Our problem with authority

by George Clifford

We Episcopalians frequently have problems with ecclesiastical authority. Here's some anecdotal evidence:

• Clergy and laity do not want bishops (or, for that matter, any other person or group such as a Canon to the Ordinary or Executive Council) providing authoritative guidance. At every General Convention, diocesan convention, or clergy gathering that I attend, I detect an undercurrent of suspicion directed toward our bishops. Admittedly, a few bishops are inappropriately authoritarian. The suspicion, however, extends to all bishops.
• When I mention to a clergyperson or layperson that I think we have a problem with authority, the person invariably agrees.
• The recent brouhaha at General Seminary was at least partially a conflict over authority.
• Debates about denominational restructuring are frequently couched in the language of power and authority.

More troubling, we Episcopalians often have a problem with biblical authority. We're sure (or at least the vast majority of us are sure) that we reject biblical literalism and idolatry. However, we're often unsure in what sense the Bible is authoritative or how to interpret the Bible authoritatively. Our denominational disputes over questions such as the ordination of women and same-sex marriage reflect this uncertainty and unease with the Bible's authority.

Some of the roots of our discomfort with authority are readily apparent. Stories of clergy abused by a bishop are legion. Seminarians are trained to approach both the Bible and life with a hermeneutic of suspicion, asking, in part, who is exercising power and who stands to benefit from that exercise of power. This emulates important aspects of Jesus' ministry in which he challenged the destructive economic, political, and religious power structures of first century Palestine. Yet this also can breed distrust within the Church. Although we are a connectional Church, congregationalism dominates the American religion scene and increasingly taints The Episcopal Church (TEC). Post-moderns increasingly distrust authority, associating it with a proclivity to corrupt, oppress, and exploit.

Let's be honest. Authority is a form of power. And, like it or not, authority has a place in the Church.

In the absence of authority, we would cease to be both connectional and a Church. In the Navy, I met many Christians (and a fair number of chaplains) who had no understanding of what it means to have a connectional polity. They regard the Church as a gathering of independent, local congregations that have only a nominal (or no) direct relationship with one another. The most extreme version of this idea that I encountered was a chaplain who refused to conduct Communion services with anyone in the military because he believed the only permissible setting for Holy Communion was the local congregation of which he was a member.

Pushed to its logical conclusion, congregationalism becomes individualism: each person is the ultimate arbiter of right thinking, behavior, and relationships. In one respect, individualism is unavoidable because no organization or person can dictate what another person thinks or does. In another respect, however, radical individualism displaces Jesus from the very center of Christian life. This type of radical individualism is anarchistic and therefore anti-communal. Any commitment to be together requires a common ordering of communal life incompatible with radical individualism.

John's image of Jesus as the vine and his people as the vine's branches and Paul's image of Christians as the constituent parts of Christ's body are both inherently connectional. In both images, life flows through Jesus to us. It changes and invigorates us, i.e., the flow has a transformative, authoritative power because it is a metaphor for God at work in us.

One option for ordering our common life as the body of Christ is to make decisions based upon mutual consent. The Quakers have traditionally opted for this approach. Much can be said in favor of consensus, but two key disadvantages are that consensus generally requires a great deal of time to achieve and the larger the group, the longer time required. The largely dysfunctional US Senate, with its rules on filibustering and cloture, reflects problems intrinsic to requiring consensus. In some ecclesial situations, I value consensus; as a rule, I find consensus keeps Church groups from taking timely and effective action.

Another option for ordering our common life as Christ's body is to entrust decisions to an authoritative hierarchy. Few Anglicans, regardless of how much they admire aspects of the Roman Catholic Church, want to be part of a branch of Christianity that has such an authoritative (even authoritarian!) hierarchy.

So, we Episcopalians and TEC, as good Anglicans, seek a middle way. We do not want anarchy, nor consensus (we may pay the ideal lip service, but our actions indicate that we think the cost of always reaching consensus far too high), nor an authoritative hierarchy.

To find and then walk a middle way, we can beneficially:

• Cherish our theological diversity. In the Anglican tradition, our unity depends upon common prayer and not uniformity of belief. Thankfully, we have mostly abandoned prior generations' efforts to enforce doctrinal conformity.
• Invest time in developing strong connections. Being a connectional church is costly. The cost that receives the most attention is the money that flows from local congregations to the diocese and from dioceses to the national church. However, the more important cost, all too frequently ignored, is the time required to develop and sustain real connections across congregational and diocesan boundaries. If I spend no time with Episcopalians who are not part of my congregation, then my sense of connection is strictly notional rather than actual. Dioceses typically have a companion diocese in another province of the Anglican Communion. Dioceses could also have companion dioceses within TEC. Similarly, our congregations could engage in real mission partnerships with adjoining TEC congregations. I am willing to bet that currently less than one percent of Episcopalians have any direct involvement or knowledge of either their diocese or the national church. When was the last time that your congregation or diocese initiated a joint meal (aka the Eucharist) with another congregation or diocese? Having failed to spend (invest) the time required to become a connectional Church, we are now reaping a harvest of discontent and disinterest.
• Stop sweating the small stuff (and it's all, or mostly all, small stuff). Ultimately, TEC, its clergy, and its congregations have little real power. Our unity is more valuable than our differences. We cannot prevent God from acting; we cannot start a war (I'd like to think that we could stop a war, but doubt that we have that much power); we're not going to solve any of the world's major problems in the next triennium (or even three millennia). Therefore, let's value our unity and color our inevitable conflicts with the warm hues of love and mutual respect.
• Trust those with whom we pray to make good decisions. In healthy, functional couples, each partner makes some of the couple's decisions unilaterally, usually based upon expertise and interest; the couple makes a minority of their decisions jointly. Some couples intentionally choose who will make which decision; other couples establish the pattern of their decision-making more informally. Over time, as circumstances change, the pattern of decision-making will also change. A similar pattern should exist within a healthy, functional community: not every member has an interest in every decision; involving everyone in every decision is too costly and cumbersome; the pattern of decision-making needs to change as circumstances change. My sense is both that TEC's pattern of decision-making has remained stagnant too long and now is out of sync with circumstances and that too few Episcopalians trust one another to make good decisions about our common life. Furthermore, most of our contentious denominational issues, viewed from the broad perspective of God's creation, is small stuff. Generally, the fight is over resources. That battle masks the real problem, our weak commitment to the mission of Christ, our dioceses, and our national church that manifests itself in terms of a low level of proportional giving.
• Retain only the minimum levels of ecclesial authority compatible with being a connectional Church. What ministries and missions are only possible when we work together? What ministries and missions are best achieved cooperatively? What organizational structures, invested with what authority, will most effectively and efficiently accomplish those ministries and missions? For example, common prayer requires an authoritative set of practices (words and action), i.e., a set of practices actually required and used. This set can encompass a healthy, broad diversity but imposes some limits, e.g., our scriptures are the Bible and not the Koran or the Teachings of the Buddha. Setting these limits does not exalt our practices or demean those of others; instead, boundaries create our identity. The Book of Common Prayer's liturgies are too confining; alternatively, allowing bishops, priests, or congregations to develop their own liturgies would quickly erode both our common prayer and connections. We should keep the Book of Common Prayer and supplement it with a large, fluid collection of resources.
• Adopt an annual Advent discipline of self-examination to discern your personal level of comfort (or discomfort) with authority. The gospel narrative is ultimately a story about authority and power. Genuine dialogue requires participants try to understand their own issues and motivations. To what extent does the authority of Scripture—however understood—grate? Do you read the Bible in the hope that God will illuminate your life and path? When, for this is something we all do, do you read the Bible seeking to find confirmation of what you believe and how you live? When and why do you resent ecclesial authority?

George Clifford is an ethicist and Priest Associate at the Church of the Nativity, Raleigh, NC. He retired from the Navy after serving as a chaplain for twenty-four years, has written Charting a Theological Confluence: Theology and Interfaith Relations and Forging Swords into Plows: A Twenty-First Century Christian Perspective on War, and blogs at Ethical Musings.

Singing the Lord's song: justice and the church

by George Clifford

Owen Thomas was first a physicist and then a theologian in the Anglican tradition. He is Emeritus Professor of Theology, Episcopal Divinity School in Cambridge, MA, and an adjunct professor at the Graduate Theological Union in Berkeley, CA. Additionally, he has taught at the Gregorian University in Rome and served as president of the American Theological Society.

His credentials caused me to pause when I read the following in an article he authored:

The presence of the reign of God is a matter primarily of outward signs and actions rather than the progress and perfection of the inner life. The focus of the reign of God is primarily on public, communal, political, economic, and historical life rather than on private interior life. The traditional emphasis in Christian ascetical theology on interiority has led the Church in its mission to focus primarily on private, emotional, and family life to the exclusion of public, work, and political life. ("Interiority and Christian Spirituality," The Journal of Religion, Vol. 80, No. 1 (Jan 2000), 59)

Lest one succumb to the temptation to dismiss his view on the primacy of the external over the interior for Christian spirituality with an ad hominem attack (e.g., what else should one expect from a physicist?), Thomas' justification for his conclusion is worth considering. He argues that Christians splitting the spirit from the body and assigning priority to the former is odds at with the totality of our tradition. Jewish spirituality emphasized the unity of body and spirit. The Gospel of John echoed that message by prominently declaring that the Word became flesh. Thomas stands in good company. Contemporary historians of Christian spirituality like Urban Holmes share Thomas' assessment that Christian spirituality rightly emphasizes the external over the interior.

Lent is an especially appropriate season in which to revisit this insight. In Lent many of us pay extra attention to our spiritual journeys (this is good). However, we tend to interiorize this focus seeking to identify the breaks in our relationship with God and to become more attuned to God's presence through more time in prayer and study. We may choose a spiritual discipline designed to help us in that achieving those goals, even using nominally outward oriented disciplines such as fasting or helping others to improve our interior life. Inadvertently, perhaps unintentionally, we further divorce the spirit from the body, as the spiritual slowly becomes ever more synonymous with the interior life (this is not so good).

Over the last few decades, I have listened as numerous Episcopalians – as well as persons from other Christian traditions – criticized the Episcopal Church's seeming preoccupation with social justice and human rights to the exclusion of evangelism, prayer, etc. Perhaps one source of this criticism has been that we have failed to express our concern for social justice and human rights effectively and consistently in Christian language. Assuredly, a second source of this criticism has been the widespread preoccupation with interiority that Thomas noted.

Thankfully, the Episcopal Church has made enormous strides towards more fully incarnating God's justice. Although far from perfect, we more clearly stand for the dignity and worth of all people, regardless of race, ethnicity, gender, or gender orientation. We seek to welcome all, regardless of income, political affiliation, or theological/liturgical distinctions. With each step we have taken in these directions, others and I have discerned God's presence and activity in our midst.

Now, I hear God calling us to sing another stanza in the Lord's song. This stanza has us:

• Bringing good news to the poor (e.g., working to create a strong social safety net and to ensure all have quality, affordable healthcare while questioning the justice of an economic system that allows one corporation to buy another for $2 billion when the latter has no marketable product, let alone made a profit),
• Proclaiming release to the captives (e.g., campaigning to free hundreds of thousands from among the millions incarcerated in our nations jails and prisons),
• Helping the blind recover their sight (e.g., teaching people to see as God sees),
• And liberating the oppressed (e.g., aiding the victims of addiction, wounded warriors returning home with unrecognized psychic and moral injuries, and opposing tyranny, slavery, and exploitation everywhere).

Such is the year of the Lord's favor.

This is not a ministry of ashes on the street, which is sadly more often theater than a ministry of enduring substance. Singing the Lord's song is a ministry of transformation, of awkwardly, perhaps even uncertainly, living into a new reality, the Kingdom of God on earth. In singing the Lord's song, we follow in the footsteps of the prophets and of Jesus, doing as they did, not foretelling the future, but discerning God at work in the world establishing justice, embracing with love, and empowering for life.

George Clifford is an ethicist and Priest Associate at the Church of the Nativity, Raleigh, NC. He retired from the Navy after serving as a chaplain for twenty-four years, has written Charting a Theological Confluence: Theology and Interfaith Relations and Forging Swords into Plows: A Twenty-First Century Christian Perspective on War, and blogs at Ethical Musings ().

Fred Phelps is dead

by Linda Ryan

Fred Phelps is dead. The founder and patriarch of the Westboro Baptist Church (WBC) died in Topeka, Kansas, Wednesday, March 19th, of an undisclosed illness. He was 84 at the time of his death. Fred Phelps and his church are highly recognizable names to much of America, and that was (and is) the way they want it.

Phelps and his followers are most known for their picketing of funerals of those with whom they vehemently disagree: those who died of AIDS, young gay men like Matthew Shepard and even the very straight Jerry Falwell who, in the opinion of the WBC, didn’t go far enough in condemning homosexuality. They picketed the funerals of soldiers killed in Iraq and Afghanistan, claiming that God struck them down for defending the US and its increasing acceptance of homosexuality.

Their fame, or notoriety, grew through those outrageous public acts which they claimed as freedom of speech and freedom of religion. The church, mostly made up of Phelps’ family members, included a number of lawyers all too ready to file suit against anyone who curtail their appearances or rights to be as vocal and obnoxious as they chose. One case against them went all the way to the Supreme Court which ruled that they could not be sued for monetary damages resulting from mental or physical anguish caused by the WBC’s demonstration at a family funeral. The WBC was guaranteed the right of free speech – but the door was also opened for other groups, on any side of a given issue, to have their say, no matter whether or not they conformed to what was generally considered the religious or social norms of the majority.

As Phelps aged, he went out less and less, leaving the active demonstrating to his family. Gradually, it seems, his influence with the church also waned and leadership of the congregation changed to non-family members. According to some news reports, Phelps was excommunicated from the church he had founded because he had endeavored to create a kinder relationship among church members. Somehow, given the images of Fred Phelps, the word “kind” does not seem to fit. Who knows? Away from the spotlight he might have been a real prince.

Members of the WBC appeared to indicate that Phelps would not have a funeral because the church does not believe in “Worshipping the dead,” as they stated it. How ironic that the man who picketed so many funerals would not be having one of his own, but then, perhaps it is just as well. For some, the opportunity to retaliate in kind might just be too strong to resist.

One thing I wonder, though, is if there is anyone who is really mourning Fred Phelps? His family seems divided between those who left the church years ago and were estranged from the patriarch and those who stayed on and carried on the mission he had laid before them. There are reports of abuse from some of Phelps’s many children, but others say he took a Biblical view of punishment and did it strictly by Biblical standard. But do any of them mourn his passing? Certainly the WBC isn’t draping itself in funereal black and planning a grand sendoff for the founder of their congregation. The communiqué on their website is a scripture-laced (if highly selective choice and interpretation of text) condemnation of much of what mainstream (and even outside-the-mainstream) Christian communities stand for.

The GLBTI community, people who have probably more reason to rejoice than just about anybody, has those who have expressed joy and relief that Fred is no longer among the living. On the other hand, there are also a number who have expressed their belief that God will judge Phelps and that they had no need or right to do so. There have been prayers offered for him, just as for anyone who has died. Some too have offered forgiveness for the unrepentant Phelps. They take the words of Jesus very much to heart and forgive for their own soul’s sake as much as to release any ill will and resentment against him.

In a way, it is said that Fred Phelps did gay, lesbian, bisexual, transgender and intersex persons (GLBTI) a kindness with his rhetoric of hate and outrageous public behavior. People looked at the WBC and its antics and began to see GLBTI in a slightly different light, especially as family members and friends began to come out. How odd that the current climate of growing acceptance of equality between straights and GLBTI began with such hatred and malice. There is still a long way to go before globally and even here in the United States that GLBTIs can enjoy all the rights and benefits their straight counterparts already enjoy, but it getting closer. It seems almost ironic that such progress could begin with someone like Fred Phelps and his religion of hatred and judgment.

So what now for poor Fred? Is his fate to be laid in a wooden box and whisked away to an undisclosed grave where he will become part of the regeneration of the earth but without any kind of marker to attract unwanted attention? Will he become another resident in a local cemetery that will grow into a tourist attraction? Will he be cremated and his ashes scattered to the four winds? Has he reached the pearly gates and had God say in a kindly voice, “Hullo, Fred, I’ve been waiting for you. Come on over here; I have a few things to explain to you …” or perhaps he’s been met by Matthew Shepard and all those whose funerals he tried so hard to disrupt?

Still, I have to wonder, is there anyone to mourn Fred and to grieve for the man who made a decision to fight the civil law instead of defending it and instead to push for his version of God’s law instead of following the footsteps of Jesus? Will anyone regret his passing and miss his presence in their lives?

Fred Phelps was and is not the only person of his kind, but was undoubtedly the most openly vocal and visible about it, saying loudly and often crudely things that some think but dare not express aloud. There are still those who openly agree with every word he said and applaud every public demonstration of those words. Conversely, there are some who are on the exact opposite end of the scale with most others falling in between the two.

The Westboro Baptist Church will go on with its same activities, under new leadership, raising up a new generation to follow in its footsteps. The world will continue turning and life will go on, sometimes changing laterally, sometimes regressing, sometimes progressing. Fred Phelps is now a part of history and, as a baptized Christian, part of the Communion of Saints although I suspect he will never be listed in the bracket for Lent Madness*. I wonder if, in a hundred years or even fifty years, people will look back and wonder about Fred Phelps and pray that he has received the justice and mercy God promises to all.

Rest in peace, Fred.

*Lent Madness is a wonderfully informative and highly amusing Lenten practice from the publishing house that brings us the daily devotional Forward Day by Day. It features saints both ancient and modern pitted against each other in a format much like that of the NCAA. To see it in action, please visit Lent Madness and join in the contest.

Linda Ryan co-mentors 2 EfM Online groups and keeps the blog Jericho's Daughter . She lives in the Diocese of Arizona and is proud to be part of the Church of the Nativity in North Scottsdale.

Communities of resurrection

by Maria L. Evans

True confession time: When I am feeling pressured over people and situations where others want to turn their emergency into my problem, I like to sing R.E.M.'s "It's the end of the world as we know it (and I feel fine,)" if only to remind myself that, indeed, it is NOT the end of the world.

That said, we have to be careful, though about taking an "end times" approach to life. In fact, a story from last summer has haunted me for months. Although I'm certainly not of the "end times theology" stripe, the story has made me think about how the attitude of "I'm taken care of , so I'll just count my blessings and not think about everyone else," is one that needs serious adjustment.

I remember being incredibly shocked by that article. "Really? Four out of ten Americans think the world will end by 2050? Seventy-six percent of Republicans are end-timers?" I had to sing my R.E.M. song several times after reading that, just to ground myself after that head-shaker.

The article does, however, reveal a certain amount of background as to why there is everything ranging from apathy to downright disbelief when it comes to global warming. If the world's coming to an end, why bother? The implications reach far beyond the subject matter itself, into wider discussion. What other things ultimately harm us because we've created an "end times theology" to go with it?

I wonder sometimes if a form of end-timerism hasn't, in places, crept into our abilities to re-imagine the Episcopal Church. The world surrounds us with all kinds of news that mainline Christianity is dying. The people in the pews are graying, the fastest growing faith group in young and early middle-aged adults is "spiritual but not religious," and in so many circles, the rank and file American thinks the word "Christian" means, "hates gays, hates women, hates poor people." When we're surrounded by that, it becomes incredibly tempting to simply retreat into a world where the most we need to discuss is whether to use Eucharistic Prayer B during Advent like we always do, or something different. "Why should I do anything when the end of Christianity as I know it is coming? I feel safer just doing what we've always done. I guess if it's gonna die, it's gonna die. So I might as well work at keeping it just the way I like it."

The risk of these wide platforms for change within the church is that the words themselves become trite, or "code." (I'll be the first to admit, I think we should be vigorously re-imaginging, but I'm getting a little tired of the word "re-imagine" itself. Kind of like how I got tired of the phrase "a nimble church" during GC 2013.) Yet that risk is probably a better risk than succumbing to end-timer-ism.

No doubt, re-imagining is painful. It reveals what's moribund and needs to have the plug pulled and die a natural death. The most fundamental tenet of our theology, though, is that we are an Easter people. Many of us have come to believe in the Resurrection because we've lived through the light and the dark of our short time on this Earth, and have grown to believe in our own personal resurrections. Can we take one step further and believe in the possibility of faith community resurrections?

Maria Evans, a surgical pathologist from Kirksville, MO, writes about the obscurities of life, medicine, faith, and the Episcopal Church on her blog, Kirkepiscatoid


by Donald Schell

Our oldest grandchild is three, or more accurately three and a third. Many readers won’t be surprised to learn that his word of the day (and week and month) is

- Why?

When our own youngest was this age, I discovered that if I didn’t try to respond his questions with answers, but paused

and then asked,
- What do you think?

He’d often have an answer that he was glad to offer. And sometimes that answer told me that the answer I was ready to give wouldn’t have actually addressed his wondering. I’m making that my default response with the grandson and finding again that a child (maybe our inner child too) asking “why” frequently wants to talk and think aloud.

My wife teases me when I slip into being a pedagogical and theological Piaget, and yes, I do think of Jean Piaget as I notice what startlingly fertile reflection on human learning and our insatiable drive to find meaning in our experience I witness in our grandson’s learning process.

His three year old answers to his own questions of why (and how) move freely among Aristotle’s four kinds of causation –

Material cause (“when ice melts it becomes water”)
Formal cause (“because she’s your mother and parents make those decisions”)
Efficient cause (“it fell because you dropped it”)
Final cause (“because saying ‘thank you’ makes you and the person you’re thanking happy”)

(I’m happy for comments or refinements to this sketch of the four causes from any philosophers or Aristotle scholars who’d like to offer them as a comment here.)

What I often notice in conversation with my grandson is that my adult default answer (the “because…” that often gets left unsaid when he supplies us with a more satisfactory answer) tends to be an efficient cause, the “what started it all” in a chain of cause and effect. My grandson’s “why” is a richer question than we adults usually let ourselves ask so nakedly. He’s asking for (and often offering) an answer that’s part of a whole spectrum of meaning, how things fit together, how they work, why we care about them, what we’re committed to.

Aristotle’s cluster of possible answers may hint what our own internal three year old is looking for as s/he keeps asking “why.” We’re not actually hoping for “The Answer.” There are all kinds of answers, many of which we can frame for ourselves. Maybe we want to tell our answer. Maybe hearing someone else’s question prompts us to discover an answer we hadn’t yet framed. What we’re looking for is the pleasure of engaging with someone we’d like to talk with about what it all means and how.

In Sunday by Sunday church practice in the Episcopal church, are we in danger of rushing to offer and assert “the answer.” I fear that partisans of the Nicene Creed in the liturgy have lost sight of the process that runs through the historic liturgical action, inviting the Spirit to come among us as we become and partake of the Body of Christ. We come to the point in the service where we all articulate our faith in ancient words (not a story, not a prayer, a series of finely tuned philosophical and Biblical points). We’ve unconsciously shifted the public work of liturgy to deliverables (proclaiming the Word, defining the faith, receiving the sacrament).

Was the liturgy of the first five centuries in the East and the first eleven centuries in the West defective for not having its moment of reciting the answer? What does it tell us that the liturgical use of the creed began when Monophysites in the East introduced it as a protest against the Council of Chalcedon? Why did the West resist using it liturgically for half a millennium? And what about finally introducing it in the West with the filioque added in (“who proceeds from the Father AND THE SON”) so that the recitation of the Symbol of Christian Unity cemented the division between Eastern and Western Christians. Is the creed like answering my grandson’s question when he wants to talk? What I notice talking with him is that the faster I offer answers, the more “why” he throws back. Answers aren’t giving him what he wants or needs.

Let me rush to add that the content of the creed makes sense to me. All I’m questioning is its liturgical use. When I’m in a congregation that uses it, I do say (or more happily sing) the creed. As a text and theological formulation, I welcome what it adds to our understanding of (and wonder at) our faith in Christ.

But I think the “why” question we’ve been asking since we were three years old and are all still asking, our craving to get closer to “what it ALL means” and to get closer to that meaning in the company of people we’re also learning to love and may be better “answered” by the Prayers of the People (where prayer and the action that flows from it are our shared response to what God is doing), or the Peace (our physical celebration and enactment of God’s reconciling work), or the Eucharistic Prayer (that tells the same story as the creed but does so as a prayer in, to and with our loving God).

I also suspect that what a Godly Play “I wonder” session or an EFM theological reflection conversation touches is truer to our ceaseless why than something that thinks we’re looking for “the answer.”

My grandson is asking me to join him discovering and reflecting on what the world and everything in it means. Whether I’m preaching and presiding or happily attending and sitting in the congregation to pray and sing and listen and share, what I find enlivening, satisfying, and sustaining is feeling and knowing that we’re plunged into that discovery together. Prayers and intimations are truer to our discovery and fit the richness of our “why” better than anything that presents itself as “the answer.”

The Rev. Donald Schell, founder of St. Gregory of Nyssa Church in San Francisco, is President of All Saints Company.

How to be in the presence of Jesus

by Deirdre Good

Text: Luke 10: 38-42

Now as they went on their way, he entered a certain village, where a woman named Martha welcomed him into her home. She had a sister named Mary, who sat at the Lord's feet and listened to what he was saying. But Martha was distracted by her many tasks; so she came to him and asked, "Lord, do you not care that my sister has left me to do all the work by myself? Tell her then to help me." But the Lord answered her, "Martha, Martha, you are worried and distracted by many things; there is need of only one thing. Mary has chosen the better part, which will not be taken away from her."

Think about the last meal with friends you really enjoyed. Was it at your house or theirs? Or maybe you were at a restaurant. In which case you were able to enjoy the company and the food without having to prepare, cook, or clear away afterwards. If the meal was at your house, then you know what was involved.

Before I arrived in Maine this summer, I was able to share a memorable meal at home with friends. It all came together at the last minute. I wanted to extend hospitality to our new President at the seminary where I live and work since he had just arrived and was temporarily without family. Fortunately, I was able to invite two other couples to join us. And thanks to Whole Foods, I was able to assemble the dinner at the last minute rather than cook it. So I was able to enjoy the company rather than worry about whether they liked the food I’d cooked. Why was it so enjoyable? Because all the couples (including us) knew and liked each other. Three of us work together, and six of us went to the same church at one time. We have the same sense of humour, values and interests. We respect each other’s viewpoints.

The meal Jesus shares with Martha and Mary presupposed in today’s gospel is quite similar in that the three of them are friends—they eat together in Bethany; they probably worship together and they love each other. How do we think about it? Does the story describe types of people, and continue by commending contemplative types over active types, as Luke’s Jesus apparently does? I know the story can be read this way but there’s a price to pay. It’s a moralistic reading, seeing figures as exemplars. It favors one character over another. Are all of the characters in Jesus’ stories intended to advise readers? Are they meant to evoke empathy and strengthen our proclivity for doing good? Or might we see the whole story in a broader context of Luke and thus as a meditation on deeper issues in the surrounding material. I want to suggest that the passage is a meditation on what it means to be blessed to see and hear what is at hand since others longed to see and hear it but did not (Then turning to the disciples, Jesus said to them privately, “Blessed are the eyes that see what you see! For I tell you that many prophets and kings desired to see what you see, but did not see it, and to hear what you hear, but did not hear it.” Luke 10: 23-4)

A few words about context. Today’s gospel lies close to the start of Jesus’ journey to Jerusalem (9:51) that is a journey of many functions besides travel. One of them is shaping of a community around Jesus (followers, disciples, crowds) alongside the shaping of opposition outside that community. Travel and following Jesus to Jerusalem to death and beyond is also about discerning the meaning of presence and absence and how to be in the presence and absence of Jesus.

So here’s a suggestion: If you are on a journey and Jesus joins the journey, stop whatever you are doing. Look and listen. If there’s time for a meal, order a take-out and food to go. This is a meal to remember: tastes, sights, sound. Savor the meaning of Real Presence.

Now what Martha is doing in our gospel is the important task of service (from which we get the word “deacon”) that can be applied to church leadership with connotations of administration and organization. And the verb in Luke’s description, “Martha welcomed him into her home” shows Martha as head of a household, which leads us to think more broadly about Martha in the rest of the New Testament and beyond.

In John’s Gospel, for example, the siblings Mary, Martha and Lazarus are described as loved by Jesus, a term that scholars understand to describe relationship of disciple to teacher Jesus. In the episode reporting that Lazarus has died, it is Martha who engages Jesus: “Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died.” “But,” she continues, “Even now I know that God will give you whatever you ask of him.” Jesus assures her that her brother will rise again and when he declares, “I am the resurrection and the life. Those who believe in me even though they die, will live, and everyone who lives and believes in me will never die. Do you believe this?” (John 11:25-6) Martha professes: “Yes, Lord, I believe that you are the Messiah, the Son of God, the one coming into the world” (11:27). Her confession is a high point of the Johannine communities’ profession of belief in Jesus. Martha is every bit a thinking person.

