On Carrying Crosses and Renouncing Them

sideAltarsIcons1Jesus’ insistence that we deny ourselves and take up our crosses and follow him (Mk. 8: 34) jolts us into thinking about what our priorities in life should be. Without being so jolted, we tend to deny other people, take up our favorite pastimes and follow whoever takes our fancy. However, we encounter a serious problem if and when we do take Jesus’ words to heart. We tend to get muddled over what constitutes a “cross” and how we should carry it. Because of this muddle, there is the danger that the cross will be trivialized. Carrying our own crosses is not about being a good sport if we catch the flu.

Fundamentally, the cross is about persecution. Jesus is telling his disciples that he expects to be crucified for the way he is confronting the religious and imperial authorities. The Servant in Isaiah was also persecuted by people who smote his back and plucked out his beard. (Is. 50: 6) More importantly, the cross is about not retaliating if one is persecuted, so being patient with Great Aunt Hattie who complains about every act of service is not so trivial. The combination of not retaliating and setting our faces like flint (Is. 50: 7) is precisely what Peter missed when he called Jesus the Messiah. That is why Jesus shut him up.

The biggest problem of waxing eloquently about carrying our crosses is that we overlook the danger, the likelihood, of being crosses for other people. We easily fool ourselves into thinking we are not persecuting others as long as we aren’t pulling beards or driving nails into someone’s hands and feet. But, in his epistle, James shows us how easy it is to be a persecutor. He says that the tongue, small as it is, is a fire that can set a whole forest ablaze and it even “sets on fire the cycle of nature.” (Jas. 3: 5–6) We both bless and curse others with this little member. (Jas. 3: 10) James is warning us how the contagion of collective violence such as that afflicted on Isaiah’s Servant and Jesus can afflict anyone by the agency of anyone through such use of the tongue. Language, the sign of civilization, is compromised from the start by its role in persecution. The more “civilized” we become through writing, the printing press, newspapers, the Internet and Twitter, the more quickly and efficiently peoples’ reputations are destroyed by firestorms set off by the tongue and its extensions the pen and the computer keyboard.

Instead of boasting about carrying crosses, we most need to busy ourselves with relieving others of the crosses we lay on them. Manipulating others into persecuting us to make them feel bad while making us feel good is really another way of persecuting others. As Isaiah’s Servant and Jesus show, crosses can come to us quickly if we speak out against persecution, since that is everybody’s favorite blood sport. Jesus warned the people of his time and us of our persecutory tendencies with his parable of the evil workers in the vineyard. (Mk 12:1-12) and by driving the money changers from the temple whose officials were exploiting the poor. (cf. Mark 12:41-44)

Following Jesus, then, is about both taking up our crosses and renouncing them. We take up our crosses by doing everything we can to stop persecution even if we suffer for it. But before going after other persecutors, we need to take the logs out of our eyes before taking the splinters out of the eyes of others. (Mt. 7: 5) Otherwise, our witness against persecution is likely to turn into persecution of the persecutors. This is why we can only take up the cross if we renounce using it as a weapon but rather use it as a Tree of Life for others.

Eating Together

garden1Eating is among the most fundamental activities of civilization, perhaps the most fundamental. It is the practice that brings people together to share in nourishment and social nurturing. And yet, throughout the animal kingdom, sustenance requires feeding on other living beings. Sometimes it is other animals, sometime plants. That is, a group bonding through eating inevitably bonds at the expense of other living beings.

The Christian Eucharist builds on the social bonding with its celebration of a meal that binds people together. Being bound up with the sacrifice of Jesus on the cross, a sacrifice made so that all other people may live, it is a meal of human sacrifice. Yet it is made a bloodless sacrifice by the serving of bread and wine that in some mysterious way are identified with the body and blood of Jesus, thus sanitizing the Eucharist of the violence in the story that is told in the breaking of the bread.

