May 27, 2010

Trinity Sunday

by Ragan Sutterfield
Proverbs 8:1-4, 22-31; Romans 5:1-5; John 16:12-15

I must admit, I am not very comfortable with spirits. God the Father, God the Son—these are concrete realities that show up on mountaintops, write on stone tablets, and die on wooden crosses. But the Holy Spirit, the Spirit of Truth, the Spirit of Wisdom? I have a hard time understanding.

Thankfully I don’t have to understand—the Spirit itself brings that. As Jesus says in the Gospel reading, the Spirit “will guide you in all truth.” But as he goes on to say, this truth is not a truth that the Spirit has on its own—it is a truth that comes from the Father and the Son—it is a truth held in the consensus and community of the Trinity that we worship.

I find it striking that in all three of our readings for this Sunday—Proverbs, Romans, John—the Spirit comes to a community. In Proverbs the Spirit of Wisdom cries out “To you, o people, I call, and my cry is to all that live.” In Romans, Paul speaks of faith by which “we are justified” and speaks of the love of God having been “poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit that has been given to us.”

In the same way Jesus speaks to the disciples about the coming of the spirit using the plural you.

The Spirit is then something that we don’t know on our own—the Spirit is a member of the Trinitarian community that joins with us as the community of the church.

In this way the spirit is saved from the abstraction that can come with that word. I am not lost in a “spirituality,” a choose-your-own-adventure religion that speaks to the personality of my individual heart. With a Holy Spirit—a spirit that is set apart and sets us apart—I am required to under go the baptism of the Church before anything else. Only then can I join with Paul in welcoming the “Spirit that has been given to us.”


May 24, 2010

Soldiers of Conscience

by Brian Volck
Whatever your stance on war, here are some contemporary voices to consider, voices much closer to the reality of killing than most of us. For those who wish to learn more about the documentary, visit the website.


May 11, 2010

Seventh Sunday of Easter

by Debra Dean Murphy
John 17:20-26

[Two lectionary posts this week: one for the Seventh Sunday of Easter and one for Ascension Sunday (reposted from May 2009)] 

"I ask not only on behalf of these, but also on  behalf of those who will believe in me through their word, that they may  all be one."  (John 17:20-21a).

It seems there’s not much talk of ecumenism these days—not in books, not  on blogs, not even in and among churches.  Maybe that’s because forty  years of dogged efforts at dialogue and mutual understanding have borne  some real fruit: Calvinists are far less suspicious of Catholics than  they used to be and vice versa; Methodists and Lutherans are now in full  communion with one another.

Of course, the ecclesial traditions most vested in the ecumenical  movement are now among those experiencing significant decline, and the  growing churches—Pentecostal, non-denominational, “emergent” of this or  that variety—don’t seem to place the same high premium on  bridge-building and cross-over conversations. So maybe it’s too soon to  say “mission accomplished” when it comes to Church unity.

Of course it is. Jesus’ prayer in this week’s Gospel reading is a  stinging reminder of his Body’s continued disunity. But what can and  should be said about this obstinate, obvious reality? How does one  preach this familiar text in ways that signal urgency but not despair,  that convey the gravity of the situation while also offering a word of  hope? I have no idea.

But here are a few thoughts . . .

(1) The oneness for which Jesus prayed is rooted not in human  achievement but in the life of the triune God. The unity between the  Father and Son, which is their mutual self-giving (perichoresis) in the  Spirit, is the same love by which the ekklesia exists (“As you, Father,  are in me and I am in you, may they also be in us”).  As Dietrich  Bonhoeffer put it: “Christian unity is not an ideal which we must  realize [actualize]; it is rather a reality created by God in Christ in  which we may participate.”

(2) The unity of the Church does not subsist invisibly through  “faith” or by assent to propositions, but is to be visible and material.  The reason for the oneness is “that the world may believe that you have  sent me.” Unity is shared witness not intellectual agreement.

(3) It is the Eucharist that constitutes this unifying witness in  the world. Through the sacramental gifts of Christ’s body and blood, the  community receives itself—it becomes the body of Christ, blessed,  broken, and shared. As the Great Thanksgiving says, we are made “one  with Christ, one with each other, and one in ministry to all the world.”  In this act the Church is united across time and distinctions between  the global and the local are collapsed, for in every local assembly is  the whole body—“the world in a wafer,” as Bill Cavanaugh has said. The  Church is here and now, there and then, the visible body of its Lord.  And this visible body does not express or evince the Church’s unity; it  is the Church’s unity.