And, when we look at the rest of the New Testament, it turns out that Mary of Bethany is every bit a doer. At a meal in Bethany where she functions as host and her sister Martha serves, Mary anoints Jesus as a prefiguring of self-giving in the service of footwashing he is about to enact and his death and burial. She does what friends are taught to do by Jesus says Johannine scholar Cynthia Kittredge.

If we take all the evidence of the New Testament, we see that both Mary and Martha have been with Jesus in ways that indicate they both listen, think, and act out a deep understanding of Jesus’ ministry.

I think the lesson for us from the gospel is how to be in the presence of Jesus.

Anthony Bloom, an archbishop in the Eastern Orthodox Christian Church, recounts in his book Beginning to Pray an experience with a Russian woman whom he visited in a nursing home before she died at the age of 102. It was shortly after his ordination and she sought his advice. “All these years I have been asking people who are reputed to know about prayer, and they have never given me a sensible reply, so I thought that as you probably know nothing, you may by chance blunder out the right thing.” She explained further that for 14 years she had been praying the Jesus prayer almost continually and had never perceived God’s presence.

Bloom blurted out in response: “If you speak all the time, you don’t give God a chance to place a word in.” “What shall I do?” she said. Then he suggested:

“Go to your room after breakfast, put it right, place your armchair in a strategic position that will leave behind your back all the dark corners . . . into which things are pushed so as not to be seen. Light your little lamp before the icon . . . [Orthodox homes traditionally have an icon altar, often with an image of the face of Christ.] and sit, look around, and try to see where you live. Then take your knitting and for fifteen minutes knit before the face of God, but I forbid you to say one word of prayer. You just knit and try to enjoy the peace of your room.”

At first, Bloom writes, the woman was suspicious that this advice was superficial. But when she returned to see him some time later, she announced, “It works!” Bloom was eager to hear her elaboration, so she told him how she had followed his instructions to neaten her room and then settle herself peacefully before her icon. She continued:

I settled into my armchair and thought, “Oh how nice, I have 15 minutes during which I can do nothing without being guilty! I looked around the room and thought how nice it was. After a while I remembered that I must knit before the face of God, and so I began to knit. And I became more and more aware of the silence. The needles hit the armrest of my chair, . . . there was nothing to bother about, . . . and then I perceived that this silence was not simply an absence of noise, but that the silence had substance. It was not absence of something but presence of something. . . . the silence had a density, a richness, and it began to pervade me. The silence around began to come and meet the silence in me. . . . All of a sudden I perceived that the silence was a presence. At the heart of the silence there was the One who is all stillness, all peace, all poise.”

So if Jesus appears on our doorstep, close the laptop, turn off the ipad, and sit down at his feet. This is a time to savor. And if Jesus doesn't appear – do what ever it is that you naturally do; and in that very action; in that deep silence, look and listen for the Divine Presence.

**Preached on Sunday July 21st 2013 at Trinity Episcopal Church, Castine, Maine.

Dr. Deirdre Good is professor of New Testament at The General Theological Seminary, specializing in the Synoptic Gospels, Christian Origins, Noncanonical writings and biblical languages. Her blog is called On Not Being a Sausage.

Changing the familiar

by Linda Ryan

I had the radio on last night, listening to my favorite classical station as I tried to drift off to sleep. The announcement came over the air that the next selection would be the perennial favorite, Beethoven's Fifth Symphony. Oh, great, I thought. Just what I need. That old hack I've heard so many times I can practically sing along with it. In fact, that's precisely what the announcer suggested. I turned over and tried to pretend I was in the Cotswolds or perhaps down by the river back home, anything to take my mind off that impending da-da-da-BOOM.

Then the music started. My eyes shot open and so did my ears. Yes, all the notes were familiar, familiar enough to sing along with, but they sounded so different. The conductor had done something I hadn't heard before; he had speeded it up! Instead of the more usual ponderous pace, the music almost danced. It bounced instead of plodded, seemed bright instead of dark and dense, and it even seemed to be a half-tone or so higher in pitch. I can't remember when I've enjoyed hearing that piece more. I forgot about going to sleep, I was mesmerized instead. Who would have thought that a few beats per minute could make such a difference!

This morning I couldn't shake the thought of how different an old hack could sound with just a small bit of change and the imagination (and courage) to actually take the chance. Then I thought, if Beethoven's Fifth can sound so different, what other things that seem sort of hackneyed and ponderous or even just too familiar might be dragged out, brushed off, shaken out and set down in a different way?

I thought about the gospels. Why the gospels I don't know, but the thought popped into my head and stuck. Now, I've heard a lot of sermons based on the gospels, some better than others, and none particularly memorable except for one that dealt with the mathematical computations of precisely how much wine Jesus made from water at that wedding in Cana. Quite a few of them took the same track: Jesus taught about what God wants of human beings, healed the sick and broken and died for the sins of the world so that those who believed (or believed the right things) would go to heaven and play harps when they died, otherwise they would go to hell and be crispy critters for all eternity, or thoughts to that same effect. Gospels are supposed to be good news, but it seems it is only good news if one follows the doctrines and dogmas of the church, says the right prayers, does the right actions, supports the church physically and financially and tries to convert the whole world to one's own particular brand of theology. Where's the good news there? "Join us, accept Jesus and get your ticket to heaven punched, trains leaving every half hour on the half hour from Track 42."

Not being a priest, preacher, Biblical scholar or even theologian, I can't tell anyone how to make the gospels pop the way that conductor did with Beethoven's Fifth. Maybe it would be by presenting them as really good news -- news that gets people excited (like winning a lottery) or make the heart feel good (the rescue of an endangered child or pet). Maybe it would be stressing that Jesus didn't go around condemning people or asking them to repent before healing them or informing them that they weren't beyond God's love -- if. Maybe it could even be that repentance really follows belief, not the other way around, and that the repentance is something that people really want to do once they believe, if they only have a good reason to do so.

Maybe a few beats a minute doesn't mean much (unless it's a heart that's already in trouble), but it can make all the difference in pulling back the dusty velvet curtains and letting the sunlight into a piece of music. Maybe giving people a reason -- or an example -- of what difference there can be in their lives if they hear a gospel that really is good news. Maybe if we got back to the Christians in the earliest days of the church who follow the words of Jesus, "[E]veryone will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.” (John 13:35). There's nothing there about pounding people over the head with the Bible to prove to them what sinners they are, nothing about having to say the Jesus prayer or go about in sackcloth and ashes or with a whip called a "discipline" in hand. All it is is a commandment to love -- and if that happens, the rest will fall into place like the familiar notes of Beethoven's Fifth.

Linda Ryan co-mentors 2 EfM Online groups and keeps the blog Jericho's Daughter

Ascension's real message

Christian teachings about Jesus’ ascension are uncomfortably problematic.

First, the image of a king ascending to heaven, residing there as a god worshipped by his former subjects, is not unique to Christianity. Romans believed that Romulus (a boy and only later mythologized as a wolf), who with his brother Remus founded Rome, ascended at death to heaven and became the popular god Quirinus. Other ancient figures alleged to have ascended to heaven include Enoch and Elijah in the Old Testament, Hercules, Empedocles, and Alexander the Great. Was Jesus’ ascension historical fact or simply a well-intentioned attempt by Jesus’ first disciples to frame his story in language and metaphors widely known and understood in the first century? If the latter, the story has become a dated and generally misunderstood attempt to describe the intimacy with God that the disciples experienced in their relationship with Jesus.

Second, the image of Jesus ascending to heaven from Palestine, which several hundred years ago was a favorite subject of artists, today often evokes the continuing conflict between religion and science. The pervasive imagery, if taken literally, presupposes a flat earth, flat not because of globalization but because of a wrong view of the solar system. Thinking that heaven connotes a physical place – necessary if one believes in a physical resurrection - poses the additional difficulty of identifying that place’s locale, presumably somewhere in this physical cosmos.

Third, understanding the imagery subtly suggests that earth is at the center of creation, something ancient mapmakers who placed Jerusalem at the center of creation recognized. Nothing in the Bible requires this view; contemporary astronomers convincingly marshal evidence to the contrary. Earth is far from the cosmos’ center; humans are not necessarily the apogee of creation.

Fourth, spiritualizing the image of Jesus ascending to heaven, while avoiding the previous two problems, may imply that heaven is better than earth or that the future is preferable to the present. Yet God created heaven and earth. Valuing heaven more highly than earth requires considerable hubris: who are humans to assess God's handiwork? Admittedly, individual humans may reasonably prefer heaven to earth (e.g., the Apostle Paul, frequently persecuted for his beliefs and practices) or earth to heaven (e.g., people who believe that death is the end of existence). If, however, as the Church has long taught, God determines the number of a person’s days, then being where God wants one to be – earth or heaven – is best for that person at that moment.

Fifth, the New Testament repeatedly states that God is at work reconciling all creation to God's self. Unfortunately, widespread emphasis on heaven as the locus of life after death not only devalues the earth but also causes the Church and Christians largely to ignore the importance of caring for all creation. God calls humans to join God in the work of reconciling all creation (and not just fellow humans!) to God.

Finally, the New Testament and orthodox Christian theology incorporate a commonly unacknowledged contradiction. On the one hand, Jesus says that he must leave the disciples but promises the gift of the Spirit to his disciples as a guide and advocate in his absence. The Nicene Creed affirms Jesus’ absence – he sits at the right hand of the Father in heaven – and the Church celebrates the gift of the Holy Spirit on Pentecost. On the other hand, much of the Church believes that Jesus is present in the Eucharist: this is my body; this is my blood. Whether understood in terms of transubstantiation, real presence, or spiritual presence, this affirmation is a prima facie contradiction of the premise that Jesus is now present in heaven rather than on earth. Furthermore, Christians for almost two millennia, notably including the Apostle Paul, claim to have encountered the risen Jesus on earth in spite of Jesus having ascended from earth into heaven.

So what can Christians meaningfully say about Jesus’ ascension?

First, Ascension reminds us to understand our theology metaphorically, to hold even the most cherished concepts gingerly, tentatively. Contradiction becomes paradox when we recognize that neither claim is ultimately true, that both claims at best represent partial truths, and that the claims’ incompatibility points to a mysterious otherness into which we can live but which we can never adequately articulate or describe. Like the early Christians, we do well to frame our experience of God in the language and metaphors of our time and culture, always cognizant that these are earthen vessels. After all, these earthen vessels are all that we have.

Second, struggling with Ascension’s problems offers a helpful antidote to our proclivities for hubris and anthropocentricity. Thinking about Ascension can remind us that although God created humans and crowned us with glory and honor, God's love has a breadth and depth that encompasses all life and the whole cosmos. Ascension, rightly understood, emphasizes God's reliance upon us as co-redeemers rather than passive participants of creation’s renewal. Jesus is not here; we are; therefore, God relies upon us to act.

Third and finally, Jesus’ ascension is a sign of hope. God remains involved with the cosmos. Whether conceived in terms of the activity of the Son or the Holy Spirit – thankfully, this post is about Ascension and not the Trinity so I, in good conscience, ignore that issue – God’s activity continues. God's reliance upon us to act is not an abdication of God's responsibility but an invitation to partner with God. We do not have to understand how that occurs, correctly identify which person of the Trinity acts, or even accurately discern what God is doing. We can know that our work of reconciliation will ultimately prevail because God works with us. This hope is Ascension’s real message.

George Clifford is a priest, writer, and ethicist who serves as Priest Associate at the Church of the Nativity, Raleigh, NC. He retired from the Navy after serving as a chaplain for twenty-four years and now blogs at Ethical Musings.

Jesus and Abba

by Deirdre Good

Inspite of the fact that scholars since 1988 have made it clear that Abba isn't Daddy, preachers and theologians continue to assert confidently that Jesus' address to God reflects a unique relationship, that of child to parent. This unique relationship, they argue, is central to Jesus' teaching and distinct from Judaism. But is "Abba" indeed a unique way to address God and what else might it imply?

Mark's Gospel preserves the one occasion when Jesus addresses God as "Abba." In Mark's account of Gethsemane Jesus prays to be delivered from arrest, torture, and the crucifixion. "Abba, Father, for you all things are possible; remove this cup from me; yet, not what I want, but what you want” (Mark 14:36). Now in Matthew and Luke's versions of Jesus' prayer to God in Gethsemane, Jesus begins the prayer by saying, "My Father…" (Matthew 26:39) and "Father…" (Luke 22:42). In both cases, Jesus addresses God either in the nominative as an address to God (Matthew) or in the vocative as direct address (Luke). Each version uses language of the gospel to which it belongs. Matthew's language connects to the version of the Lord's Prayer, "Our Father, which art in heaven.." (Matt 6:11) and Luke's echoes the version of the Lord's Prayer in Luke 6:3, "Father…" In both cases, the Aramaic word "Abba" and it's Greek equivalent, "Father" found in Mark has entirely disappeared.

So only Mark's gospel preserves the intimacy of Jesus' address to God as "Abba" and this address occurs only in Gethsemane. No other gospel indicates that Jesus prays to God in this way. And Mark's gospel has no version of the Lord's Prayer.

We can agree that only Mark conveys Jesus' use of Aramaic. Now if we assume that Mark's Gospel is the first to be written, and that Matthew and Luke used Mark in the composition of their gospels, then we can see at least two features of Jesus' Aramaic words in Mark: whenever Jesus uses Aramaic, the words are translated into Greek presumably for the sake of Mark's listeners who were not familiar with Aramaic. And in Matthew and Luke's versions of these same stories, Jesus words are recorded only in Greek. If they were ever spoken in Aramaic, hardly a trace remains in Matthew and Luke.

When Jesus heals the daughter of the ruler of the synagogue, he grasps her hand and says, "Talitha koumi" which Mark translates immediately as "Little girl, I say to you, arise!" (Mark 5:41). Matthew 9:25 and Luke 8:54 do not record Jesus' Aramaic words, if there were any. Similarly, Jesus' healing word to the man who was deaf and who had a speech impediment is "Ephphatha!" to which Mark adds, "That is, Be opened!" (Mark 7:34). Any Aramaic words are absent from a parallel passage in Matthew 15:30 and the episode is unrecorded in Luke.

Both Matthew and Mark however render slightly different versions of Jesus' cry from the cross in Aramaic, " Eloi, eloi, lama sabachthani!" which they translate as "My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?" (Mark 15:34 and Matthew 27:46). In both gospels, people who hear Jesus' words in Aramaic mistakenly think he is calling Elijah. They didn't have the benefit of Mark's or Matthew's renditions because they were living, not hearing, the gospel. And they didn't hear Psalm 22.

So whether in healings, or in a prayer for deliverance, or a cry of despair, Mark's gospel preserves and translates Jesus' Aramaic exclamations. Except for Matthew's account of Jesus' last words, when Matthew, Luke and John report these healings or events, Mark's Aramaic words are eliminated or simply not mentioned.

The fact that Mark translates Jesus' Aramaic speech is worth noting. Think about Jesus' prayer in Gethsemane for a minute. Is it likely that Jesus uttered a bilingual prayer in Gethsemane using both Aramaic and Greek in the opening petition? Probably not. But Mark renders the scene by keeping the strangeness, even the magical character of the Aramaic at the same time as translating the foreign words into Greek. So he moves hearers from the unknown language of Aramaic to the more universally known one, Greek. And Mark translates "Abba" not as "Daddy" but as "Father!"

Now when Jesus addresses God as "Father," Jesus joins his petition for deliverance to those of other Jews in his time e.g. Sirach 23:1,4; and Wisdom 14,3. In 4Q372 1:16, the "Joseph prayer," Joseph calls God "my Father" and pleads that God would save him from the hands of the Gentiles. So to argue that no contemporary Jewish prayer contains this form of address for God is to ignore the evidence. Jesus is a devout Jew whose prayer language fits with his time and place.

Further, to argue that Jesus' use of "Abba" is unique is simply not true. On two occasions in his letters, Romans 8:15 and Gal 4:6, Paul describes "Abba, Father!" as the cry of newly adopted believers calling on a relationship to God they can now claim as their own. Paul's letters predate the gospels. The cry "Abba, Father!" recorded by Paul expresses the ecstatic speech of those newly adopted into the faith from a Gentile background in Asia Minor or elsewhere. It seems unconnected to Jesus' petition for deliverance at Gethsemane. On the lips of Paul's addressees, it is the cry of outsiders becoming insiders, perhaps as they take part in a ritual signaling transference, not an insider praying for escape from something awful about to happen.

So it might be better to say that Jesus' address of God as "Abba" is distinctive rather than unique. It is part and parcel of the religious prayer language of Jesus' day. What makes it distinctive is that it reflects language Jesus used that Mark regards as secret, and perhaps even magical. As such, it needs to be translated into Greek every time Jesus uses it. How extraordinary it is that so many interpreters cling to "Abba" as indicating Jesus' unique relationship to God in mysterious language from which gospel writers seek to escape!

Dr. Deirdre Good is professor of New Testament at The General Theological Seminary, specializing in the Synoptic Gospels, Christian Origins, Noncanonical writings and biblical languages. An American citizen, she grew up in Kenya and keeps the blog On Not Being a Sausage.

Created in God's image

By Deirdre Good

In 2003, Archbishop Desmond Tutu was interviewed for a BBC Radio Programme asking influential people about defining moments in their lives. He said:

The biggest defining moment in my life was when I saw Trevor Huddleston and I was maybe nine or so. I didn't know it was Trevor Huddleston, but I saw this tall, white priest in a black cassock doff his hat to my mother who was a domestic worker. I didn't know then that it would have affected me so much, but it was something that was really - it blew your mind that a white man would doff his hat.

And subsequently I discovered, of course, that this was quite consistent with his theology that every person is of significance, of infinite value, because they are created in the image of God. And the passion with which he opposed apartheid and any other injustice is something that I sought then to emulate.

Compare this with what a priest told me a parishioner recently said: he wasn't sure he could accept her priesthood because men were created in God's image while women were created in the image of men.

Both incidents indicate how two different passages from the bible about human identity and God's image are read and applied to real life situations and real people to enhance or diminish their worth. They show that how we read and interpret biblical passages about human identity affects and even shapes the way we think about and behave towards other people.

The first anecdote is probably based on a reading of Genesis 1:26-7 (NRSV), in which God's creation of humankind reflects something of God's nature, character, or image:

"Then God said, 'Let us make humankind in our image, according to our likeness; and let them have dominion over the fish of the sea, and over the birds of the air, and over the cattle, and over all the wild animals of the earth, and over every creeping thing that creeps upon the earth.' So God created humankind in his image, in the image of God he created them; male and female he created them."

The KJV translates this passage differently:

"And God said, Let us make man in our image, after our likeness: and let them have dominion over the fish of the sea, and over the fowl of the air, and over the cattle, and over all the earth, and over every creeping thing that creepeth upon the earth. So God created man in his own image, in the image of God created he him; male and female created he them."

In this translation, God creates "man" (Hebrew: adam), that is, human being understood as male and female, as we see from the next phrase: "and let them have dominion…" There's no substantive difference in these translations. The translation "humankind" is clearly attempting to render the gender inclusive sense of adam. The only thing that differentiates these translations is an archaic usage of "man" for humankind. Humankind, however, excludes female from being part of "man". We are talking about a conflation of species designation and gender designation. Perhaps a better translation would have been mankind, making it clearer that "man" means male and female. But on the whole I think humankind is the best we can do at the moment.

The second anecdote is probably based on a reading of I Cor 11: 7, part of Paul's explanation of why women should veil their heads in public assembly at Corinth:
"For a man ought not to have his head veiled, since he is the image and reflection of God; but woman is the reflection of man."

The first passage interprets the connection males and females have with the image of God equally. The second proposes that only the male reflects God's image whilst woman reflects that of the male. Perhaps it is based on a limited reading of Genesis 1:26, understanding only men to have been created in the image of God.

Confining the reflection of God's image to one gender only is even more acute when we consider New Testament passages describing Christ as the image of God. But the issue is quite straightforward: Christ becomes human in the incarnation, not exclusively male. And this understanding is reflected in language of the New Testament and the creeds but not, alas, some modern translations.

Colossians, for example, hymns Christ, "Who is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn of every creature" (1:15); Hebrews likewise says of Christ, "Who, being the brightness of his glory, and the express image of his person..(1:3). In both passages I use the KJV translation which keeps the (masculine) relative pronoun of the Greek. Unfortunately, more modern translations of both passages emphasize not the relative pronoun but its masculine gender: "He is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn of all creation" (NRSV Colossians 1:15); "He is the reflection of God’s glory and the exact imprint of God’s very being.." (NRSV Hebrews 1:3). It is a question of emphasis; Bishop Krister Stendahl said some time ago, "the masculinity of God, and of God-language, is a cultural and linguistic accident, and I think one should also argue that the masculinity of the Christ is of the same order. To be sure, Jesus Christ was a male, but that may be no more significant to his being than the fact that presumably his eyes were brown. Incarnation is a great thing. But it strikes me as odd to argue that when the Word became flesh, it was to re-enforce male superiority."

We must do everything we can to promote the theological idea that men and women are created in God's image. For the insidious idea that only men reflect God's image or that they reflect more of it than women do, has led and leads to sinful denigration, devaluation and abuse of women in the mistaken name of Christian tradition.

Dr. Deirdre Good is professor of New Testament at The General Theological Seminary, specializing in the Synoptic Gospels, Christian Origins, Noncanonical writings and biblical languages. An American citizen, she grew up in Kenya and keeps the blog On Not Being a Sausage.

Read, mark, learn...

By W. Christopher Evans

It is often remarked by insiders and outsiders alike that Anglican Christianity, among all traditions of Christianity, seems distinctly shaped by Benedictine monastic traditions.[1] This is not a surprise in light of how deeply Benedictine traditions shaped Isles[2] practices and life onward from the mission sent by St. Gregory the Great of Rome as led by St. Augustine of Canterbury up to our series of reformations. And precisely in the central piece of work arising in and surviving through our reformations, The Book of Common Prayer, this Benedictine influence remains with us today and shapes us if we dare take it up and pray.

It has often been remarked that Thomas Cranmer intended to remake the Isles peoples into a vast monastery. I think this romantic notion gets Cranmer’s intent backwards. Rather our Prayer Book reforms the basic pieces of monastic piety and life precisely because in the first instance these matters should concern all Christians, not just monastics: Daily prayer and a life lived toward God and for neighbor in all the cares of daily and national life, including disputes over gentry seizures of commons and political intrigues at court. In other words, he intends to remake the Isles peoples into more well-formed and single-hearted, that is, praising Christians at work, in their home, and in their everyday community. It is within this generous framework that the particular dedications of our monastics should be placed, not vice versa.

In some ways then, Anglicanism is a version of Benedictine tradition for all comers, for all persons, for the sake of our social worlds, not away from or despite these. That is, ours is a common praying and communal discipleship tradition that takes seriously the corporate “I” or persons-as-persons-in-community-participating-in-the Life of Three Persons One as well as God’s care for each unique person as a person with a particular makeup and needs and mission and ministries all within the container of God’s faithfulness to us and our responses of trust in Who God shows Godself to be in Jesus Christ. And we take this service into everyday life. As Br. Anselm Grün observes,

God is present to us as one who speaks to us. The initiative comes from God….God speaks to us before we have asked him. He speaks to us in the words of Scripture. Benedict places the words of Scripture in God’s lips in such a way that they are personally addressed to us. This is no abstract word of God, but a word in which God speaks to me now, concretely, in my present situation….God’s presence is not something that is always the same; it is not like an impersonal space that surrounds us. Instead, it is like a trusted person who addresses us in ever new ways. Of course, for Benedict, God is also the Spirit who dwells within us and is ever-present to us. But we do not melt into God. We are not dissolved in God. Instead, God always approaches us as a partner, as someone who challenges us. Depending on the situation and the word with which God addresses us, God always encounters us in a new and often surprising way. When we sit silently, alone in our room, we find God in the words “Here I am” differently than when we recall those words in the midst of a quarrel with another person. But we never experience God as a vague atmosphere of the divine; we encounter God always as a person who confronts and challenges us. God wants to change us through the word….Nowadays we are in danger of avoiding this stance of being addressed….the word of God…addresses me, touches me, calls me into question, wounds and judges me, but also heals and frees me.[3]
Our Prayer Book itself forms the core of a shared or common rule of life,[4] a way of ordering our lives together as instructions on living out of God’s gospel to us in Jesus Christ as gospel responses in our own lives through thanksgiving and praise in all things—singing, praying, working, recreating, loving, living, struggling both with ourselves in examination and with others in solidarity for shaping a world more transparent to and reflective of the heavenly and earthly chorus: Holy, holy, holy, God of hosts, heaven and earth are full of your glory. Our Prayer Book is our version of Eat, Pray, Love. The Prayer Book makes Holy Baptism the center and ground of our always reality: We are marked as Christ’s own forever in “indissoluble bond” (BCP, 298). The round of daily prayers and Sunday Holy Communion shares the same core as that of The Rule of Saint Benedict and is intended to turn us again and again to God who chooses us in the baptismal font and nourishes us for the race as disciples, as witnesses to and bearers of God’s gospel, God’s creative, redemptive, and sustaining eternal and incarnate Word, Jesus Christ, and the implications this Word has for the ordering of our lives together, not just as Christians, but as human beings—lives reoriented to thanksgiving and praise in all things, that is, the Kingdom, the Kin-dom, the Reign of God among us here and now with a hope of our very messed up lives and social worlds becoming more proximate. This implies that the Word, Jesus Christ, and the Holy Spirit are ever at work among us as Church and in the life of our social worlds. We pray so.

Our beloved Lutheran kin have somewhat of an allergy to anything smacking of rules, so I have taken to coining a phrase, “patterned gospel responses,” that I think reflects an Anglican concern for a habit-forming life of discipleship. This phrase acknowledges also the Lutheran concern for the gospel we must always keep before us and that our lives are lives of response. Framed within our central rites, we find patterned gospel responses or the ordering of Church life in various ministries to the Body such as ordination and of our lives as gospellers flung far and wide in our ministries in and to and with and within our social worlds in such things as marriage and death and prayer in trials and tribulations as we work for a more proximate peace and justice of Christ among us here and now on earth. And as we regularly confess and profess, a peace and justice, that finally is God’s work and completing.

Intended primarily for parochial use, the Prayer Book has often been a beloved companion of Anglican Christians. I have several copies, a sign of our own age, but one tatty copy of poor binding is still my preferred praying companion even in the age of cool iPhone apps and fine internet sites.[5] In our time partially because of a very positive development, the recovery of regular Sunday Eucharist, the Offices have become increasingly a householder practice and the canonical discipline of the ordained. Never private prayer, the Church’s public, and yes, personal prayer—remembering we are persons-in-community-participating in the Life of the Persons Three —may require adaptation when used by householders depending on one’s circumstances—maybe only one lesson morning and evening, for example. Lectio divina fits very nicely within the framework of the two principle Offices, Morning and Evening Prayer following the lesson: Silence may be kept after each Reading.[6]

While lectio divina has often been characterized as holy or spiritual reading, I would characterize lectio in words similar to those of Dr. Martha Stortz, “The Bible reads us.”[7] God reads us and does so by and through the words of Scripture and sometimes our theologians besides.[8] Lectio divina is a way of strengthening us in the race by making room for to God read us and speak to us how it is each of us might best serve God’s Reign in our life this very day. In classic Benedictine tradition, there are four moments: Lectio (Read), Meditatio (Meditate), Oratio (Pray), and Contemplatio (Contemplate). What I offer here unfolds lectio in eight steps arising from a Cranmerian Collect in The Book of Common Prayer. The Eight moments are simply an expansion on the four. All that would happen within the four is simply given more distinction in the Eight.

Eight Moments in God’s Reading of Each of Us


We pray:

Blessed Lord, who caused all holy Scriptures to be written for our learning: Grant us so to hear them, read, mark, learn and inwardly digest them, that we may embrace and ever hold fast the blessed hope of everlasting life, which you have given us in our Savior Jesus Christ; who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.[9]

We chose a scripture passage. I usually do this within the framework of Morning or Evening Prayer, so I go with a text from the Daily Office Lectionary (BCP, pp. 933-1001). Currently we’re in Year One, Week of Lent 5 (p. 956).

The scripture passage is then read aloud slowly and reflectively.[10] We simply listen to the word as it is proclaimed to each of us, and God’s Voice in its being spoken or sung comes to and wells up within you, me, each of us by the power of the Holy Spirit. At least one minute of silence follows.