Jesus’ strange words in his long monolog that follows the feeding in the wilderness connects this feeding with the Eucharist in words that are both comforting in that they promise a deep union with Jesus, but disturbing by thrusting the violence of Jesus’ death in our faces. English translations inevitably lose much of the force of the words as there is no English word that catches the connotations of trogein.“Gnaw” comes closest but even that is not strong enough. The German word fressen, which refers to the eating of non-human animals, comes much closer. When I used the word flippantly in conversation with a German acquaintance, his reaction was very strong, about as strong as our reaction to Jesus’ words ought to be. Which is precisely the way “the Jews” react to Jesus’ words.

In reply to “the Jews’s” anger, Jesus promises that his flesh and blood are “real food” and “real drink” without which we have no life in us. Jesus goes on to make the even more audacious claim that his body and blood do not nourish us as meat and vegetables nourish us. Such nourishment is not lasting and needs to be renewed by further eating and drinking as the manna God fed the Israelites in the desert needed to be re-gathered every day. But Jesus’ own flesh and blood feeds us in such a way that we will live forever.

If Jesus can be our food in a way that sustains us everlastingly, then his own life must also be constantly renewed. This is the claim he makes when he says that he abides in his Father and his Father abides in him. This amounts to the astounding claim that it is possible to be nourished in a way that it is not at the expense of any living being. How can this be?

Since Jesus’ promise of everlasting nourishment is tied so closely to his painful death, we might get some understanding by looking at sacrifice. Sacrifice is closely tied to eating. Deities feed on animals or vegetation, or at least the aroma of them, and the sacrificers usually eat the food that was sacrificed. The Passover lamb is sacrificed both to spare the Israelites from the plague that strikes the first-born of Egypt and a sacrifice to physical hunger, and thus a source of nourishment as well. Sacrifices need to be repeated, as the author of Hebrews says. (Heb. 7: 27; 9: 6) In his sacrificial death, Jesus has obtained “eternal redemption.” (Heb. 9: 12) Thus, this author is making the same claim on behalf of Jesus that Jesus is making in John’s Gospel.
René Girard is helpful here. His thesis that civilization is founded on sacrifice and thus needs to be fueled by repetition of the same alerts us to the ongoing “nourishment” civilization receives through the periodic deaths of victims. One sacrifice lasts only for so long and then social tensions require another. Caiaphas intended Jesus’s death to be such a life-giving sacrifice for the people, (Jn. 12: 50–52) but Caiaphas got more than he bargained for. Jesus was raised from the dead and so became empowered to continually offer his life for others while no longer being subject to death himself. This is how Girard would have us understand the Church’s claim that Jesus’ sacrifice is the final sacrifice. There is no longer a need for sacrificial victims because the way has been opened for us to be everlastingly nourished by the life that was given once for all.

The death and resurrection of Christ, then, are a pledge of the heavenly banquet where we will be nourished without need of taking any life, not even that of plants, but in this life, we still need to eat living beings of some sort. Even Lady Wisdom has to slaughter animals for her banquet. What we can do is let Christ nourish us deeply in the here and now so that we do not need to sacrifice other people as we are prone to do, but rather will feed others in anticipation of the heavenly banquet.

Transfiguring Darkness

Transfigurazione_(Raffaello)_September_2015-1aI was introduced to the Transfiguration of Our Lord when Raphael’s great painting of the event hit me between the eyes during my student travels in Rome. With the Feast of the Transfiguration coming during my church’s summer slump (and it wouldn’t have celebrated the feast anyway) I knew nothing about it. In many ways, I didn’t have to. The painting opened up a vision of a transfiguration of humanity beyond what I had thought possible. At the time, what faith I had wasn’t centered around any particular religious viewpoint but I was majoring in religion because I thought the subject dealt with the most important things in life. Seeing the painting was more of a religious awakening than I knew. I was, of course, impressed by the sublimity of the upper half of the canvas where Jesus is floating in the air with Moses and Elijah. But I was even more impressed by the inroads the transfigured light made into the lower half which is often interpreted as indicating sinful and benighted humanity. It has taken me years to see further into the significance of this chiaroscuro effect.

