The Risen and Ascended Living Interpreter of Scripture

In Luke’s Gospel, the first thing Jesus does after rising from the dead is explain the scriptures to two of his followers on the Road to Emmaus, explaining how it was “necessary” that the Messiah “suffer these things and then enter his glory.” (Lk. 24: 26) The last thing Jesus does before his Ascension is explain the scriptures to the disciples in the same way. Understanding this “necessity” is a tricky business. For whom was it “necessary?” It is ludicrous to suggest that it was “necessary” for God that the Messiah should suffer. On the contrary, Luke, like the other Gospel writers, tells the story of Jesus’ execution on the cross in such a way as to stress the necessity on the part of humans that Jesus die in order to bring “peace” to Jerusalem. The key to understanding the scriptures that Jesus opened his disciples’s minds to is this human necessity that the Messiah (Jesus) die so that “repentance for the forgiveness of sins. . . be preached in his name to all nations, beginning at Jerusalem.” Lk. 24: 47) So what was “necessary” for God? For God the only thing necessary was to raise Jesus from the dead so that he could continue to open our minds to the true meaning of the scriptures as a living interpreter.

Luke’s Gospel and its sequel, Acts, reveals quite clearly the human tendency to solve social problems through collective violence as theorized by René Girard. But these writings also reveal a deeper and much brighter truth about the human potential for sympathy and empathy. This is where Resurrection and Ascension, repentance and forgiveness, all come in. In announcing the Jubilee in his inaugural sermon in Luke, Jesus proclaims a gathering through sympathy and caring rather than through competitive tensions and violence. This new gathering involves freeing prisoners, giving sight to the blind, and setting the oppressed free. (Lk. 4: 18) In his teaching, Jesus makes the words quoted from Isaiah his own in his famous parables of the Good Samaritan and the Prodigal Son. In opening the scriptures to the disciples, Jesus is not only revealing the truth of collective violence but also the human potential for sympathy that leads to forgiveness and reconciliation as taught in these parables. From there, Jesus leads us even deeper into the self-giving love shown on the cross, a love we too may need to embrace. More important by far, Jesus embodies this teaching and revelation in his own act of forgiveness and thus enables the same in each of us.

A dead Messiah wouldn’t be available to enact and enable repentance, forgiveness and costly self-giving. Only a Messiah who is very much alive can do that. This is why Jesus, having been raised from the dead and now ascended into heaven, is seated at the “right hand in the heavenly realms, far above all rule and authority, power and dominion, and every name that is invoked, not only in the present age but also in the one to come.” (Eph. 1: 20–21) The image of all things placed under Jesus’ feet suggests the earthly rulers who use their fallen enemies as a footstool. (Ps. 110: 1) I suspect this is the image the disciples have when they ask Jesus just before the Ascension if now he is “to restore the kingdom to Israel.” (Acts 1: 6) But Jesus, in opening the scriptures to the disciples, has revealed his kingship to be one of sympathy, forgiveness, and compassion; in short a kingship based on the Jubilee proclaimed at the start of his ministry. Rather than thumping his foot on us, Jesus bends down and raises us up to his seat. In revealing his true kingship, Jesus has not only opened up the scriptures to us, but he has opened up the truth of human history as well, a truth more glorious than the “necessary” violence that we think gives life its “meaning.” As the key to scripture and history, Jesus fulfills Paul’s prayer that “the eyes of [our] hearts may be enlightened in order that [we] may know the hope to which he has called [us], the riches of his glorious inheritance in his holy people, and his incomparably great power for us who believe.” (Eph. 1: 18–19)

Hearing and Seeing the Good Shepherd

With a bewildering shift, John 10 skips three months and interrupts the Good Shepherd Discourse with Jesus fending urgent inquiries as to whether or not he is the Messiah. (“How long will you keep us in suspense?) (Jn. 10: 24) For all of the intensity of asking, the Jews don’t really seem to be asking. Rather, they seem to have made up their minds that Jesus is not the Messiah. (Prophets don’t come from Galilee. Isn’t that obvious? Just look at the scriptures.)

