Monday, August 20, 2018

On Transubstantiation

'Jesus said, “I am the living bread that came down from heaven. Whoever eats of this bread will live forever; and the bread that I will give for the life of the world is my flesh.”

The Jews then disputed among themselves, saying, “How can this man give us his flesh to eat?” So Jesus said to them, “Very truly, I tell you, unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink his blood, you have no life in you. Those who eat my flesh and drink my blood have eternal life, and I will raise them up on the last day; for my flesh is true food and my blood is true drink. Those who eat my flesh and drink my blood abide in me, and I in them. Just as the living Father sent me, and I live because of the Father, so whoever eats me will live because of me. This is the bread that came down from heaven, not like that which your ancestors ate, and they died. But the one who eats this bread will live forever.”'
--John 6: 51-58

Let’s unpack one of the most difficult passages in all of the Gospels, shall we?  How difficult is it?  So difficult that next week—yes, we’ve got one more week of this Bread of Life stuff—many of Jesus’ own followers will abandon him because, they say, it’s too hard for them to understand.  Well, we don't shy away from the hard stuff. So let's dig in! 

The language that Jesus uses about eating his flesh and drinking his blood might sound familiar because it reflects the language we use at the altar in our prayer before sharing Holy Communion—or Holy Eucharist, or the Great Thanksgiving, or the Mass, or the Lord’s Supper, whatever you want to call it.  Take, eat, this is my body; drink this all of you, this is my blood.  The Gospel of John is unique in that it doesn’t have a story of Jesus saying these words at the Last Supper with his disciples—something that Matthew, Mark, and Luke all have and that Paul even recounts in his First Letter to the Corinthians—but this moment, the Bread of Life discourse that follows the feeding of the 5000, serves the same purpose.  If you are to be full participants with me, Jesus is saying, you must eat my flesh and drink my blood.  The point being made is the same one that he gives in the Last Supper, the same one we recount each time we share Communion together.  

But here is where the teaching gets difficult, the piece that drives some of those followers to leave.  Many in that crowd that day heard Jesus say eat my flesh and drink my blood and thought CANNIBALISM!  One of the most common criticisms of early Christians, which set them up against virtually every other faith-based group, was that folks thought they were actual cannibals.  "They eat flesh and drink blood," others whispered.  That belief stuck with most non-Christians until the 4th century when Christianity came out of the shadows and was declared the official religion of the Roman Empire.  But there still remained a lingering question:  if Jesus wasn't talking about literal cannibalism, what then was he talking about?  The church’s answer was a doctrine we call transubstantiation.  Stay with me now (especially if you're a Protestant)!

I suspect most of us have at least heard the term, but there is a good chance that we don’t fully understand its meaning or that what we think we know is actually incorrect.  Since the 2nd century, with works such as the Didache—which is the earliest non-biblical Christian text and something of a proto prayer book—and the writings of Justin Martyr and St. Ignatius of Antioch, Christians affirmed that Jesus was present in the bread and wine of Communion.  It was just a given fact about the faith. But, it wasn’t until an argument between two monks in the 9th century named Radburtus and Ratramnus—yes, those are their real names—that the question of how exactly Jesus’ presence was possible came to the forefront of Christian conversations.  

Radburtus and Ratramnus....maybe.

Radburtus said that Jesus actually replaced the bread and wine, while Ratramnus said that he was only figuratively in present.  So the church dug deeper into this question. By the time of the Great Schism in the 11th century, the term transubstantiation was in full use.  The doctrine was born out of the predominant worldviews of the time, particularly how people thought about matter.  Those thoughts could be traced back to Aristotle, who, as you may recall, declared that all matter is composed of two characteristics:  its accidents and its substance.  Accidents are outward signs that help us recognize a person or object, but these outward signs can be changed; for example, eye color, hair length, or height.  Substance, on the other hand, cannot be changed and is the thing that we cannot see, that which is deep down at the core that makes a person or a thing who or what they are, like the soul.  Accidents change, but substance does not. This was a very common, normal thing that everyone understood. The miracle of Communion, therefore, is that the opposite happens, and it is the substance that is changed.  In our prayer, through the participation of both the priest and people and with the power of the Holy Spirit, the substance of the bread and wine are changed into that of Jesus, while the accidents remain the same, turning the natural order of matter on its head.  In other words, we are still beholding the accidents of bread and wine (the look, the taste, the smell), but rather than taking in the substance of bread and wine we are taking in the substance of Jesus himself  That is transubstantiation, the changing of one's substance, and to affirm that doctrine is to affirm an active engagement with the living Christ in this Sacrament.

