with wool. “You have not strengthened the weak, you have not healed the sick, you have not bound up the injured, you have not brought back the strayed, you have not sought the lost, but with force and harshness you have ruled them” (Ezek. 34: 4) As a result, the flock is scattered. There is no Ubuntu here. These non-shepherds may be fat, but they are more diminished in their humanity than the starved sheep. If Ubuntu is so easy as to insult the intelligence, why is it so hard for anybody in Israel to practice it? Indeed, Ezekiel exclaims that God has given up on Israel’s shepherds: “I myself will be the shepherd of my sheep, and I will make them lie down, says the Lord God. I will seek the lost, and I will bring back the strayed, and I will bind up the injured, and I will strengthen the weak, but the fat and the strong I will destroy. I will feed them with justice.” (Ezek. 34: 15–16) As Psalm 23 says, God is our shepherd. Ezekiel adds that God is our only shepherd. In John 10 Jesus, fulfilling the words of Ezekiel, announces that he is the Good Shepherd who gathers the flock, protects the flock from bandits and robbers and lays down his life for his flock. This is Ubuntu to the max, but it is a one-person show.

But after Jesus had finished laying down his life for his sheep and then rising again, he gathered his disciples who had been scattered by the thieves and bandits. At the Lake of Galilee, he asked Peter three times: “Simon son of John, do you love me?” (Jn. 21) Each time that Peter said he loved Jesus, Jesus told him to feed or tend his sheep. The Good Shepherd is telling Peter to be a good shepherd as he is a good shepherd, to participate in the shepherdness of Jesus.

Making Peter a shepherd was just the beginning of the proliferation of shepherds who would tend the flock of Christ, with Paul being the most prominent. But here we are at a point where the analogy between sheep and church congregations breaks down. Sheep never cease to be dependent on their shepherds, but with humans, it’s a different matter. A big part of Ubuntu is helping other people mature. The young child is given the bowl of food to distribute to the other siblings as an the opportunity to learn the responsibility of being a shepherd so he or she can pass that responsibility on to the next generation.

We are fed with so much wisdom in Paul’s epistles that we often fail to notice the final chapters that are filled with heart-filled greetings to his colleagues in ministry. But what these greetings show us is that Paul, having poured out his life like a drink offering, (2 Tim. 4: 6) has passed the bowl of responsibility to the people he ministered to so that we, today, can continue to pass the bowl of Ubuntu to others, making all of us shepherds of one another.

Jesus’ Last Prayer

WilliamGuestsChurch1The last wishes of a dying person are traditionally considered sacred and binding on that person’s survivors. Although it is the seven recorded words on the cross that are considered the last words of Jesus, the prayer uttered by Jesus in John 17 constitute the last words of Jesus before he was handed over to be crucified. He prays that we disciples “may all be one. As you, Father, are in me and I am in you, may they also be in us, so that the world may believe that you have sent me.” (Jn. 17: 21) These words have been systematically disobeyed by those of us who are Jesus’ followers from that day until now.

The trouble with complaining about our disobedience to Jesus’ last prayer is that our complaints fall into accusations of other people who are responsible for the disunity, even if we do include ourselves in the accusations. In accusing others of disunity, we tend to think other people have to come to their senses and make the adjustments to bring about unity. As long as that is the case, we will all be waiting until the end of time.

As if obeying Jesus’ final prayer was not hard enough, the Gospel of John undermines the vision of unity in the high priestly prayer in many ways. It is the most combative of the Gospels with its fierce debates between Jesus and “the Jews.” To take one painful example, Jesus says to “the Jews: “You are from your father the devil, and you choose to do your father’s desires.” (Jn. 8: 44) Even in the high priestly prayer, Jesus refers to “the one destined to be lost.” (Jn. 17: 12) If anyone at all is missing, what kind of unity do we have?

Discouraging as this reflection is, the most amazing thing about John’s Gospel is that it draws our attention to this tension, and refers to the one destined to be lost. Why spoil the party by mentioning anybody who is “lost?” When we go back through the scriptures with the “lost” Judas in mind, we find many other “lost” people such as Achan who was stoned for taking some of the booty after a battle (Josh. 7) or Tamar, Absalom’s sister, who was raped, not to speak of the multiple victims in the book of Judges. We find that scripture constantly reminds us of people who are otherwise “lost” or forgotten. The same thing happens in the last chapter of Revelation where all who are thirsty are invited to come. Yet outside are the “dogs and sorcerers” and all other wicked people. One can say that murderers deserve to be outside the gates and we should be glad they are. But is Jesus’ final prayer fulfilled as long as these bad people are outside? We are quick to celebrate case closed and mission accomplished, but scripture leaves these loose ends that unravel such premature celebrating.