Jesus then returns to the Good Shepherd theme, saying that those hounding him do not believe in him because they are not of his sheep. His sheep, on the other hand, know his voice and follow him. Are the “Jews” ontologically incapable of believing in Jesus? That doesn’t seem possible, but throughout his Gospel, John is showing us how it is possible to become willfully hard of hearing. This raises the question: Are we equally hard of hearing?

Being able to hear Jesus’ voice has to do with a certain amount of openness to Jesus. It isn’t just a case of being open-minded in general, although that can help. There is a special kind of openness that is required here. The ones who hear Jesus’ voice are the ones who respond to the works Jesus does, the works that testify to who and what he is. This whole Good Shepherd passage follows straight on from Jesus’ healing of the man born blind and the long hostile discussion with the Jews that followed. Those who rejected the miracle are the ones who are blind, but those who see the miracle for what it is, can see with the sharpness of the formerly blind man. These are the sheep who know Jesus’ voice and follow him.

What follows is an extraordinary verse that I admit has slipped by me all these years: “What my Father has given me is greater than all else, and no one can snatch it out of the Father’s hand.” (Jn. 210: 29 For Jesus, the sheep who see his acts of healing and hear his voice are the pearl of great price, the treasure in the field worth selling everything for it, including his life. But what of those who do not hear Jesus’ voice, and what of ourselves if we do not hear it? Does Jesus throw the blind and hard of hearing away? But Jesus says here that nobody can snatch this treasure, each and every one of us, out of his hand. Throughout the Gospel, and especially in the story of Jesus’ healing the man born blind and the Good Shepherd discourses, there has been a sharp division between those who see and hear and those who don’t, suggesting the deaf are doomed. Yet here Jesus gives us a pre-echo of his prayer in chapter seventeen that we all might be one. Here we enter a mystery where we do not take seeing and hearing for granted. If we all are going to be one in Jesus, we must all hear deeply the voices of those around us and seek deeply to speak in ways that can be heard in a healing way. Since Jesus himself is the Forgiving Victim, hearing his voice in the voices of other people includes special attention to the voices of oppressed people, the victims of racism and other social evils, learning to hear that whatever racism we hear and see in our hearts, and any oppression we inflict on others victimizes us as much as it does other victims. It is this deep listening, this deep seeing of God’s will to heal our blindness and deafness that will make us all one.

The Gentle Resurrection

Luke’s first Resurrection narrative is the quietest of all four Gospels. Matthew is easily the loudest with an earthquake announcing the event. That’s our idea of Easter! Mark is puzzling and a bit of a cliffhanger with the women running away from the tomb out of fright. That’s still a pretty intense reaction. John is almost as quiet with the women finding the tomb empty before Jesus appears to Mary, but Luke is quieter still. The women are puzzled by the empty tomb and the announcement of the two men in dazzling clothes. They do tell the disciples but the disciples don’t believe them, not just because they are women but because the news is too unbelievable. The narrative ends with Peter looking into the empty tomb, amazed, but scratching his head.

There is an air of suspended reality about all this. Much of it has to do with the shock of grief over the death of a loved one. In the shock of grief, nothing seems real, least of all the absence of the loved one. It’s like the person is there and not there. This isn’t what we think Easter is all about but I would argue that this is the most realistic entry into this stupendous event. We are used to thinking of earth-shaking events as–well–events that shake up the world. But these sorts of events don’t really change the world as they are the same old acts of competition and violence and force that have been with us since Cain killed Abel. If the Resurrection were such an earth-shaking event, it would actually have kept the world going in the same old rut of retaliatory violence. That the Resurrection is so low-key, especially in Luke’s version, shows us that the Resurrection does indeed embody a radical act of non-violence, giving us all the space we need, century after century, the discern why it was “necessary” that Jesus be handed over to sinners, crucified and then rise from the dead. The necessity for the death was, of course, a human necessity as Caiaphas affirmed. (Jn. 11: 15) The Resurrection, though, is God’s necessity. It was necessary that God raise Jesus to give us an undying life-giving presence for all time. But this presence needed to be totally without violence, i..e. without force of any kind, just as Jesus’ death had to result from renouncing all violence in the face of evil. Not even the earthquake in Matthew forced Jesus’ resurrected life on anybody.