For our Roman Catholic and Orthodox brothers and sisters, this doctrine is a firmly held piece of their faith, as well as for many Episcopalians, even though  the Episcopal Church does not officially use the word transubstantiation and instead, like Justin and Ignatius, simply affirms Jesus’ real presence in Holy Communion without having a dogmatic why for how that presence is conveyed—how very quaint and Anglican  of us!  Still, there are some churches born out of the Protestant Reformation that not only vehemently oppose the doctrine, but have gone so far as to demonize and viciously persecute those Christians who have held to it.  In England alone some 300 individuals were killed for practicing Catholicism from 1534-1681, and even today there are members of the Body of Christ who believe that those of us who believe Jesus is actually in the meal—rather than simply seeing it as a memorial—are promoting a form of cannibalism.  It’s sad. It's a complete misunderstanding of transubstantiation.  And it's not what Jesus is teaching in his Gospel. 

Saint John Southworth, an English Roman Catholic priest killed in 1654 (my wife's great-great-great-great-great-uncle)

From the earliest days of our faith, followers of Jesus heard these words about flesh and blood and knew them to be connected to the practice of Holy Communion.  John's own community would've been steeped in the practice of Communion, seeing as how this Gospel is written some 70 years after Jesus' Resurrection.  They knew, as we do still, the significance of calling this meal Communion, for it is in this meal that we commune with Jesus himself, which is why Christians have been participating in this Sacrament, this sacred meal, for 2000 years.  

If we know anything about John's community and the Gospel it produced, we know that it does not use any of its words haphazardly. When we dig deeper ourselves and do a little biblical scholarship, we can see just how important active participation with Jesus really is in the Bread of Life discourse. Looking  back over the last three weeks we see that the dominant verb within the discourse has been “believe,”a verb that does not imply actual, active participation.  "Believe in me," is Jesus' response when the crowd asks what they must do, for example.  But that changes here, where the dominant verbs are “eat” and “drink,” and "abide," action verbs, which call the people into an active participation with Jesus.  It is not enough to believe that he is the bread of life, we must participate in the bread of life.  It is not enough to believe Jesus' flesh is true food and his blood true drink, we must participate in them. And how do we do that?  We do it through the Sacrament, where his substance, his life, mingles with our own. 

Putting on our biblical scholars' hats again we notice something significant in Jesus' intentional instruction to drink his blood. By calling his followers to drink his blood Jesus is using an old Jewish metaphor that goes all the way back to the 9th chapter of Genesis; that is, that the blood of a creature represents its very life-force.  This is why Jews are forbidden to ingest the blood of an animal, for to do so would be to mingle their lives with that of the animal.  And so Jesus, using that metaphor and changing his verbiage is inviting the people there in Capernaum, and indeed us as well, to actively participate, by coming to the table and eating the bread of heaven and drinking from the cup of salvation, wherein we take in his very substance, his very nature, mingling his life, his flesh and blood, with our own.  This is not to say that those who do not receive Communion cannot possibly know and love Jesus, but partaking of this holy meal binds us to Jesus in a unique way, and it is in this active participation that we abide in Jesus and he in us.  As the Prayer of Humble Access reminds us:  

"Grant us, therefore, gracious Lord, so to eat the flesh of thy Son Jesus Christ and to drink his blood, that we may evermore dwell in him and he in us."
--Book of Common Prayer, p. 338 

Believing is important, but participation is what Jesus calls us into, participation in a relationship with him that begins in the waters of our baptism which graft us onto the Body of Christ, that is renewed each time we take in the body and blood of Christ in Communion with him, and that is continued each and everyday as we work together with Christ and one another to build up the Kingdom of God.  
Perhaps you learned something about transubstantiation today that you didn't know before.  Maybe you'll share that knowledge the next time someone gets their facts wrong on the subject!  Regardless of where you stand on that doctrine, however, I pray that whenever you commune with our Lord in that sacred meal, that you will feel his presence mingle with your own, strengthening you to go and proclaim his Good News of hope and salvation to this broken world.  Saint Ignatius called Holy Communion "the medicine of immortality."  It is indeed that, for it is the Great Physician himself who invites us to the table to meet him and abide with him in this blessed Sacrament. 

