May 26, 2009

Apokatastasis and the Birthday of the Church

by Jessie Larkins
Acts 2:1-21; Romans 8:22-27; John 15: 26-27, 16: 4b-15 (Pentecost Sunday)

One of the first things that I remember learning as a seminary student in my introductory class on Church history was the word, apokatastasis. The word, which is Greek, most simply means “the end will be like the beginning” and is most commonly used to refer to the idea of a universal restoration of creation. At the time, we first year students cataloged this word away along with a long litany of other doctrines and heresies that comprised the first 1400 years of church history, ready to proudly (if not arrogantly) pull it out alongside other useful information such as the meaning of communicato idiomatum, why Augustine really stole those pears, and the gruesome tale of Abelard’s castration at the next party to show just how enlightened we were. I hardly think that any of us at the time assumed these words and stories would have any relevance for the day-in, day-out life of parish work in any church we’d ever serve. Yet as I read these lectionary texts for Pentecost Sunday, it seems to me like the word apokatastasis speaks directly to what is happening in Jerusalem some 50 days following the Resurrection. It is a word that the 21st century Church might do well to recover.

I fully recognize all of the baggage that accompanies the revival of such a term for the Church today. After all, several early Church fathers (Origen, for example) were condemned as heretics for their interpretation of the idea. Others may assume that I am suggesting a doctrine of universal salvation, a doctrine not well received among most Christians today. The difficulties of those interpretations aside, what I would like to suggest is happening at Pentecost is nothing less than that the possibility of apokatasatsis is born into the world through the giving of the Holy Spirit to the Church. Pentecost, as the completion of the Resurrection event, is about re-birth and new creation becoming possible in the lives of ordinary folks like you and me. Pentecost is when God makes possible, through the empowerment of a small group of back-water Galileans, the shalom of the original creation.

The festival of Pentecost for which the community was gathered was indeed a harvest festival celebrating God’s abundance and provision. Yet it was also the festival at which Israel celebrated the renewal of the Covenant, a covenant that began when God promised to Abram that through his offspring, “all the families of the world would be blessed” (Gen 12:1-3). Moving backwards from there is the Pentecostal reversal of the events at Babel (Gen 11)—a reunification of all humanity symbolized by the re-unification of language across the nations that were scattered and confused. Though our modern ears hardly hear the list of nations in Acts 2:9-11 as a comprehensive list, for the first readers of this passage, that list would have symbolized the entirety of the known world listed from East to West (with Jerusalem at the center), a sign that the gospel would indeed reach the “ends of the earth” and this new creation was for all people in all places. At Pentecost, moreover, there is the celebration and acknowledgement of the goodness of diversity; a diversity that has, since the expulsion from Eden, caused division and strife, rather than praise for what is possible when diverse perspectives and gifts—all named good by God—are seen as gift.

The “So What?” of all of this for the contemporary Church is that through the Holy Spirit working in us and among us (and sometimes in spite of us) we are for the world a sign and foretaste of the possibility of apokatastasis. We are for those with no hope, a sign of hope—a sign that things don’t have to be the way they are now; a sign of peace and reconciliation among diverse nations, races, languages, and economic groups. We are those called to witness to the truth that God’s Spirit and the newness of life that comes with it is for “all flesh.” This hope is seen in little ways in the daily lives of each of our congregations—in our outreach and mission, in our hospitality, in our stewardship, and in our worship. In peace and praise, in loving our enemies, in our care of the natural world, in our giving and sharing, we represent for the world that God’s original intent for human community and for the world has been made possible once more through the Resurrection of Jesus from the dead. Apokatastasis.

As we celebrate the birthday of the Church this weekend, we give thanks for the newness of life that has been given to us through the power of the Holy Spirit among us. Yet we are challenged by this same celebration to ask ourselves if our congregational witness is to the possibility of apokatastasis—the hope that the new creation is not only possible in some great future, but that in us, that great future can be experienced today in the real and physical world in which we live. Pentecost is an opportunity to renew the vision and mission of a church. The question we must ask ourselves is if our vision is big enough to encompass the entirety of creation in God’s unending grace and peace.