St. Paul writes about being baptized into Christ’s death before rising with him. (Rom. 6: 3) The initial phase of disorientation described by Luke is very much a feeling of death as the world the disciples had been living in had also been rendered unreal, even if the imperial order continued unabated as it always had done. There is a lot more to dying to the old self than giving up our own personal sins. More than that, we need to die to the culture of violence we are immersed in so as to enter the life-giving nonviolence of the resurrected life. Since there is nothing earthshaking about it, nothing to make headlines, it may not seem like much, but to the contrary, embracing the forgiving life is indeed everything.

We may think that nothing has changed when we read about the virulent racism in our own country and around the world. Even worse is the horrific act of violence in Ukraine, which makes headlines, but is really only a repeat of what Rome was doing in Jesus’ time. But something has changed over the centuries. We now have oppressed people throughout the world arising in non-violent protest, including Martin Luther King Jr and William Barber II. We have a world-wide protest against the invasion of Ukraine and many countries doing what they can to help their stricken neighbor. These are all signs of the Resurrection in the midst of the horror and death that Jesus suffered on the Cross. The Resurrection, though, isn’t just about events on a large scale. It is also about small events of love and concern for the well-being of others day after day with the people right next to us—our neighbors.

The Work of a Slave

When Jesus washed the feet of his disciples, he stressed the importance of what he was doing. Likewise, when he passed the bread and the wine, he stressed the importance of what he was doing. Both acts were to be remembered and done in memory of Jesus. And both are to this day, although the footwashing is not anywhere near as common as the eating and drinking of the bread and wine.

What is it about the footwashing that has put it into a very low second place? Logistics may have something to do with it but a look at its meaning, the sign that Jesus is giving us, probably has a lot more to do with our not even talking about it all that much. In the Greco-Roman world, it was slaves who washed the feet of their masters and their masters’ guests. That Jesus would do the work of a slave must have been shocking at the time and still is, if we consider the implication that imitating Jesus’ act is not confined to literally washing the feet of others but entails acting as a slave to others. Fundamentally, being a slave means to be in the hands of another person. If we are supposed to put ourselves into the hands of others like this, what does this say about trying to enslave another human being? Jesus himself was about to put himself into the hands of others with the result that he would be crucified. If the disciples still remembered the anointing of the feet of Jesus by Mary of Bethany six days ago, that too would have added to their discomfort. This discomfort extends to the parallel versions of this story

The woman ( or women) in the Gospel stories poured out her very substance (the expense of the perfume or oil) in devotion to Jesus. Likewise, Jesus poured out his very self to his disciples in washing their feet just as he was about to pour out his life for all people to put an end to the violence that includes the enslaving of other people. In those Gospel stories, the women were commended as examples of discipleship. If Jesus thought these women were such good examples, it makes sense that Jesus was humble enough to learn from them and do for his disciples what the women had done for him. There is no indication in any variant of the story that the disciples were reconciled to what the women had done. Did Peter take umbrage at Jesus for washing his feet because he associated it with the women as much as he associated it with slavery?

With the bread and wine, Jesus again poured himself into the two elements just as he poured out his life on the cross. So it is that the footwashing and the Eucharist both mean the same thing. We have put up with the Eucharist more than the footwashing because we have been able to sidestep this meaning by arguing about the metaphysics of Jesus’ presence. But the real presence of Jesus is his pouring himself into the hands of others and through them, the hands of his heavenly Abba. Paul knew this very well but we also conveniently forget that the context of his recalling the Last Supper is to upbraid the Corinthians for violating its meaning through denigrating the weaker and poorer members of the assembly.

Jesus rebuked Peter for refusing to have his feet washed, warning him that he would have no share in him. (Jn. 13: 8) This warning converts Peter so powerfully that he goes overboard and asks to be washed all over. He has allowed Jesus to be a slave to him so that he could be a slave to Jesus and all people. This conversion did not prevent him from denying Jesus three times but it allowed him to hear the cock crow and then to affirm his love to the Resurrected Jesus three times. This is what both the footwashing and the Eucharist are all about.