Monday, August 6, 2018

Not a Cosmic Vending Machine

'The next day, when the people who remained after the feeding of the five thousand saw that neither Jesus nor his disciples were there, they themselves got into the boats and went to Capernaum looking for Jesus.

When they found him on the other side of the sea, they said to him, “Rabbi, when did you come here?” Jesus answered them, “Very truly, I tell you, you are looking for me, not because you saw signs, but because you ate your fill of the loaves. Do not work for the food that perishes, but for the food that endures for eternal life, which the Son of Man will give you. For it is on him that God the Father has set his seal.” Then they said to him, “What must we do to perform the works of God?” Jesus answered them, “This is the work of God, that you believe in him whom he has sent.” So they said to him, “What sign are you going to give us then, so that we may see it and believe you? What work are you performing? Our ancestors ate the manna in the wilderness; as it is written, ‘He gave them bread from heaven to eat.’” Then Jesus said to them, “Very truly, I tell you, it was not Moses who gave you the bread from heaven, but it is my Father who gives you the true bread from heaven. For the bread of God is that which comes down from heaven and gives life to the world.” They said to him, “Sir, give us this bread always.”

Jesus said to them, “I am the bread of life. Whoever comes to me will never be hungry, and whoever believes in me will never be thirsty.”'
--John 6: 24-35

Following the miraculous Feeding of the Multitude from last week, we enter a section of the sixth chapter of the Gospel of John that we call the Bread of Life Discourse.  We can’t really begin to talk about the Bread of Life, though, without recapping where we were a week ago.  Through the faith of a young boy who offers his five loaves and two fish Jesus manages to feed a crowd of 5000 people out in the desert.  You might think that Jesus would take a moment to bask in the accomplishment, but if you remember last week’s Gospel, he heads to the other side of the sea under the cover of darkness and does so by walking on the water—I guess grabbing a boat would have drawn attention.  He does the deed, and then he moves on.  Our modern, celebrity-obsessed culture would not take so kindly to Jesus’ insistence on being so discreet!  

Not that much has changed, as that crowd was also rather obsessed with this particular celebrity in their own day, and so they chase after him, eventually catching up to Jesus on the other side of the sea in the town of Capernaum, which is where we pick up the story today.  Picture, if you will, that you are part of that crowd.  You have just witnessed something that is beyond explanation.  Each and everyday you and your family and friends experience real, painful hunger, and you have just seen a man feed more people than the population of Capernaum itself!  How might you react to him?  Would you try to get him to come back and stay in your town across the sea?  Like, forever, so that he can make sure you and your family never go without food ever again?  Would you try to get him to help with other problems in your life—a sick parent or lack of income?  Or perhaps overthrow the local politician and establish a better government?  If you find yourself agreeing with this questions then you have an idea of what is going on for that crowd when they finally catch up to Jesus.

When they find Jesus, the first thing they ask is:  “When did you come here?”  In other words, "When did you leave us?"  They’re persistent in tracking Jesus down, having tried the day before to make him king after he looked like he could be a perpetual food supplier.  Yet their persistence is misplaced, even self-serving, and Jesus knows that and calls them out on it.  They are preoccupied with the literal loaves and fish, the food that has just perished, and they’re looking for Jesus for all the wrong reasons.  Their primary motivation for going across the sea to find him is that they want him to do for them exactly what they want, and what they want is more bread for their hunger.  They want Jesus the Cosmic Vending Machine!  But Jesus points out to them that while satisfying their physical hunger is important—after all, he did feed all of them—they must not let that be their driving force.  The desire to satisfy an earthly need, even one as basic as hunger, should not be what compels a person to seek out Jesus. For this crowd, however, the appetites of this world, the desire to get more and more of those things that wither away, motivates their actions, and if they can get Jesus to do some more miracles he can satisfy all of those needs.  Show us some more miracles, Jesus, and fix all of our problems for us!  And while Jesus’ miracles are extraordinary deeds that rectify the situations of those in need, the results are not lasting unless the miracles are also perceived as signs pointing to something deeper and longer lasting than the satisfaction of earthly needs.  Much more so than the physical, Jesus is here to satisfy their spiritual hunger and show them the works of God.

NOT how Jesus works!