The scripture passage is read aloud again slowly and reflectively. We now listen for what the still small voice of God is speaking to each of us personally through a particular word, an image, a phrase, an action, a person. In other words, God reads us. At least one minute of silence follows


The scripture passage is read aloud again slowly and reflectively. We deepen in the resonance God creates in our being by that word, image, phrase, action, person. We are invited as we feel comfortable to share aloud or to write down the word, image, phrase given to us. A journal is a good place to keep these words God gives to you.


We have a conversation with God. That is, we pray. We lift up our own joys and concerns, delights and sufferings. We ask God to show us what this word, phrase, image, action, phrase may be calling us to do in our own life this very day.

Inwardly Digest

We “chew” on the word, image, phrase, action, person like cattle or sheep might digest grass. In other words, we wrestle with God’s word to us and with what this word means for our life this very day.


We simply and gently rest in God who first and always embraces us, trusting that God will give us the grace needed for this day to do what God is calling us to do. If we choose, we may use the word God has given us for today as a mantra or koan for focus or for setting aside distracting thoughts when they arise. Or we may use our regular prayer word if we have one for meditation.

Hold Fast

Having rested in God who first and always embraces us, we ready ourselves to embrace others (our neighbors, friends and enemies alike), holding fast to the love of God in Christ in all that we do this day, and especially in doing the word God has given to each of us. We remind ourselves of God’s promises to us to be with us this day and always no matter what by making the Sign of the Cross and praying The Lord’s Prayer. At the close of the day, we will confess we cannot do it ourselves and we need God to do anything good.


We go forth, with God’s word to each of us, into all that makes up our daily lives, our social worlds, living out of the Eighth moment, the Eighth Day, the ever-present power and presence and promise of the Resurrection of Jesus Christ, who has made us a new creation in Holy Baptism and gives to us eternal life to live here and now. In all that we encounter this day, we turn to the word God has given us for strength and solace, and so, live.

Dr. Christopher Evans recently completed a Ph.D. in Liturgical Studies and Church History at the Graduate Theological Union. He offers occasional musings on the Rule of St. Benedict, liturgical questions, and life as a Benedictine oblate at Contemplative Vernacular

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What does the Bible say about other religions

This is a second in a three part series on the evolving issue of Christian interaction with believers of other religions, what the Bible says about other religions, and how Christians can welcome the contributions of other faith traditions.

By Frederick Quinn

The first reference point for Christians in considering the place of other religions is the Bible. But here an immediate problem is that the Bible was written before Islam appeared in the Middle East and without an awareness of the content of the great Asian religions. Are its passages seemingly hostile to other religions aimed at the other great world religions? No, the biblical writers had something else in mind. Their focus was the hostile or incomplete belief systems surrounding the Hebrew people and early Christians at a time when they were carving out their own identity. Their affirmation of a newly discovered faith and the shortcomings they found in religions around them was in the strong language of passion and discovery. The biblical quest was toward finding the Messiah and Jesus, the Savior, not toward a balanced appraisal of world religions as they evolved historically.

As a way of considering the Bible’s relationship to other religions, it is possible to list several central passages into what appear to be “Closed” and “Open” categories, representing narrower roadblock and wider Reign of God or Kingdom of God interpretations. The more frequently cited passages erected as barriers supposedly excluding other religions are “I am the way, and the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me.” (John 14.6) and “There is salvation in no one else, for there is no other name under heaven given among mortals by which we must be saved. ” (Acts 4.12), which biblical literalists usually cite as limiting divine salvation only to confessed Christians who have verbally accepted Jesus as savior during their lifetimes. This excludes much of humanity, then and now, since only a minority of the earth’s population will have heard of Jesus, and fewer still will have had a realistic chance of knowing much about Christianity as a religion. If this interpretation holds, only a handful of the world’s peoples gain salvation, while millions merit exclusion or damnation through no fault or effort of their own.

“The Bible should not be used as an ammunition belt.”
The Bible is much more than a series of isolated billboard slogans. If passages like the above are considered in the wider context of Acts and John’s Gospel, they are subsumed by the New Testament’s central theme, the cosmic, consistent love of God for all humanity and the created universe through Christ, proclaimed in the wider concept of the Reign of God. In the Johannine account this represents the “true light which enlightens everyone” (John 1.9) that “became flesh and lived among us” (John 1.14). God’s loving presence is manifest in all creation and all humanity, expressed as the true light and eternal Word that assumed mortal form in Jesus. “The Bible should not be used as an ammunition belt full of verse-size bullets to be fired off as they are needed,” Diana L. Eck has written. The director of the Harvard Pluralism Project describes the “I am the way…No one comes” (John 14.6) passage as the pastoral response of Jesus to a timorous disciple, Thomas, on the night before the death of Jesus. “It was a pastoral answer, not a polemical one,” she concludes, providing an expression of comfort, not condemnation, an expression of personal commitment to Christ, but not to the denigration or demonization of neighbors. Attempts to make this Johannine passage a narrow statement of God’s intent contrast with several other clearly more welcoming passages in that gospel, including “For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life.” (John 3:16) and “I have other sheep that do not belong to this fold.” (John 10:16). The contrasts are clear.

The second passage often quoted by those who would limit the place of other religions in relation to Christianity is, “There is salvation in no one else,” (Acts 4:12). But this passage in context represents a more limited statement by Peter, who is pressed by hostile interrogators, and who makes a bold personal witness to the power of Jesus in his life. The Acts of the Apostles are filled with examples of the remarkable energy of the young church, and its members were bold and unambiguous in their declarations of their newly discovered Christian identity.

Other writers have suggested that passages like the above should be understood as the “survival language” of the young church, action language whose intent was to rally people to the new faith. These passages are not actual photographs or newsreel footage, but more like artist’s sketches attempting to capture the essence of an encounter. These affirmations are like “love language,” the extravagant, poetic language a lover might use to address the beloved.

Thus, the Roadblock passages should not be seen as creedal or doctrinal formulae, but strong affirmations of personal and communal faith. They represent an invitation to follow and act like Jesus, to rally Christians to faithful representations of the teachings of Jesus, not set up doctrinal roadblocks to exclude others.

The Reign of God, the Unifying Message of New Testament

Affirmation trumps rejection, welcome is stronger than exclusion, and the New Testament message is clear about that through its core message about the the Reign of God. The phrase “Reign of God”, Basileia tou Theou in Greek, Malkuth in Hebrew, appears over 150 times in the New Testament. It has been translated as the “Kingdom of God,” though that is misleading, especially if it connotes a specific political or geographic kingdom. Another translation might be the “reigning of God,” suggesting not a static kingdom, but an active, engaging process. Spoken of often by Jesus, yet never clearly defined, the Reign of God was proclaimed in general outline in the Sermon on the Mount (Mat. 5-7) and the Beatitudes (Mat. 5: 1-11), and reinforced elsewhere in the teaching mission of Jesus. At the heart of this message is a call for justice, freedom, love, and equality among peoples. This declaration represented a radical affront to the religious and political authorities he encountered, and Jesus paid for it with his life.

The New Testament Reign of God welcomes non-Christians as common seekers after a truth fully revealed in Jesus Christ but experienced in different historical settings by other religions as well. The Kingdom was consistently made available to outsiders. Jesus said to a Roman centurion, “Truly I tell you, in no one in Israel have I found such faith.” (Mat.: 8:10) To a Canaanite woman he declared in healing her daughter, “Woman, great is your faith! Let it be done for you as you wish.” (Mat. 15:21-28). Jesus conversed with a foreigner, a Samaritan woman, (Jn. 4:7-15) who sought “living water” and elsewhere cited the example of the “good Samaritan” who had pity on a wounded robbery victim (Lk. 10: 29-37). Pagans, outsiders, or foreigners were consistently welcomed by Jesus, and at the final Passover dinner he told his followers he would not eat the Passover again “until it is fulfilled in the kingdom of God.” (Lk 22: 16).

This, in broad outline, is a reading of what the Reign of God means. Many world theologians of recent decades understand the kingdom to be freely offered to both believers and members of other religions. If their lives and beliefs reflect what Jesus preached, they too are witnesses to the Kingdom in global settings. This moves considerably beyond Rahner’s “anonymous Christians” and the classic confines of Exclusivists and Inclusivists, and affirms that God’s loving reach extends to other religions, most of which the earthly Jesus would not have encountered in the Middle East of his time.

Keith Ward, in his recent book What the Bible Really Teaches, sketches an imaginary picture of what constitutes salvation in such a setting:

It would perhaps be a picture of a trillion trillion suns, of uncountable forms of conscious and creative life, of virtually endless reaches of space and time, universe upon universe, all held together in the mind of Christ, raised from destruction and decay of the material realm to participate in the deathless and trans-temporal nature of divine Wisdom. On one small planet at the edge of a small galaxy, one young man was taken to share in the divine nature, to disclose its final purpose and mediate its illimitable power to the inhabitants of that small world. And what they see is the ultimate transfiguration of time itself into eternity, the final reconciliation of the whole universe in Christ….What the Bible really teaches us about salvation is no less than that.

Frederick Quinn, an Episcopal priest and former chaplain at Washington National Cathedral, is the author of The Sum of All Heresies, The Image of Islam in Western Culture, published by Oxford University Press in 2008. These three articles are excerpted from his forthcoming book, “And I Saw a New Heaven and a New Earth,” Religious Pluralism in a Global Age.

Mary: Her fiat is our fortune

Summer hours continue. Daily Episcopalian will publish every other day this week.

By Kathy Staudt

There was a lively two-part discussion a month or so ago on Episcopal Café about the Virgin Birth, whether and why we should or should not believe in Mary’s perpetual virginity, what doing so says about ideas about women, the role of the creeds, etc., -- and finding myself not really inclined to weigh in because I didn’t care that much about what seemed to be at stake. It may be that it’s a gender thing: one commentator in the fray did notice that not many women were weighing in on the whole question of Mary’s virginity or not, perpetual or temporary or whatever – and I have to admit that it doesn’t seem to be that important a question to me, at least in the terms in which it was being posed, as a question of doctrine).

But then the lectionary brought us, on August 16, to the observance of “The Feast of Mary the Virgin,” and I remembered reading the lessons and pondering the whole story in Luke, that I really like this part of the story, and find it “makes sense of things” in my faith the way that profoundly true stories do, and in a way that make quarrels like the one about the nature & duration of Mary’s physical virginity (or not) seem beside the point, for me. I think this reaction comes out of my instincts as a reader of great imaginative literature and my vocation as a poet. My own reading of the story of the Annunciation, in particular, has been shaped by the way that a number of 20th century poets, male and female, have read that story – seeing it as a story about how the Incarnation happened, and about miraculous and world-changing cooperation between a human being and God. And also in how the story is told in Scripture – especially in Luke’s gospel.

The story in Luke, skillfully put together, begins with a familiar pattern that we know from Hebrew Scripture: A barren woman, Elizabeth, finds that she is with child, in her old age. This tells us that we are reading a story that is in a continuous tradition with stories of God’s grace and favor to those who are marginalized So, in Luke, we start with the story of a barren woman conceiving, just when everyone thought God had stopped acting. The father, Zechariah, doesn’t believe the angel’s promise, and he’s struck dumb until that promise is fulfilled. So we have a story about the usual way that God’s promise works in the lives of the people. (To me it misses the point to say that this business of God blessing barren women overvalues childbearing as a sign of female worth: the stories have been abused in this way, certainly, but that’s not what it’s about in Hebrew Scripture. Rather, in a story about the survival of God’s people, both naturally and spiritually, the whole barren-woman-made-mother motif is about the one who was rejected being blessed and made whole and honored by God. When his motif turns up, it’s a signal that God is working in this part of the story: NOT a normative statement about how a society should be organized).

Anyway – we get the story of Elizabeth, and a famliar motif to anyone who knows Hebrew Scripture: and then the stakes are raised.

Side by side with this story, we have the story of Mary, encountering the angel Gabriel with the extraordinary news that she will bear a child. This is extraordinary because she is a virgin/has no husband/has not known a man (pick your translation). Her status as a virgin means that she still “owns” her own body – she doesn’t belong to any man, so in that sense she is free to respond to God’s request. Now, Luke’s Greek readers were used to stories of human women conceiving by gods (the rape of Leda, by Zeus disguised as a swan, comes to mind) – but in those stories it usually happens without the woman’s consent. So you could say it’s a motif familiar to the Greeks, but here it’s told in a very Hebrew way – where the body matters. The story has to be told this way, and it works. (the issues of female purity that the tradition has brought to the reading do not seem to me to be IN the story here.) Mary doesn’t question the promise; she just wonders about the logistics: “How can this be, as I am a virgin?” In that, Luke’s telling of the story contrasts her with Zechariah, who asked for proof, and was silenced for doing so. Mary just wants to know what will happen to her, which seems to be a fair question, and the angel gives her an answer. And Mary gives her consent. That is the heart of the story.

And we know, in the story that follows – written for its audience of Greeks and Jews – that in a wonderfully earthy, Hebrew way, this Jesus whom we read about, empowered by the Holy Spirit, is actually “the Son of God” born of a woman, in the flesh. (I’ve always appreciated, in fact, the human homeliness of the Church’s wisdom in appointing March 25 as Feast of the Annuciation – 9 months before December 25, which was settled on as the Feast of the Nativity.) Aesthetically, imaginatively, theologically, and spiritually, the story “works” this way, and challenges us to consider at every turn that the Jesus we meet here is the hero of a story about how God is active (and now incarnate) in human affairs, both within and beyond Israel. He is God-with-us and “one of us” in a way that is really almost shocking, if you think about it. The story insists that we think about it.

The poet David Jones, writing in the mid-twentieth century and re-telling this story in the context of salvation history, offers a reading of it that has shaped my thinking about both Annunciation and Incarnation (and in Jones it’s all connected to the Eucharist – but that’s probably for another post). Anyway, at one point in his long poem The Anathemata, the narrative voice the poem calculates the date of the Passion by looking back to the Annunciation:

Thirty four years and twenty-one days
since that germinal March
and terminal day
(no drought that year)
since his Leda
said to his messenger . . .
(his bright talaria on)
fiat mihi
(p. 189)

In the poet’s retelling of the story, Mary is God’s “Leda” (the woman in Greek mythology raped by Zeus, in the guise of a swan), but this event is not a rape: Mary’s consent is the important thing: she says “fiat mihi”: “let it be to me according to your word” (Luke 1:38). Elsewhere in Jones’s long poem a lively female narrator says of Mary “ her fiat is our fortune” (p. 128) -- and in a note to this passage Jones acknowledges being inspired by the doctrine that “The Eternally Begotten could not have become begotten on a creature except by a creature’s pliant will” (Ana p. 128). In both poem and commentary, Jones, a Roman Catholic, is emphasizing an aspect of the cult of Mary more familiar in the eastern church, where Mary is celebrated as the human “God-bearer,” the Theotokos.

In this strain of the Christian tradition it’s not really about whether she’s a virgin or not,: it’s about her humanity, which happens to be a female humanity, and needs to be, for God’s purposes in this part of the story: it’s about a free human being consenting to be fully used, body and soul, for God’s purposes. “Her fiat is our fortune.” The poet puts it well. This is the kind of insight that has shaped my habit of going to the poets for insight into the deep spiritual and theological questions that challenge us, both in doctrine and in Scripture.

Dr. Kathleen Henderson Staudt keeps the blog poetproph, works as a teacher, poet, spiritual director and retreat leader in the Washington DC area. She is the author of two books: At the Turn of a Civilisation: David Jones and Modern Poetics and Annunciations: Poems out of Scripture.

Blessed Mary, never virgin? Part II

Summer hours continue. Daily Episcopalian will publish every other day this week.

By Derek Olsen

The second argument over Mary’s virginal status is a little different. In asking whether Mary had relations with Joseph after the birth of Jesus, we leave the realm of the creeds and what must be believed and we enter the realm of tradition and what may (or may not) be believed. We also enter into a much more speculative domain. Like the issue of Jesus’ own virginity, this is a question that later interpreters were more interested in than the evangelists. As a result, later interpreters sift through the texts, looking for evidence and weighing nuances that may or may not be there. At the end of the day, what is found seems to be driven more by interpretive agendas than by the (very) limited evidence itself.

This question, like the first question, is not a new one. The status of Mary’s perpetual virginity was debated then as it is now. As a result, there’s less point in hashing out the arguments then in pointing back to when these arguments originally took place. Right around the year 383, an otherwise unknown author named Helvidus wrote a tract on the Blessed Virgin Mary. It doesn’t survive, but apparently he argued that Mary and Joseph really did consummate their marriage physically, that the individuals referred to in the gospels as the brothers and sisters of Jesus were the biological children of Mary and Joseph, and—building on these points—that the married estate was a more natural and preferable estate for Christians than celibacy. And there we get to the crux of the argument; it’s less about what Mary did then and more about what we should do now.

A little background is helpful here. By the year 383, Christianity had been legalized, and, in 380, had just been declared the state religion by Theodosius I. Furthermore, in 382, Theodosius had issued an edict that, among others, passed a death sentence on a group called the Encratites. Groups identified as Encratites had been around since the first century. The historian Eusebius links them with Tatian around 172; the later heresy-hunter Epiphanius connects a group holding similar views with a leader named Severus who probably flourished after Tatian. In any case, these folks were noted for their ascetical extremism. They drank no wine, ate no meat, and had no sex. Their practices represent a gnostic rejection of creation as a good act by the good God, and they were suppressed by the Church as being either Gnostics or a form of Manicheans.

Around the same time, though, the early monastic movement was on the rise. A reaction against the Constantinian acceptance of Christianity and a flood of politically motivated converts, monasticism sought to embody the rigors of the Gospel and to search for the kingdom of God and its virtues through ascetical means. Monastics ended up looking quite a bit like the Encratites to some. The key difference between the Encratites and the early monks, though, was that the monks maintained that one could be a Christian and be married: celibacy was preferable but not necessary. For the Encratites, one could not be both sexually active and a Christian. At the end of the day, the Encratites were suppressed while the monks went on to gain ascendency, and, in the West, achieved the legislation of clerical celibacy as well.
So, Helvidus was writing in order to deny the perpetual virginity of Mary and, it seems quite likely, was arguing against a variety of Gnostics, Manicheans, and Encratites at the same time. His treatise was answered by none other than Jerome, the great translator of Scripture and one of the great transmitters of monasticism from the Greek-speaking East to the Latinate West. Needless to say, as a monk and a tireless promoter of virginity, Jerome argued for the perpetual virginity of Mary and suggested that celibacy was the preferred state for Christians, although he allowed that not all Christians are called to it.

In his work, Jerome moves point by point through the technical and grammatical parts of Helvidus’s argument, slowly shredding each one. In each case, whether it’s in the biblical description of Mary and Joseph’s relationship or whether it’s the potential siblings of Jesus, Jerome is able to bring his encyclopedic knowledge of the Scriptures and of the Greek of the Scriptures to bear on the topic. Now—my Greek’s decent, but it can’t hold a candle to Jerome’s; furthermore, few if any in the modern age have the kind of grasp of Scripture that Jerome did. We may use different interpretive techniques, we may hold more of an hermeneutic of suspicion than he, but as for knowing the vocabulary and grammar of Scripture in both the Hebrew and Greek—I’m not willing to compete with him. What Jerome accomplishes, in my eyes, is not to definitively solve the issue, but to throw sufficient doubt on the counter-arguments that the perpetual virginity of Mary remains an open question—one that the extremely limited gospel evidence does not conclude decisively one way or the other.
As a result, we’re back to agendas. The very first thing that we must note is that an over-reliance on agendas make for bad history. The valences of sexual expression and virginity are wildly different between then and now. The current notion that self-actualization is dependent on unfettered sexual expression smacks up hard against the statistics for deaths in childbirth in Antiquity and the absence of reliable contraception. As feminist scholars of Early Christianity have noted, particularly in reference to works like the Apocryphal Acts (with their Encratite influence), virginity could be a route to empowerment for women in Antiquity.

Furthermore, we note that Helvidus and Jerome are essentially playing the same game—they’re both attempting to retroject their own social and theological understandings of marriage onto Mary; it’s history as a proxy battlefield for the culture wars of the past. Nor is this technique a stranger to us. One of the classic moves in the latest round of culture wars is looking at “biblical relationships” by means of retrojecting present realities upon textual situations where they fit uncomfortably. Both sides do it, and in doing so, neither honors the text, because both are attempting force a meaning beyond what the evidence will bear. Let me suggest that this is the wrong way to go about the task of either doing history or establishing normative practices for today’s Christians.

So where do we go from here? Our faith is rooted in a number of concrete historical events, preeminently the incarnation, life, crucifixion, resurrection and ascension of Jesus Christ. However, we have no historical access to these events: no DNA, no vitals, no photos or videos, not even much in the way of independent confirmation by outside sources. Instead, we access this history through two sets of veils: first, the New Testament itself which gives us literary rather than directly historical data; and second, the creeds which are literary guides to the interpretation of the Scripture. As a result, any appeals to Christian history are complicated at best and pure projection at worst. Should our understanding of human sexuality and how we should act now be based on what we believe Mary did historically as tortured from literary texts that weren’t trying to answer that question? I can’t see how that would be helpful.

So what do we do? How do we adjudicate the issue at hand, and once that’s been accomplished, what do we do with it?

For my place, barring any hard evidence one way or the other, my preference is to go with the historic teaching of the Church. Now, what does this belief mean for me? On an intellectual level, it serves as a reminder that our mental space is not the same as the mental space of the Scriptures and the Early Church. That is, chastity and celibacy played a different role in their time than ours and we ignore that difference at our peril. Indeed, I think recovering a more Scriptural perspective on celibacy and sexuality may even be a helpful point in today’s arguments as I’ve stated before (part I and part II).

On a spiritual level, it means that Mary focused all of her time and energy directly on Jesus. After all, that’s Paul’s whole argument on behalf of celibacy in 1 Cor 7:32-35—Christian celibacy is not about what you don’t do but about what you’re freed to do: focus utterly on God. Thus, upholding the notion of Mary’s perpetual virginity means that, in all of my devotions to Mary, I keep her foremost as a model of the soul wholly devoted to God who constantly admonishes us as she did the servants at the Cana wedding, “Do whatever he tells you” (John 2:5).

As a result, until I hear an argument that I find both more compelling and more edifying, I’ll keep referring to “Blessed Mary Ever-Virgin.”

Derek Olsen recently finished his Ph.D. in New Testament at Emory University. He has taught seminary courses in biblical studies, preaching, and liturgics; he currently resides in Maryland. His reflections on life, liturgical spirituality, and being a Gen-X/Y dad appear at Haligweorc.

Blessed Mary, never virgin? Part I

Summer hours continue. Daily Episcopalian will publish every other day this week.

By Derek Olsen

In one of my various blog rants on the latest Episcopal sanctoral calendar, Holy Women, Holy Men, I received a comment on Mary. It was brief and suggested only that Mary be referred to as “blessed” but not as “virgin.”

Interesting, I thought. What’s the angle? Despite my request for more explanation, no further comments were forthcoming. I was a little disappointed—it was a conversation I was looking forward to having; I doubt that my mind would be changed, but it’s always worthwhile to dig around the issues a bit.

There are two basic arguments that take place around the appellation "virgin" as applied to the mother of Our Lord. The first argument that denies the title of "virgin" to Mary concerns her capacity as mother of Our Lord--in other words, this argument is a denial of the virgin birth of Christ. The second argument takes issue with the Church's (apparently) post-Scriptural designation of Mary as "ever-virgin." That is, the second need not touch on the virgin birth, but, instead, suggests that Mary and Joseph had intercourse and, presumably, natural children of their own in addition to Jesus.

I tend to think of the first question—concerning the virgin birth of Christ—as a rather cut-and-dried issue. On one side, you have the Scripture, the creeds, and the faith of the Church; on the other, you have modern biology. According to our biological canons, we all know that human parthenogenesis is not medically attested. Lizards, yes; sharks, yes; humans, not so much. As a result there are two basic positions: either 1) we have miracle or 2) we have a miraculous explanation of a less-than-miraculous situation. Not surprisingly, this issue sometimes becomes a litmus test for examining the intersection between reason and religion, and both sides get negatively caricatured by their opponents.

Personally, I’m a biologically-aware individual (Dad’s a geneticist; my brother is an organic chemist) and a fully-trained New Testament scholar. I’m for the ordination of women and the church blessing of same-sex marriages. I’ve got all the progressive educated modern-person credentials you could want. And I’m a believer in the virgin birth.

Matthew and Luke are insistent that Jesus was born of Mary when she was a virgin. Then we have the creeds. As I understand them, the creeds are the Church’s documents that serve to nail down potentially questionable points of interpretation. That is, if the creed touches on an item, it’s because there was a controversy about how to read and make sense of it. To put it another way, the creeds are silent on the non-controversial matters—like what Jesus taught and did. Instead, it identifies precisely those points where “reasonable” people might waffle or seek a less literal meaning.

Make no mistake; even in the first three centuries of the Church, they knew how this looked. Don’t think that people in the 1st century world didn’t understand the birds and the bees; they knew precisely how babies got made—maybe not on the biochemical level, but in the acts that mattered. This was no less scandalous then than now. Yet the Church insisted on it then and does so now as well. I know how babies get made too (I have two of my own…). Yet I choose to believe that Jesus was born of a virgin; that there is more to this world than what our modern empirical materialism would have us believe.

That’s also not to say that I believe that all of the events reported as miracles throughout Scripture either literally occurred or were supernatural departures from the order of things—but this is a big one; the Incarnation is in a whole different category than, say, Balaam’s speaking donkey or Lot’s wife turning to a pillar of salt.

To put it another way: how can you reasonably claim that God created the universe, or even that the universe came into being through God-sponsored processes—yet God is unable to fertilize a single egg cell? It seems to me that universe-creation is the much bigger feat, yet many modernist-types are willing to grant that while scoffing at a virgin birth.

Thus, the first challenge to Mary’s virginity seems to come down to a point of faith. Do we believe the observations and explanations of modern science in all cases over the faith handed down, or do we give faith the benefit of the doubt in the face of scientific knowledge in cases of importance—like the Incarnation and Resurrection? Furthermore, the settled consensus of the Church on who and what Jesus is and all the consequences thereof are based in the notion that Jesus is true man and true God. If it wasn’t a virgin birth—if something else supplied the other half of the zygote equation—then all you’re left with is a gussied-up form of Adoptionism and a lot of well-tested and experience-based theology that suddenly you have to account for in some other way.

Derek Olsen recently finished his Ph.D. in New Testament at Emory University. He has taught seminary courses in biblical studies, preaching, and liturgics; he currently resides in Maryland. His reflections on life, liturgical spirituality, and being a Gen-X/Y dad appear at Haligweorc.

Yes to the Quadrilateral, but yes to more.

Daily Episcopalian will publish every other day this week.

By Derek Olsen

A few weeks ago, Fr. David Simmons, an online colleague, wondered aloud what implications Rowan William’s move to discipline the Episcopal Church held for the future of the Chicago-Lambeth Quadrilateral. A document coming from the end of the 19th century, this quadrilateral lays out the four basic requirements for church unity from an Anglican perspective: the Scriptures, the Creeds, the Dominical Sacraments (Baptism and Eucharist), and the Historic Episcopate. Has the Episcopal Church breached these and, if not, is the Archbishop of Canterbury overturning this century-old statement and imposing newer, more stringent requirements on us?

It’s a good question, and one that requires a thoughtful response. I myself hold the Chicago-Lambeth Quadrilateral in high esteem. In my mind, it’s the clearest expression of the faith that we hold, a faith that is catholic, apostolic, and reformed; a faith where the judicious application of reason and the historic traditions of the church mutually inform our belief and practice. And yet Chicago-Lambeth is not enough and, in truth, it never has been.

From the earliest days of the church the Bible has been a battleground. The question has never been whether the Scriptures were believed, rather, the question has always been how the Scriptures have been believed and how they have been enacted. The issue is interpretation: who controls it, who decides it, and who adjudicates what’s in bounds and what’s not.

The first great statement around Scripture and interpretation comes to us from Irenaeus of Lyon († c. 202) at the beginning of our history. Irenaeus stood just one generation away from the Apostles—according to church tradition, the teacher of Irenaeus was the martyr Polycarp who had learned the faith at the feet of the John, the Apostle and Evangelist. Irenaeus, in speaking about the Gnostic Valentinians notes that they did, in fact, use the canonical Scriptures, but he rejected the means by which they did it:

Their method of acting is just as if one, when a beautiful image of a king has been constructed by some skilful artist out of precious jewels, should then take this likeness of the man all to pieces, should rearrange the gems, and so fit them together as to make them into the form of a dog or a fox, and even that but poorly executed; and should then maintain and declare that this was the beautiful image of the king which was skillfully constructed, pointing to the jewels which had been admirably fitted together by the first artist to form the image of the king, but have been with bad effect transferred by the latter one to the shape of a dog, and by thus exhibiting the jewels, should deceive the ignorant who had no conception what a king’s form was like, and persuade them that the miserable likeness of the fox was, in fact, the beautiful image of the king. In like manner do these persons patch together old wives fables, and then endeavor, by violently drawing away from their proper connection, words, expressions, and parables whenever found, to adapt the oracles of God to their baseless fictions.