On Not Offending the Vulnerable—Or Anybody Else

Jesus’ suggestions that we cut off a hand or a foot or tear out an eye are so shocking that we are pulled away from the previous verse where Jesus mildly says that “whoever is not against us is for us” and that anyone who gives a cup of water will be rewarded. (Mk. 9: 41) It is worth noting that a great many sayings and parables of Jesus take us out of our comfort zones. This particular hard saying takes the cake, a rock hard bad tasting cake at that. The standard way for a preacher to wriggle out of these hard sayings is to say that they are “hebraisms,” that is to say, hyperboles to get our attention. Maybe so, but let’s allow these verses to get our attention and see where they take us.

We get some help from the broader context of these sayings. Earlier in Mark 9, read as last week’s Gospel, Jesus tells his disciples that he will be “betrayed into human hands” and killed. The disciples respond to this warning by fighting about who is the greatest. Jesus responds to this infighting by putting a child among the disciples and saying that whoever welcomes this child welcomes him and the one who sent him. (Mk. 9: 37)

In this context, we can see that the disciples’ complaint about the person who is not “one of us” casting out demons is a renewal of the competitiveness on the part of the disciples. Casting out demons is something Jesus has told the disciples to do and now this other person is doing it. What’s the problem? Maybe the problem is that the disciples had just failed to exorcize a demon as Jesus was coming down from the mountain and they are jealous. Jesus gently rebukes them for their competitiveness by saying that anyone who is not against him is for him. The disciples aren’t the only show in town. Then Jesus echoes his commendation of the child by saying that whoever offers anyone a cup of water will be rewarded. That is, thinking about the needs of others, especially the most vulnerable, and doing something about it, leaves no room for competition.

Then come the hard sayings. Jesus warns the disciples (and us) about putting stumbling blocks before these little ones: the child in the midst of the disciples, the one who should be given a cup of water. It is precisely the competitive behavior that scandalizes the little ones, leading them to copy the behavior modeled by those larger and more powerful than they. Children playing cowboys and Indians, as in my day, or with GI Joe or Ninja toys more recently, may be cute, but aren’t they mimicking their elders too closely for comfort? When children see their elders fighting over who is the greatest, is it any wonder they do the same? The notion that it is better to be hurled into the sea with a millstone around the neck than to scandalize the little ones should make one think. It is worth noting that throwing people off of cliffs was a popular means of sacrificing. Being willing to cut off a hand or leg or gouge out an eye rather than scandalize a little one is drastic, but it makes it urgent that we sacrifice our competitiveness rather than scandalize the vulnerable. Indeed, lacking a limb or an eye (remember Odin?) causes one to be a “random” victim of sacrifice. Moreover, dismemberment is also a common method of sacrifice. (Remember Prajapati?) Of course, it would be simpler and less drastic to offer a cup of water, but if competitiveness through what René Girard called “mimetic rivalry” is a powerful addiction, as Girard suggested, our hands and feet are too caught up in rivalry to make even so simple a gesture.

This brings us to hell where the worm never dies and the fire never quenched. (Mk. 9: 48) It would indeed be better to have one hand rather than two that burn in hell for all eternity. But that isn’t what Jesus is talking about here. The word he uses is “Gehenna,” which means something different. Some scholars think it was a large garbage dump outside Jerusalem whose flames never stopped smouldering. More to the point, Gehenna was the valley where Jeremiah claimed that children were sacrificed to the pagan deities. It does seem fitting that such a cursed place would be turned into a refuse heap. Gehenna, then, is where our rivalrous battles end: a place where the vulnerable are sacrificed to fuel our battles. Maybe Jesus’ words about cutting off limbs is hyperbole, a set of “hebraisms,” but they are warning us of the consequences of our rivalrous ways. One of the clearest symptoms of mimetic rivalry is the sharp divide between us and them, a divide the contending disciples tried to make between themselves and the other person who exorcized people.