OK, they can get behind that.  So what must we do, they ask, to perform those works?  Again, their concern is surface level, it’s self-serving.  They only want to know how to perform the works of God in order to please Jesus, hoping that he will then do for them whatever they wish.  They are like modern church-goers who just want the preacher to tell them what to do so that they can make Jesus happy in order to get their Get Out of Hell Free Card, again treating Jesus like that Cosmic Vending Machine that’s there just to satisfy them. However, instead of giving them an explicit thing to do Jesus tells them that performing the works of God means believing in him; that is, paying attention to him, emulating his actions, and listening to his words.  If they can allow God through Jesus to break down their misconceptions of how the whole of existence functions, then they will be performing the works of God.  

This is where the crowd gets anxious.  Their hunger has returned, and it's clear Jesus is not going to just give them what they want.  So they ask what they must do to perform God's works, hoping if they do those things he will give them the thing for which they ask.  He tells them to believe in him.  Fine!  What signs, they ask, can Jesus give them so that they may believe??  Seriously?  Were they not just paying attention?!  He just fed 5000 people!!  But that’s the power of their earthly hunger, the power of the Gospel of scarcity that they have preached to themselves.  So they resort to Scripture, telling Jesus that Moses, after all, fed the people everyday with manna, gave them just enough to survive, so surely, Jesus can do that, can’t he?!  Jesus once again doesn't bite and instead puts on his biblical scholar’s hat and reinterprets this passage that they have obviously taken out of context. Jesus points out that Moses didn’t give it to them, God did, and what’s more, Jesus intentionally changes the tense of the verb from ‘gave’ to ‘gives,’ reflecting to them that God is a present reality, still giving freely and without limit.  God still satisfies the needs of every living creature, but the hunger that they need to be satisfied is deeper than that, so God has given them Jesus himself to be their bread.  By the end of today’s passage any ambiguity is gone:  Jesus is not like bread, Jesus IS the Bread of Life, the one who can satisfy their deepest hunger.  But they remain confused, which is why our Sunday lectionary stays with the Bread of Life discourse for the next four weeks!

We might look at this exchange between Jesus and the crowd, and through the lens of time and with hindsight wonder how they didn’t believe him.  But that’s how strong their earthly hunger was and how loud they preached the Gospel of scarcity.  To be fair, those same hungers are felt, and that same Gospel is preached today. The world dangles all sorts of things at us, taunting us, telling us that we NEED this or that in order to survive, and if we don't get more and more we will run out and ultimately die.  We become like a kitten pawing after a piece of yarn, but even if we catch the whole ball, it will eventually unravel, and then what are we left with?  Nothing!  That's when our temporal appetites become so insatiable that we get desperate to satisfy them—with physical food (like the folks in the Gospel today), with money, with drugs, alcohol, and lust.  Give us these remedies, and all will be well, and we will be satisfied!  

What we forget is that the longing we feel is not shaped like any of those things, but rather it is shaped like God.  Augustine of Hippo, himself a sufferer of earthly physical hunger, tried to satisfy himself with one of those aforementioned remedies:  lust.  He came back to it over and over again, famously praying once, "Lord, save me from temptation, but not yet!"  Eventually, though, he found himself literally face down in the mud and came to realize that only God could fill the void in his being.  The crowd that day in Capernaum wanted Jesus to do something for them, to fill their void with whatever they asked, but Jesus doesn’t play that game.  He is NOT a Cosmic Vending Machine that we come to from time to time to get a snack that will satisfy us.  He doesn't do what we want so long as we punch in the right code!  What he offers is deeper than that, it is a relationship that truly does save us.  He is the Bread not of mere sustenance, but the Bread of Life.  Such Bread saves us from the lies that our consumerist culture tells us, that we NEED this or that to make our lives meaningful, and it saves us from that Gospel of scarcity that says we need more and more.  It saves us from believing that our salvation lies in anything out there except our all loving, all knowing, and all powerful God!  We are no different, brothers and sisters, than that crowd who wanted Jesus to stay with them just so he could feed them bread and fish everyday because they thought that’s what would satisfy them, what they needed, in spite of the fact that what would really satisfy them was standing right in front of them.

Augstine of Hippo, a man who knew earthly hunger very well.