Irenaeus recognized that the Gnostics were using legitimate materials—the Scriptures—but the problem was with the underlying patterns in which they deployed them. What stabilizes the pattern to keep the image of the king rather than the dog or the fox? It can’t be the materials themselves, but rather the interpretive framework within which they are set. Irenaeus identified two reinforcing frameworks that helped keep the shape of the faith. The first was the creed. The creed, contrary to the belief of some, isn’t merely a list of doctrines to be believed. Instead, the creed is an interpretive lens, a perspective from which to view the Scriptures. They sketch the interpretive boundaries. Any readings that fall within those boundaries are legitimate. It’s only when—as with the Valentinians—readings start transgressing the boundaries that we have problems. (The Valentinians in particular denied that the Trinity had any part of creation, arguing that creation was a morally problematic act from which human souls had to be freed; the creeds reject this reading at their very start.)

But even the creed was not entirely sufficient in the eyes of Irenaeus—one more factor was required: the apostolic succession. For Irenaeus, the apostolic succession was fundamentally about organic continuity. In its most basic sense apostolic succession refers to how bishops are consecrated, but the process has safeguards built into it. The requirement that a bishop be consecrated at the hands of three others ensures that the three agree that new bishops 1) have been correctly taught the basics of the faith as it had been received from their teachers back to the apostles, 2) have sound moral conduct, and 3) can properly teach the faith as they have received it. These requirements mean that the bishops (and the priests as they began adopting the teaching functions once held exclusively by the bishops) were the human face of the interpretive framework. They used their discretion to apply the creeds and the teachings of the apostles to the Scriptures to the best of their ability.

So—coming from Irenaeus at the dawn of the church, we receive the three fundamental marks of the church: the Scriptures, the creed, and the apostolic succession. But even these are not enough.

The other day I was standing in my kitchen with my landlord as repairmen assessed the failed air conditioner. He nodded to my mixer and said, “We have one just like that at home—we use it to make the holy bread.”

“Ah,” I replied, “with…yeast, I suppose.”

“Of course,” he replied. My landlord is Egyptian; his father was a Coptic Orthodox priest and they left their homeland in search of opportunity but also to avoid oppression from the Muslim majority.

“The yeast, you know, is sin. The baking kills the yeast and the bread rises. Just so, Jesus kills the sin and rises.”

I’d never heard this particular explanation, and my mind turned over Bible verses relating to yeast, testing the yeast-as-sin interpretation: the leaven of the Pharisees, a little yeast leavens the whole lump, cast out the old leaven, then, conflating Luke’s leaven in the lump with Sarai’s preparation of the bread for the three holy visitors I arrived at Rublev’s depiction of that event: the icon of the Trinity with the Eucharist. In those moments I caught sight of an alien framework, a tissue connecting these passages and others unnamed in a framework foreign to me.

“Hmm,” I replied. “Well, we’ve always used the directions for the Passover bread—that it be unleavened.” And my mind conjured the framework familiar to me: a typological interpretation that finds the Passover bread as a type of the Eucharist, a sacramental system grounded in the theological valence of the Last Supper being simultaneously a Passover supper.

“Oh,” he replied—then pulled out his iPhone to show me photos of a cross in Egypt from which holy oil flows. We studiously avoided what we were both thinking. One of the six points that formally kicked off the Great Schism in 1054 between the Eastern and Western churches was the use of yeast in bread for the Eucharist. It may seem like a silly point—and one not covered in Irenaeus’s marks of the church—but reflects a deeper division about how the linguistically and culturally divided churches not only interpreted Scripture but applied it, turning it into liturgy and directions for practical life.

A few weeks earlier I had been sitting in a mall food-court with one of my best friends from college, meeting over our respective lunch hours. Raised Roman Catholic, in recent years he’s been in the evangelical world, attending various places: Assembly of God, Baptist, and one of the CANA churches in Virginia. His question was simple on the surface: “So—tell me about the whole gay bishop thing…are you really okay with that?”

As I paused to formulate the clearest response I could in the short time we had, I felt a huge conceptual gulf open between us. I’ve been engaged in the academic study of Scripture for almost twenty years; I’m familiar with a whole gamut of interpretive methodologies, original languages, and comparative sources from the Ancient Near East and Greco-Roman world. During this time, he’s been in church communities that emphasize the simplicity and transparency of the Scriptures that present a very specific and very modern methodology for interpreting the Scriptures as the univocal “literal” sense. What separated us and our positions was not simply a disagreement about the meaning of a few scattered passages in Scripture.

Rather, what separated us was our entire conceptual frameworks for comprehending what Scripture is and how we approach it to begin the work of interpretation, let alone where our conclusions lead concerning how we and those around us should act in light of God’s call to us. I think we’re equally committed to the importance of Scripture in the Christian life. But our interpretive processes and the inputs that inform those processes are worlds apart.

In both of these cases, with my Coptic landlord and my evangelical friend, the difference is not that one of us takes the Scriptures seriously and the other does not. It’s not even the application of the creeds, the use of the sacraments or the fact of the apostolic succession. It is a matter of interpretation.

Casting a literary critic’s eye upon the Chicago-Lambeth Quadrilateral as it appears in our prayer book, my eye lights on a key issue. The Quadrilateral is only both Chicago and Lambeth through harmonization. There are actually two documents—the 1886 Chicago document, passed by the House of Bishops of the Episcopal Church, and there is the 1888 resolution passed by the Lambeth conference. There are two chief differences between them. First, the American 1886 statement has a literary context: there is a lengthy explanatory statement with four separate points that set forth the logic and impetus for the statement relating to the purposes of the early Ecumenical Movement. The Lambeth resolution has only a vestigial opening—lacking the length and the rhetorical urgency of the American text—offering a more reserved purpose: “…the following Articles supply a basis on which approach may be by God’s blessing made toward Home Reunion.” I note the use of the term “basis.” In short, the Lambeth resolution understands the four articles of the Quadrilateral to be a beginning and not an ending of the requirements for unity. These are the sine qua non without which discussion cannot commence; conclusion is not in scope here.

Second, I notice that the very article most in contention here and elsewhere is not the same between the two. The first article in the American understands the Scriptures as: “the revealed Word of God.” The Lambeth resolution is rather different and, incorporating a bit from the Articles of Religion, understands the Scriptures: “as ‘containing all things necessary to salvation,’ and as being the rule and ultimate standard of faith.” There’s a clear difference here between the two statements. Not only that, as an interpreter, I despair of the wording from Lambeth—rule and ultimate standard of faith how? According to whom? By what manner of interpretation?

It’s precisely these points where the Quadrilateral shows the limitations of its purpose. As a rough and ready rule for churches eager for reunion, it fits the bill; it describes an acceptable minimum standard of agreement—when agreement is being sought. But as a means for maintaining fellowship—well, it’s simply not capable of bearing that weight. There exists too much territory within “rule and ultimate standard of faith” to make it a document capable of maintaining an already fractious relationship.

An Archbishop considering the Lambeth resolution will properly see minimal standards that must be met, not the only four tests allowed.

Is the Archbishop right? Do we need a Covenant to nail down matters more? Well—these are broader issues yet. However we attempt to resolve them, the Quadrilateral may serve as a guide, but cannot serve as an answer.

Derek Olsen recently finished his Ph.D. in New Testament at Emory University. He has taught seminary courses in biblical studies, preaching, and liturgics; he currently resides in Maryland. His reflections on life, liturgical spirituality, and being a Gen-X/Y dad appear at Haligweorc.

Found in translation

By Kathleen Staudt

Call me a nerd if you llike, but this past August, my end-of-summer treat to myself was to sit in on the three week intensive course in New Testament Greek that the seminary offers to incoming students. Students required to take a Biblical language expressed some surprise that someone would choose this, but people who know me and my love of language and languages predicted: “You’ll get hooked.” And they were right.

Even now, with my time more limited by the regular semester, I am trying to show up once a week for the continuation of the introductory course. It’s an exercise in humility; my brain is getting pretty full-up with verb forms and noun endings and vocabulary, and I’ve got a generous colleague and student TA reading my often muddled papers and quizzes. But I’m also finding that it’s a return to “vacation mode” for me when I can spend a couple of hours drilling on my flashcards, and solving the intriguing word-puzzles posed by the Greek-English translation exercises, and the “aha” moments that come with translating passages from the Septuagint and the Greek New Testament.

The reward, for me, comes in moments of exquisite clarity, when a passage from Scripture, familiar in English, suddenly makes sense to me in its own language. It began with learning to read and pronounce the alphabet. Words which previously looked like hen scratches on the page began to sound, and sing. Our teacher wisely provided us with the Greek of the first chapter of John, mixed in with the course materials, not assigned, but just there for our perusal.. Within the first week, I found I could transcribe and read: “En arche eyn ho logos” I puzzled it out: ”En Arche” “En" for “In” “arche” like “archeologist. In the beginning. Then a little word – likely to be a form of “to be” and a word I recognized: “Logos” - Word – and there it was – with the sudden immediacy of poetry: “In the beginning was the Word”.

Naturally, I looked further down the page, wondering what John 1:14 would look like in Greek. I could just sound out: : “Kai ho logos sarx egeneto” (And the word was made flesh) “Sarx” – like sarcophagus. Flesh, mortality. I remembered Bible studies where someone told us that there are 2 words for “body” in Greek – “sarx” and “soma” – and this is the one that is the gritty, fleshly, mortal one: even the sound conveys it: “sarx” – the sound sharp and guttural next to the smoothness of “logos”. There it was: the poetry emerging from what was once looked to me like secret code: now the words were singing.

“It’s like being there,” a friend remarked to me, telling of her experience gaining fluency in Biblical languages and reading the texts. I doubt I’ll ever reach her level of fluency but I’m learning enough now to receive in a new way the poetry of the New Testament – in the language it was written in – and so in the word themselves, now new gifts to me.

All this has me reflecting further – in ways for which I there are no words – about a reality that we meet, by God’s grace, within our humanity. Reading Scripture, I am receiving in words the revelation of a God who has chosen to come to us in ways that meet our humanity--our language--our bodies. En arche eyn ho logos. . . Kai ho logos sarx egeneto. It gives me the shivers. It’s like being there

Dr. Kathleen Henderson Staudt keeps the blog poetproph, works as a teacher, poet, spiritual director and retreat leader in the Washington DC area. She is the author of two books: At the Turn of a Civilisation: David Jones and Modern Poetics and Annunciations: Poems out of Scripture.

Proclaiming the Mystery: John’s First Five

By Adam Thomas

The mystery section was on the back wall of the small independent bookshop at which I worked my last few years of high school. When a customer entered the store, her eyes would glance past the smaller shelving units and fix on the placards proudly bearing the word "MYSTERY." The shelves containing the mystery section were taller and broader than those holding the other books, and I was the only employee tall enough to dust the top ones without a stepladder. Let's just say that the manager loved mysteries, so we had a disproportionate number of them. We had humorous mysteries and thrillers, beach reads and stay-up-till-one-in-the-morning nail biters. In those books, a mystery was set forth: say, how did the killer manage to murder someone in a room locked from the inside? The plot revolved around the detective attempting to solve the puzzle. In the end, the detective figured out that the bell rope used to call for the maid was replaced with a poisonous snake, which somehow slithered unnoticed out of the room in the ensuing hubbub of discovering the body. Mystery solved. No more mystery.

The Gospel according to John begins with a mystery, but it is a mystery that is wholly different from the Whodunnits on the back wall of the bookshop. The mystery that begins the Gospel cannot be solved, cannot be explained away. It can only be unapologetically presented and then unabashedly proclaimed.

Take a look at the first five verses that John gives us:

In the beginning was the Word,
And the Word was with God,
And the Word was God.
He was in the beginning with God.
All things came into being through him,
And without him, not one thing came into being.
What has come into being in him was life,
And the life was the light of all people.
The light shines in the darkness,
And the darkness did not overcome it. (1:1-5; NRSV)

Here John presents the mystery: somehow the Word (who we find out a few verses later becomes enfleshed in Jesus Christ) is in the beginning with God and is also God. Remember in Algebra class when you had to show your work to get full credit? Well, John skips down to the bottom of the page. There is no balancing of equations or solving for “x.” He states the mystery simply: in the beginning, the Word was with God and was God. This is frustrating at first because I’m conditioned to think that mysteries are all supposed to be like the ones on the back wall of the bookshop. I want to know how it's possible and I won't be satisfied until I figure it out, and if I can't figure it out then it must not be true.

But I take a deep breath and look at the words again. I read them slowly and speak them aloud. I notice that the rational part of me is sitting in the corner sulking because "with" and "was" should be mutually exclusive. But I find that the creative part of me sees past such mundane things as mutual exclusivity and begins to roll around in the muck of ambiguity. I squelch my toes in the mud, relishing the notion that God lives in a reality where choosing between alternatives is not the only viable option. Of course the Word can be both with God and was God! The limits of my language do not limit God, only my understanding of God. I realize my language skills are not up to the challenge of describing God. And my rational side joins my creative side in the muck of ambiguity because my rationality has been given the license to imagine.

In a few short phrases, John presents the mystery. Then, he deepens the mystery by retelling the story of creation. It’s no coincidence that John uses the same phrase that opens the book of Genesis: "In the beginning." All things came into being through the Word who was with God and was God. My creative side connects with these verses because they are about creation. Life is created through him, and because I have been given the gift of creativity, I can sense in my gut or in my bones that the Creator is continuing to create me.

This creative force is the light that shines in the darkness. The darkness cannot comprehend or overcome or understand the light because the darkness has never been a part of creation. The darkness is just the absence of any created thing. It tries jealously to unmake created things but fails to triumph since God never stops creating or calling creation to God.*

In these first five verses, John locates us ("life," "all people") within the mystery of God and creation, and he presents the adversary of creation, namely darkness. We have the makings of an epic story here.** The seemingly out-of-place verses 6-8 help me realize my role in this story. The mystery has been presented, and now John the Baptizer steps onstage for a brief scene. He is a witness who testifies to the light. (The words "witness" and "testify" are from the same root in Greek; the English word "martyr" comes from it.) His proclamation points to the light, which is the Word made flesh, Jesus Christ. So too, my life, which has come into being through the Word, is meant to be a proclamation of the mystery of God and God's movement in creation.

When I encounter these first few verses of the Fourth Gospel, I feel the enormity of the mystery of God surrounding me, and I rejoice that this mystery discloses itself in light and life and love. If I could explain the mystery, I would be in danger of explaining it away, of shelving it like the Whodunnits on the back wall. The mystery transcends explanation. It is elusive, and at the same time intimate; it cannot be grasped, but it can be embraced. The intimacy and the embrace happen when the mystery touches the spark of creativity within me, spurring me to proclaim the Word made flesh, Jesus Christ. Life has come into being through the Word. And my life expands to every pocket and corner of my being when I live to proclaim this good news.

The Rev. Adam Thomas, one of the first Millennials to be ordained priest, is the curate of Trinity Episcopal Church in Martinsburg, WV. He blogs at wherethewind.com.

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More rudder than anchor: dynamism and a healthy faith

By George Clifford

Recently, I attended a performance of the musical, “Fiddler on the Roof,” featuring Topol in his original role as Tevye. “Fiddler on the Roof” tells the story of a small community of Russian Jews who believed they derived their identity and strength from their traditions but who must cope with persecution-driven change. The show was both great entertainment and a catalyst for some reflections about religious stasis and dynamism.

The widespread human preference for stasis in most (all?) things – self, relationships, and religion to name only three – presents an interesting paradox given that change pervades the cosmos. The universe itself is constantly changing, e.g., expanding. Most human cells have a seven-year lifespan and the rest of a body’s cells slowly die. This means that a human constantly experiences physical change (at my age, generally not for the better!). Similarly, the mind processes a never-ending flow of new experience. Consequently, the image of a flowing stream, always the same and yet never the same, is a better metaphor for human existence than is any static metaphor. Furthermore, because people are always changing, relationships are also subject to constant change.

Some people regard religion as an anchor, hoping for a source of stability in the midst of this omnipresent flux. Yet healthy religion is dynamic, more of a rudder than an anchor.

Consider briefly the historic Anglican emphasis on three sources of authority: scripture, tradition, and reason. Church historian Mark Noll noted in America’s God that prior to the Civil War belief in the Bible’s support for the institution of slavery so thoroughly dominated American Christianity that Christian abolitionists necessarily relied on ethical arguments against slavery that were independent of scripture. Thanks to be God that we Anglicans have a dynamic understanding of scripture!

The thirty-nine Articles of Religion, one of the Book of Common Prayer’s historical documents, states that pardons are “repugnant to the Word of God” (article XXII), as are speaking in tongues (article XXIV) and transubstantiation (article XXVIII). Episcopal priests pronounce absolution in God's name following public and private confession. Although I have never spoken in unknown tongues and have no desire to do so, I am pleased to be part of a Church sufficiently broad to accept charismatic expression. I find transubstantiation a quaint notion but vehemently oppose any effort to expel those who subscribe to that idea. Thanks be to God that we Anglicans have a dynamic tradition!

As originally understood in the Anglican tradition, reason referred to pure reason, the logical analysis of data that would lead people to reach similar conclusions. However, Christians of good conscience and intent frequently reach very different conclusions when they exegete and expound scripture. Cognitive science informs us that selective perception and emotion inherently color human thought, rendering pure reason unattainable. This explains our diversity of thought while acknowledging that reasoning – the cognitive processing of ideas and experience – is intrinsic to human functioning. Thanks be to God that we Anglicans have a dynamic understanding of reason!

Knowing all of this, I still find myself reluctant, at times even unwilling to change. Lenten self-examination requires me to overcome my psychic inertia, dislike of conflict, emotional preference for stasis, and other opposition to change. I know that religion that fails to change loses its ability to serve as a rudder for navigating toward God's light and life abundant. A healthy, dynamic faith frees us from dysfunctional stasis and moves us forward on the Jesus’ way, more fully experiencing the abundant life we celebrate at Easter. So I engage in the hard and often unpleasant work of self-examination and of examining my understanding of Christianity.

Where have I – and the Episcopal Church, my faith community – emulated the fictional Jews of Anatevka in “Fiddler on the Roof”? Where have we wrongly sought to hold on to the past, worshiping a static idol instead of the God of new beginnings? Where have we courageously trusted the living God, a dynamic, life-giving God?

The Rev. Dr. George Clifford, Diocese of North Carolina, served as a Navy chaplain for twenty-four years He taught philosophy at the U. S. Naval Academy and ethics at the Postgraduate School. He blogs at Ethical Musings.

Celibacy: a response II

By Derek Olsen

What does a Christian theology of sexuality look like if we begin—as did St Paul and arguably Jesus as well—with an ideal of celibacy? The first major change from our common cultural way of understanding sexuality is that if celibacy is the ideal, than an argument must be made for any and all kinds of sexual relationships. They cannot simply be assumed.

At the heart of the Christian understanding of celibacy is the notion of chastity. Like the rest of the virtues, chastity is not just about what we do with one part of ourselves (certain physical bits in this case). Rather the virtues are whole-body habits that integrate our bodies, minds, wills, and spirits. Chastity is about fidelity, faithfulness, and about our inward dispositions and orientations as well as what we do with our bodies. Jesus cuts to the heart of the matter in his challenging words in the Sermon on the Mount: “But I say to you that everyone who looks at a woman with lust has already committed adultery with her in his heart” (Matt 5:28). The virtue is a holy habit that we must continually nurture and grow into—few if any of us are ever born having it, even those who dedicate themselves to celibacy. Jesus certainly sets the bar high but in doing so gives us a goal towards which we strive, and reminds us of the need for the inner disposition.

Where should our fidelity be directed? Scripture roots it in God. God is our source and the great Bridegroom of the Church. The metaphor of Israel as the bride of God is found numerous places within the Old Testament. Idolatry and adultery were frequently conflated—and with good reason. Scholars have long debated the presence of and evidence for cultic prostitution in the religion of Israel’s neighbors and—as far as I know—the jury remains out; what is clear from the biblical texts themselves, though, is a long prophetic tradition of portraying participation in the worship of other gods as the personified Israel forsaking her true husband and running after other men.

The New Testament picks up this concept and shifts it based on its new experiences of God in Christ. Christ is the Bridegroom, and the Church is the chaste Bride whose attentions should be directed towards her husband. Throughout the Synoptic Gospels there are a number of references to weddings and bridegrooms and they persistently point to Jesus to the degree that Matthew scholar Ulrich Luz speaks of a bride-mysticism. John’s gospel takes this a step further, locating Jesus’ first miracle at a wedding asserting, in my view, that the ministry and work of Jesus is to be understood as the continuous feast that is the marriage banquet of the Lamb—a point portrayed more explicitly at the end of the Johannine Book of Revelation.

Coming from a solely Scriptural perspective, then, Christian chastity and Christian fidelity are preeminently focused on God. In Matthew’s call to become a eunuch for the kingdom of God, in Paul’s call in 1 Cor 7 to the unmarried to remain that way, in his functional description of “real widows” in 1 Tim 5, the emphasis is placed on a forsaking of human sexual relations so that the dedicated Christian’s energies may be focused, not on pleasing and catering to the needs of other humans, but may remain focused solely upon God:

I want you to be free from anxieties. The unmarried man is anxious about the affairs of the Lord, how to please the Lord; but the married man is anxious about the affairs of the world, how to please his wife, and his interests are divided. And the unmarried woman and the virgin are anxious about the affairs of the Lord, so that they may be holy in body and spirit; but the married woman is anxious about the affairs of the world, how to please her husband. I say this for your own benefit, not to put any restraint upon you, but to promote good order and unhindered devotion to the Lord. (1 Cor 7:32-35)

Thus, the practice of Christian celibacy is directed by the logic of intimacy and fidelity to God. It is not driven by a denigration of the physical or a suppression of the flesh to exalt the spirit, but is rooted in a freedom to seek after God and the things of God. The Christian soul is the bride that cleaves to Christ and seeks to please him only, faithfully. In some sense, sexual purity is not even the central point as much as the attention and focus given to God rather than to a family.

Just as Scripture presents this bride-mysticism as a model of relating to God, it also recognizes the complications, especially those connected to sexual purity. Both Matthew and Paul are clear that the celibate call is not for all and cannot be for all. While Matthew does not delve into the logic of it, Paul does:

But because of cases of sexual immorality (porneias), each man should have his own wife and each woman her own husband. (1 Cor 7:2)

But if they are not practicing self-control, they should marry. For it is better to marry than to be aflame with passion. (1 Cor 7:9)
If anyone thinks that he is not behaving properly toward his fiancee (lit.: virgin), if his passions are strong, and so it has to be, let him marry as he wishes; it is no sin. Let them marry. (1 Cor 7:36)

Sexual immorality (porneia) is a problem for Paul and frequently appears on his vice lists. The primary meaning of this word for Paul—drawing on its use in the Greek translation of the Old Testament—seems to be infidelity. His advice, then, is that if our complete focus cannot be for God alone, then it should be directed singly to one other person. Marriage becomes an acceptable diversion of attention in order that vice should be suppressed—particularly porneia but by its nature sin breeds sin (lying and exploitation being not uncommon attending vices).

But contrary to marriage remaining simply a lesser option for the weak, Paul finds further spiritual value in it. Ephesians 5:21-33 must be read as a whole; its thesis is verse 21 (Be subject to one another out of reverence for Christ.) and the rest of the passage describes what this looks like in the context of Christian marriage. The focus is on mutuality and a growth in Christian love and virtue. Paul would prefer that all who are able remain single as he is, able to focus their full attentions on Christ. But if, for the restraint of sin and immorality that is not possible, marriage itself can become a vehicle for spiritual growth where the partners find in one another icons of Christ and the Church leading to Paul’s great summation: “This is a great mystery, and I am applying it to Christ and the church” (Eph 5:32). Note the focus. It is not on production or procreation—reasons often advanced as the purpose of Christian marriage—rather it is the relationship itself and the formative properties of love, care, and respect nurtured by mutuality and self-giving.

[I do realize that these verses have been used in the past to assert male dominance over women but I believe this is a twisting of both the passage’s meaning and Paul’s intent. I believe that Paul was intending to portray mutuality as completely as he could (and in terms far exceeding those of his culture) and that his language of love and care makes this evident.]

To summarize, then, Christian souls should be focused on God with as much of their attention as they can give. If the exercise of natural sexual urges interferes with this, then monogamous relationships should be formed. When these relationships function as they should, then they can become icons of the love, care, and mutuality that exist between Christ and the Church. They too can be a path for formation into the mind of Christ and growth in grace.

But now we leave the realm of the exegetical and the intellectual and enter the practical, considering in light of these exegetical conclusions what Christian practice ought to be.

Oh my.

Incarnationally, Christian sexuality is a very messy thing. Like most anything incarnational. We find ideals of celibacy perverted to horrible ends. We find the language and appearance of celibacy used to harbor some relationships that are illict and some that are downright evil and destructive. Furthermore, we find exactly the same things cloaked under the language and appearance of Christian marriage as well. Paul presents us with high and lofty expectations. We respond in typical human fashion with weakness, disobedience, and betrayal. We—celibate, single, or married—are sinners in need of grace but also in need of direction. And this is where Paul can help us.

Drawing on his language and logic that begins with celibacy and moves to interpersonal relationships, we see a strong thread throughout. The Pauline path is the restraint of vice and the cultivation of virtue as centered around practices and habits of fidelity. As Christian communities, we need to consider the self-same questions with which Paul wrestles in 1 Cor 5-7, namely, what are the practices of fidelity that minimize vice and its flourishing and that maximize Christian virtue oriented by the fundamental principles of fidelity, mutuality, and Christian love?

Now, I’m not a “progressive” by nature. I inhabit the moderate to conservative end of the spectrum on most issues, including those involving human sexuality. I’m the sort who argues strongly for a “celibate when single, monogamous when married” position—and follow it myself. But after coming at the issue of Christian relationships from this angle, and relating it to the lives of Christians I know, I found myself painted into a corner. If the heart of Christian chastity and fidelity is directed to God through monogamy, if Christian marriage exists to restrain vice and cultivate virtue for the sake of the community as well as the individual, is the Church following its own logic and cultivating virtue to the best of its abilities by cutting queer Christians off from a community-supported path of fidelity and monogamy? Could I in good conscience advocate for “celibate when single, monogamous when married” when marriage—or any state analogous to it—is not an option for all mature Christians?

After some hard searching, I find myself convinced by my reading of Paul that same-sex marriage is incumbent upon the Christian community for the restraint of vice and for the flourishing of our common virtue. If we wish to reduce sexual immorality, do we deny a portion of our community a legitimate outlet for their created sexual urges in the form of faithful relationships based on mutuality, respect, and—above all—fidelity? (Feel free to dispose of the red herrings of promoting polygamy, pederasty, or bestiality as none of these cultivate the virtues of which I speak.) If we wish to encourage fidelity and chastity, why would we prevent some of our members who seek such fidelity and chastity from being encouraged in that state by the community?

Thus, I would ask George Clifford and any others who might seek to denigrate the Christian promotion of celibacy to first stop and consider the logic that Paul puts forth. Neither Paul, nor Matthew, nor my reading of the Scriptures makes celibacy incumbent upon all. While celibacy may be the ideal, it is not and should not be the normative practice for any not called to it. And yet it should not be cast aside as old, outdated, or psychologically dangerous. I would ask, rather, that we consider what it does teach and how our communities can be the stronger for it.

Derek Olsen is in the final stretch of completing a Ph.D. in New Testament at Emory University. He has taught seminary courses in biblical studies, preaching, and liturgics; he currently resides in Maryland. His reflections on life, liturgical spirituality, and being a Gen-X/Y dad appear at Haligweorc.

Celibacy: a response I

By Derek Olsen

A while back, George Clifford wrote a piece posted on the Daily Episcopalian at the Episcopal Cafe that tried to look at sex and relationships in the Episcopal Church from a progressive viewpoint. It started by discussing the history of Christian understandings of marriage, and the thesis statement that guided its unfolding was this: "In general, the Biblical witness about marriage appears to progress toward monogamy."

As the piece unfolded, I became more uncomfortable with it because I believe that it began the argument on faulty premises. That is, it began from modern cultural assumptions and retrojected them upon first century culture, considering only the evidence that fit the initial paradigm. Therefore the issues addressed were fundamentally marriage and divorce.

My response was to remind the author and readers that wrapping human sexuality into categories of marriage and divorce is anachronistic in general and in particular does not reflect some key strands within the New Testament and early church witness that present celibacy as a superior alternative to marriage.