Now that I have preached on the Transfiguration more times than I can count, I have had many occasions to study and reflect on it. I remain inspired by Raphael’s vision of the transfiguring light and fascinated by the Eastern Orthodox doctrine that holy persons can be filled with the uncreated energies that emanated from Mount Tabor. But under the influence of René Girard’s thinking about the scapegoat mechanism, I am most impressed by the proximity of Jesus’ death and resurrection to the transfiguring light.

The narrative begins: “Now about eight days after these sayings.” (Lk. (9: 28) These sayings were about Jesus announcing that he was going to be rejected by the chief priests and scribes and be killed after great suffering, followed by Jesus’ famous words about carrying one’s cross daily. After the return from the mountain and delivering a demon-possessed boy, Jesus said : “The Son of Man is going to be betrayed into human hands.” (Lk. 9: 44) So it is that predictions of Jesus’ passion envelope the transfiguration. Moreover, on the mountain, Moses and Elijah speak to Jesus about “his departure, which he was about to accomplish at Jerusalem.” (Lk. 9: 31) So Jesus and his two great predecessors weren’t exactly whooping it up and playing games with primordial light. Both Moses and Elijah knew a lot more about persecution than they really wanted to know and Jesus knew what the scriptures said about them.

There is much talk about the transfiguring light being an encouragement to Jesus and his disciples in preparation for the suffering ahead. There is truth to that and I have said as much in previous sermons. But the deeper truth I am seeing is that the suffering and death of Jesus is the transfiguration. The primordial uncreated energies have penetrated into the depths of human suffering, not only that of Christ but of all other people. This is the significance of the light reaching the people in darkness at the foot of the mountain in Raphael’s painting. A particularly bright spot of light lands on the chest of the boy Jesus delivers of a demon as soon as he comes down. What is the uncreated glory of God? It is that God would come to us in our darkness and suffer with us the sufferings that we inflict upon one another with the rage that makes us foam at the mouth and persecute one another. We can’t stay on the mountaintop, even if we should ever get there, but we can bring the mountaintop to others if we are willing to take up our crosses and follow Jesus down to the bottom where foul spirits rage and foam. What makes the glory of God glorious is that, as St. Peter says, the light shines in the darkness “until the day dawns and the morning star rises in your hearts.” (2 Pet. 1: 19)

Storms and Feedings

eucharist1For Proper 11 in Year B, the year of Mark, the Gospel has only two snippets. The first has Jesus taking his disciples to a deserted place only to be followed by crowds of people. Jesus has compassion on them “because they were like sheep without a shepherd.” (Mk. 6: 34) This reference to shepherding echoes the reading from Jeremiah where the prophet rails against the shepherds who destroy and scatter God’s sheep. (Jer. 23: 1) The other snippet comes at the end of chapter 6 where Jesus heals many people who are being brought to him.

Passed over are the Feeding of the Five Thousand and the stormy crossing of the Sea of Galilee where Jesus walks on the water and calms the storm. I can understand why the lectionary compilers made these cuts. There are six narratives of Jesus feeding a multitude in the wilderness in the four Gospels and many stormy crossings of the Sea of Galilee. These repetitions give us a sense of been there done that and there is only so much a preacher can say about them. I’m not going to say all that much about these stories, either. Rather, I’m going to use this week’s scattered Gospel as an opportunity to look a bit at the bigger picture in Mark’s narration.