But while our earthly appetites rage, he is still standing there in front of us, inviting us into relationship with him.  No, the remedy he offers will not satisfy us the way those other things will.  His remedy, his very self, unlike those others, is not a quick fix, but a life-long, life-changing experience.  At the Eucharistic table we meet him in bread and wine made holy, and we mortals taste the bread of angels.  That table prepares us to meet him in the world, and with every day and every person we meet the opportunity is there to re-enter into that experience with him.  As you head into the rat race of your day-to-day lives this week, into that consumerist culture that will preach that scarcity Gospel, may you see him inviting you into that relationship, that experience, in the face of the poor, in the laugh of a child, in the beauty of creation, and in that moment may you taste the Bread of Life and know that every hunger that you have ever known can and will be filled by him, and may you be satisfied. 

Monday, July 30, 2018

There Is Always Enough

How many of you remember playing Musical Chairs or the card game Spoons? he Do you know what both of those games have in common?  They're both based around the principle of scarcity. In Musical Chairs you've got several chairs set up in a circular pattern, the music plays, you and your friends walk or dance around the chairs, and when the music stops you try to find a chair to sit in, only there's always one less chair than there are folks playing, so someone always ends up without a chair, and if you're that someone, then you're out.  In Spoons you and several others dig through a bunch of cards in an attempt to get four of a kind.  If you succeed you pick up a spoon, but like Musical Chairs there's always one less spoon than people playing, so if you are out of luck and can't get a spoon, you're just plain out.  I find it somewhat ironic that we are entertained by games with the message that there is never enough for everyone, and children's games at that.

 Musical Chairs & Spoons.  Two games where there's never enough for everyone.

The very idea of scarcity is frightening, isn't it?  Think back to wintertime and the droves of people who raided the milk and bread aisles at the store.  How much could they actually need for such a relatively short period?  It doesn't really matter, though, because the fear of not having enough is what drove folks to stock up on way more than was necessary.  We do it with food, with money, with jobs, and all kinds of possessions that we are so afraid to lose.  We get way more than is necessary because we're afraid there won't be enough. The fear of not having enough, the fear of scarcity, is a powerful force.

The Gospel of Jesus Christ, however, is not a story of scarcity.  It should be, but it isn't.  Think about it:  we're told once that Jesus was a carpenter, but he never actually works in the Gospels, so what's his income?  It isn't coming from his apostles, either, because they all leave their jobs, and even their families, to follow after him.  They don't have homes, they just wander around--Jesus makes note of this when he comments that the Son of Man has no place to lay his head--and most days they don't even know where their next meal is going to come from, they just have to rely on someone inviting them to dinner, like Simon the Leper or Mary and Martha.  Put any of us in the same situation, with no income, no regular housing, no idea how we're going to feed ourselves, and we would freak out, wouldn't we?  We would be preaching a Gospel of scarcity, of fear of not having enough, but blessedly this is not the message of Jesus' Gospel.

The word Gospel comes from the Greek evangelion, which means 'Good News'.  A message of scarcity is not good news, but a message of abundance is.  The great irony of the Gospel of Jesus is that the story of a homeless, jobless, itinerant preacher is actually a story of the abundance of God's grace and love and mercy.  This past Sunday we heard one such piece of that story, which highlights the message of abundance conveyed by the Gospel.  That story is the feeding of the 5000.

'Jesus went to the other side of the Sea of Galilee, also called the Sea of Tiberias. A large crowd kept following him, because they saw the signs that he was doing for the sick. Jesus went up the mountain and sat down there with his disciples. Now the Passover, the festival of the Jews, was near. When he looked up and saw a large crowd coming toward him, Jesus said to Philip, “Where are we to buy bread for these people to eat?” He said this to test him, for he himself knew what he was going to do. Philip answered him, “Six months’ wages would not buy enough bread for each of them to get a little.” One of his disciples, Andrew, Simon Peter’s brother, said to him, “There is a boy here who has five barley loaves and two fish. But what are they among so many people?” Jesus said, “Make the people sit down.” Now there was a great deal of grass in the place; so they sat down, about five thousand in all. Then Jesus took the loaves, and when he had given thanks, he distributed them to those who were seated; so also the fish, as much as they wanted. When they were satisfied, he told his disciples, “Gather up the fragments left over, so that nothing may be lost.” So they gathered them up, and from the fragments of the five barley loaves, left by those who had eaten, they filled twelve baskets. When the people saw the sign that he had done, they began to say, “This is indeed the prophet who is to come into the world.”'
--John 6: 1-14

This is one of Jesus' most famous miracles, appearing in all four of the canonical Gospels.  The version in the Fourth Gospel, however, is a bit different.  Here we see two of Jesus' disciples--Philip and Andrew--assess the current situation from a place of scarcity.  They look upon the great crowd out there in the desert, and Philip comments that six months' wages wouldn't feed everyone.  Andrew points out that there is a boy with five loaves and two fish, but then he scoffs and pessimistically asks, "What are they among so many?"   Even those closest to Jesus can't help but be fearful of not having enough.  But you know who isn't fearful?  The boy.