Unity, then, seems to be beyond us, although it exists in God’s mysterious triune unity where Jesus and his heavenly Abba and the Paraclete dwell within each other and in each of us. In the midst of the hope of this unity from before the world began, we feel the pain of those who are missing, regardless of whose fault it is. The story of Paul and Silas in jail (Acts 16: 16–34) offers us a sense of direction of what we can do. That Paul and Silas should be thrown in jail for preaching the Gospel points to a lack of unity among people. When they are miraculously freed from their chains, they could have run off and left the jailor to his fate. But they did not. First, they reached out to the jailer and not only saved his life, but they won him and his household to Christ. Bringing about unity for all people is not something we can accomplish on a dime, but we can each reach out to other people and seek to create and strengthen unity through the opportunities that come our way.

The Lamb of God is our Shepherd

Ghent_Altarpiece_D_-_Adoration_of_the_Lamb_2We usually understand a shepherd to be one who leads a flock of sheep and protects it from harm. But in Revelation, the author proclaims “the Lamb at the center of the throne” to be the shepherd of the multitude of worshipers from all nations. The worshipers are praising this Lamb whom they follow and the Lamb “will guide them to springs of the water of life.” (Rev. 7: 17) Their white robes have been made white in the blood of this Lamb because the Lamb has lead his followers through the ordeal. This is an odd sort of shepherd since normally it is the job of the shepherd to protect the flock from danger, not lead the flock into it.

In John 10, often referred to as the Good Shepherd Discourse, Jesus claims that he is the true shepherd who protects his sheep, even to the extent of laying his life down for his sheep. (Jn. 10: 11) Jesus is not only the leader, but he is the gateway into the fold, the only gateway safe from thieves who come to destroy. When Jesus says: “My sheep hear my voice. I know them, and they follow me,” (Jn. 10: 27) he is attesting to a much more intimate relationship between himself and the sheep than is usually the case. As the Good Shepherd, Jesus is not just leading us, his flock, externally by walking in front of us, Jesus is leading us from within, speaking in a voice that we learn to hear as quite distinct from bandits and robbers who come to destroy or hired hands who run away when there is danger.

Early in John’s Gospel, John the Baptist points to Jesus and calls him “the Lamb of God.” The reason that the sheep hear their shepherd’s voice and recognize it intimately is because their shepherd is a lamb, one of them. As the Lamb of God, Jesus protects his sheep from being snatched out of his hand. (Jn. 10: 28) But what does the Lamb of God protect the sheep from? We were not protected from bandits and robbers any more than the martyrs in white robes were protected from the ordeal. What the Lamb of God protects us from is being or becoming bandits and robbers. That is, we are protected from being people who shed the blood in which the white robes of the martyrs are washed. Most important, it is precisely by being the Lamb of God that this shepherd does not attack robbers and thieves with the violence they impose on him, but instead he lays down his life, not only for those of us in the sheepfold, but for those who attack him and the flock. This raises the question: In protecting us from becoming bandits and robbers, is Jesus laying down his life to turn those of us who have become bandits and robbers from what we have become? If the Lamb of God died for sinners as St. Paul claimed many times, then that is exactly what he has done and that is why, in following the Lamb of God as our shepherd, we do the same, secure in the sheepfold of our shepherd with the multitudes from every nation.

It Was Necessary

yellowTulips1Easter is an occasion of great rejoicing with bells, boisterous singing, and feasting. But do we really know what we are celebrating? The Gospel reading, doesn’t exactly ring out with Christmas joy of angels filling the skies with songs of God’s glory. Instead, we get “two men in dazzling clothes” who tell the women who came to the grave to anoint Jesus’ body that Jesus was not there but had risen. They had come to the wrong place.