Jesus concludes his teaching by referring to salt. Salt was added to sacrifices by both Jews and Romans, but as in the use of the image in Matthew and Luke, salt refers to an inner quality, perhaps a willingness to sacrifice self rather than others. This willingness to sacrifice self is of great value and losing it would be much worse than losing an arm or a leg. Jesus tells us that the greatest value of the inner salt is to “be at peace with one another.” (Mk. 9: 49) Being at peace allows for offering a cup of water to one who has need of it, and such giving creates more peace. Indeed, Jesus himself gave up much more than a hand or a foot; he gave up his life to deliver us from the Gehenna of our own making.

Sowing Parables in our Hearts

mustardTreeThe eighth chapter of Romans is among the most inspirational passages in all scripture. Paul assures us that “all things work together for good for those who love God, who are called according to his purpose” and that we will be “conformed to the image of his Son, in order that he might be the firstborn within a large family.” (Rom. 8: 28–29) Lest we think that only some people are predestined for God’s family, Paul asks: “If God is for us, who is against us?” (Rom. 8: 31) If Jesus is interceding for us, what more powerful persecutor is there to speak against us? Do we really want any personal being to veto the advocacy of Jesus? If we are truly stirred by these words, then we must stamp them deep into our hearts and allow them to govern how we view God and how we view other parts of scripture. For today, I suggest using these words to help us understand the parables in Matthew 13.

There is a tendency to interpret these parables separately, treating each as a little gem of wisdom in itself. Each parable is indeed a gem but I think we do well to see how these parables interact with each other. Perhaps we’ll get one great big gem with many facets.

Most of the parables present images of sowing seeds and cultivating plants, a similarity that begs for comparisons. The Parable of the Sower, the Parable of Weeds among the Wheat and the Parable of the Fishnet all deal with sorting the good from the bad. One comes at the beginning of the sequence, one in the middle, one at the end, providing a frame for the set. Sorting good from bad seems to be a good thing to do, but there are some cautions in these parables. The slaves of the household want to pull out the weeds sown among the wheat but the householder says that we can’t differentiate well enough to do this sorting without pulling out a lot of good stuff. And what about the seed that falls on bad soil or among the thorns? Are they bad seeds because they got tossed on the wrong places? Are these seeds just cast away? And do the fishers sorting fish caught in the net really want any fish to be so bad that they have to throw them away? Does God, who did not withhold his only son, want the angels to throw anybody away? (Rom. 8: 32)

The Parable of the Mustard Seed and the Mustard Plant gives us pause. When we take the parable in isolation, we assume the mustard plant is a great good thing, a sign of God’s kingdom. But many farmers consider it a weed and try to get rid of it, although the farmers hired by Grey Poupon Dijon seem to want it. Maybe it is precisely because the mustard plant, “the greatest of shrubs,” is a weed, or in any case not an impressive plant, that it is a sign of the Kingdom of God. Jesus was treated like an unwanted weed that was pulled up by the roots and thrown away. And yet this weed popped back up and grew until birds could nest in its branches. This weedy shrub continues to shelter many others who are elsewhere treated like weeds.

How did we get into the habit of treating some (many) people like weeds? René Girard suggests that it happened at the dawn of humanity when social tensions were most successfully resolved (in the short run anyway) through everybody ganging up on a victim or a group of victims. That is, somebody was weeded out. When Jesus let the people of his day weed him out, he revealed the truth of what we have been doing all these millennia. So who planted the mustard seed? Looks like the work of God.

In the other two parables, Jesus says the kingdom of God is like a treasure hidden in a field and a pearl, both so valuable as to be worth selling everything to buy them. The large family that Paul says God is gathering everybody into would surely be the treasure in the field and the pearl of great price, worth everything we have. But are these treasures worth giving up our desire to weed out the people we don’t like, or hoping God will do it for us? That is the route to weeping and gnashing of teeth. Or will we embrace the priceless pearl that puts us in embrace with everybody else? That would give our culture a makeover, maybe like the small measure of yeast that transforms the bread. Paul concludes his inspirational chapter: “neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor rulers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.” If that is so, than no number of weeds in our lives can separate us from God.