A young boy brings what he has to Jesus.

He's only found in John's version of the story. This boy offers what he has, and he shares it, not only with Jesus but with the crowd as well.  This is the great miracle of this story, that out in the desert, tired and hungry, a single individual would be willing to share what he has for the sake of so large a community.  That kind of selflessness on behalf of a bunch of strangers is a true miracle!  The boy does not hoard what he has out of fear, like those who raid the milk and bread aisles.  He doesn't selfishly say, "Well, I guess the rest of you are just out of luck," like the kid playing Musical Chairs or Spoons.  This is the very definition of faithfulness:  bringing what we have to Jesus, offering it for the sake of others, and trusting that Jesus can and will use it.  The inclusion of the boy makes the sharing personal.  He is every person throughout history who has ever heard this story; he embodies Jesus' message of abundance and compels us to do the same because he is us.

That message that he embodies is that there is always enough, so long as we are willing to let what we already have pass through the hands of Jesus. Five loaves and two fish CAN feed 5000 people, not because Jesus performed a magic trick, but because the faith of a small child compelled that child  to give what he had to Jesus, and the result was that everyone was fed.  In our local community there are folks living into the witness of this boy, and our church plans to raise them up each week from now until Advent.  These local mission-outreach partners are doing all they can to offer what they have for the sake of others.  Two worth mentioning here are NetworX for Hope of Randolph County and Bread for the World.

NetworX began as an effort to address the issue of poverty in Randolph County, NC.  It consists of volunteers (called Allies), who give of their time to work with those in need (called Champions), helping them find holistic methods for addressing their needs, from joblessness to feeding their children.  It is only two years old, but already the effects are being seen in our community!

For more information on NetworX, click here .

Bread for the World is a national organization that seeks to raise awareness of hunger throughout the world by means of faith action, letter-writing campaigns, food drives, and local activism.  A chapter exists in Greensboro (about an half-hour away), and in September I hope to meet with local clergy here to get a chapter started for Randolph County.  

For more information on Bread for the World, click here .

I include these ministry partners of ours in this post to show that there are folks living into the example of that little boy--regular folks who look at the complex, harsh realities of issues such as poverty and hunger, and rather than be overwhelmed with fear or just throw money at the problem, they bring what they have to Jesus and meet the problems head-on with him.  And when that happens, miracles occur.

Brothers and sisters, do you realize that a miracle occurs in church every single week that takes the same form as the feeding of the 5000?  At our altars we take, bless, bread, and give ordinary bread and wine, pray together for them to be sanctified by the Holy Spirit, and then just a tiny piece of that bread and a little sip of that wine miraculously nourish us and fill us with Christ's grace.  This miracle of the Mass unites us to Christ and one another and gives us the strength to go out into the world to share his message of abundance.  If sharing just a little bread and wine can do that, imagine what we can do if, like that like that little boy, we shared our loaves of bread, our fish, our time, our resources with those who are in need, both stranger and friend alike.  Imagine what could happen if we focused less on the myth of scarcity and more on the truth of abundance, the truth that the hungry can be fed, the sick can be made well, and the poor can be given hope for their future if we are willing to let what we have pass through Jesus' hands and be offered for the sake of others.  If we could do that, well, that would be a miracle.

Miracles, it has been said, are not something that just happen, they're something that people make happen.  They happen when people put aside the fear of scarcity and embrace the abundance of Jesus' power to provide grace, mercy, and healing to this broken world.  And yes, it is broken, but it is not without hope.  Its hope lies in every person who steps out, like that little boy, and gives what they can on behalf of someone who is in need, offering the very things they are so afraid to lose.  That is the Good News, the Gospel, of Jesus.  It is a message of abundance because it is grounded in his abundant love, which is never, ever scarce, and never, ever runs out for anyone.  If we are willing to do our part and give what we've got to him, then through the power of his love there will always, always, be enough. 