May 23, 2009

Shall We Gather?

by Brian Volck
While we hope you’ve already made plans to attend the Ekklesia Project Summer Gathering, “Wealth and the Household of God,” the practice of hospitality demands we mention upcoming gatherings of these friends of EP:

Bridgefolk, August 21-24
“Between Memory and Hope: Bridgefolk at Ten Years”

Jesus Radicals, August 14-15
“New Heaven, New Earth: Anarchism and Christianity Beyond Empire”

Christian Peacemaker Teams/Peacemaker Congress X, Sep. 17-20
“Restoring Balance: Peace Through Right Relationships”

If you know of other gatherings or conferences of interest to EP endorsers, please share the wealth.


May 19, 2009

Dan Brown's America

From the New York Times: The movie treatment of his novel, “Angels and Demons,” is cleaning up at the box office this week. The sequel to “The DaVinci Code,” due out in November, might buoy the publishing industry through the recession. And if you want to understand the state of American religion, you need to understand why so many people love Dan Brown. Read More


Ascension Politics

by Debra Dean Murphy
Acts 1:1-11; Psalm 47; Ephesians 1:15-23; Luke 24:44-53 (The Feast of the Ascension)

St. Augustine considered the Feast of the Ascension the crown of all Christian festivals. Today we may give it an obligatory nod as we make our way liturgically from Easter to Pentecost, but we’re often not quite sure what to do with it theologically, pastorally, exegetically. The clunky literalism routinely inspired by the Luke-Acts vision of the ascension—Jesus rocketing upward into outer space—is not a little embarrassing.

Whatever historical event lies behind the Luke-Acts narratives of Jesus’ ascension into heaven—and the fact that the two accounts differ in important ways might be a clue that a surface-literal reading is not what the author had in mind—a couple of things stand out: the centrality of worship and the reimagining of “all rule and authority and power and dominion.”

Tom Wright points out that Luke’s gospel ends, as it began, in the Temple at Jerusalem. “Worship of the living God,” Wright says, “is at the heart of Luke’s vision of the Christian life.” Jesus’ ascension into heaven, then, is not “beam me up, Scotty” science fiction, but rather that which makes possible the church’s existence. Because Jesus is not here, the Church can be, must be—the Church is constituted as and empowered to be his worshiping, witnessing body here and now. (In his book, Ascension and Ecclesia, Douglas Farrow makes this point by insisting that the Church exists “by its mysterious union with one whose life, though lived for the world, involves a genuine break with it.”)

In this week’s Epistle reading, the writer prays that the Ephesian Christians might be given “a spirit of wisdom and revelation” as they come to know the resurrected and exalted Christ whose name “is above every name” and whose fullness “fills all in all.” Christ’s resurrection from the dead and ascension to the right hand of God have now “made him the head over all things for the church.” Here, again, Christ and the Church exist in mysterious union; how could the head be separate from the body?

For many, this claim about “the immeasurable greatness” of Christ’s power (and thus the immeasurable greatness of the Church’s power) stirs fears of triumphalism. It evokes uneasy memories of the Church’s exercise of power in ways that have oppressed and tyrannized. (A desire to hold at bay such fears and anxieties may be one reason that the feast of the Ascension is no longer considered the crown of all Christian festivals).

While not triumphalist, this claim is ultimately a political one, for the ascension of Jesus to the right hand of God transforms how we understand “all rule and authority and power and dominion.” The Ascension creates a body politic—the Church. Yet we know that the politics of the risen and ascended Jesus, and necessarily the politics of his Church, are not the politics of this world—they are not the politics of division, of one-upmanship, of scarcity and despair, of fear and death.

In order to better grasp the biblical vision of Ascension politics, it’s instructive to heed Luke’s subtle suggestion in this last chapter to go back to where his gospel began. When the risen Jesus “opened their minds to understand the scriptures,” we can’t help recalling the first time Jesus opened the scrolls in his hometown synagogue at the start of his public ministry: “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to bring good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.” This is what the politics of Jesus looks like and Jesus, now ascended, entrusts this work to us.

Soon enough we will celebrate the Spirit of the Lord as it descended on the people at Pentecost. For now, though, the ascended Jesus bids us, as his body alive and present here and now, to be about the Spirit’s ongoing work so that, with the eyes of our hearts enlightened, we may know what is the hope to which he has called us—a hope made tangible in a world without hope.