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

On Sacrificing a Cup of Water

sacrifice of IsaacWhen the story of the near-sacrifice of Isaac was first told to me in Sunday school, the teacher prefaced the story by saying that in biblical times there were people who made sacrifices to “god” and some people even sacrificed their own children, but God decided to teach Abraham that he should not do that. The story was troubling but it was comforting to know that God did not want such an awful thing. Between that and being told around the same time the story about Jesus inviting the children to come to him did much to instill in me a trust in God as deeply loving from an early age. Since then, I’ve come across many learned scholars who think such an interpretation of the Isaac story is simplistic. Who’s right?

Christian exegetes in the early Christian centuries softened the story to some extent through a Christological interpretation where Isaac is an antitype of Christ, the Son who was willing to lay down his life. Such an understanding continued in folk tradition where the English Miracle plays dramatized the story of a pleading child wondering if he really was that naughty and then becoming reconciled to his fate.

Such an approach is still troubling but it makes some effort to draw back from the notion of an violent and arbitrary “god” who really would make such a command to Abraham. Unfortunately, later medieval and Reformation theologians shifted the emphasis back to Abraham and his anguished “obedience.” Such an emphasis falls deeply into the tragic pitfall of a sacrificial atonement. While even St. Anselm, who set in motion this theological tendency, still emphasized the Son’s love of humanity in laying down his life, Luther and Calvin emphasized the Father’s sacrifice of his Son with severe violence with the Father taking his anger over human sin out on his Son. Martin Luther, for example was very stern in saying that in no way was it legitimate for Abraham (or us) to question what God orders, no matter how unethical the command. In Fear and Trembling, Søren Kierkegaard’s pseudonymous author calls this kind of obedience “the teleological suspension of the ethical.” Many think Kierkegaard supported that position but in fact, this suspension of the ethical is not faith. Abraham is a “knight of faith” because he does not kill his son but receives him back from God. This treatise then is actually Kierkegaard’s first salvo in dismantling a sacrificial understanding of atonement such as Luther’s. The highly convoluted arguments of this book end up in roughly the same place as my Sunday School teacher.

The French thinker René Girard is very helpful in helping us deal with this troubling story. He theorizes that since the dawn of humanity, societies have dealt with systemic conflict through uniting against a victim who is blamed for the crisis. This initial act of mob violence, repeated time and again was institutionalized into rites of sacrifice. Children were frequently among the victims. The Maya, for example, thought that the children’s tears would bring much-needed rain. This social factor is a startling contrast to the narrative of Abraham where he and Isaac are alone save for a pair of servants. Girard would have us see Abraham’s dilemma in terms of his surrounding culture where everybody else was sacrificing their children so that it seemed the religious thing to do. For Girard, God breaks through the collective so that Abraham, as an individual hears God’s true desire, not as an individual genius, but as a human related both to God and to Isaac and the many offspring in faith that he would beget through Isaac. So Girard also agrees with my Sunday school teacher.

When Paul says: “Therefore, do not let sin exercise dominion in your mortal bodies, to make you obey their passions” (Rom 6: 12) we tend to understand these words as lone individuals each struggling against our sinful hangups. But for Paul, the dominion of sin is the human culture that perpetuates itself through collective murder and sacrifice. This is the Gospel story Paul preached: not a story about individuals who sin, but a society that swarms with violent passion in troubled times. Such as our own time. This is why the end of sin is death. Literally.

Before the movers and shakers and the crowd coalesced to put Jesus to death, Jesus told us that; “whoever gives even a cup of cold water to one of these little ones in the name of a disciple—truly I tell you, none of these will lose their reward.” (Mt. 10: 42) Simple. It doesn’t take a professor with several degrees to understand it. And yet, the “little ones,” not just children but vulnerable people in many inner cities, do not get a cup of water that is not dangerously contaminated. Flint, Michigan is everywhere. This is the power of sin’s dominion that holds society in thrall. Jesus is telling us, as God told Abraham, that we should not sacrifice our “little ones,” but we should nurture them. Like Abraham, we have to move out of the crowd that continues to sacrifice children and then regather with those who will bring drinkable water to those who need it. My Sunday school teacher got it right.