Monday, July 16, 2018

The Beheading of John: A Warning With Good News

'King Herod heard of Jesus and his disciples, for Jesus’ name had become known. Some were saying, “John the baptizer has been raised from the dead; and for this reason these powers are at work in him.” But others said, “It is Elijah.” And others said, “It is a prophet, like one of the prophets of old.” But when Herod heard of it, he said, “John, whom I beheaded, has been raised.”
For Herod himself had sent men who arrested John, bound him, and put him in prison on account of Herodias, his brother Philip’s wife, because Herod had married her. For John had been telling Herod, “It is not lawful for you to have your brother’s wife.” And Herodias had a grudge against him, and wanted to kill him. But she could not, for Herod feared John, knowing that he was a righteous and holy man, and he protected him. When he heard him, he was greatly perplexed; and yet he liked to listen to him. But an opportunity came when Herod on his birthday gave a banquet for his courtiers and officers and for the leaders of Galilee. When his daughter Herodias came in and danced, she pleased Herod and his guests; and the king said to the girl, “Ask me for whatever you wish, and I will give it.” And he solemnly swore to her, “Whatever you ask me, I will give you, even half of my kingdom.” She went out and said to her mother, “What should I ask for?” She replied, “The head of John the baptizer.” Immediately she rushed back to the king and requested, “I want you to give me at once the head of John the Baptist on a platter.” The king was deeply grieved; yet out of regard for his oaths and for the guests, he did not want to refuse her. Immediately the king sent a soldier of the guard with orders to bring John’s head. He went and beheaded him in the prison, brought his head on a platter, and gave it to the girl. Then the girl gave it to her mother. When his disciples heard about it, they came and took his body, and laid it in a tomb.'
--Mark 6: 14-29

I have to admit that whenever this particular Gospel passage comes up on a Sunday morning I feel somewhat deceptive; after all, I proclaim before and after the reading that this is the Gospel of our Lord Jesus Christ, but there's no Jesus in the actual story!  As a matter of fact, this is the only passage of such length in any of the Gospels that does not immediately and directly focus on Jesus. What's more, it's not exactly a passage for which folks are anxious to hear a sermon or one on which most preachers are excited to preach.  Nevertheless, we do have it in our Sunday lectionary, which means there must be some kind of Good News in it.  So where are we to find that Good News?

An Eastern icon of the Beheading of John the Baptizer

Like the prophets of old--Amos, Jeremiah, and others--John the Baptizer was called to preach truth to power.  As those folks had preached to the kings of ancient Israel, John preached repentance to King Herod of Judea--well, technically Herod was a tetrarch, which was a local puppet-king installed by the Roman Empire, but let's ignore that for now.  Herod had married his sister-in-law, which was not ok, and John called him out on it.  As if that weren't enough, Herod also had nearly every political opponent, including male members of his own household, killed so that he could retain a grip on his power.  Odds are John let him have it over that, too.  Eventually John's preaching landed him in prison, but there was something about him that caused Herod, who could've had John killed at any moment, to let him live; in fact, we're told by Mark that Herod enjoyed listening to John's ramblings, even though they sometimes confused him.  Something about Herod wanted to keep John alive, but when the banquet comes where Herod is hob-knobbing with his political base, he makes the error of promising to give his daughter anything she desires.  When she asks for John's head Mark tells us that Herod is deeply grieved, but he does it anyway.  Why? In order to please the crowd.  He knows killing John is wrong, yet he abandons his own morals out of a sense of loyalty to the people gathered at the banquet, in order to maintain his position among his political base.  He knows that if he goes back on his word he will lose their favor, and so his own morality is tossed out the window for his own political gain. That decision haunts him every day, which is why he fears Jesus, thinking he is John raised from the dead.

Herod and his actions are a sort-of foreshadowing of another significant political figure in the Gospels, Pontius Pilate.  Mark places this story where he does to give us a parallel of the conflict that is to come between Jesus and Pilate, which carries with him many of the same defining factors of the conflict between John and Herod.  Like Herod, Pilate holds considerable political power as the Roman Governor of Judea, and just as Herod does not want to kill John, Pilate shows great hesitancy in crucifying Jesus, which is something that all four Gospels agree upon, even though they each have different versions of the story.  It is that hesitancy that eventually would lead Pilate to be regarded as a saint by some early churches, including the Ethiopian Orthodox Church!  But also like Herod, Pilate's own morality is betrayed in the name of personal, political gain.  If he releases Jesus he risks the crowd becoming an angry mob, word will get back to Rome that he can't control the people in his territory, and he'll likely lose his position of power.  To appease his base, Pilate, like Herod, sacrifices his morality.   Of course now things are different, right?  There's not a single public figure who would sacrifice their morals and conscience in the name of personal gain?  Not one!!