Fr. Clifford has now written another piece asking if celibacy is the preferred Christian option. Towards the beginning of the new piece he notes:

Christians have too often accepted celibacy as normative sexual behavior for Christians as illustrated by some of the comments on my Thoughts on Marriage.

Since the main comments against his thesis there were from myself and some of my comrades, I'm assuming that he is referring to my objections. Given his response, though, he seems to have missed the point. For that I apologize--I should have stated my view more clearly although Fr. John-Julian and another commenter hit exactly on my point:

The major point being made by Derek and others here is, as Fr. John-Julian notes, arguments around marriage have been "contaminated by current culture" to the point where nobody even notices what the words on the page say anymore - and where all sorts of excuses are made to avoid "the plain sense of Scripture" when it's inconvenient for those who use the argument against others.

I've added the bolding for emphasis. However, to defend myself and my argument, I shall take up Fr. Clifford's new piece, examine its arguments, and respond with a rebuttal.

I have two major disagreements with Fr. Clifford’s new piece. The first is the suggestion, based on a reading of Elaine Pagels, that there is no “real Christianity” and that thus “an individual must chart her or his own spiritual path.” In my opinion, this sets the discussion off on entirely the wrong foot, and tragically and unnecessarily suggests that no early historical evidence is normative in wrestling with current theological issues. The second notion with which I disagree is that I am making the argument that celibacy should be enjoined upon all; this is neither my point nor my belief—and my two daughters are evidence that it is not my practice either. The arguments that Fr. Clifford puts forth against celibacy fail to address the fundamental point: Christian logic on sexuality—not necessarily practice, but logic—must begin with celibacy. Furthermore, I will argue that a theology of sexuality that begins with celibacy remaining more contiguous with first century thought presents a stronger argument in support of same-sex marriage than those that pass over celibacy in silence.

First, I’ll admit that I haven’t read the Pagels’s book to which Fr. Clifford refers—Adam, Eve, and the Serpent—but the argument he reproduces is quite familiar to me from other works by Pagels and similar teachers. The two fundamental problems that they face are that 1) proof of discontinuity does not thereby indicate a lack of continuity: just because disagreements existed concerning who Jesus was, what he taught, and what should be believed about him does not mean that there were not communities that shared fundamental agreements about these topics, and 2) the Episcopal Church in basing ourselves on the canon of Scripture, the historic creeds, and the apostolic succession/Historic Episcopate (cf. pp. 877-879 in your BCP) align ourselves with the teachings of Irenaeus who declared these three marks to be characteristic of his faith communities and those in communion with it. Yes, there was diversity—but we affirm that we are part of one particular group. Therefore for us, the teachings and practices of this group are normative despite what others may or may not have done.

Given this continuity, I reject the notion of Pagels promoted by Fr. Clifford that there is no “real Christianity” and will respond that I’m not concerned with its reality (whatever that means) but with its historical continuity.

There are standards. There are principles of interpretation. There are historical examples from which we may learn. And, as Irenaeus states that he was taught by the martyred Bishop Polycarp, and as the exchanges between the Bishops Ignatius and Polycarp share a common character, and as Polycarp learned the faith at the feet of the Apostle John, I’ll continue to assert that this faith of Irenaeus with which we claim continuity is the apostolic faith. (For the record, here’s the version of the creed or “rule of faith” that Irenaeus handed on.)

Second, Fr. Clifford is wrong to assume that modern discussions of human sexuality that are rooted in the Scriptures can simply remove celibacy from theological discussion. Fr. Clifford writes, “The totality of the scriptural witness is similarly conflicted about whether celibacy or marriage is the preferred option for Christians.” I agree—there is discussion around the issue. Therefore we must tackle it if we wish to render a faithful account of the biblical witness and rightly understand our own theologies as proceeding from the Scriptures in a meaningful way.

Fr. Clifford’s first point is that sexuality is an intrinsic part of who we are as human animals, and that Scripture speaks about these drives in a variety of ways. I agree on both points, but would state that the teachings of Jesus in the gospels are more ambiguous than Fr. Clifford acknowledges. In addition to Jesus’ statement that the resurrected will be like angels, neither married nor given in marriage, that true disciples must hate their families and forsake wives and children, Matthew’s account also commends those who are able to become “eunuchs for the sake of the kingdom of heaven” (Matt 19:10-12). Note still the ambiguity; not marrying is upheld–and is qualified. Not all may receive it, and the reward for embracing celibacy is not made clear. Furthermore it’s odd that this bit appears in Matthew; when forsaking relations comes up, Luke typically includes “wives” while Matthew does not, suggesting that Matthew typically, holds a more “pro-marriage” stance than Luke. In short, the evidence is conflicted. On the whole, though, I’d suggest that Jesus’ words and example promote celibacy over a simplistic family-values portrait. But that’s not the end of the story by a long stretch.

Fr. Clifford’s second point is that 1 Cor 7:9 and 1 Tim 5:14 are misogynistic as they refer to women rather than men and participate in a denigration of the physical over the spiritual. First, I’d recommend a look at 1 Cor 7:8. Yes, Paul refers to the widows here but also to the “unmarried” (grammatically masculine) and suggests that both these groups remain just as he himself is. I fail to see the misogyny, nor do I see how he is counseling men and women differently here. 1 Tim 5 as a whole is concerned with order in the community and verses 3-16 specifically address widows. No, widowers are not discussed—because something other than sex is foremost here: survival. What Paul is discussing here is how women in the community without male support and without a male income should survive. Should they remarry for the sake of physical sustenance or should the church help them live on their own? I’d agree that verses 11-15 paint an unflattering picture of younger widows and Paul, agreeing with the assessment of humans as sexual beings, recommends that they marry rather than causing scandal with their behavior. To dismiss this as misogyny and an unequal treatment ignores the cultural circumstances that require the community to offer assistance to those who need it most.

Nowhere in these verses do I find a preference for the spiritual over the physical. That topic is worth a discussion—but I don’t see it in these verses.

Fr. Clifford’s third point is that Paul does not understand the value or emotional rewards of marriage as he sees it as suffering, rather than joy or fulfillment. This may be a fair point, but it does not address the point Paul is actually making in 1 Cor 7:28b-35. Paul, who believed the end of time imminent, wanted his congregation focused on the final goal, ready and attentive to the commands of the Lord rather than invested and distracted in the cares of a household.

Fr. Clifford’s fourth point is that both celibacy and sexuality are gifts of God. I would agree—but I take issue with the way that the gifts are structured. Being either male or female is one kind of gift. Being either straight or gay is another kind of gift. Being celibate is yet a third. None of these are mutually exclusive yet somehow in Fr. Clifford’s construction they become so. I am male and straight and non-celibate and am gifted by all three—but I recognize these as distinct. I would separate these gifts out as gifts of biology, gifts of orientation, and gifts of behavior; celibates are gifted by both biology and orientation, but make the choice—and are aided by the grace—not to express the prior two gifts through sexual actions. Does that somehow mean that these gifts have thereby gone to waste? Is gender or sex or orientation simply about sexual acts or is there more to our biology and orientation than what we do with our genitals? Fr. Clifford seems to have fallen into the trap that if we are not acting upon our sexuality we are somehow lesser for it.

Let me be clear. I have not been gifted with celibacy. I do not believe that most people have been gifted with celibacy. In most situations where celibacy is imposed on a class of people it invites corruption and vice. Paul is quite clear—repeating himself twice in 1 Cor 7 (vv. 28, 36)—that marriage is not a sin. However, he is equally clear that it is better to remain unmarried. The Jesus traditions while also ambiguous, contain a strong thread that also privilege but do not command celibacy. Throughout the centuries Christians have acted upon these Scriptural recommendations choosing lives of prayer and dedication to the needs of others—and we are their beneficiaries. And so I insist that the logic of Christianity sexuality must begin with celibacy, giving it the place that the New Testament accords it. Where Fr. Clifford may be confused, though, is that I do not therefore commend the practice of celibacy to any not called to it. Our logic must begin with celibacy but it is not necessarily normative for our practice.

Why then am I so insistent upon it?

Because it breaks us out of our culturally conditioned modes of thought regarding marriage, family, and sexuality and gives us a chance to reorient along theological lines. Our default thinking on sexuality establishes heterosexual marriage as normative; Scripture moves in other directions. Furthermore, Paul’s celibacy argument establishes a firm foundation for reflection upon interpersonal relationship in the language of virtue and vice. Rather than focusing on genital or procreative acts as central to nature of marital relationships, it foregrounds the cultivation of mutuality and Christian love. In short, it is possible—beginning with celibacy as an ideal—that leads us to an understanding of human sexuality far closer to the Scriptural witness than those that begin with the presuppositions of our culture. I shall present a picture of what this looks like in Part II.

Derek Olsen is in the final stretch of completing a Ph.D. in New Testament at Emory University. He has taught seminary courses in biblical studies, preaching, and liturgics; he currently resides in Maryland. His reflections on life, liturgical spirituality, and being a Gen-X/Y dad appear at Haligweorc.

The Missing Magnificat

By Deirdre Good

Is it merely clergy-centered myopia that omits Mary's song of praise, the Magnificat, from the Eucharist on any Sunday in the year, never mind Advent or Christmas? After all, we are following Luke's story of Jesus' nativity centered on two related pregnant women, Elizabeth and Mary and their husbands, Zechariah and Joseph. In it, Luke describes the angel Gabriel's visit to Mary to announce that she would give birth to a child before she had sexual relations with her husband. This puzzling feature of Luke's story is confirmed by the angel's news of the miraculous pregnancy of her elderly relative Elizabeth. After the angel departs, Mary goes immediately to verify the news of Elizabeth's divinely engineered pregnancy. Then she sings of God's elevation of her lowly status as the means of the exaltation of the humble through the coming of the Messiah:

My soul proclaims the greatness of the Lord, my spirit rejoices in God my Savior;
he has looked with favor on his lowly servant.

From this day all generations will call me blessed;
the Almighty has done great things for me and holy is his name.

He has mercy on those who fear him,
from generation to generation.

He has shown strength with his arm
and has scattered the proud in their conceit,

Casting down the mighty from their thrones
and lifting up the lowly.

He has filled the hungry with good thing
and sent the rich away empty.

He has come to the aid of his servant Israel,
to remember his promise of mercy,

The promise made to our ancestors,
to Abraham and his children for ever.

Of course, clergy, professional religious, and some lay people say the Magnificat in the Daily Office -- a time when few people are in church, and fewer reciting it at home. In this setting it functions as a canticle of praise, and one of the few occasions when a women's voice is used as a vehicle for the universal voice of all believers. But why does the Church's Eucharistic lectionary neglect this powerful song of praise on Sunday, the one day of the week it might actually reach the laity?

Is it because the account of Jesus' birth has dramatic implications for male agency in the gospel and even in Christian tradition? Karl Barth, the great Protestant theologian notes: "the male, as the specific agent of human action and history with his responsibility for developing the human species, must now retreat into the background.." And even as male agency is silenced and diminished in favor of divine action in the story of Jesus' birth, others who have no reproductive role such as widows and eunuchs are raised up in Luke-Acts. Far from being "dry trees," widows and eunuchs are powerful models of faithful persistence and confession. The widow of Luke 18, for example, pleads and then faces down the resistant judge and she succeeds in physically threatening him enough to render a decision in her favor. It is she, not the judge, who embodies divine power. The Ethiopian eunuch makes the first confession of faith in Acts, especially if we read Acts 8:37 (missing in some translations but known in the second century to Irenaeus): "Then Philip said, 'If you believe with all your heart, you may.' And he answered and said, 'I believe that Jesus Christ is the Son of God.'"

Mary's Magnificat publicly celebrates in a prophetic voice God's mighty deeds in the immediate past. In one Bible study group, when I pointed out that Mary knew stories of God's intervention in Hebrew Scriptures because she was a devout Jewish woman, a woman exclaimed, "I've always wondered where she got what she sang!" Mary prophesies that reversal is characteristic of divine intervention in human affairs, that God's concern is for the lowly and despised. She celebrates God's power to act on behalf of those marginalized and ostracized to the extent of casting the mighty down from their thrones. Why don't we encounter this powerful message in our central liturgies? Why doesn't the Hymnal 1982 have a metrical setting of the Magnificat in its Advent or Christmas section? After all, without Mary's assent and prophetic witness, there wouldn't be an incarnation - or a Christmas! -- at all.

Dr. Deirdre Good is professor of New Testament at The General Theological Seminary, specializing in the Synoptic Gospels, Christian Origins, Noncanonical writings and biblical languages. Her blog is called On Not Being a Sausage.

Taking the parable of the talents literally

By Sam Candler

Christians in the developed world usually forget that so many of the parables of Jesus deal with money. The usual suspects for our parish theological discussions are topics like church structure, or sex, or the general matters of biblical authority. We tend to consider what Jesus said about money only during stewardship or fund-raising times.

However, during these last two months of global financial anxiety, suddenly the way Jesus talks about money has some striking application. “You cannot serve God and Mammon” has become self-evident. The parable of the “unjust steward” who “made friends for himself with unrighteous mammon” also makes a lot of sense when assets in our own time have been de-valued (Luke 16:1-13).

It is the parable of the talents that I am fascinated with today. Again, during usual economic times, Christians tend to interpret that parable figuratively, so that “talents” are our God-given gifts and abilities. The lesson is that we are to use those for greater glory and the kingdom of heaven.

But what if the parable of the talents is really about literal finance and economics, after all? I think it is. We all remember the story. A wealthy master went on a long journey and left one asset manager with five talents, another asset manager with two talents, and a third asset manager with one talent. When he returned, the manager with five talents had traded and made five more. The manager with two talents had traded and made two more. The timid and fearful third manager, with one talent, said, “I knew you to be a harsh man, reaping where you did not sow; so I was afraid and I went and hid your talent in the ground. Here, you have what is yours.” (Matthew 25:14-30).

Today, maybe the first thing to admit is that if this scenario had been played out in the last six months of the United States, the manager who hid his talent in the ground would probably be the only one ahead right now!

But the power of this Jesus story is that the managers traded; they engaged others. They risked relationship and trust. According to my meager financial expertise, one of the primary problems in our time is that banks and businesses are too scared to offer loans, not confident enough to trade. With no credit and no trust, economic transaction is paralyzed.

This parable of Jesus is about overcoming fear and taking the risk to grow and to invest. Jesus is talking about the kingdom of heaven, but he is also talking about building up the economy in general! In fact, the word for “economy” in the Greek Bible means the management of a household; it means “stewardship!” Our economy should be the way we manage our cultural and political and financial household.

The key word in Jesus’ parable is “trade.” The asset managers had the courage to go out and trade with what had been entrusted to them. They took risks. They engaged in relationships. Good business, and good economy, is always about good relationships, not about money, or the “mammon god.” Good economy is always about trusting relationships. In Jesus’ parable, the asset manager who loses out is the one who was afraid, so afraid that he was unable to take the risk of economic relationship.

In the uncertain situation of our present time, Jesus’ parable reminds us to engage in relationships – not just our domestic or familial or friendly relationships—but our business and financial relationships, too. Maybe especially our financial relationships! This is not the time to hide our talent in the ground. This is the time to use whatever we have, no matter how great or small, to build up trusting and trading relationships. Jesus said this would be like the kingdom of heaven.

The Very Rev. Sam Candler is dean of St. Philip's Cathedral in Atlanta. He helped start that city’s interfaith group, and leads regular community bible studies. He is also inspired by playing jazz piano, hunting, astronomy, and poetry. His sermons and reflections on “Good Faith and Common Good” can be found on the Cathedral web site.

7 Principles of Biblical Interpretation

By Greg Jones

Episcopalians share a common "book" of prayer, worship and wisdom with Christians of every age and place. This common book is not the Prayer book. It's not the English language. It's not even the Western literary canon. No, of course it's the Bible - which forms the common sacred library of all who follow Christ. But, in a Christianity so global and diverse, we Episcopalians need to be able to understand for ourselves, and explain to others who inquire, "What do we think the Bible is, and how do we engage it?"

I believe that most Episcopalians would agree with the notion that just as God has called forth the Church to exist as the Body of Christ, inextricably bound with the Father and the Holy Spirit, the Scriptures are likewise inextricably bound to the Church. We do not understand what the Bible is apart from its being woven up from and into the fabric of the Church, nor can we interpret it apart from a location within the life and activity of the Church. That being said, what guidelines can be found to clarify things a bit? Well, I think the Diocese of New York teaching document Let the Reader Understand is excellent, and from it, I think the following seven points should be taught across the whole Episcopal Church.

7 Principles of Biblical Interpretation

1. The Holy Scriptures of the Old and New Testaments are "the Word of God" and "contain all things necessary to salvation." They are called the Word of God by the household of faith, not because God dictated the biblical text, but because the Church believes that God inspired its human authors through the Holy Spirit and because by means of the inspired text, read within the sacramental communion of the Church, the Spirit of God continues the timely enlightenment and instruction of the faithful.

2. The Holy Scriptures are the primary constitutional text of the Church. They provide the basis and guiding principles for our common life with God, and they do so through narrative, law, prophecy, poetry, and other forms of expression. Indeed, the Scriptures are themselves an instrument of the Church's shared communion with Jesus Christ, the living Word of God, who uses them to constitute the Church as a Body of many diverse members, participating together in his own word, wisdom, and life.

3. The Scriptures, as "God's Word Written," bear witness to, and their proper interpretation depends upon, the paschal mystery of God's Word incarnate, crucified and risen. Although the Scriptures are a manifestly diverse collection of documents representing a variety of authors, times, aims, and forms, the Church received and collected them, and from the beginning has interpreted them for their witness to an underlying and unifying theme: the unfolding economy of salvation, as brought to fulfillment in Jesus Christ.

4. The Scriptures both document and narrate not only God's saving acts but also the manifold human responses to them, revealing that God's unchanging purpose to redeem is fulfilled, not by means of a coercive, deterministic system, but through a divine plan compassionately respectful of human freedom, adapted to changing historical circumstances, cultural situations, and individual experience and need. In reading the diverse texts of Holy Scripture, the Church seeks an ever-growing comprehension of this plan and of the precepts and practices whereby believers may respond more faithfully to it, walking in the way of Christ.

5. The New Testament itself interprets and applies the texts of the Old Testament as pointing to and revealing the Christ. Thus, the revelation of God in Christ is the key to the Church's understanding of the Scriptures as a whole.

6. Individual texts must not, therefore, be isolated and made to mean something at odds with the tenor or trajectory of the divine plan underlying the whole of Scripture.

7. Faithful interpretation requires the Church to use the gifts of "memory, reason, and skill" to find the sense of the scriptural text and to locate it in its time and place. The Church must then seek the text's present significance in light of the whole economy of salvation. Chief among the guiding principles by which the Church interprets the sacred texts is the congruence of its interpretation with Christ's Summary of the Law and the New Commandment, and the creeds.

The Rev. Samuel Gregory Jones ('Greg') is rector of St. Michael's in Raleigh, N.C. A husband and father, Jones is also the author of Beyond Da Vinci (Seabury Books, 2004), and the bass player in indie-rock band The Balsa Gliders - whose fourth studio release is due on iTunes in November of 2008.

Is this God?

By Donald Schell

When church leaders argue about canons, covenants, and rubrics (as Episcopalians and global Anglicans seem to be doing more and more), I think of Jesus our teacher and I can’t imagine him worrying about any such thing. He teaches ‘with authority,’ that is, his teaching draws on the authority of people’s experience and then with his own authority, he interprets recognizable human experience without appealing to any external endorsement or ruling from those with arbitrary power.

The Gospels present Jesus as a teacher who mistrusts hierarchical power so much that when he begins a parable introducing someone who has such power, we can almost count on the story unfolding with that person using power to drive a wedge between people who lack power.
Talking with preaching colleagues and with lay people about the parables we’ve heard in church these past few months, I’ve noticed how hard it is to break our habit of interpreting rich landlords, slave owners, kings, and fathers in Jesus’ storytelling as stand-ins for God, even though these authority figures in the parables consistently act foolishly, arbitrarily, or dangerously toward people who are dependent on them for wellbeing. Some of Jesus’ parables even have power figures harm those they love best. This is not, as Jesus teaches it, the way of Abba, God.

Reading parables as allegory and wrapping them up with a tidy moral lesson at the end are two convenient ways to tame them. The Gospel writers and early preachers tried to tame them this way just as we do. We prefer the limited thrill of colorful zoo animals to Jesus’ offer of dangerous creatures in the wild. Like wild animals, untamed parables are dangerous enough that they demand our attention and keep us alert, confused sometimes, maybe a little anxious, and wondering.

Various Anglican bishops warn us that only a universally recognized church authority can bring peace and faithfulness to our communion. They say that in our ‘crisis of authority’ we need to submit to Bible, Council of Primates, Christian tradition, or an ‘all of the above’ combination. If we ignore the violence and foolishness of the powerful in Jesus’ parables and allegorize the parables’ power figures as God as stand-ins for God, we might think Jesus supported such a picture of God’s kingdom or the holy community that serves it. Stripped of allegorical distortion, if we hear Jesus’ parables from our actual experience, we stumble over an exact opposite answer.

If we don’t allegorize, how shall we interpret Jesus’ parables? Parables resonate in experience. When we’re angry or confused by them, we’ve started to notice the parables’ wild independence of our tidy interpretations of them. Our own experience and emotional response to these stories matter. Jesus crafted his parables to startle us, disturb us, and then settle uneasily or provocatively into our memory.

Parables aren’t lessons. They work more like puzzles, jokes or even ghost stories.
Many of Jesus’ parables flow like this

-A recognizable type, often someone with power, does something expressive of his character. (Could it be that these figures in the parables are always men because part of Jesus' critique is about power men hold?)

- The authority’s action quickly becomes a set-up for a crisis.

- Ordinary people (and the authority figure who prompted the crisis) respond, some badly, some well.

Rather than inviting us to decode allegorically, seeing point by point how some group of people or series of events in a parable is ‘like the kingdom of God,’ or ‘like God,’ Jesus our teacher’s parables plunge us into hair-raisingly familiar chaos – political, workplace, economic, or family, and there they force us to wonder what choices or actions we or others who are not rulers or authorities can make in the presence of their arbitrary, destructive, or foolish actions. Like a puzzle, a joke, or a scary story, a parable opens into a crisis that rolls around in our mind when the telling is over. Choices that ordinary people make, people without rank hint at God’s kingdom breaking in. In some parables the painful absence of their choices or an unconscious, bad choice point to where the kingdom might have broken in if someone had acted differently.

Sequence and detail matter to each parable so we rehearse them in our minds to get all the pieces lined up properly so the crisis unfolds. And the set-up again and again has power drive a parable narrative straight toward conflict, often a dangerous conflict, and most typically one that stirs up our feelings and confuses us. The energy that parables derive from conflict makes them like plays in the theater, more powerful and fascinating because they simply won’t reduce to a simple meaning. And Jesus’ stories don’t end neatly; uncertainty and unfinished movement remain. Like ghost stories and jokes, his parables stay with us.

When preachers hear someone say after a sermon, “I still don’t get how the landlord (or king or father) is like God,” listeners are asking the right question.

Jesus’ listeners - day laborers, tax collectors, prostitutes, fishermen, and ordinary soldiers - already knew that top-down power let privileged people act in ways that hurt other people, and that privileged people, often enough, also blundered into hurting themselves and those they loved best. Jesus’ listeners had seen too many landlords, kings, employers, and rich people act in ways that made no sense at all to imagine that the powerful were like God.

Think of the parable of the vineyard owner who hired workers at different hours of the day and paid them all the same at day’s end. Keep saying, “This isn’t God,” and ask yourself what you’d think of an employer who said, ‘It’s my money, and I’ll do as I please with it’? The vineyard owner sounds more like Leona Helmsley than God. When we quit trying to pretend the landlord was God, we find ourselves in the crowd with Jesus’ listeners wondering how that landlord would ever hire another day’s workforce. We are so close to God’s kingdom. At day’s end, each day laborer has either earned or been given enough to feed his family - but the workers are bitterly divided by envy.

Jesus’ listeners understand envy all too well. Often Jesus’ parables create a circumstance where people with little power are provoked to envy, or even murderous envy by the cruel, arbitrary, or foolish acts of authority figures, like the tenants who kill the landlord’s son and heir (hoping they wouldn’t get caught) because the landlord has finally, stupidly sent his only heir. Local law said that if the landlord had no living heir, the tenants would finally own the land they’d sweated over for some many years. This painful parable of the father’s blunder that cost his son’s life sounds to me like Jesus may have been using a dark piece of local gossip or news.

Was Jesus an anarchist? “Anarchist” catches something of his critique of power, but the word also misses that Jesus seemed to think top-down power was ultimately irrelevant. In his parables the real choices that resonate with God’s bottom-up kingdom happen person to person. Jesus is not trying to overturn one authority to replace it with another – not even replacing rabbinical councils with apostolic councils. Instead Jesus lived from a deep clarity of purpose and evident humility while he confronted rulers and told scathing stories about rules.
Wherever a new kind of community, one based on forgiveness rather than envy or judgment appears, God’s kingdom shows up right in the midst of the tired, old kingdoms and religious structures. ‘Divine anarchy’ does seem closer to Jesus’ Gospel than any godly monarchy.

The Rev. Donald Schell, founder of St. Gregory of Nyssa Church in San Francisco, is Creative Director of All Saints Company. He wrote My Father, My Daughter: Pilgrims on the Road to Santiago.

Making sense of animal sacrifice

[Note: Derek’s series “7 Dates Every Anglican Should Know” is on temporary hiatus. His next date and topic are entirely too close to the subject of his dissertation; it will resume whenever he can write something coherent that’s less than ten pages in length…]

By Derek Olsen

Sometimes it takes hearing something in a totally different context to come to a fundamental realization of something that has been before our eyes all the time. As a biblical scholar, part of my work, my competence, is dependent on reading through ancient sources contemporary with the Bible. It helps me get my head into the world that produced the text, the world that the biblical writers took for granted, and helps me get a grasp of what they might have been thinking about or expecting when they used certain words or concepts. Sometimes there are clear connections; sometimes there aren’t. Nevertheless, I’ll often stumble over something that I think I understand from Scripture that an ancient source reveals in a completely different way. That happened to me recently in connection with the concept of sacrifice.

Sacrifice is one of those biblical concepts that make people uncomfortable. We don’t like it, and we’re glad we don’t do it any more. It simply doesn’t make sense from a modern point of view: how is killing an animal going to help anything, and why would that make God happy? We get chapter after chapter in the latter portion of the Torah (the first five books of our Old Testament) that detail exacting rules concerning who does what with various parts of cut-up critters. Needless to say, our lectionaries skip those.

There are even signs that some in the biblical world had some skepticism towards the practice. Psalm 50, for instance, emphasizes moral and ethical acts over animal sacrifice:

7 Hear, O my people, and I will speak:
"O Israel, I will bear witness against you; *
for I am God, your God.
8 I do not accuse you because of your sacrifices; *
your offerings are always before me.
12 If I were hungry, I would not tell you, *
for the whole world is mine and all that is in it.
13 Do you think I eat the flesh of bulls, *
or drink the blood of goats?
14 Offer to God a sacrifice of thanksgiving *
and make good your vows to the Most High.

The prophets too inveigh against those who kept the sacrificial laws yet neglected the equally divine commands of the law to act with justice and mercy:

"I hate, I despise your feasts,
and I take no delight in your solemn assemblies.
Even though you offer me your burnt offerings and cereal offerings,
I will not accept them,
and the peace offerings of your fatted beasts
I will not look upon.
Take away from me the noise of your songs;
to the melody of your harps I will not listen.
But let justice roll down like waters,
and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream.” (Amos 5:21-24)

The internal logic of sacrifice just seems off: sins committed are punishable by death and must be washed away with blood (which contains the life). Humans have sinned and the blood-debt must be paid. Therefore, we can substitute an animal and its blood instead of paying our debt ourselves and atoning with our own blood. Is it really moral—let alone praiseworthy—to kill something else in an effort to fix up our mistakes? So what do we do with these passages—reject them as relics of a primitive society or spiritualize them as a sacrifice of praise and thanksgiving like the psalmist?