See also: Abraham out on Highway 61

For an extensive discussion on the story, including the quote from Martin Luther, see:

Girardian Reflections on the Lectionary, Proper 8, Year A

For an introduction to René Girard, see: Violence and the Kingdom of God

and Living Stones in the House of the Forgiving Victim

 

The Holy Spirit as a Divine Person who Inspires and Fosters Love

White_Doves_at_the_Blue_Mosque_(5778806606)The Holy Spirit is the most obscure of the three Persons of the Trinity, not that the other Persons aren’t mysterious as well. One reason is that the Son is said to show the Father, and the Holy Spirit is said to show the Son, but that leaves nobody to show the Holy Spirit. So obscure is the Holy Spirit that it is difficult to think of the Holy Spirit as a Person at all. It is not uncommon to hear the Holy Spirit referred to as “it,” although both masculine and feminine pronouns also fall far short of the Holy Spirit’s personhood.

It is easier to sense some personhood for the Father and the Son because their relationship is defined by filiation, that is, the Father begetting the Son has a personal analogy in human experience. But the Holy Spirit’s relationship to the other Divine Persons is through spiration, that is breathing. We think of breath as a human function rather than a person in his or her own right. The Holy Spirit is often called the “Bond of Love” between the Father and the Son. This is a beautiful phrase but again, it doesn’t give the Holy Spirit a personality. If we say two people are bonded in love, we think of the bond as something between the two people, not a third person.

Since it is a sure thing that the Holy Spirit is a Person, however obscure, and however mysterious, then perhaps we can take these rather impersonal images and analogies and personalize them.

The Holy Spirit as breath, the Person spirated, or breathed, by the Father and the Son is associated with inspiration. The Holy Spirits’s inspiration in its gentler form is symbolized by a dove in scripture, most importantly at Jesus’ baptism, where the image accompanies the heavenly voice acclaiming Jesus as the Son of the heavenly Abba. At Pentecost, the Holy Spirit appears as flames of fire inspiring the disciples to preach in the languages of the pilgrims from foreign countries. In all this, we have, again, impersonal images, except insofar as birds can show some elements of personality. In all this, however, we can see the Holy Spirit revealed as a Divine Person who inspires and energizes. In fact, the Holy Spirit inspires by distributing various gifts to various people, enhancing both the individuality of people and our connectedness as we exchange these inspired gifts to each other. Through this exchange of gifts, we can inspire others with our insights and enthusiasms. We can think of the inspiring teachers and preachers who have energized us to spread that same enthusiasm and inspiration to others. This is what the Holy Spirit does.

The Holy Spirit as the bond of love between the Father and the Son can also be understood in a personal way. That is, the Holy Spirit is a Person who actively encourages love between other people. Humans can act as such a bond of love. Friar Lawrence plays such a role in Romeo and Juliette. In South Pacific, Bloody Mary encourages the love between Col. Talbot and the Polynesian woman in the song “Happy Talk,” while Col. Talbot himself struggles with his racist heritage in “Carefully Taught.” As these go-betweens try to help lovers overcome obstacles (scandals), so the Holy Spirit encourages all of us to overcome all obstacles to loving relationships.

In the Upper Room, Jesus breathes the Holy Spirit into the apostles and then commissions them to spread forgiveness to other people. (Jn. 20: 23) (I don’t think Jesus wants us to retain the sins of others.) Here we have the Holy Spirit as the Person who inspires, encourages, forgives, and reconciles. In all of these acts, the Holy Spirit remains hidden, showing other people to us and us to other people. At the same time, the Holy Spirit shows us the Son in other people and shows the Son in us to others. If we wish to really honor and celebrate the Holy Spirit, we, too, will go and inspire, encourage, forgive, and reconcile others.