Just gonna leave this image here of folks whom I am sure would never betray their morals for personal gain.

 OK, we all know that's not true.  Still not just the people in positions of great power, is it?  It's not just the public figures who betray their morals for their own selfish desires.  This Gospel stands out and asks a hard question of each of us:  how often do we do the same thing?  How often do we feel the tug to forego our morals, to set aside what we know is truly meet and right so to do, for the sake of pleasing others, maintaining the status quo, or satisfying a personal desire?

I wonder what it is that compels us to set aside those morals for the sake of gain.  We could say the devil made us do it, but that can be something of a cop out.  It is, however, appropriate to name that temptation for what it is:  sin.  It is sinful behavior for us to lay aside our conscience--that thing that John Henry Newman said was the voice of God within us--for the purpose of satisfying our own selfish and self-centered longings, particularly when they wound others.  But where from inside of ourselves does that sin originate?  For this we turn to the epistle reading from this past Sunday:

'Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, who has blessed us in Christ with every spiritual blessing in the heavenly places, just as he chose us in Christ before the foundation of the world to be holy and blameless before him in love. He destined us for adoption as his children through Jesus Christ, according to the good pleasure of his will, to the praise of his glorious grace that he freely bestowed on us in the Beloved. In him we have redemption through his blood, the forgiveness of our trespasses, according to the riches of his grace that he lavished on us. With all wisdom and insight he has made known to us the mystery of his will, according to his good pleasure that he set forth in Christ, as a plan for the fullness of time, to gather up all things in him, things in heaven and things on earth. In Christ we have also obtained an inheritance, having been destined according to the purpose of him who accomplishes all things according to his counsel and will, so that we, who were the first to set our hope on Christ, might live for the praise of his glory. In him you also, when you had heard the word of truth, the gospel of your salvation, and had believed in him, were marked with the seal of the promised Holy Spirit; this is the pledge of our inheritance toward redemption as God's own people, to the praise of his glory.'
--Ephesians 1: 3-14

The writer notes how God has given so many blessings to humanity--redemption, forgiveness, wisdom, and faith, to name a few, as well as an inheritance in Jesus Christ that, according to verse 6 in the letter, carries with it the responsibility to praise God's glory in all things and for all things.  That is the central responsibility for Christians, according to this letter.  If we are to praise God in all things and for all things and at all times, then this must mean that humanity is utterly dependent upon God and God alone.  It is God who accomplishes all things in us, which may seem like an assault on our Western notions of independence and autonomy--and would certainly aggravate the powerful men in the picture above-- but that is what it means to share in the inheritance of Christ.  As the Ephesians are being reminded of this fact, we can clearly see that men like Herod and Pilate did not get the memo.  For folks like them, their dependency is not on God but on their statues, on their appearance, on holding on to all the things they fear to lose, especially their power and privilege, and they will do anything to retain their power and privilege, even if it means betraying their own conscience.  Jiminy Crickett said to always let your conscience be your guide, right?  The moments when we forget that we are utterly dependent on God and forget to let our conscience, the voice of God, be our guide, are the moments when that sin takes hold and we manage to convince ourselves that it's perfectly fine to sacrifice our morals for personal desire or gain. When this letter and Gospel passage are put side-by-side, we can clearly see the message, like one of those old anti-drug posters:  if you want to share in the inheritance of Jesus don't be a loser like Herod! 

Just replace the kid in the box with Herod and "take drugs" with "betray their morals" and you've got the point.

Here, then, is the Good News for us today.  In a world filled with Herods, with men and women who betray their conscience and sacrifice their morality on the altar of personal gain, may we have the grace to remember that everything we have, and everything we are, comes from God, and that it is God alone on whom we are dependent, not ourselves, and certainly not our status or appearance.  May we have the grace to listen to our conscience, to let it be our guide when it says, "Hey!  You may not want to do this or say that because it will hurt others and haunt you."  And lastly, may we have the grace to--in the words of that great sage Master Yoda---"let go of everything we fear to lose,"especially our power and privilege.  For when we can let them go and hold fast to that grace we can truly listen to the voice of God and share in the inheritance of Christ. 

We shoulda listened to this guy!