I recently got a clue that there’s more to this picture than these conclusions assume; there’s an important point here that we miss and that may well cause us to distort the idea because of where we place the emphasis. I was rereading one of my favorites—Homer’s Iliad—when I came across the section in the first book where Odysseus and his men are sent on a peace mission to an offended priest of Apollo who is causing a god-granted plague to ravage the Achaean armies. It struck me in a new way this time around; here’s the description of their sacrifice:

When prayers were said and grains of barley strewn,
they held the bullocks for the knife, and flayed them,
cutting out joints and wrapping these in fat,
two layers, folded, with raw strips of flesh,
for the old man to burn on cloven faggots,
wetting it all with wine. Around him stood
young men with five tined forks in hand, and when
the vitals had been tasted, joints consumed,
they sliced the chines and quarters for the spits,
roasted them evenly and drew them off.
Their meal now prepared and all work done,
they feasted to their hearts’ content and made
desire for meat and drink recede again,
then young men filled their winebowls to the brim,
ladling drops for the god in every cup.
Propitiatory songs rose clear and strong
until day’s end to praise the god, Apollo,
as One Who Keeps the Plague Afar; and listening
the god took joy. After the sun went down
and darkness came, at last Odysseus’ men
lay down to rest under the stern hawsers.
(Iliad, I.526-46)

The point here isn’t the killing—the point here is the party! In this Homeric sacrifice, the point isn’t that the blood-thirsty god was made happy because a bunch of animals were killed; instead, what happens here is fellowship: enemies unite in common praise of a god, the table is shared, meat consumed, wine quaffed, and mingled voices are raised in song.

I take away two major things from this. First, our focus on death misses what happens after the animal is killed: it becomes food, and the sacrificial act is not completed until it has been consumed. Going back to the Old Testament after this, I realized that this is far more common than we might think; I generally assume that everything got burnt—and there is an important class of whole burnt offerings (holocausts). But far more common are the rites where the family and the priest share together in the sacred meal honoring God in their shared table fellowship. The economic reality of antiquity was that when meat was consumed, chances are it came from a sacrifice. Indeed—this is why eating meat offered to idols was such a big deal in 1st Corinthians: most of the meat for sale in the local markets would have been leftovers from local sacrifices.

Sacrifice then wasn’t just about death and, it makes me wonder if we enlightened moderns couldn’t learn something about death and meat from these ancient practices. It’s not like we don’t kill animals today. Modern meat is produced with ruthless mechanistic efficiency. Death after death after death occurs in our modern meat-packing plants without a moment’s notice or pause. There’s no recognition, no realization, that a life is ending and its lifeblood poured out. Even if we find the logic of sacrifice disturbing, at least it locates meaning in death. We, the enlightened, prefer to ignore it. After all—our meat comes from the supermarket, not from animals.

Second, one of the classic arguments in Christian practice from the time of the Reformation and taken up recently after the Second Vatican Council is the issue what that thing is up there at the front of the church on which we do the Eucharist—and what that means for what we do there. Is it a table or an altar (or something else beyond these)? In recent years, the first has been the overwhelming choice. And yet—this Homeric scene makes me realize that we’re engaging in false dichotomies. The altar, the Eucharist, are multivalent. It’s not an either/or, it’s a both/and… Homer reminds us that table and altar, meal and sacrifice are not alternatives, rather they interpenetrate one another. The sacrifice is a meal, a sharing in the flesh and wine; the meal is participation in a death, a consuming of something that died on our behalf.

So, next time you hear the Eucharistic prayer, next time you consider the altar-table, next time you share meat and wine with those you love, think on these things. Ponder these mysteries of death in perennial exchange with life.

Derek Olsen is in the final stretch of completing a Ph.D. in New Testament (with a healthy side of Homiletics) at Emory University. His full-time calling of keeping up with two adorable girls and his wife, an Episcopal priest, is complicated by his day-job as an IT Consultant. He has taught seminary courses in biblical studies, preaching, and liturgics; he currently resides in Maryland. His reflections on life, liturgical spirituality, and being a Gen-X/Y dad appear at Haligweorc.

Jesus spoke Greek

By Deirdre Good

Did Jesus speak Greek? Yes. It's well known that Jesus spoke Aramaic in certain situations: when healing a young woman and a blind man, when praying in Gethsemane and dying in agony on the cross. In each case, a gospel writer provides a translation into Greek, presumably for an audience to whom Greek was familiar. Paul also knows and transmits Aramaic words: "Abba" and "Maranatha." Sometimes he uses them alongside their Greek equivalents: "Abba, Father" and other times he simply writes "Maranatha!" preserved by the KJV but translated by the NRSV, "Our Lord, come!" Of course Paul spoke and wrote in Greek. But it's less well known that Jesus spoke Greek. What's the evidence? And why might we find it interesting?

Here are four passages as evidence. In Mark 7:24-30, a Syrophoenician woman seeks out Jesus, who is in the region of Tyre. Mark specifically identifies her as Greek, "a Syrophoenician by birth." She asks Jesus for healing for her daughter and he responds in Greek, "Let the children first be fed, for it is not right to take the children's bread and throw it to the dogs." They continue to dialogue until Jesus declares that her daughter is healed. The woman returns to her house to find her daughter healed. No translation is given and no translator mentioned. Jesus and a Greek woman speak Greek together. There's a version of this encounter in Matthew and the same argument could be made of that passage although the woman is identified differently and she and Jesus have a longer dialogue.

In John 12:20 some Greeks came to Philip asking to see Jesus. Philip tells Andrew and they both tell Jesus. The text doesn't report Jesus' refusal to see or speak with them. So presumably he meets and speaks with them in Greek.

Both Matthew and Luke report an encounter of Jesus with a centurion who asks Jesus to help his paralyzed servant. They have a dialogue and the end result is that the servant is healed. Jesus describes the centurion as a Gentile: "Not even in Israel have I found such faith!" (Matthew 8:10).

In Mark's trial narrative, Jesus is handed over to Pilate. Pilate asks him, "Are you the King of the Jews?" and Jesus answers, "You say so." Pontius Pilate is the Roman procurator of Judea and would not have known a Semitic language. No translation of their exchange is given or interpreter mentioned. Jesus' words are reported in Greek. Of course Pilate spoke Latin but Jesus did not.

In each of these four cases when the gospels report that Jesus speaks Greek he does so in response to requests. None of the requesters spoke a Semitic language, and no interpreter is present for their exchange.

These four cases indicate that all the New Testament gospels report that Jesus speaks Greek on different occasions and with different people. In Jesus' world, Greek was the common language uniting disparate peoples. People spoke other languages as well as Greek, but speaking a little Greek would be practical, even good for business. There are many examples of Jewish ossuaries with Greek inscriptions. Of course, the gospels are transmitted in Greek so preserving Jesus' words in Greek is easy. But Mark's audience only knows Greek so Mark translates Jesus' Aramaic words for their benefit. Indeed, scholars have noted that Jesus' Greek speech in Mark is more formal than the Greek of the narrative. Jesus' Greek has been "improved" by transmitters of his speech.

Now Jesus doesn't have long conversations or exchange many words with Greeks. But Jesus hears and responds to Greek speaking people in their own language. Jesus met people where they were. Jesus didn't force people to conform to his smaller linguistic comfort zone of Aramaic. He learnt the lingua franca. Jesus doesn't use his knowledge of Greek to proselytize. He uses Greek to enter the world of others so as to consider and respond to their requests.

Dr. Deirdre Good is professor of New Testament at The General Theological Seminary, specializing in the Synoptic Gospels, Christian Origins, Noncanonical writings and biblical languages. While she is an American citizen, she grew up in Kenya which may explain certain features of her blog, On Not Being a Sausage.

Rethinking Ascension

By George Clifford

Luke’s gospel ends with an unidentified force or actor carrying Jesus up into heaven (Luke 24:51); in John’s gospel, Jesus speaks of his impending ascension (John 20:17), and the book of Acts begins with a retelling of Jesus’ ascension (Acts 1:9). Based on those New Testament passages, the Church annually commemorates Jesus’ Ascension into heaven on the fortieth day after Easter. This year, the feast fell on May 1.

From a scientific perspective, the concept of Jesus’ ascension into heaven as depicted in Scripture is nonsensical. If Jesus ascended into heaven, then given the right information an aerospace engineer could calculate heaven’s direction, but not its distance, from earth. The accurate data needed for that calculation includes the geographic point at which the ascension occurred, the hour and minute, day of the year, and year in which the ascension occurred, Jesus’ trajectory into the sky, and the relative location of the solar system and universe within the cosmos at the time of the ascension.

Some might ridicule a literal reading, contending that heaven – the place where Jesus sits at the right hand of the Father – surrounds the cosmos, lying outside space and time. Yet the New Testament ascension narratives presume a flat, three-tiered cosmos consisting of heaven above, earth in the middle, and hell below. Before dismissing my claim that the New Testament presumes a three-story cosmology as wrong, remember the words of the Nicene Creed we Episcopalians (like many other Christians) often say at Holy Eucharist, “he [Jesus] ascended into heaven and is seated at the right hand of the Father.” Those who have personally circumnavigated the world know that the earth is round. For others, video and photographic evidence from outer space provides convincing evidence that the earth is spherical. In other words, a basic presumption of the New Testament versions of the ascension is scientifically wrong.

Presupposing that one rejects a literal interpretation of Jesus’ ascension, what better options do twenty-first century Christians have for understanding Jesus’ ascension?

The first option, already mentioned, consists of spiritualizing the ascension, postulating the existence of a spiritual realm that lies outside the space-time continuum. Increasing numbers of people, however, find the idea of a supernatural deity, a deity who exists not only in but beyond the cosmos, unbelievable. Scholars and spiritual leaders like Bishops John A. T. Robinson (Honest to God) and John Spong (Jesus for the Non-Religious) have helpfully articulated why such a belief seems incompatible with other elements of our modern worldview.

A second option is to ignore Jesus’ ascension and hope that others do so as well, an approach that Ascension always falling on Thursday aids. After all, Christianity emphasizes God's presence not absence in the world. Historically, one of the important functions of the ascension was to explain Jesus’ physical absence to people who believed in a physically empty tomb and Jesus’ bodily resurrection. The New Testament specifies that Jesus appeared amongst his disciples for forty days after rising from the dead. When people stopped encountering Jesus, what had happened to him? Novelists and others have imaginatively answered that question, producing a wealth of material. Jesus went to India; he disappeared unknown among peasants elsewhere; etc. Those explanations typically undercut Christianity’s premise that Jesus was not resuscitated but resurrected, receiving a qualitatively new form of life. Thankfully, the feast of Pentecost quickly follows Ascension and ecclesial attention shifts from the absent Jesus to the now present Holy Spirit. This overly facile and dishonest option describes what many contemporary Christians do, especially in Churches without a liturgical calendar or lectionary that forces one to pay at least annual lip service to the ascension.

A third option, my preference, begins by acknowledging the theological difficulties that Jesus’ ascension poses and then re-examines the data. Biblical numerology provides a helpful starting point. The Bible – Old and New Testament alike – associates the number forty with a theologically significant period of extended duration. For example, rain fell for forty days and nights while Noah was in the ark (Genesis 7:4). The Israelites who fled Egypt ate manna for forty years (Exodus 16:35). Moses was forty when he visited his Israelite relatives (Acts 7:23) and then sojourned in the wilderness forty years before his experience of the burning bush (Acts 7:30). Moses spent forty days and nights on the mountain before receiving the Ten Commandments from God (Deuteronomy 9:11). Jesus fasted forty days and nights in the wilderness (Matthew 4:2). Perhaps the forty days the risen Jesus spent with his disciples points to an indefinite but considerable period of time following Jesus’ crucifixion in which the disciples experienced Jesus’ presence with them. They experienced Jesus in a new, radically different manner, a manner that the disciples did not know how to describe, a manner that transformed their despair over his death into the hope that built the Church. So the disciples grasped the metaphor of resurrection as a way to speak about their new experience of Jesus (see my earlier Episcopal Café essay, “Resurrection, Not Resuscitation”). In time, the disciples’ experiences of Jesus in this new way diminished in frequency and dimmed in intensity. Ascension became the accepted metaphor for explaining why that had happened.

Metaphors and other figures of speech are the only way in which humans can speak of God because our language, by definition, is human language and God is not human. Our perspective as humans is perhaps equally or even more limited than language. Twenty-first century Christians need offer no apologies for finding first century metaphors highly problematic. The first century metaphor of resurrection presumes a worldview in which gods often have or assume human form, an idea common to both the Greek and Roman pantheons. Similarly, the three-storied cosmos ascension presumes was intrinsic to the dominant first century worldview.

The note that I hear most clearly and loudly in the New Testament ascension narratives is that the disciples, post-resurrection, were utterly convinced that the Jesus story had not yet reached its end. They believed that God would write at least one more chapter in the Jesus story. Our Eucharistic prayers affirm this belief in a story for which the conclusion has yet to be written with some form of the proclamation that “Christ has died, Christ is risen, Christ will come again.”

The Rev. George Clifford, a retired priest in the Diocese of North Carolina, served as a Navy chaplain for twenty-four years.

Life, and more

By Greg Jones

With the birth of our third girl this month, surprisingly early, we were able to experience the miracle of life at close hand again. We believe that the birth of a child is testimony to the Glory of God and a sign of God's marvelous handiwork in creation.

Seeing the hand of God in nature is hardly some new-fangled thing of course. John Calvin said that there is "by natural instinct, a sense of divinity." Indeed, Scripture itself proclaims that God may be perceived in nature. As the Psalmist says, "the heavens are telling the glory of God." Paul writes: "Since the creation of the world His eternal power and divine nature, invisible though they are, have been understood and seen through the things he has made."

Life itself is a wondrous thing of course, and you don't even need to believe in God to agree. Popular author Richard Dawkins – a convinced atheist – upholds biology as the most complex and fascinating of all sciences. Before Dawkins, George Gaylord Simpson, the famous paleontologist and evolutionary scientist, argued that biology alone "stands at the center of all science, and it is here, in the field where all principles of all the sciences are embodied, that science can truly become unified." Simpson recognized, studied and reveled in the majesty of life in all its diversity – yet he didn't believe in God.

For Christians who believe in a particular story (that God is creator of all things visible and invisible who loves His Creation and especially His children – and who has become one with Creation through the incarnation – and who has faced all we face as mortal beings – and who has defeated death in resurrection) we must careful. For seeing God in nature is fine – but seeing nature as God is not.

Consider the Easter 'holiday' as it now exists in the English speaking world. Like Christmas, Easter has taken on a number of symbols which have a lot to do with fertility and nature – but not necessarily anything to do with God in Christ. The word Easter – first of all – derives from the name of a pagan goddess associated with the rising of the sun. In ancient Britain, the pre-Christian folks of Northumbria venerated this goddess ('Eastre') at the vernal equinox.

Yes, life is important – supremely so – whether one believes in Jesus Christ or not. For those of us who do, it is even more important that we make sure not to see life as the same as God or in the place of God. For those of us who believe, life is not God, but rather the gift of God. Life is not in the place of God, but is rather the place where God pours out his love most fully and completely. Life is not to be worshipped, but rather God who gives life is to be worshipped and adored.

In the Fourth Gospel 'life' is central to the Johannine vocabulary. More than any other book in the New Testament, John talks about 'life'. And it takes on a double meaning. The word 'life' means not only life as you and I normally speak of it. It refers to the indwelling presence of God in the universe – it refers to the presence of the living God in our midst – it refers to the fact that God is not the same as us, but God is with us, and in us, and around us. It refers not only to biological life – as amazing as that is – but also to eternal, spiritual, divine life. Quite plainly, it refers to Resurrection life – the life which includes but goes beyond fleshly life – and extends eternally in full communion with the God of all. Interestingly enough, the Greek word for resurrection does not appear in John's gospel very much. But, in its place, the Greek word for 'life' appears many times as a synonym for resurrection.

What I'm saying – what I've learned from John – is that Easter is not just about the miracle of natural life. It is not really about Spring, and fertility, and eggs, and hatchlings, and sweet little babies. No, it is about those things, and infinitely more. Easter – or Christian Passover – or the Feast of the Resurrection – is about the kind of new life that only Jesus Christ can offer. It is about resurrection life – eternal life – life beyond biology and its undeniable but limited majesty.

This Easter season – remember – that Christ died for you, and rose from the dead, and took on the fullest possible kind of life in his resurrection. It is that kind of life that you and I are called to share, and have begun to share, for when we died with Him in our baptism, we have been given that kind of life to put on – from now on and forever.

The Rev. Samuel Gregory Jones ("Greg") became a member of Christ's Body at St. Columba's in Washington, D.C.. He was educated at the University of North Carolina and the General Theological Seminary, where he is on the Board. Rector of St. Michael's Raleigh, and author of Beyond Da Vinci (Seabury Books, 2004), he blogs at fatherjones.com.

The wages of fear

By Donald Schell

The Easter Gospels (like the Christmas Gospels) are shot through with fear. Why do angels keep telling us not to be afraid? Don’t they know there’s danger out there?

In the early darkness after San Francisco’s 1989 earthquake, my wife and I stood on the roof of our house looking out over the Marina district. Our son and daughter huddled against us. We were very quiet, and the city was in blackness. The power had failed. In the darkness we watched a five storey apartment building explode and collapse in on itself. Huge flames from the fire lit the dark evening. Just as in San Francisco’s 1906 earthquake, where wildfire destroyed much more of the city than the earthquake had, broken water lines rendered fire hydrants useless. Old photos of San Francisco’s ashes after 1906 haunted me.

We sighed our relief when an arc of water shot up from a fire truck. High-arching plumes sparkled red in the firelight. Generator-driven searchlights lit the building and the water. From our battery-powered emergency radio we heard that firefighters had run hoses from a fireboat ashore to a pumper truck. The newsman said this was what they’d done in 1906, but confidently claimed that this time the seawater would make it easy for the firefighters to beat the fire. We watched and listened. As the newscaster’s calm voice assured us the Marina fire was under control, the arc of water faltered and stopped. The searchlights went dark. Flames surged higher. For a few minutes the newsman talked on of other disaster response areas.

Abruptly he stopped what he was reporting; perhaps someone had handed him a note. We heard his tight, measured voice say, “The Marina fire appears to be out of control again.” Twice, then three times, we heard the same premature announcement and each time the resurgent fire’s threat felt bigger.

Our nine-year old son, until that moment the bravest and most stubbornly independent kid I’d ever known, leaned into me for safety and took my hand. “Dad, is the fire going to come this way?”

“I don’t know.” I answered. I didn’t know. It was a still evening, a moment of dead calm in our windy city. But the weather could change quickly. What else could I say? “We’ll watch after you’re in bed. If the fire stays out of control, mom and I will take turns, and if we even think it might spread and come this way, we’ll get us out of here.”

“Will the house burn down?”

“It could.”

We watched quietly for an hour as firefighters got the fireboat to truck connection working. Gradually with plenty of water, they really did contain the fire. We couldn’t see flames any longer, just a glow from where the building had been. It finally seemed safe enough to kiss the children good-night, to hope for another day, to sleep in the stillness and listen for the Spirit telling us that we were not alone.

In the long nightmare after 9/11 we didn’t know how to stand together as leaders’ voices told us how very alone we were, that our lives and homes and way of life were all in danger, that we could lose everything and needed to be afraid. To hold fear at bay, our country needed to unleash carpet bombing on Afghan and Iraqi villages, we sent over thousands of American troops and have now lost more Americans fighting the war than were killed in the terrorist attacks, and we’re not counting Iraqi dead. Our safety has been the rationale for using torture to gather intelligence of coming terror threats from all those frightening places outside our borders where people hate us and want to destroy our way of life.

By 2008 Franklin Roosevelt starts to sound like a theologian or a prophet, ‘We have nothing to fear except fear itself.’ In fact Roosevelt’s words make a decent summary of the Resurrection Gospel. The resurrected Jesus returns to deliver us from our double addiction to fear and to safety.

A day or so after 9/11, an Israeli friend who lives in the San Francisco Bay Area said several people asked him how he managed to make his commute across the Bay Bridge – didn’t he know that it might be the next target? My friend’s simple answer? “I grew up in Jerusalem.”

My friend had it right. After 9/11, I heard familiar Bible texts challenging us in a new way. They were inviting us all to grow up in Jerusalem. Jerusalem of two millennia ago, like today’s Jerusalem, was a loved holy place with constant threats, fears, and frequent experience of death. After 9/11, bald, brazen voices of the prophets assured the people that life was more than death, pillage and famine. The prophets spoke their hard comfort to people who had lost everything and wondered where God was, to frightened people who had survived imperial armies’ raping and murdering rage, to survivors who had seen their homes and fields burned, their livestock slaughtered and left to rot -- people who had lost everything and wondered where God was.

The prophets’ message was beyond politics. They saw the threat to their nation and called the people and rulers to justice, to care for the poor, to loving mercy and to walking humbly with God. Our leaders (like the royal leaders of ancient Israel) caution us that safety comes at an inevitable cost: in extraordinary times our historic commitments to freedom and human dignity demand holding prisoners indefinitely without charges and torturing suspects to protect us from terrorist threats. Then they assure us that without their leadership terrible things would have happened. It’s no stretch to hear biblical prophets (who rejected the power of chariots to keep people safe) jeering at metal detectors and border walls, just as they would have ridiculed President Clinton for insisting after the Oklahoma City bombing that we should, ‘tell the children of America that this will never happen again.’

Denial and wishful thinking aren’t what we need to hear. Angels and Jesus don’t tell us “Do not be afraid because nothing bad will ever happen again.” Our Easter Jesus appears to disciples hiding in a locked room in fear for their lives. After he breathed on them and said, ‘Receive the Holy Spirit,’ the world was still dangerous, but Jesus sent his friends into that dangerous world to preach and share forgiveness. Like the prophets, like my friend who grew up in Jerusalem, like the disciples, can we listen for a simpler promise? God stands by people, unwaveringly faithful, still blessing life. Jesus says to his disciples, “I am with you always, to the end of the ages.”

The Rev. Donald Schell, founder of St. Gregory of Nyssa Church in San Francisco, is Creative Director of All Saints Company, working for community development in congregational life focusing on sharing leadership, welcoming creativity, building community through music, and making liturgical architecture a win/win for building and congregation. He wrote My Father, My Daughter: Pilgrims on the Road to Santiago.

Our fast is their feast

By Luiz Coelho

For I received from the Lord what I also handed on to you, that the Lord Jesus on the night when he was betrayed took a loaf of bread, and when he had given thanks, he broke it and said, "This is my body that is for you. Do this in remembrance of me." In the same way he took the cup also, after supper, saying, "This cup is the new covenant in my blood. Do this, as often as you drink it, in remembrance of me." For as often as you eat this bread and drink the cup, you proclaim the Lord's death until he comes.

Whoever, therefore, eats the bread or drinks the cup of the Lord in an unworthy manner will be answerable for the body and blood of the Lord. Examine yourselves, and only then eat of the bread and drink of the cup. For all who eat and drink without discerning the body, eat and drink judgment against themselves. For this reason many of you are weak and ill, and some have died. But if we judged ourselves, we would not be judged. But when we are judged by the Lord, we are disciplined so that we may not be condemned along with the world.
1 Corinthians 11:23-26

Now before the festival of the Passover, Jesus knew that his hour had come to depart from this world and go to the Father. Having loved his own who were in the world, he loved them to the end. The devil had already put it into the heart of Judas son of Simon Iscariot to betray him. And during supper Jesus, knowing that the Father had given all things into his hands, and that he had come from God and was going to God, got up from the table, took off his outer robe, and tied a towel around himself. Then he poured water into a basin and began to wash the disciples' feet and to wipe them with the towel that was tied around him. He came to Simon Peter, who said to him, "Lord, are you going to wash my feet?" Jesus answered, "You do not know now what I am doing, but later you will understand." Peter said to him, "You will never wash my feet." Jesus answered, "Unless I wash you, you have no share with me." Simon Peter said to him, "Lord, not my feet only but also my hands and my head!" Jesus said to him, "One who has bathed does not need to wash, except for the feet, but is entirely clean. And you are clean, though not all of you." For he knew who was to betray him; for this reason he said, "Not all of you are clean."

After he had washed their feet, had put on his robe, and had returned to the table, he said to them, "Do you know what I have done to you? You call me Teacher and Lord--and you are right, for that is what I am. So if I, your Lord and Teacher, have washed your feet, you also ought to wash one another's feet. For I have set you an example, that you also should do as I have done to you. Very truly, I tell you, servants are not greater than their master, nor are messengers greater than the one who sent them. If you know these things, you are blessed if you do them.
Jesus said, "Now the Son of Man has been glorified, and God has been glorified in him. If God has been glorified in him, God will also glorify him in himself and will glorify him at once. Little children, I am with you only a little longer. You will look for me; and as I said to the Jews so now I say to you, `Where I am going, you cannot come.' I give you a new commandment, that you love one another. Just as I have loved you, you also should love one another. By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another."

John 13:1-17, 31b-35

“Whoever eats the bread or drinks the cup of the Lord in an unworthy manner...” This Bible passage has always been one of the most striking to me in my whole life. I recall not receiving communion several times, when I felt not able (or willing) to allow God to free myself from a certain sin, whether it was a personal one or even a collective one. And I know this might be a very countercultural behavior, especially at a time sin has been apparently forgotten by many, and confession has become a rare event in peoples' lives.

However, it is my firm belief that there is no other way of behaving with respect to the magnificent care expressed by Jesus on that night right before he was betrayed, than with utmost respect and awe for his unconditional love towards us.

Acts of love are usually enhanced by unpredictable circumstances under which they happen, and the events that happened on that Thursday night were no different from that. The first of them was the washing of the feet. I imagine how shocked the disciples were to see their master, the Messiah, humbly washing their feet. Yes, the one who had taught them so much, was acting as if he were a simple servant. What they did not know, however, was that Jesus, on that night, was teaching them the most important lesson of all... a new commandment that resumed and consolidated his message so far.

“Love one another as I love you.” The strength of such a commandment goes far beyond our typical understanding of love. Jesus' love is so deep that it reaches even the one who would betray him hours later. His humility is so impressive that he does not care to wash tired and dirty feet, probably full of wounds and scars. Are we really following Jesus' new commandment and this new vision of love? It is easy for us to say that we love our neighbor, and in fact, many of us repeat those verses every Sunday. It is easy to strike our chests and claim we have given a certain amount of our money to the local shelter, a hospice in Guatemala or even for the Millenium Development Goals, but would we be willing to leave the ease of modern life and share all we have with the miserable? Would we live a simple life and truly be brothers and sisters of those who have no more than rice and beans to eat? Would we go to the slums and proclaim the Gospel to those for whom life has become a source of constant pain? Would we reach those who we should hate (and who hate us), whomever they are, and yet tell them we love them as Jesus loves all of us?

No, we would not. During Lent, we were theoretically called to fast, and give up on simple things that are important to us. However, how many times have we caught ourselves complaining about how hard it is to do that. How many times have we almost failed? It is difficult, it is very difficult to leave our comfort zone and realize that, for many people around the globe, our lenten fast is much fancier than what they will have in their whole lives. Do we really care? Do we really manifest this love Jesus has commanded us to show?

The apex of this love is expressed in the simple meal Jesus shared with his disciples shortly after he washed their feet. More than a memorial supper of bread and wine, more than a simple act of thanksgiving, the institution of the Holy Eucharist became a way through which Jesus' disciples could recapitulate his final act of self giving love for humankind. By giving his body and blood, he offered himself in sacrifice for us, and made us part of his own body. He shared our pain, and even in spite of all the suffering that was about to come, he was still able to love unconditionally.

The Eucharist should mean more to us than a weekly ceremony. It is the spiritual food that nourishes us and prepares us truly to be Jesus' disciples. When we take part of Jesus' body and blood, we commit ourselves to follow him with all our heart, live according to his commandment and flood this world with Christ's love. The same meal he instituted that night is a continuous reminder that, even not being perfect, we ought to struggle to be worthy of such unconditional love.

Maundy Thursday, more than a simple ceremony or a light meal, is a calling. As we remember Jesus' last moments with his disciples before his arrest, we are called to be worthy of such a wondrous love. We are called to truly love all humankind, sacrificing our own selfish desires for the common good. We are called to go to the slums and proclaim Jesus' message to the outcasts of society. We are called to embrace our enemies and to love them with all our heart. We are called to love the sick, the hungry and the needy. We are called to make a difference, and show to the world what Christ's love is about.

Luiz Coelho, a seminarian from the Diocese of Rio de Janero, spends part of the year in the BFA program at the Savannah College of Art and Design. His Web site includes his art and his blog, Wandering Christian, on which he examines "Christianity in the third millennium, from a progressive, Latin American and Anglican point of view."

On "The Gospel of Truth"

This is the third in an occasional series on non-canonical writings. Parts I and II are also available.

By Deirdre Good

The Gospel of Truth is a sermon on salvation. In the opening paragraph, a familiar term "gospel" is introduced rapturously and then explained as a discovery of a search for the Father: "The gospel of Truth is joy for those who have received from the Father of truth the grace of knowing him.." Those who embark on a search for the Father (re)discover their origins from the Father. This knowledge is a movement of creation but not separation, implicit in declaring the Son as the Father's name.