The Still Small Voice of the Good Shepherd

lambsThe Good Shepherd is a reassuring image. The shepherd is in charge and the sheep follow the shepherd’s guidance. When thieves and robbers and wolves come to threaten the sheep, the shepherd deals with them in no uncertain terms. Jesus’ claim to be the gate, the way in and out of the fold, gives us another reassuring image: some of us are in and certain other people are out, just the way it should be.

But in my reflections on John 10 from a year ago, I noted that the Good Shepherd is the Lamb of God who lays down his life for the sheep. With this realization, the hierarchical picture breaks down. The Good Shepherd is not above the sheep but is one of the sheep. Whereas even the most compassionate and conscientious shepherds end up eating or sacrificing the sheep, Jesus shares the fate of the sheep by becoming the Paschal Lamb in place of the sheep.

The Lamb of God is also an odd gate. Rather than keeping the lambs inside, he leads the lambs in and out with so much movement that the idea of there being a gated sheepfold ceases to make sense. Rather than keeping the bandits and robbers away, Jesus lays down his life for the flock when the bandits attack. If Jesus is the gate, than his willingness to lay down his life is the way in to this abundant pasture for all who would join his flock.

In an essay on the Eucharistic Christ, James Alison explores these paradoxes with great insight. After taking us through stages where we fixate on the bad shepherds and feel righteous about identifying and hating them, Alison takes us to a stage where the fixations fall away:

There is no definitive inside and outside for the Good Shepherd, there are places of shelter and of feeding, different places to which the door gives access, and which presuppose movement, non-fixity, and confidence in being neither in nor out. It is assumed that the best feeding place might not be one that seems to be “in,” yet the good shepherd is able to make that place available to his sheep.

The mixup that Alison envisages reaches the point where we are all sheep and all wolves, not in a negative sense where each of us supposedly good people find the wolf within, but rather a recreation of abundant life where nobody needs to be a sheep who is devoured or sacrificed or a wolf who does the devouring and sacrificing. This is where our baptism into the death of Jesus leads us further into the abundant life of Jesus.

It is in the space of this abundant life that we hear the true voice of the Good Shepherd as the Lamb of God, which Alison suggests is the still small voice that Elijah heard in the wilderness. When we hear this still small voice, the strident voices of bandits are drowned out and our own voices can take on the same stillness that others need to hear.

On Entering Jesus’ Baptism

HolyWater1When we dip our fingers in a holy water stoup as a reminder of our baptism, how much do we really remember? Do we stop to think that the water is as explosive as the bread we receive at the Eucharist?

John baptizing people with water at the River Jordan seems idyllic if we overlook John’s warnings to flee the wrath to come and the axe poised to chop down the tree of our lives; all this to prepare the way for the one who comes to baptize with fire to burn away the chaff. The baptism of Jesus seems much gentler in that Jesus did not need to be cleansed of sins and vices like the rest of us and so didn’t need to be saved from a wrathful response from God. But this peaceful event becomes dramatic when a voice from Heaven declares Jesus to be God’s son with whom God is well pleased. Whatever Jesus is going to baptize people with, it won’t be fire burning up the chaff.

At the end of his life, the baptism with which Jesus is baptized turns out to be his suffering and death on a cross. This makes it clear that we did not need to be baptized to ward off the wrath of God, but to ward off human wrath. What we needed was to be delivered from the wrath in our own hearts that led us to join the persecutors of Jesus. This is what Paul was getting at in his epistles, when he wrote of baptism as a passage through the death of Jesus into Jesus’ resurrection. The passage of baptism, then, is a passage into death to our own wrath, then unto the flood of the wrath of other humans which was inflicted on Jesus, and ending in a new resurrected life without wrath.

The acclamation of Jesus’ heavenly Abba becomes all the more significant in retrospect as it gave Jesus the loving encouragement to go through his own baptism. When we follow Jesus in our baptism, we also begin with the encouragement of the voice from Heaven that we are beloved of God. Far from being driven to flee God’s wrath, we are invited by love to enter the cleansing water so as to participate in God’s affirming love, a love that will sustain us when we struggle with our own wrath and suffer the wrath of others.

That’s a lot to think about when we dip our fingers into a holy water stoup.