May 12, 2009

Show Us the Way

by Brian Volck
John 15:9-17

On March 12, 1977, Fr. Rutilio Grande, SJ, was assassinated along with two companions as they drove toward evening mass through the fields near El Paisnal, El Salvador. Fr. Grande knew where he was going. During his five years as parish priest in nearby Aguilares, he formed Christian base communities, trained lay “delegates,” and vocally opposed government attempts to silence Salvadoran priests who worked with and organized peasant laborers.

It was not a safe time. As Fr. Grande said, "It is practically illegal to be an authentic Christian in our situation because the world around us is rooted in an established disorder. Confronting that, the mere proclamation of the gospel is subversive." Yet he had a larger vision: that of the Eucharistic table, the Lord’s Supper, which he described in a homily not long before his murder as, "the greatest commitment, the symbol of a shared table, with a seat for each person and tablecloths long enough for all creation.” “For this,” he added, presumably aware of the costs and demands of discipleship, “redemption is needed."

When Fr. Grande’s friend, Archbishop Oscar Romero, drove to see the bloodied body of his fellow priest, he, too, understood at last what road he was on. Romero later wrote, "When I looked at Rutilio lying there dead I thought if they have killed him for doing what he did, then I too have to walk the same path." Three years later, on March 24, 1980, his path ended in much the same way: assassination while celebrating the Eucharist.

“No one has greater love than this, to lay down one’s life for one’s friends.” Dying for one’s friends, like Jesus’ commandment to love one another as he loves us, seems an impossible demand. Absent grace, it is.

Near the end of the movie, Romero, the Archbishop, played by Raul Julia, is deeply troubled, confused by impossible demands placed upon him as shepherd of a vulnerable flock in dangerous times. Alone on the road by Fr. Grande’s grave, he falls to his knees and prays four, short sentences:

I can’t.
You must.
I’m yours.
Show me the way.
This is the way of love described in John’s gospel, nothing at all like love in songs and stories. We can’t love others as Jesus loves us. Even so, we are chosen rather than choosing, named friends rather than slaves, and told to ask everything of the Father in Jesus’ name rather than labor in futility and ignorance. For this, redemption is needed.

We can’t. He must. We’re his. Lord Jesus, show us the way.


May 11, 2009

America's Bible

by Debra Dean Murphy
It's a little surprising that it took this long but here it is, The American Patriot's Bible, the latest in a long line of niche-marketed Bibles. (And one that really does take the cake in that literary sub-genre).

A mischievous review at strikes just the right tone: incredulous irony. What else can you do but shake your head? Can we hope that the publication is about eight years too late?


May 06, 2009

Pruning Time

by Brian Volck
John 15:1-8
(Fifth Sunday of Easter)

My friends, Chuck and Mary, some years ago turned a Henry County, Kentucky, tobacco farm into a vineyard and winery. They grow hay, keep a large vegetable garden and busy themselves with other crops, but wine is the farm’s major product. Recently, my wife and I drove down to visit. The two of us talked with Mary and her mother in a shady spot near the old dairy shed, but Chuck was busy pruning vines. Sweaty and dirty, he called to us from a distance, but there wasn’t time to stop and chat.

Mary told how she used to help Chuck with the pruning, but Chuck’s a perfectionist and prefers to do it alone, his way. Cutting the vine in the right places is an exacting, necessary task. Unpruned, vines grow in wild, unruly ways, exploding with heavy new branches and leaf cascades, but little fruit.

Sometimes the couple lets Mary’s father’s sheep graze in the vineyard to keep the weeds down. How they prevent them from nibbling at the grapes I don’t know. It’s hard to train the animals. I learned from watching shepherds on the Navajo Reservation that being called “the sheep of His flock” is no complement. Unwatched, sheep scatter and lose their way, wandering heedlessly into danger.

The images Jesus offers us this Sunday and last are graphic reminders of our abject dependence, our pitiful lack of judgment. Without a shepherd who (unlike the hired hand) remains with us in danger, even at the cost of his life, we stray to solitary deaths. Without a vinegrower pruning away superfluous, misguided efforts, we bear little or no fruit.

If we remain in the flock, on the vine, we are tended in safety, trellised to fullness, kept from disasters of our own making. Sheep don’t appear happy at the jab of a shepherd’s stick, the snarl of a herding dog. A vine newly pruned looks forlorn, nearly barren. But a stray lamb looks far worse when a wolf – or these days in Henry County, a coyote – finds it. And a branch pruned from the vine quickly withers, fit for nothing but fire or compost.