A small group of confused women running off to stammer the news to the disciples isn’t exactly a celebration either. The disciples’s thinking the news is an “idle tale” may reflect a masculine condescending attitude towards women, but their reaction also shows how totally disorienting the news was. The Gospel reading ends with Peter running to the tomb to take a look for himself, seeing the empty linen clothes lying about, and then going home, “amazed at what had happened.” (Lk. 24: 12) Still no celebration; just a lot of unanswered questions. Luke continues his Resurrection narrative with two followers of Jesus walking to Emmaus with no indication of why they should be going there, implying that they are going the wrong way. Their conversation with a stranger on the way confirms their sense of confusion. Should we, too, be too disoriented to celebrate?

I think the key to understanding the problem lies in the words of the angelic beings: “Remember how he told you, while he was still in Galilee, that the Son of Man must be handed over to sinners, and be crucified, and on the third day rise again.” (Lk. 24: 6–7) The stranger who met up with the two disciples asked them rhetorically: “Was it not necessary that the Messiah should suffer these things and then enter into his glory?” (Lk. 24: 26) The word “must” is the key here. The Greek word dei is often translated “it is necessary.” In this case, for whom was it “necessary” that Jesus be handed over to sinners to be crucified and then rise on the third day? There is a tendency to think the death was necessary for God, but that suggests that God needed to have God’s own son die a painful death. Many people have a problem with that notion, I among them.

I find the French thinker René Girard helpful here. He interprets the available anthropological evidence as indicating a tendency of archaic societies to solve social tensions by a process that transforms competitive relationships throughout the society into a shared desire to focus on one person and then kill that person who is deemed responsible for the social tensions. The ensuing peace (for a time) is so strong that the victim is then worshiped as a deity. It is this social mechanism that convinces people that it is necessary for “god” that the victim be killed. Throughout this process, the truth of the victim is precisely what nobody knows, except possibly the victim.

This truth of the victim was gradually being revealed in the prophetic tradition of the Jewish people, most prominently in the verses about the “Suffering Servant” in Isaiah, whom the people accounted “stricken, struck down by God, and afflicted.” (Is. 53: 4) But then the people realized that they, not the victim, were the guilty ones. God had vindicated the “stricken one,” not the persecutors. It was these passages in Isaiah that most helped Jesus’ followers begin to make sense of what had happened to Jesus.

But on the day of Jesus’ Resurrection, the disciples had not thought to connect Jesus with the Suffering Servant. Jesus had told them many times that it was “necessary” that he be handed over to be crucified, but they could not understand. How could it be “necessary” that the man who they thought was going to restore Israel should be handed over to death? They assumed it was “necessary” that the guilty ones be handed over, not the innocent. Then, at Passover time, Jesus was deemed to be the guilty one who was causing the tumult by both religious and civil authorities, and so he was handed over. But the disciples had thought Jesus was innocent. Had they gotten their man wrong? Their fleeing when Jesus was arrested suggests they weren’t so sure.

The empty tomb was the first hint that Jesus’ death wasn’t business as usual. A tomb was supposed to have the corpse of the guilty one, but this one didn’t. The announcement of the angelic beings to the women was a stronger hint that Jesus was innocent after all. The women were told that it, although it was “necessary” that Jesus be handed over and killed, it was even more necessary that Jesus be raised from the dead. By raising Jesus from the dead, God showed Jesus’ followers that the “necessity” that Jesus die was a human necessity, a necessity of human factors, and that it was Jesus’ rising from the dead that was the true divine necessity. Only then could the disciples have their minds opened to understand the scriptures when the Risen Lord met with them himself. (Lk. 24: 45)

It is gloriously great news and a wondrous cause for rejoicing that we are freed from the human “necessity” to blame a victim who is put to death for the crimes of a society. That is, unless we feel too disoriented about not having scapegoats. Maybe that is why rejoicing in Jesus’ Resurrection is a much greater challenge than rejoicing in the birth of a child who is going to accomplish something great—what, we don’t know. Rejoicing in the necessity that Jesus be raised from the dead requires us to change our minds and hearts in radical ways to take in this news. Most challenging of all, we have to accept and then embody the forgiveness of the Risen Victim when storms of accusation remain the status quo even at this present day. Are we up to the challenge? Will we come to the party?

For an introduction to the thought of René Girard see Violence and the Kingdom of God and Living Stones in the House of the Forgiving Victim