In his pioneering study of the literary patterns in Mark, the great English theologian Austin Ferrer noted many doublets among other patterns in the Gospel. In Mark 6, we have the first feeding in the wilderness and the second stormy crossing. A second feeding of a crowd in the wilderness takes place at the beginning of chapter 8. Why these doublets? Ferrer notes that the first mass feeding takes place in Jewish territory and the second in Gentile territory. That is, Mark is foreshadowing the union of Jew and Gentile in the Christian missions that take place after Jesus’ death. Given this appearance of peaceful unity, I was startled that Robert Hamerton-Kelly said that these doublets are a multiplication of mimetic doubles that move towards the crucifixion of Jesus. Hamerton-Kelly is applying Girard’s thought to the Gospel where mimetic rivals become mirror images of each other. But when I thought further on the matter, it made sense to me. First, the two feedings happen separately. Jews and Gentiles have not yet been brought together. Second, preceding the first mass feeding is the first stormy crossing of the Sea towards Gentile territory. The second stormy crossing in the same direction occurs before the second mass feeding. The intertwining of stormy crossings with the two feedings suggest that uniting Jew and Gentile does not come easily. The episode with the Syro-Phoenician woman who Jesus curtly tried to dismiss precedes the second feeding, suggesting that Jesus may have had his own struggles in the matter. The disciples, of course, don’t understand the feedings at all.

In Ephesians, Paul writes about the union of Jew and Gentile as a done deal. He writes to the Ephesians that they are “no longer strangers and aliens” but are “members of the household of God.” (Eph, 2: 19) This union sounds easy and peaceful until we note that Jew and Gentile have “been brought near by the blood of Christ.” (Eph. 2: 13) That is, the storm of Jesus’ crucifixion brings the two peoples together. In Mark, along with the other Gospels, we see that the act of crucifying Jesus banded the Jews and Gentiles together for the first time. In Acts, Jews and Gentiles are again brought together through repentance and forgiveness. All this time, Jesus has been gently shepherding two separate flocks into one flock.

What may have looked like a pedantic look at literary structure in Mark actually leads us deeply into the midst of the storms that keep us humans apart from other humans. We live in these tensions as we seek to let the Good Shepherd lead us from far away to near at hand where we will feed each other in one great multitude.

On Being Branches Connected to the Vine

eucharist1The image of the vine and the branches in John 15 gives us a powerful image of closeness both between ourselves and God and also with each other through our grounding in God.
Each of us is a branch connected to the vine which is Jesus. Jesus is telling us that the desires of each and every one of us must be rooted in His Desire, which is the same Desire as that of his heavenly Father. Between Jesus and his Father, there is no rivalry and Jesus does not enter into rivalry with us. From our side it tends to be a different story. We experience rivalry so constantly that it is very hard to imagine a relationship without rivalry. Just note how political and social debates are saturated with it.

Jesus’ words start to sound threatening when he talks about branches withering, being thrown away, and then burnt. However, it isn’t Jesus who cuts off the branches; it’s branches that cut themselves off. Life rooted in Christ has to be rooted in Christ. This is, or should be, a tautology, but we have a folk saying about cutting off the limb we’re sitting on. People who center their lives on one or more rivals instead of Christ are doing just that. Once cut off from the vine, we are consumed with rage with our rivals, a strife that burns us up.

We often think of union with God as individualistic but that is not so. On the contrary, union with the vine unites us with all of the other branches. This means we share our union with the vine with everybody else’s union with the vine. It is by being united to others through Christ that we have the ability, through grace, to act towards others in God’s Desire rather than through our rivalistic tendencies. Since there is no rivalry in Jesus, there is no way that Jesus would encourage rivalry with others who are connected to him. In his first epistle, John says that we should love one another because “love is from God” and God is love. (1 Jn. 4: : 7–8) Again, God’s love for us is deeply connected with our love for one another. God abides in us insofar as we love one another. If we cut ourselves off from God, we cut ourselves off from other people and if we cut ourselves off from other people, we cut ourselves off from God.

The image of the vine and the branches is, above all, Eucharistic. The Eucharist is a public event. The wine in the Eucharistic celebration is the blood of Jesus that he gave to heal all of us of our violent ways. The blood of Jesus on the altar shared with each of us makes present to us the death of Jesus at the hands of persecutory humans as it also makes present the risen life of Jesus. In exchange for the way we betray Jesus with our violence, we receive the gift of life through deep union with Jesus, a union like that of the branches to the vine. We associate blood with violence, such as with the term “bloodshed,” but blood is the life within us and it is life that the Risen Jesus gives us through his Blood. This is the wine, the blood, that flows from the vine to the branches to connect us to Christ and to each other.