Composed by a brilliant orator, perhaps the second-century Valentinus himself, the sermon describes how the Savior effects in humanity a transformation from ignorance to knowledge. As in the case of the Epistle to the Hebrews, however, we know little of the author or the sermon's recipients. Most scholars assign this text in the Nag Hammadi Library to Valentinian Christianity since topics like "the Father," "aeons," "the Pleroma (fullness),"
"Deficiency," and "Rest" occur. The sermon describes the role of Error as a type of lower creator or Demiurge in contrast to which the author emphasizes truth as the spoken and written disclosure in which the Son is the Name of the Father

The text describes searching as both promise and ignorance. Ignorance generates agitation, fear, and its palpable effects: "agitation grew dense like a fog so that no one could see." In such a climate, personified Error grows powerful-- creating from matter a substance that shapes substitutes for the truth. Error's forms of forgetfulness and fear hold people captive and blind.

To overcome the fog of ignorance, forgetfulness must be annulled. The moment knowledge of one's true origins from the heavenly realm are regained (Valentinians believe such knowledge lies dormant in humanity) error ceases to exist as it has no root. As Savior, Jesus brings a way that is truth and knowledge to awaken within humanity awareness of its identity as children of God. The Savior does this as speech, in that the Word teaches; as Light, by enlightening the way; as fruit of the Father's knowledge, by being eaten and the result is joy; as book by publishing the Father's edict on the cross in being nailed to a tree, thus overcoming fear and offering life for many.

When Jesus calls them, the elect are brought back "into the Father, the Mother, Jesus of the infinite gentleness" (24,8), into the bosom which is the Holy Spirit. From a state of weary searching they attain a state of dynamic rest. The author plays with the external/internal dynamic of this search and muses out loud, "It is amazing that they were in the Father without knowing him, and that they were able to come forth by themselves, inasmuch as they were not able to perceive or recognize the one in whom they were" (22:27-34).

The Savior changes an external search for knowledge into recognition by the saved that the Father contains the movement from ignorance to knowledge. This transformation eventually collapses a distinction between external and internal spheres. Because the Savior has become incarnate and has died on the cross in the external (cosmic) sphere, it ceases to exist. Thus, what happens at the end of the process becomes what exists implicitly in the Father at the beginning. The rest attained by enlightened ones at the end is what was in the Father's thought from the beginning.

However, collapse of the material realm does not mean it is disparaged. References to the name of the Father being "on their heads" likely refers to baptism. A reference to Christ anointing "with the ointment" the "ones he brings back" alludes to an anointing ritual. Allusive references to sacraments fit within a sermon.

Towards the end of the sermon, hearers are exhorted to be concerned about the Father of the all and the true brothers. The Savior is a way for the lost, knowledge for those who were ignorant, a discovery for those who were searching and a support for those who were wavering. Listeners are to speak of the truth with searchers, strengthen the feet of those who stumble, feed the hungry, give rest to the weary and awaken those who sleep. Using imagery of an alluring fragrance, the children are drawn back to the Father. The sermon concludes with images of unity and rest.

The Gospel of Truth is a profound meditation on Jesus' saving function. It challenges our ideas that Valentinian Gnostics had no sacraments and that they were elites uninterested in the welfare of the community. Even if it isn't in the canon of the New Testament, if we let it speak for itself, we can experience something of the diverse voices of early Christianities in the period of Christian Origins.

Dr. Deirdre Good is professor of New Testament at The General Theological Seminary, specializing in the Synoptic Gospels, Christian Origins, Noncanonical writings and biblical languages. While she is an American citizen, she grew up in Kenya and loves marmite which may explain certain features of her blog, On Not Being a Sausage.

Galileo, Darwin and Lent

By Sam Candler

This week, I will be glad to remember the birthdays of Charles Darwin and Galileo Galilei, Darwin born on February 12 (1809), and Galileo born on February 15 (1564). It so happens that their birthdays occur during the Christian season of Lent this year. We all know how much controversy their work caused the Christian Church (and society!), but Christians should be forever grateful for their courage and their wisdom. In fact, Galileo, Darwin, and Lent have something in common.

Both Galileo and Darwin actually set out to be friends of the Christian Church. Educated in an Italian monastery, Galileo intended to join the Camaldolese Order of the Church; but his father had already decided that he would be a medical doctor. Galileo’s interests, of course, turned from medicine to mathematics and the natural world. With the use of the newly developed telescope, Galileo recorded wonders of the natural world – the stars and the heavens—that no one had ever seen. Of course, these were the observations and interpretations that would also change the world.

Galileo would finally be charged with heresy, for adopting the Copernican view that the earth revolved around the sun. After all, Psalm 93:1, Psalm 96:10, and 1 Chronicles 16:30 all say something like "the world is firmly established, it cannot be moved." Ecclesiastes 1:5 states that "the sun rises and sets and returns to its place, etc." Was Galileo denying the Bible? Galileo apparently believed in some form of biblical inerrancy, but he struggled with interpretation. He wrote to a friend that the Bible should always be interpreted in the light of what science had shown to be true.

Charles Darwin, at one time, studied to become an Anglican priest. He, too, was in love with the natural world and was convinced at one time in the naturalist William Paley’s argument that design in nature proved the existence of God. Later Christians objected to several elements of On the Origin of Species; the book refuted the notion that creatures had been individually designed by God, it claimed that the Earth was much older than the literal biblical account, and in claiming a common ancestor for apes and human, it denied a certain uniqueness to humanity.

How strangely ironic that many in the Church should be blinded to the truth that these two gentlemen showed the world. For, in essence, both Galileo and Darwin were using science to claim that humankind is not at the center of everything. Our earth is not at the center of God’s creation, and our species is not at the center of God’s creation.

Isn’t this what Lent is supposed to teach us? “Remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return,” many of us heard on Ash Wednesday. Lent is supposed to remind us of humility. The opposite of humility is hubris, to be so self-obsessed as to think we are at the center of everything.

Galileo, Darwin, and Lent all teach us about truth and humility. A holy Lent is about acknowledging the truth of ourselves, and the truth of this beautiful world, no matter how uncomfortable that truth might be. A holy Lent is also about acknowledging our own humility. No matter who we are, we are not at the center of everything, and we are not at the beginning of everything. May God bless the memories of both Galileo and Darwin, and all who lead us in the paths of truth and humility this Lent.

The Very Rev. Sam Candler is dean of St. Philip's Cathedral in Atlanta. He helped start that city’s interfaith group, and leads regular community bible studies. He is also inspired by playing jazz piano, hunting, astronomy, and poetry. His sermons and reflections on “Good Faith and Common Good” can be found on the Cathedral web site.

The Diversity of Pauline Traditions

By Deirdre Good

The author of 2 Peter admits that there are some things in the letters of Paul that are hard to understand. Perhaps the author had Paul's attitude to marriage in mind. Given the shortness of time, in I Cor 7 Paul commends the unmarried state without qualification to young and old, women and men alike, while in another place, (I Tim 2:15) he stipulates that a woman is subject to male authority and that she will be saved through childbearing.

To reconcile these opposing sentiments and others like them, scholars have come up with various solutions. Among the more creative is one by C. Wilfred Griggs, Professor of Ancient Scripture at Brigham Young University, who explains Joseph Smith's addition to the text after I Cor 7:29 (italics are mine and indicate additions):

"But I speak unto you who are called unto the ministry. For this I say brethren, the time that remaineth is but short, that ye shall be sent forth unto the ministry. Even they who have wives shall be as though they had none; for ye are called and chosen to do the Lord's work."

Paul is not condemning marriage in this chapter, Prof Griggs argues, but is advising missionaries who wish to become married that while they are on their missions (and the time for missionary work is short) they should be concerned with the work of the Lord and not with family or personal matters.

Other scholars, myself included, prefer not to add anything to Paul's words, however obscure and challenging they might seem. They propose that followers of Paul wrote several documents in his name after Paul's death, "clarifying" Paul. Among them are the Pastoral Epistles of 1&2 Timothy and Titus that apply Paul's teachings to late first and early second-century situations after his death. "Paul" of the Pastoral Epistles eschews celibacy, accepting and promoting instead hierarchical ideas about relations between men and women in so-called household codes. These household codes advocate a hierarchy of domestic arrangements that echo some Pauline statements but which are alien to others such as those proclaiming that life in Christ transforms sexual and ethnic distinctions (Gal 3:28). Paul's teaching commending the unmarried state for men and women reappears after Paul's death in the second-century Acts of Paul and Thecla. In this text not found in the New Testament, Paul preaches a version of the Sermon on the Mount blessing "those who keep the flesh chaste, for they shall become the temple of God." Thecla hears Paul's word of purity and renounces her engagement in favor of following Paul the itinerant missionary. She assumes this lifestyle for herself, becoming a role model for other Christian women.

The Acts of Paul and Thecla and the New Testament shed light on each other: the Corinthian community of saints proposes to embody holiness and to enact purity through renunciation of genital sexuality. Bodies are called temples of God and made holy by their relationship to Christ. Similarly, in the Acts of Paul and Thecla, Paul exhorts hearers to forego patriarchal marriage for a lifestyle free of marriage to preach the gospel, showing mutual hospitality and a shared economy. Thecla's autonomy and self-determination came at a price: she lost home and protection and in the narrative is tried and condemned by a Roman court

Pauline tradition in the second-century seems to have bifurcated into two distinct interpretative streams originating from Paul's preaching and letters. The more conservative one found expansion and elaboration in the Pastoral Epistles of I and II Timothy and Titus. The other less hierarchical one advocating a celibate condition in which women and men exercised a particular freedom, fell out of mainstream favor as the time became patently less short. One cannot understand Paul's teaching on marriage without understanding how Pauline tradition was interpreted after his death. And one cannot understand Pauline tradition--on marriage or anything else--without taking into account all the literature that bears Paul's name. How the Pastoral Epistles came to be included in the New Testament and the Acts of Paul and Thecla excluded is in part answered by what we know of the development of the canon-the process of selecting which documents came to be regarded as authoritative as sacred scripture.

In the next few weeks, I will be posting pieces on a number of writings outside the New Testament that shed light on the period of Christian Origins. Why might anyone be interested in writings not included in the New Testament? I suggest several reasons: it took four centuries for the writings that make up the New Testament to be identified as canonical, that is as authoritative. If we want to understand the period of Christian Origins from an historical perspective, then we will do well to know about and even read some of these texts preserved or subsequently excluded by our ancestors in the Christian tradition. Christians today do not agree which texts are authoritative; do not subscribe to a single canon. Oxymoronic though it may seem, diversity of canons is a fact: the Roman Catholic's canon, for example, contains more ancient texts than the Protestant's. The Ethiopian canon of scripture encompasses the longest list of texts regarded as sacred scriptures. I do not propose to open a canon; I propose to open our minds to texts excluded from the canon, so that we may know something of the originality and diversity of early Christian writings in order to understand the richness and complexity of Christian tradition.

Dr. Deirdre Good is professor of New Testament at The General Theological Seminary, specializing in the Synoptic Gospels, Christian Origins, Noncanonical writings and biblical languages. While she is an American citizen, she grew up in Kenya and loves marmite which may explain certain features of her blog, On Not Being a Sausage.

The second-to-last supper

By Cynthia Kittredge

At stake in many of the debates in the church and culture is the question of whether a woman can represent humanity. That issue lies behind the question, “Is America ready for a Woman President?” It hovers over many of the discussions around the still-contested issue of women in the priesthood and the episcopate. While some read the Gospel of John as the most exclusive of the gospels, in its own terms, it is the most radically inclusive. In the Fourth Gospel women do represent humanity and model ideal discipleship. One prime example is the well-known scene of the Anointing at Bethany, what might be properly named, the “Second-to-Last-Supper.”

One can imagine the structure of the gospel of John as a series of feasts, beginning with the wedding and continuing with the picnic in the wilderness. Nearer the time of Jesus’ leave-taking two dinners take place, a dinner at Bethany and a dinner at Jerusalem. In the final episode of the gospel, after it has ended once, Jesus appears again for a breakfast of bread and fish with Peter and the disciples. This gospel pictures intimacy and friendship as feasting with Jesus. These ordinary meals are revelatory. To continue to explore the idea of leadership in John, I want to give particular attention to one of these dinners, the dinner at Bethany in John 12:1-8 and its important parallels with the washing of feet dinner in John 13:1-17. The two meals reflect one another, as though mirror images. Both are suppers; both involve the actions of washing and wiping, interpreted as acts of love and self sacrifice. At both are gathered those whom Jesus loves. At each, impending death impinges on the celebration. Judas, the villain, is present. It is at the home of Mary and Martha. Martha is said to serve. The host is Mary.

Now the memorable action of this dinner is the anointing of Jesus by Mary. Because there are so many variations of the story of Jesus being anointed by a woman in the gospels and the stories bear family resemblances to one another, it is easy to get the stories mixed up. If one hears these stories all at once, it is harder to distinguish the special role of Mary here in this scene in John’s gospel. She is the host, not the uninvited intruder as in some versions of the story (Luke 7:36-50). Like Mark 14:3-9, her act is a critical recognition of Jesus, but unlike that story, she has a name, and it’s a very important name in John’s community. The community of the beloved disciple, whose traditions are written by John, cared that the woman who recognized Jesus before his passion be remembered not only with a name, but with an important name, that she be remembered as one of the significant disciples among those who established the community: Mary, sister of Martha, sister of Lazarus, the family whom Jesus loved. The text links this story to the story of the raising of Mary and Martha’s brother in John 11:2:

Now a certain man was ill, Lazarus of Bethany, the village of Mary and her sister Martha. Mary was the one who anointed the Lord with perfume and wiped his feet with her hair; her brother Lazarus was ill. (John 11:1-2)

Mary has personified grief and love, in the episode before, when she weeps at her brother’s death and entreats, “Lord if you had been here my brother would not have died.” She weeps and Jesus weeps. The family partakes of this dinner in the wake of one grief and in the darkening shadow of another. Mary prepares to lose Jesus. She takes the perfume, anoints Jesus’ feet, wipes them with her hair. The house was filled with the fragrance of the perfume.

The Christians of the Fourth Gospel not only told what she did in memory of her, as directed in Mark’s version, but they incorporated her act into the liturgical memory of the community. The details, the supper, the serving, the wiping, Judas, all parallel the last supper, and show how this community interpreted the anointing by Mary. She anticipated and enacted what Jesus was to command a few nights later. Mary, as one whom Jesus loved, did what the friends were taught to do by Jesus. It is the second-to-last supper, and Mary plays the role of Jesus, kneeling, wiping, pouring out substance of inestimable value. Mary is the host, the one who knows what is to come, the one who anticipates Jesus’ example of foot-washing and symbolically washes him.

It is unfortunate that during the history of interpretation, this story has become so muddled with the woman from the city who was a sinner in Luke 7:36-50 and the busy and lazy sisters, Mary and Martha, in Luke 10:38-42. When read in its place in the gospel of John, the story eloquently proclaims Mary’s authority and leadership in the memory of this community.

The Rev. Dr. Cynthia Briggs Kittredge is Associate Professor of New Testament at the Episcopal Theological Seminary of the Southwest and author of Conversations with Scripture: The Gospel of John, Morehouse, 2007.

Who were the Magi?

By Deirdre Good

Who knew that Christmas cards could be so subversive? In December last year, Simon Mayo engaged the Archbishop of Canterbury in a conversation that surprised many about Christmas card scenes. Asked about "the wise men with the gold, frankincense, and Myrrh - with one of the wise men normally being black and the other two being white, for some reason" the Archbishop responded, "Well Matthew's gospel doesn't tell us that there were three of them, doesn't tell us they were kings, doesn't tell us where they came from, it says they're astrologers, wise men, priests from somewhere outside the Roman Empire. That's all we're really told so, yes, 'the three kings with the one from Africa' - that's legend; it works quite well as legend." And this side of the pond, the Standing Committee of the Diocese of Fort Worth questions publicly the choice of Christmas card the Presiding Bishop sent to Bishop Iker on the grounds that its depiction of the Magi as three women of color "reinterprets scripture to exclude masculine images."

For a new book, I've been looking at depictions of biblical figures and themes in the Christian East and West. It will come as a surprise to no one that the Nativity is often portrayed. Given interest in how the Magi are represented, I thought I'd look at examples in the on-line collection of the British Library at www.imagesonline.bl.uk/index.asp. A goodly number appear on Christmas cards.

The BL describes their on-line collection thus: "Images Online gives you instant access to thousands of the greatest images from the British Library's collections which include manuscripts, rare books, musical texts and maps spanning almost 3000 years. The range of images available includes illustrations, drawings, paintings and photographs." Additions to the on-line collection are being made daily. You have to register to use their collections. Selecting "Religion and Belief" then "Christianity," I entered the terms "magi" in the search box. The result was 47 images, 44 of which are titled "Journey of the Magi, "Magi Before Herod," "Adoration of the Magi" or something similar. Three are nothing to do with the topic. By, the way, you get the same results by entering "wise men" in the search box.

Three of the 44 images are titled "The Three Magi." Now the titles have probably been given to the pieces of art by catalogers at the British Library sometimes on the basis of the text and sometimes not. I myself take the titles of pieces of art with a grain of salt. In the on-line collection of Jewish Art at the British Library for example, there are sometimes no descriptions of the images at all. Only the manuscript and its place of origin is identified. Of course, there are fewer images in this collection. But even to someone like me who has no training in art history, its obvious that Jewish illustrators in the Middle Ages are depicting biblical episodes. Why they haven't all been titled and classified in the same way as the collection "Christianity" is a mystery.

Back to images of the Magi. Of the 44 images under various titles, some images depict three Magi alone while others in the same category may be showing three Magi but since the Magi have large retinues and the paintings or illustrations are small, it is hard to tell exactly where a Magi ends and a member of the retinue begins, particularly if the Magi and their retinues are coming into the scene from one side or the other. After all, the focus of the depiction is Mary and Jesus. Other images show more than three Magi: some clearly four.

From this, we learn that on-line images of the Magi in Nativity scenes from the British Library's collection of Christian art depict them as three, four, or more figures, some or all of which may be black, or Armenian, or Persian, or a non-white ethnic group. I suppose if you were predisposed to see the Magi only as three white men, you could still do so but in that case you would have to ignore just under half of the 44 images.

We might ask why there are three or four or more Magi of different ethnic extraction at Jesus' birth? Because the text of Matthew's gospel, whence the story comes, identifies the Magi by a plural designation only. And this plurality permits Christian interpretation in art and tradition to reflect the fundamental ambiguity of the text: the masculine Greek plural "magoi" of Matthew 2:1 means only that the Magi are plural in number and that one of that number is a man. There might have been three or four or a hundred Magi at Jesus' birth in Matthew's account. And Christian tradition of the east and west elaborates this ambiguity by naming three or four or dozens of Magi, as Bruce Metzger explains in an article, "Names for the Nameless in the New Testament: A Study in the Growth of Christian Tradition", in Kyriakon. (Festschrift Johannes Quasten, ed. Patrick Granfield & Josef A. Jungmann, vol. I, Münster: Aschendorff, 1970, p.79-99.) Giving names to the Magi seems to have begun in the 6th Century CE.

Now this business of using a plural noun to describe a group of people including men and women can be seen elsewhere in Matthew. Jesus identifies a masculine plural group of his disciples as brother, sister and mother, that is, as kin: "For whoever does the will of my father in heaven is my brother and sister and mother" (12:49-50). Matthew counts only 5000 men in the Feeding of the Five Thousand (14:21) but Jesus may have reckoned differently.

The Magi are not explicitly masculine in Matthew. Diverse depictions of the Magi in Christian and Muslim art, tradition, and Christmas cards as three or four or more; as black, Persian or Eurasian, as male and female, accurately reflects the ambiguity of Matthew's scripture.

Dr. Deirdre Good is professor of New Testament at The General Theological Seminary, specializing in the Synoptic Gospels, Christian Origins, Noncanonical writings and biblical languages. She blogs at On Not Being a Sausage.

Is Rowan Williams right about Luke?

By Deirdre Good

Rowan Williams' book, Christ On Trial: How the Gospel Unsettles Our Judgement, published in 2000 has become a classic, as Alison Goodlad observed recently on the Web site of Ekklesia. It is a best seller, read throughout the Anglican Communion. I saw it recently as a Lent reading choice on the library table of the parish I attend in Maine during the summer.

Stanley Hauerwas has nothing but praise for the statement in it that "the hardest thing in the world is to be where we are." He commends this as an invitation to learn to live in ordinary time, in the confusion and complexity of the present in his new 2007 book The State of the University: Academic Knowledge and the Knowledge of God. Williams asks, he says, how can our ordinary lives express the truth that violence has been overwhelmed and silenced by Christ? Dramatic gestures will not make our lives more authentic. Instead we are called not just to speak the truth but to the more demanding task of hearing the truth in each other by overcoming distrust and so to work for peace.

"We constantly try to start from somewhere other than we are. Truthful living involves being at home with ourselves, not complacently but patiently, recognizing that what we are today, at this moment, is sufficiently loved and valued by God to be the material with which he will work and that the longed-for transformation will not come by refusing the love and the value that is there in the present moment." (Christ On Trial pp 85-6)

Williams' book discusses the trial scenes showing how, in each of the four gospels, the interrogation of Christ is reversed and the interrogator becomes, unsettlingly, the interrogated. In Mark's gospel, Jesus' declaration to the High Priest's question, "Are you the Christ, the Son of the Blessed?" is an affirmation that overcomes all the secrecy of Mark's gospel about Jesus' identity: "I am," he says (14:62). Jesus' declaration at the trial and not earlier in the gospel means that he cannot be misunderstood as a wonderworker in competition with other sorts of power in the world. The one who says "I am" in the trial is neither wise nor holy nor admirable nor impressive. If we listen to Mark's Jesus as the voice of God it is we who are silenced.

In Matthew's gospel, Jesus' answer to the question about his identity, "I adjure you by the Living God, tell us if you are the Christ, the Son of God" is "So you say" or "the words are your own" (26:64). Jesus' answer reverses the question: the High Priest has the language and the means to make sense of the world but no actual understanding of the words. That language in Matthew is the language of what Wisdom has done through human agents; it is a question to all who are religious insiders who cannot read this story although it is part of their/our tradition.

Each chapter includes references to poets, novelists, movies and writers. The chapter on Mark opens by noting that the mood of Pasolini's film, The Gospel according to Saint Matthew, best represents Mark's gospel. The chapter on Luke opens with the lines from Sydney Carter's song Knocking on the Window. Alison Goodlad astutely observes that Williams' approach to the trial narratives of the gospels indicates that they are not the starting point for his reflections but rather as points that distil "the understanding he has derived from other sources such as the gospel narratives as a whole, general scriptural reading, Christian tradition and reflection, and wisdom derived from poetry and fictional works."

This is most evident in his approach to Luke's gospel in which the words of Jesus to the council's questioning whether he is the Messiah, "If I tell you, you will not believe me, and if I question you, you will not answer" (22:67) are construed as "I have nothing to say to you that you will be able to hear or to which you will be able to respond. Luke's Jesus places himself with those whose language cannot be heard." (Christ On Trial p. 54).

In this answer, we are told that Jesus indicates God's presence with those who do not have a voice and who are left out of our ways of organizing our own moral and social life. In a following section, "Allowing the Rights of Others," stories from those who have little or no experience of being insiders amplify Williams' approach to Luke. If we are unsettled by someone who cannot speak our language, by those who are mentally and physically impaired, for example, or by making space for children, then it is we who are on trial. In a subsequent section, "The threat of Jesus," Williams observes that Jesus' mistreatment in all the Gospel narratives including being beaten, flogged, and crowned with thorns is not surprising: he is beaten because he is powerless; his powerlessness is not in competition for the same space that his judges and captors are defending and he is thus a bigger threat than any rival because he calls into question the whole world of rivalry and defense.

The problem with this reading of Luke is that Jesus is never flogged or crowned with thorns in Luke's trial narrative. True, Pilate announces his intention to have Jesus chastised and released (23:16) but commentators note that this chastisement is a "minor beating" and not the flogging of which Matthew (27:26) and Mark (15:15) speak that is part of the sentence of crucifixion Jesus undergoes. But in Luke's narrative this chastisement is never carried out. Herod's soldiers treat Jesus with contempt and make a mockery (23:11) but Pilate in the next section views Herod's treatment of Jesus, including the putting on of a robe, as an indication of Jesus' innocence. The result of Jesus' being sent from Herod to Pilate is that they both became friends on that day with one another.

Of course, Luke's gospel does describe God's compassion for the socially and economically marginalized and its disquieting consequences for us but the trial narrative may not be the best place to locate this concern. Instead, Luke's account of Jesus' passion presents a Jesus in control of events where he would in general be passive: Jesus' prayer in Gethsemane is the agony of a heroic martyr not the anguish of Mark or Matthew; the arrest in Gethsemane includes Jesus' interruption and healing of the violent cutting off the ear of the High Priest's servant; the crucifixion scene includes Jesus' dialogue with the criminals on either side of him; Jesus' last words on the cross indicate confidence not abandonment: "Father, into thy hands I commit my spirit."

I am not suggesting that this is the only or the right reading of Luke's trial narrative, only that it offers a disconcerting reading that takes more of that narrative into account. Jesus' words to the council are of a piece with Luke's portrait of Jesus' composure under duress. Jesus expects a negative response: the authorities will never believe and never answer. Neither here nor in response to an earlier question by what authority he does things like cleansing the temple (20:1-8), does Jesus cooperate. Indeed, Jesus' declarations in response to his interrogators may be the only weapon he has. But Jesus' answer, couched in the appearance of control, is a Lucan allusion to a larger narrative of healing and forgiveness from and around the Savior for the slave of the High Priest, for Herod and Pilate, for the criminal on the cross, and extending to those who seek to slaughter other martyrs like Stephen in Acts. Yet underneath Luke lies an alternative account in which the Spirit blows where it wills and Judas repents. What is perhaps uncomfortable for all of us is grappling with the implications of Luke's contrived stability.

Dr. Deirdre Good is professor of New Testament at The General Theological Seminary, specializing in the Synoptic Gospels, Christian Origins, Noncanonical writings and biblical languages. While she is an American citizen, she grew up in Kenya and loves marmite which may explain certain features of her blog, On Not Being a Sausage.

What has the Bible to do
with sexuality?

By Deirdre Good

Despite all attempts to make it so, the Bible really has very little interest in sexuality.

At the end of October, I went to a conference at The Jewish Theological Seminary to honor the work of Professor Tikva Frymer-Kensky, "For There Is Hope: Gender and the Hebrew Bible." One of her legacies is the books she wrote. In her 1992 book, In the Wake of the Goddesses: Women, Culture and the Biblical Transformation of Pagan Myth, she argues that since Israel's God incorporated all the character and functions of the female goddesses, gender disappears from biblical monotheism. Consequently, in the recitation of Genesis' creation narrative for example, humans need not be concerned about creation or continuity of fertility in the earth. Epitomized in the creative word, God has power over fertility, creation and reproduction. Israel's heroes, Isaac, Jacob, Joseph, Samson and Samuel are all born after divine action opens wombs that were closed. Stories of their birth convey the message that God alone can cause conception. As for gender, she argues that the Bible does not see men and women as being different in essence. They are socially unequal, and women are subordinate, "but they are not inferior in any intellectual or spiritual way." She sees the Bible's positive evaluation of women as one of the beneficial effects of Biblical monotheism, but she also notes negative effects of the Bible's removal of gender from the divine, particularly the fact that the Bible, and Judaism and Christianity in general, have so little to say about such important things as human sexuality and reproduction. "The Bible never really incorporates sexuality into its vision of humanity or its relationship with the divine," she writes.

Similarly, the New Testament says little about human sexuality. A Christian doctrine of marriage developed well after the time of the New Testament, namely, in the patristic and early medieval periods. Attempts to ground Christian definitions of the sacrament of marriage in Paul's counsel that marriage was safer than unconsidered celibacy (in I Cor 7), in the metaphor of the marriage of Christ and the Church in Ephesians 5 and in Jesus' prohibition of divorce (Mark 10:2-9; Matt 19:3-9 & 5:31-32; Luke 16:18) are made well after the time of the New Testament. These texts do not together or separately comprise a coherent statement on marriage nor were they intended to. Attempts to use, for example, Jesus' statements to uphold the sanctity of heterosexual marriage must heed one thing: Jesus' statements link marriage and divorce. Jesus never considers marriage apart from divorce. Even if Jesus' prohibition of divorce views it as a concession to human failure to live out marriage, divorce/marriage is a given in all three gospels.

Exhortations to practice acts of charity are far more prevalent in the Bible than injunctions to be fruitful and multiply.