But the Church is divided. Still. John probably included Jesus’ prayer  in his Gospel because of doctrinal strife in his own community. Discord  then and now. Yet while the scandal of disunity persists, Jesus prays  for us still. This is the good news. But it does not relieve us of our  responsibility to practice the unity that is God’s and that is God’s  gift to us. How will Christ’s body, divided by differences both petty  and consequential, receive this gift and bear visible, material witness  to God’s own life and love?


Ascension Sunday

by Debra Dean Murphy
Acts 1:1-11; Psalm 47; Ephesians 1:15-23; Luke 24:44-53

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 exegetically, theologically, pastorally. The clunky literalism routinely inspired by the Luke-Acts vision of the ascension—Jesus rocketing upward into space—is not a little perplexing.

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. (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 political, 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 visible, tangible, practical in a world without hope.


May 05, 2010

Courage to be Whole

by Kyle Childress
John 5: 1-9

Jesus is in Jerusalem and he goes by the Pool of Bethesda. This pool, fed by an underground spring, is down, off of the street, and is surrounded by porticoes offering some shade and shelter. Legend said that on occasion an angel would trouble the waters of the pool and the first person into the water would be healed. Hence, the pool and the surrounding area had become the gathering place for anyone and everyone with some sort of sickness, but especially the blind, the lame, and the paralyzed. All gathered watching the surface of the water for the smallest sign of the rippling of the waves. A small bubbling from the underground spring or even a slight breeze could cause a stampede of invalids trying to be the first into the water.

And Jesus asks this man lying over to one side, “Do you want to be made whole?”

“No thanks, I think I’ll just stay here on my pallet and wait for the waters to ripple. I’ve been here 38 years and I know what to expect and I know all of the other people nearby. True, I’m probably not going to get better, but – you know – I’ve gotten used to being here, so thanks all the same, Jesus but I’ll just lie here.”

Do we fear the cure more than the illness? Bill Coffin said that if it is hell to be guilty, it’s certainly scarier to be responsible – response-able – able to respond to God’s call, able to respond to the word and love of Jesus. When we cease being a victim – “I can’t get to the water Jesus; there’s always someone else who gets there first” – and start being responsible then our legs are strong enough for us to walk beside others who are in pain and need help. Our arms are empowered to embrace our enemies and the outcasts. We no longer make excuses; instead we walk forward to new life in Jesus Christ and go to work serving, healing, hoping, and living a life of joy and fullness.

Charles Campbell, in his outstanding book, The Word Before the Powers, wonders that if one of the ways the Principalities and Powers, the Systems of Domination, keep us under their thumb is by keeping us busy, tired, and diverted. We become numbed to the call of Jesus Christ to serve God and serve the hurting because we don’t have time. We come home after work and collapse in front of the TV until it is time to go to bed and repeat the process all over again. Weekends are when we want to get out of town or do something else. So we live life to the minimum. And we say we want change when we actually want to remain the same – but we want to feel better about it.

We know that to get up and follow Jesus will involve us in people’s lives in ways we’re not sure we want, because to be whole means to be re-membered, re-connected with God and with God’s people and God’s creation. No more isolation. No more living my own private life where no one bothers me. To be whole means to get off of the couch and get involved. It means to work our tails off, often doing behind the scenes work that is tedious and overlooked. We know that to walk out of the door and say, “Here, am I Jesus! Send me!” is an invitation to maybe getting crucified like Jesus. As Dan Berrigan has said, “If you’re going to follow Jesus, you had better look good on wood, because that is where you’ll end up.” We know all of that, so maybe our couches and our pallets don’t look so bad.

No wonder so many churches are still on the pallet. No wonder so many of us are reticent about being made whole. And no wonder we have neither the courage nor the will nor the energy to say, “No!” to the many ways the Powers grind us all down. No wonder we are reluctant to say “Yes!” to Jesus Christ and the embodiment of his Abundant Life.

Well, in our story, this man has the guts to be whole. He takes a deep breath and nods to Jesus, “Yes, I want to be whole, healed and well. I know it will take time Jesus. I know it will take work and lots of unlearning old pain-filled habits accumulated over 38 years, and learning new habits. I know it is not going to be easy, but yes, Jesus, make me a whole person.”

And Jesus does. No questions asked. No stipulations. No checking to see if he is truly deserving or not. Jesus just heals him. Grace. And the man picks up his mat and walks out of the door to new life. To wholeness.