Rising to a New Humanity

crosswButterfliesSt. Paul proclaims the Resurrection of Jesus as a radical game changer. It is a passage from death to ourselves to a new life in Christ. This proclamation is often understood as an individual conversion. It is that but it is much more. During his life, Jesus proclaimed the kingship of God. A kingship, of course is social, not individual, much as we like to fancy ourselves kings and queens of our little castles. The kingship of God looked like a lost cause when Jesus died, but after being raised from the dead, Jesus leads us into the kingship that we rejected when we crucified him. It is important to note that Paul was not writing to an individual but to a community, indeed, the community that at the time represented all humanity as Paul knew it. St. Paul proclaims the Resurrection of Jesus as a radical game changer. It is a passage from death to ourselves to a new life in Christ. This proclamation is often understood as an individual conversion. It is that but it is much more. During his life, Jesus proclaimed the kingship of God. A kingship, of course is social, not individual, much as we like to fancy ourselves kings and queens of our little castles. The kingship of God looked like a lost cause when Jesus died, but after being raised from the dead, Jesus leads us into the kingship that we rejected when we crucified him. It is important to note that Paul was not writing to an individual but to a community, indeed, the community that at the time represented all humanity as Paul knew it.
In the first chapter of Romans, Paul makes it clear that what seem to be personal sins are embroiled in the matrix of human desires where what is disordered within us spurs on what is disordered in other people and vice versa. It isn’t personal sin but the interpersonal sin of basing culture on the rejection of God that has us in thrall. In the grip of social sin, we choose a foundation of persecution that culminates in the crucifixion of Jesus. Persecution is based on lies, lies that are woven into our deepest being. The great Afro-American writer W.E.B. Du Bois knew what it is like to be among a people caught in a system of lies. He described the “double life” of being both black and American when he wrote: “Such a double life, with double thoughts, double duties and double social classes, must give rise to double words and double ideals, and tempt the mind to pretense or to revolt, to hypocrisy or to radicalism.” After developing these thoughts further, Du Bois says bluntly: “The price of culture is a lie.” (W.E.B. Du Bois and the Sociology of the Black Church and Religion, 1897–1914, p. 156–157) Here we can see how the culture of persecution defines us so that this shared desire feels like the natural order of things. At this point, it becomes clear that there is no such thing as personal sin. What seems personal is too caught up in our social matrix to be personal in an individualistic sense. We are not lone sinners, we are social sinners.
The Eucharist with its background in the Passover is fundamental to St. Paul’s understanding of the death and Resurrection of Christ. (See A New Passover—A New Life) As the Jews were delivered from a persecutory culture and given the chance to begin culture anew, Christians, in the renewed covenant, are offered the same chance to base culture on the forgiving victim rather than the unforgiving persecutory crowd. As the Passover was a repudiation of enslaving other humans in any way, the renewed covenant also repudiates enslavement. The failures to make such a new start have been painfully obvious for centuries. The cryptic and disturbing narrative of Jesus’ Resurrection in Mark prophesies this frustrating failure. It seems highly unlikely that the fear on the part of the woman who went to the tomb was consciously a fear of being thrust suddenly into the beginning of a radically new culture. But fear based on the weirdness that a man should have been raised from the dead does not seem to account for all of their fear either. In any case, such an unprecedented event with so much power must have been seen as the game changer Paul took it to be. It was perhaps all the more frightening that they could have had no idea at the time how the game of life was being changed.
This seems like a lot of doom and gloom when we are supposed to be celebrating the Resurrection of our Lord, but we really can’t begin to understand and appreciate what the Good News of the Resurrection is all about, let alone truly celebrate it,  until we know the bad news about death from which we are being delivered. In the Paschal Troparion of the Greek Orthodox Church, worshipers sing:
Christ is risen from the dead, Trampling down death by death, And upon those in the tombs Bestowing life!
The persecutory society requires death as its foundation and maintenance. Jesus’ Resurrection tramples this death and tells us to go to Galilee where Jesus is always waiting for us to make a new beginning in building the kingship of God. (Mk. 16: 7) This is what it means to say that death is conquered and we are free.