Where must the shepherd keep you from wandering? What in your life must be pruned away before you can bear good fruit?


May 02, 2009

The Good Shepherd

by Debra Dean Murphy
Psalm 23; 1 John 3:1-24; John 10:11-18
(Fourth Sunday of Easter)

One problem with the many references to sheep in the Bible is that so few of us have any real contact with these animals. The metaphor is simply lost on us. What does it mean to be compared to sheep? The little we’ve heard or read about them—that they’re not particularly bright—does not endear us to the metaphor.

But here’s the thing about Good Shepherd Sunday: it’s not about sheep at all. It is about a shepherd—the "Good Shepherd"—but even that designation is charged with meanings that can be lost on us.

“I am the good shepherd,” says Jesus. “The good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep” (John 10:11).

The life of a shepherd was anything but dreamy or picturesque. Taking care of sheep was dangerous, difficult, tedious work. Shepherds were, as one commentator has said, "rough around the edges, spending time in the fields rather than in polite society. For Jesus to say, 'I am the good shepherd,'would have been an affront to the religious elite. The claim had an edge to it. A modern-day equivalent might be for Jesus to say, 'I am the good migrant worker.'”*

So John is doing in his gospel something that Luke does in his. Recall the Good Samaritan: Jesus tells a parable about a man mugged in the street and left for dead. Two members of Israel’s spiritual elite—a priest and a Levite—pass him by and hurry on their way. But a Samaritan—considered unclean and morally suspect—binds the man’s wounds, pays for his care, helps restore him to health.

Jesus makes a Samaritan the hero of the story, something that would have scandalized his hearers. His basic message is not: be kind; help others (which is what we’ve reduced the parable to). His message is this: the Kingdom comes in surprising ways, through surprising people, through a God who turns our expectations and our prejudices upside down.

The Good Samaritan. The Good Shepherd. Those who are lowly, dubious, suspicious, contemptuous; those discounted, counted out: pay attention to these—God is probably at work in their midst. The Good Samaritan gives of himself fully to save a stranger. The Good Shepherd lays down his life for the sheep.

But what about what the Good Shepherd says? “I have other sheep that do not belong to this fold. I must bring them also, and they will listen to my voice” (John 10:16). This surely refers to the “calling of the Gentiles”; their grafting into Israel. But we also have to ask what it means for our time.

We tend to like fences and tidy borders, but the Good Shepherd does not seem interested in the kind of boundaries that keep the sheep separated from one another.

There's a story told about Robert Coles going to interview Dorothy Day in 1952. Upon entering her "house of hospitality" he found her talking with a woman who was obviously very drunk. Eventually Dorothy got up and came over to Coles: "Are you waiting to speak to one of us?" The troubled, intoxicated woman was not the other, the outsider, "one of them"; she was not an object of Dorothy Day's charity. Rather, Day was one with this woman in the charity of Christ.**

“I have other sheep that do not belong to this fold. I must bring them also."

It's the Epistle lesson this week that extends the message of John chapter 10 to its logical end, giving us its full implication for work and witness in the world: "We know love by this, that he laid down his life for us--and we ought to lay down our lives for one another . . . Little children, let us love, not in word or speech, but in truth and action" (1 John 3:16, 18).

The good Samaritan loved in truth and action. Dorothy Day loved in truth and action. And the love they embodied was not in and of themselves, summoned by their own strength or will, but was available to them because "they listened to [his] voice" (John 10:16).

For those who gather at the Lord's Table this Sunday, we'll be reminded that the Good Shepherd is also the sacrificial lamb--that in laying down his life he takes it up again (John 10:17). And when we participate in that dying and rising, when we eat the bread and drink the cup of salvation, "we know that he abides in us" (1 John 3:24). And this is pure gift.

Finally, we'll recite Psalm 23 this week--not as part of a funeral liturgy but, for many, in the context of the Eucharist. "You prepare a table before me in the presence of my enemies" (23:5). We're back to Jesus' insistence that he brings all into the fold--friend, stranger, outcast, enemy--and that when we feast at his table, barriers are broken, divisions are overcome, unity is enacted ("there will be one flock, one shepherd"). And in tasting this goodness we discover that we have everything we need: "The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not want."

* Nancy Blakely in Feasting on the Word
** Timothy Radcliffe in Why Go to Church? The Drama of the Eucharist