These thoughts are developed in more detail in my book Moving and Resting in God’s Desire

A New Passover — A New Life

AndrewMassThe Passover is the formative event for Jews, the event that constitutes them as a culture. The Last Supper, the Eucharist, is as formative for Christians. Although there is debate as to whether the Last Supper was a Passover meal, the association with that feast is clear enough for Jesus’ supper to have incorporated and redefined Passover. The big question is: What is the culture that these events are intended to form?

The Passover brought freedom for the Israelites as they were lead out (or driven out) of Egypt where they had been slaves. The violence of the plagues, especially the deaths of the first born of Egypt are disturbing, particularly if God directly inflicted the vengeance. The plagues, though, are the types of events that could have happened in Egypt by natural causes. Although pharaoh resists releasing his Hebrew slaves many times, he and his fellow Egyptians don’t seem able to rid of them fast enough after blaming them for the deaths of their first born children. (Ex. 12: 29–34) The drowning in the Red Sea can easily be seen as self-inflicted violence. The Egyptians drowned not only in the water but in their own violence. In any case, Egypt is portrayed as a violent and tyrannous society, a society that the Israelites were well rid of. Their escape was an opportunity for the formation of a new culture anchored in God’s covenant with the people. Because of the covenant, Israel became the first known culture to attempt to live differently from the other nations, most notably by not making human sacrifices and not having a king who would institutionalize violence. In the end, Israel failed on both counts. Among the more telling failures was Solomon’s use of slave labor from the ten northern tribes of Israel to build the temple. (1 Kings 13–18) The prophets constantly denounced the social injustices perpetrated in Israel. The Passover itself fell into oblivion until it was revived by King Josiah. (2 Kings 23: 23)

The context of Passover tells us that the Eucharist, an event Jesus wanted his followers to repeat, is also a transition to a new culture. The greatest difference is that, while the Passover was accompanied by violence inflicted on the persecutors, in the new Passover, it is Jesus who suffers violence at the hands of violent humans. This difference is the foundation of what is perhaps best called the Renewed Covenant, since it renews and redeems the first covenant that failed. As with the first Passover, the second is a movement out of a violent culture into a whole new way of being human. This time, the rejection of violence is clear and decisive. This rejection of violence entails a rejection of the social injustices that had undermined the old covenant.

Paul’s need to remind the Corinthians of the institution of the Eucharist shows us that failure set in very soon after Jesus’ dying breath. Paul is berating the Corinthians for their insensitivity to the poorer and more vulnerable members of the congregation at the celebration of the Eucharist itself. The social inclusiveness of the renewed covenant, including economic inclusiveness, has already been forgotten. The many failures of the Church are too innumerable to name but it is important to note that countless Christians have followed Solomon’s example and enslaved other people, a practice that is still rampant today under the name of “trafficking.”

The Passover and Eucharist are calls to renounce these social vices, but they are not easily renounced by those in power, although William Wilberforce’s crusade is a rare example to the contrary. More often, it is those who are enslaved who have to reject it. This is difficult since those in power try to render their victims helpless, but it happened in the Exodus and it happened when King Rehoboam threatened to intensify the enslavement of the northern Israelites beyond what Solomon had done. (1 Kings 12: 16) Speaking of slavery, Jesus himself acted the part of a slave by washing the feet of his disciples. In the present moment, there is a peaceful rebellion against the enslavement of this country by a gun culture where the prodigal availability of powerful weapons costs many human lives, most tragically in the school shootings that have become routine. It is when we reject slavery in all its forms that we pass over from the old lives we have lived as social beings into the kingship of God.


These thoughts are explored in much more detail in my book Moving and Resting in God’s Desire