If sexuality is marginal in biblical tradition and the Bible has no vision to help integrate human sexuality, and if a Christian theology of the sacrament of marriage is patristic and medieval, what might be the consequences for our contemporary debates about sexuality in the church and elsewhere? One is that since sexuality seems to be of no great concern to either God or Jesus according to the biblical record, we need to recognize this gap before we rush to fill it. Minding this gap helps us understand that while the Bible recognizes the power of the erotic (think of the biblical laws regulating sexual behavior and the statement in the Song of Songs "for love is stronger than death"), it is in fact the ideations, imaginations and fantasies of scholars and religious people that have created modern discourses about sexuality in ancient Israel or in the New Testament. Rather than promoting discourses that regulate and restrict human sexual behavior, we could affirm that a gap is a space into which we must put different discourses, and we can be intentional about what we are doing. Minding the gap helps us understand that we have no biblical mandate to argue on the basis of sexual practice for the exclusion of anyone from Christian communities or for the exclusion of ourselves from community with others. Precisely because of this gap we can afford inclusion to differently constituted families and households.

Deirdre Good is the author of Jesus' Family Values (2006) and a professor of New Testament at The General Theological Seminary in New York City. Her blog is On Not Being a Sausage.

Reading Revelation:
a meditation on Halloween

By Roger Ferlo

Trick or treat?

Have you ever tried to read the book of Revelation, the whole thing, front to back? Go into a darkened room, light a few candles to read by and to set the atmosphere, give yourself an hour or two, and then read the whole thing aloud. It’s an unsettling experience, perfect for a Halloween night, particularly if you want to scare yourself. The images and obsessions of the book of Revelation have perhaps wreaked more havoc in people’s lives—created more strife, fomented more demonic fantasies, misled more people—than any other book in the Bible. To a hostile reader (and in the history of this book there have been many such readers) the book is absolute craziness—disjointed, inconsistent, violent, madly repetitive. That, you might say, is the trick part. But even its severest critics recognize the power of its cadences, the seductiveness of its symbols, the mad glories of its theophanies, the elemental resonance of its presiding myths. The dragon with the seven heads, the women clothed with the sun, the Lamb upon the throne, what the Dante scholar Peter Hawkins has called “the cubed jewel box” of the heavenly city—these are symbols that have shaped the religious imagination of the west for two thousand years. That’s the treat.

Like all texts with a claim to divine revelation, this one can be dangerous stuff—a seedbed of violence and ideological close-mindedness. To the credulous insider, these are no mere symbols. This book is a map of the future. It is propaganda for the elect. No detail is too trivial, no symbol too opaque for the believer who is determined to read his or her own agenda into this compendium of apocalyptic fantasies from an age long past. The book of Revelation has been used to justify all manner of things. Revolution and counter-revolution. Anti-Catholic polemic. Christian Zionism. Pietistic quietism. Sectarian violence. The book can be a happy hunting ground for bigots and fanatics, and the distortions of its purpose and its meaning are as rampant today as they were two millennia ago. One need only look at the marketing figures for the Left Behind series to be convinced of this book’s enduring and questionable power.

And yet it is the book of Revelation that supplies the readings for the feast of All Saints, the day for which Halloween was supposed to prepare us. Why invoke Revelation on a feast day like All Saints?

The association is not accidental. Passages from Revelation associated with the rites of All Saints Day (and also with the rite of Christian burial) no longer read like the mad fantasies of an obsessive paranoic or a divinely dictated plan for the future. Revelation is at its heart a book of consolation, a vision of comfort for a people persecuted and in distress. It is often hard for Americans to imagine what persecution might feel like—a life lived in fear and trembling, always on the run, always faithful, never sure. It’s the kind of life that the emperor Diocletian inflicted on the early Christians who wrote and preserved this book. They were the first saints of the church, brothers and sisters in the faith, risking all that they had for the sake of a name—the name of Christ that they knew was above all other names, including the name of the emperor himself. For Diocletian, what was at stake was a matter of state control, including control of the religious imagination. For Christians, what was at stake was control of their inmost identity. In putting on Christ in baptism they had been made citizens of a heavenly city, a city not made by human hands, and could do no other than act in the name of the Christ for whom they themselves were named, the Alpha and the Omega, the beginning and the end.

How these people suffered, how they recanted, how they died, how they escaped such persecution—of these matters very little is known to us. But in a book like this, we do know how they imagined their freedom, should it ever come. And even after two millennia, in this startling vision of God’s triumph contemporary Christians can catch a glimpse of their own fears and their own hopes. What these people saw was extraordinary. They were Jews become Christians in a Roman world, members of a heretical wing of a minority faith barely tolerated by a brutal empire. Yet what they saw and preached was a vision of universal brotherhood, a new heaven and a new earth, a holy city coming down from heaven, prepared (in that powerful apocalyptic marrying of things heavenly and earthly) as a bride adorned for her husband. “And the one who was seated on the throne said, “See I am making all things new.” No wonder they wrote all these things down, for in a world of shifting values and imperial terror, they knew that these words of consolation and promise were “trustworthy and true.”

In these parlous times, when innocents are tortured and immigrants demonized, you begin to hear these words in the way they were intended. They constitute the ancient cry of the persecuted and the dispossessed. Knowing what we know about torture and rendition, it’s hard to get these cadences out of your mind. To hear this reading on All Saints Day is to hear a summons to solidarity with all those suffer persecution and unjust imprisonment—whether in the farthest reaches of the first-century Roman empire or in the drug-ridden streets of an Brazilian slum or in the faceless corridors of a secret American prison. When a part of the body suffers—whether Christian or Muslim, Buddhist or Jew—all suffer. Whether we acknowledge it or not, their tribulation is ours. Who knows when it will come back to haunt us?

“Write this, for these words are trustworthy and true.” No tricks here.

[Adapted from an essay on Revelation 21:1-6, scheduled to appear in the new 12-volume John Knox/Westminster press commentary on the readings in the Revised Common Lectionary.]

The Rev. Roger Ferlo is Director of the Center for Lifetime Theological Education at Virginia Theological Seminary in Alexandria, where he also directs the Evening School of Theology. His books include Opening the Bible (Cowley 1997), Sensing God (Cowley 2001) and Heaven (Seabury 2007).

The Family Album

By Ann Fontaine

Last week the paternal side of my family gathered for an impromptu reunion. Brothers, sisters, cousins, kids and grandkids shared a potluck meal. We lined up the grandkids for the traditional photo. I noticed a change in the line from the generation of my children. The next generation of children chose to stand beside their first cousins rather than by height. At first my brothers and I said, “Oh, no, that is wrong,” but then realized that the second cousins were strangers to one another and a bit fearful.

Today as I look at the dozens of photos of the event I can see small gatherings of relatives sharing stories and edging closer to one another. The children are racing around the yard and playing with the toys getting to know each other in their way. A digital family album is emerging to go with the various print albums that are stored on our families’ bookshelves.

As part of this gathering our daughter added to her compendium of genealogical information. She along with one of my brothers and a cousin in Norway are trying to obtain stories as well as birth, marriage, and death dates. Family stories give us our identity.

My brothers and I are first generation children of immigrants. Our stories tell of leaving home to try new things. They tell of people starting out with no idea of what they will encounter but believing they will find a place to work and dream. The stories tell of trying things before having full information of the consequences. They also reveal that we were concerned with what others thought and how they acted as we tried to fit in and become part of the dominant culture. We lost our sense of being part of the “old country” as new generations were born here. We try to reconnect with those who stayed behind. These are just a few of the messages from our album.

It occurred to me that the Bible is like a family album. Images, stories, clippings, and mementos of encounters with a common story are gathered into its books. The Bible tells of encounters with the Holy and tries to make sense of Divine-Human relationships. The stories are saved to show future generations the way to live as a people of faith. They explore the questions of immortality, community, and the meaning of life. Like the family album we may have stories about the pictures and know the names of the people we are viewing but there is always a level that cannot be seen or understood because we were not there when the photo was taken or the event occurred.

When I read the Bible with this sort of lens - I stop arguing with it or trying using it as a template for life in God. When it contradicts itself, I can see that this is because there were different points of view about events, like when people are interviewed after a wreck and remember totally different versions of the same event.

For instance, Etienne Charpentier, in How to Read the New Testament, says, that the book of Revelation is like modern art, trying to convey ideas through metaphors, feelings, and images. It is not representational or photographic. When we try to apply scientific, rational principles to works of art we miss the point and end up analyzing the paint. We can easily fall into a paint by numbers version of a painting rather than the rich glowing depth of the artist’s offering.

So it is with the Bible. If we study it as our family album we can gain a sense of where we have come from and who we are being called to be as a people of God. We learn how people made choices, what they used as a basis for those choices. While their conclusions may differ from ours we can learn from the process that is revealed. We travel the same path of faith with very different landscapes but our beginnings and our endings come from the same source. Leaf through the pages, savor the stories, learn about your spiritual family.

The Rev. Ann Fontaine, Diocese of Wyoming, keeps the blogs Green Lent and what the tide brings in. She is the author of Streams of Mercy: a meditative commentary on the Bible.

William Stringfellow reads the Bible

By Greg Jones

William Stringfellow was a gay, chain-smoking, Harvard-trained New York City lawyer, who lived and worked among the poor of East Harlem in the last half of the 20th century.

In the late 60s, he was a radical supporter of the anti-war movement, an extreme critic of the Nixon administration, and a hands-on advocate for the poor and hated. He defended Bishop Pike in 1966 against charges of heresy. He supported and defended the first women to be irregularly ordained. He befriended the Berrigans in their anti-war protests.

To many, one might suppose Stringfellow was the classic 'liberal Episcopalian.' Yet, in much the way that Stanley Hauerwas rejects 'theological liberalism,' Stringfellow was not a theological liberal. Indeed, he was a misfit among liberals who shared much of his social justice vision. Walter Wink has said that Stringfellow, "seems to have come, theologically, out of nowhere." But he didn't come from nowhere. He came from the land of the Bible. It is quite evident that William Stringfellow lived, advocated and worked as he did based on his deep commitment to living under the Word of God in the Bible.

As such, alongside his social justice activism, Stringfellow was also a surprisingly bold critic of Mainline Protestantism's "virtual abandonment of the Word of God in the Bible" for a mess of modernistic philosophical porridge. His observation of things inside the establishment-friendly Episcopal Church, and other mainline churches in America, was that folk were neither "intimate with nor reliant upon the Word of God in the Bible, whether in preaching, in services in the sanctuaries, or in education and nurture. Yet it is the Word of God in the Bible that all Christians are particularly called to hear, witness, trust, honor and love."

According to Stringfellow, the curious abandonment of the Bible by the Church began as a Modern Western phenomenon, with the intellectualization and academic specialization of biblical study. In their exceeding zeal to be regarded as intellectual equals by a secular intelligentsia, Mainline Protestant clergy and faculty put 'objective scholarship' ahead of 'faithful engagement' with the Word of God in the Bible. In good modern rationalist fashion, they began to look at the Bible as a container of intellectual or philosophical propositions to be analyzed and understood – as if the Bible were no different than the writings of Marx, Plato or Buddha.

Stringfellow tells a funny story to illustrate how far the elephant of biblical indifference had gone into the Episcopal Church:

[In the early 1960's I served] on a commission of the Episcopal Church charged with articulating the scope of the total ministry of the Church in modern society. The commission numbered about forty persons, a few laity and the rest professional theologians, ecclesiastical authorities and clergy. The group met, in the course of a year and a half, three times for sessions of more than a week. The first conference, as I recall it, floundered in churchy shoptalk that anyone outside the Church would find exasperatingly irrelevant, largely incoherent or simply dull.

Toward the end of that meeting some of those present proposed it might be an edifying discipline for the group, in its future sessions, to undertake some concentrated study of the Bible. It was suggested that constant recourse to the Word of God in the Bible is as characteristic and significant a practice in the Christian life as the regular participation in the celebration of the Eucharist, which was a daily observance of this commission. Perhaps, it was argued, Bible study would enlighten the deliberations of the commission and, in any event, would not impede them. The proposal was rejected on the grounds, as one Bishop present put it, that "most of us have been to seminary and know what the Bible says: the problem now is to apply it to today's world." The Bishop's view was seconded (with undue enthusiasm, I thought at the time) by the Dean of one of the Episcopal seminaries as well as by the clergy bureaucrats from national headquarters who had, they explained, a program to design and administer.

[To me, the implication of the group's] decision not to engage in Bible study is that the Gospel, in its biblical embodiment, is of an essentially pedantic character – a static body of knowledge which, once systematically organized, taught and learned, has use ceremonially, sentimentally, nostalgically, and as a source from which deductions can be made to guide the religious practice and ethical conduct of contemporary Christians. If that is what the Bible is, then it is generically undistinguished from religious scripture of any sort and, for that matter, is of no more dignity than any secular ideology or philosophy. If that is what the Bible is, then it is a dead word and not the Living Word.

Such a view of the Bible authorizing, evidently, a merely academic use of the Bible, if pressed to its final logic, challenges the versatility and generosity of God's revelation of Himself in history and is a form of doubt deplored in James (Jas 1.5-8; 3.13-4.6) Yet, that very way of regarding the Bible is not only current among ecclesiastical authorities or seminary professionals, it has gained a wide acceptance in the last decade or so in programs of lay theological education in the several denominations and interdenominationally."

Stringfellow argued that Christians ought not primarily to think of the Bible as something to be dissected, figured out, and discussed as if it were a dead frog on a lab table – or an encyclopedia of ancient concepts. Rather, he argued that the Bible should be engaged with by living people in living ways – for in and of itself the Word of God is living and active.

Yes, to Stringfellow, the Bible is the Word of God, and as such is a thing not dead, but a Word militant, free and alive. Christians should be focused on living within the Word of God in the Bible in this world. Our primary vocation as Christians, therefore, regarding that Word of God, is to be open to it, to listen to it, and to live it – to live humanly and biblically as he would say. Yet this kind of open listening to the Word of God in the Bible – is the very thing we modern people are no longer very good at. Stringfellow says we can't listen to the Word of God in the Bible because we are not particularly good at listening to anything outside ourselves.

But this is the key for the faithful Church in Stringfellow's eyes. The single most significant thing a Christian must do is intend to be open to and to listen to the Word of God in the Bible. He says, "for that, a person must not merely desire to hear the Word of God but must also be free to hear the Word of God. This means becoming vulnerable to the Word and to the utterance of the Word in much the same way as one has to become vulnerable to another human being if one truly cares to know that other person and to hear his or her word."

Stringfellow explains that a person must come to the Bible quietly, eagerly, expectantly and ready to listen. "One must (as nearly as one can) confront the Bible naively," without preconceptions or baggage about it. The primary question of the seeker after God looking to encounter the Word of God in the Bible is – "what does this Word say?" "Not, what do I think? Not, do I agree? Not, is this relevant to my life and circumstances? But, straightforwardly, first of all, 'What is this word?'

At the same time, one must "approach the Bible realistically – rather than superstitiously – recognizing that access to the same Word of God that the Bible bespeaks" is given to us also in the event of Jesus Christ's incarnation, crucifixion and resurrection – the pivotal event of all human history – and in the incessant agitations of the Holy Spirit – and in the constitution of creation itself.

Stringfellow harshly criticizes Modernist literalism as a tendency which produces either an irrelevant Bible or a fundamentalist Christianity. Stringfellow would argue that the kind of Modern reductionism rampant among incredulous agnostics and credulous fundamentalists alike is false in that does not really engage with the living Word of God in the Bible. Moreover, this kind of biblical literalism is a denigration of the humanity of the reader or listener whose role in engaging the text is reduced to a passive one, and a flattening out of a text which is divinely multidimensional.

It is worth noting that Stringfellow admired Karl Barth, and Barth admired Stringfellow. Barth once said publicly of Stringfellow, "Listen to this man." For Stringfellow and Barth, despite their many differences, they both believed that theology ought to be no different than proclamation and witness to the Word of God. Stringfellow said,

"[This is what makes] Karl Barth such a threatening and unnerving figure among the professional theologians. ... For him to speak theologically is indistinguishable from confessing the Gospel."
The Rev. Samuel Gregory Jones ("Greg") is husband of Melanie, father of Coco & Anna, rector of St. Michael's Raleigh, and author of Beyond Da Vinci (Seabury Books, 2004). He blogs at fatherjones.com.

Read, mark, learn...

By Will Scott

Scripture, Tradition and Reason, the Via Media, the three sources of authority in the Anglican/Episcopal tradition --- Hooker’s three legged stool. Yes, we Episcopalians are a complicated bunch. In recent years, I have become a strong advocate of knowing the good book, not only for defensive purposes but also for growth and inspiration. In the first week of seminary I still remember how Dean Martha Horne read that colorful collect from the Book of Common Prayer calling us to “read, mark, learn and inwardly digest” the words of Holy Scripture --- so sensual and earthy, as though one was about to sip a fine wine or taste a nice piece of meat.

The truth is that we Episcopalians could stand to learn a thing or two from our evangelical Bible thumping brothers and sisters. Even when we know quite a bit about what’s upon those pages, we are bashful about sharing our knowledge in a way that communicates strength, agility and comfort with these strange stories in which our faith is rooted. This is not to say that our approach to scripture needs to lack sophistication or nuance, but rather than castigate literalists we would do well to engage the narrative and offer more varied interpretations that are accessible to all. There are likely lots of reasons why we Episcopalians are so often accused of not knowing the Bible, some of which are completely unfair, but as the late Tammy Faye Messner said, “if life hands you lemons, make lemonade.”

Tammy Faye’s advice resonated particularly strongly for me about three years ago when I started my first parish position. The parish was located in Northern Virginia, and we worked in the shadow of a large, conservative mega-church. We weren’t a tiny church at all by Episcopal standards, but like many of our mainline neighbors, the parish I served as Associate Rector sometimes felt like a tiny fresh vegetable market next to a Super Wal-Mart. Almost everyone I spoke with in our congregation, it seemed, had been invited at some time or another to attend a Bible study at the mega church. I’m sure the offer was extended by concerned and well-meaning neighbors. Some attended, some refused the hospitality; others wished we had more to offer ourselves. When it came to Bible study, the mega church had a thousand different varieties, like the cereal aisle at the grocery store--- one for Dad, one for Mom, one for singles, one for people with green eyes, one for people with green eyes who want blue eyes, and so on. Our vegetable market church didn’t have quite the quantity or the variety, but with sincerity and commitment, we began hosting an assortment of discussion groups, many of which focused on Scripture.

One group read Acts of the Apostles, while another did an overview of the themes and stories of the Hebrew Bible, while another read through the gospel of Mark, then flipped back to Amos, and forward to the Book of Revelation. A group of young fathers wanted in on the Bible study bandwagon and so they started at the beginning reading the Book of Genesis. We hosted these gatherings at various times for accessibility and, having added further groups for parishioners interested in the arts and sciences, soon found ourselves with a busy calendar. Many of us were encountering the story of God’s Salvation for the first time, and all of us were deepened by our studies and conversations. Sometimes the groups were tiny, comprising just 4 to 8 people, but at other times the rooms were packed. Regardless of the size of the gathering or the nature of he texts we read, community was formed, prayers were offered and the Spirit of God was present-- “whenever two or three are gathered together.” I’m convinced that what made each of these gatherings so important was that despite some initial awkwardness, we opened the good book and discovered a feast (including lemonade). These gatherings helped fuel existing local and global service initiatives and inspire new ones as well.

This fall I encourage you to sign up for a Bible study if your church has one, and if it doesn’t, I encourage you to start one (or two or three). What has your experience with the Bible and the Episcopal Church been? If you were to attend a Bible study, which book would you most like to explore? What themes, characters or topics interest you the most? How have you learned from your Bible thumping brothers or sisters?

The Rev. Will Scott, is associate pastor at Grace Cathedral in San Francisco, Calif. Raised by a school teacher and a social worker in the Shenandoah Valley of Virginia, he is drawn to intentional community, the pursuit of global justice, and the church's witness for peace. He blogs occasionally at Yearns and Groans.


by Ann Fontaine

Is there life after death and if so what will it be? In a Woody Allen movie, a man (played by Allen) converts to Christianity. His mother screams and goes to her room. The father asks why he would want to do that. Allen’s character replies by asking his father, “Aren’t you worried about you know, ... after?" The father says, "No, I don’t worry, I will be dead!"

Philosophers and religions discuss death and afterlife extensively. Some religions do not profess any concept of life after death; others such as Christianity have extensive belief systems and writings on subject. I tend to agree with the father in the movie – “I will be dead.” All I can really do anything about is here and now.

Currently I am intrigued by the concept put forth in the trilogy His Dark Materials by Philip Pullman. Note: The daemons in his trilogy are an externalized part of the human's spirit embodied in an animal form. A daemon is capable of shifting species to reflect the emotional state of their human companion until puberty when the daemon's identity become fixed.

Lyra, the heroine of the trilogy says, "When you go out of here, all the particles that make you up will loosen and float apart, just like your daemons did. If you've seen people dying, you know what that looks like. But your daemons aren't just nothing now; they're part of everything. All the atoms that were them, they've gone into the air and the wind and the trees and the earth and all the living things. They'll never vanish. They're just part of everything. And that's exactly what'll happen to you, I swear to you, I promise on my honor. You'll drift apart, it's true, but you'll be out in the open, part of everything alive again." (The Amber Spyglass, page 335)

"Even if it means oblivion... I'll welcome it, because it won't be nothing, we'll be alive again in a thousand blades of grass and a million leaves, we'll be falling in the raindrops and blowing in the fresh breeze, we'll be glittering in the dew under the stars and the moon out there in the physical world which is our true home and always was." (The Amber Spyglass, page 336)

"To know that after a spell in the dark we'll come out again to a sweet land like this, to be free of the sky like the birds, well, that's the greatest promise anyone could wish for." (The Amber Spyglass, page 532) 

Many funeral sermons talk of reunion with loved ones or life continuing in some improved version of what we know now. The Scriptures give a mixed message. The letters of Paul give some suggestions. Much of our imagery comes from Revelation with its metaphors of streets of gold and lakes of fire describing what awaits us. Some Christian denominations have a highly developed idea of afterlife and others leave it to the category of mystery. Some branches of Islam tell of living in gardens of pleasure. Most of Judaism does not have an afterlife theology. The most one can read in The Bible is that there will be some sort of ongoing life in God but even that is unclear. As I age and more and more friends die, it is comforting to imagine that I will be in an improved known life but I wonder. I think it more likely to be nothing like anything I know but I trust that it will be in the hands of God if it is anything at all.

What I do care about is life now, making the kingdom of God present in the world. As it says in the Lord’s Prayer, I pray “thy kingdom come, thy will be done, on earth as in heaven.” I care about leaving the world having contributed to making it a better place for all people. I hope that our children and grandchildren and their children will have a place to live on earth, that they will find meaningful lives, and contribute in their time.

Mary Oliver wrote in “When Death Comes” 

…When it's over, I want to say: all my life
I was a bride married to amazement.
I was a bridegroom, taking the world into my arms.
When it's over, I don't want to wonder
if I have made of my life something particular, and real.
I don't want to find myself sighing and frightened
or full of argument.

I don't want to end up simply having visited this world.

The people I look to are those who have not just visited with their time here on earth. They have delighted in their time here and brought joy as a primary gift to those around them. They have spent their days making space for others.

In the end I hope that death will be as Pullman describes it, "The first ghost to leave the world of the dead was Roger. He took a step forward, and turned to look back at Lyra, and laughed in surprise as he found himself turning into the night, the starlight, the air... and then he was gone, leaving behind such a vivid little burst of happiness that Will was reminded of the bubbles in a glass of champagne." (The Amber Spyglass, page 382)

Philip Pullman web site -- http://www.randomhouse.com/features/pullman/
Movie website -- http://www.goldencompassmovie.com/ Fall 2007

The Rev. Ann Fontaine, Diocese of Wyoming, keeps the blogs Green Lent and what the tide brings in. She is the author of Streams of Mercy: a meditative commentary on the Bible.

The Rev. Ann Fontaine, Diocese of Wyoming, keeps the blogs Green Lent and what the tide brings in. She is the author of Streams of Mercy: a meditative commentary on the Bible.

Blood isn't thicker than water

By Deirdre Good

I'm always astonished that Christian folk don't esteem adoption more highly in the context of "family values." Adoption has been part of biblical traditions about the family for 5,000 years. Moses is thought to be the adopted son of Pharaoh's daughter. Better to be an adopted Egyptian son than a birthright Hebrew slave. Paul uses the metaphor of adoption language several times in letters to describe the relationship of a new believer to God in baptism. Infused with the Spirit, new believers could make a claim on God in the cry, "Abba, Father!" In Galatians, Paul sees this claim moving a believer out of the bondage of slavery into the freedom of dependent childhood, since legally slaves could be manumitted through adoption. Jesus was adopted by Joseph, as the gospels make clear. When God declares at Jesus' baptism, "You are my beloved Son; with you I am well-pleased," it's not possible to determine whether God is announcing an existing relationship or creating a new one through a formula of adoption. Mark's gospel appropriates language of adoption from the Psalms (Ps. 2:7) to clarify the relationship of Jesus to God at the beginning of Jesus' ministry: as elect, chosen, beloved Son.

Jesus was a common name. To distinguish Jesus from others of that name, the gospels of the New Testament sometimes show individuals identifying Jesus by a place of origin, "Jesus of Nazareth," rather than by a father's name. When the gospels of Matthew and Luke do get around to discussing Jesus' parentage, the writers identify Mary as his mother but never call Joseph Jesus' father. In fact, there's only one father in Matthew's gospel and that's the Heavenly Father. Jesus teaches disciples and crowds of listeners about their relationship to the Heavenly Father in the Sermon on the Mount. This is the one the community addresses in the opening petition of the Lord's Prayer, "Our Father, the one in the heavens" (I am translating from the Greek literally). In a sense, Matthew's community prays the prayer with Jesus as (adopted) children of the Father.

There's intentionality about this language. It self-consciously explains the relationship of believers to God using the language of adopted children to a parent in a way that would be thought redundant were the children of biological families subjects of discussion. It is just this intentionality that makes families of choice recipients of special grace because they have to articulate rather than assume relationships between family members.

In our household, we've been reading How Doctors Think by Jerome Groopman. Groopman intersperses riveting stories of misdiagnoses with reflections on how doctors might, with the help of their patients, go beyond training and rote answers suggested by diagnostic manuals and insurance company policies. One chapter tells the story of a fifty-year-old woman Rabbi, Rachel Stein, and her newly adopted infant daughter, Shira. Sick with a mysterious illness from the moment she arrives in the US, Shira is admitted to hospital and treated in the ICU for an unidentifiable condition diagnosed first as sinusitis, then pneumocystis pneumonia.

Rabbi Stein is plunged into the terror and anguish of a mother for her child without knowing exactly what is wrong. She never leaves her daughter's side. On transferring the infant for a last-ditch, potentially lethal, invasive treatment, a nurse detaches her from the pure-oxygen respirator and begins manual respiration through an ambu bag forcing air into Shira's lungs.

Suddenly, the level of Shira's blood oxygen increases. Watching this first sign of life, a verse from Psalm 27 comes into Rachel's mind, "Hope in God. Strength and courage will be in your heart." Rachel realizes with all doctors and nurses that every clinical event has a core of uncertainty and that no outcome is predictable. She learns all she can about tests given to her daughter and the preliminary diagnosis of her condition, severe combined immunodeficiency disorder (SCID). But she wonders about it. She asks Groopman in the ICU, "What could cause a baby to have so many infections other than AIDS or SCID?" Groopman evades the question but Rachel expresses growing certainty that Shira has a nutritional problem causing her immune system not to function. After 33 intense days in the ICU, with Rachel singing and praying fervently, Shira breathes on her own. She begins to recover. Before consenting to further invasive and risky treatment options, and against all doctors' recommendations, Rachel insists that Shira's blood be retested. This time, the results come back normal. When Groopman and Rachel reflect together later on the harrowing story, Groopman analyses what made Rachel so tenacious: her faith gave her the courage to recognize uncertainty, both her own and the physicians', and thus she contributed to the search for solutions.

Groopman doesn't discuss the extraordinary bond between newly connected mother and child but he articulates it: "Rachel observed Shira's every move. There was an alertness to her eyes and a deep hunger to encounter the world. So, to satisfy this imagined need, Rachel sang and talked to Shira about the wonders of God's creation."

Rachel didn't carry Shira in her womb for nine months but her bond with her adopted daughter was immediate and strong enough to help bring her back from death's door. As biblical tradition about adoption indicates, consanguinity alone does not define a family. To use adoption imagery (for example in a baptismal context) is to describe intentionally what the relationship is between God and the baptized and to declare what rights and responsibilities exist. How is it then that we still tend to think of adoption as second best?

Deirdre Good is professor of New Testament at The General Theological Seminary in New York City and author most recently of Jesus' Family Values (Church Publishing 2006). She keeps the blog On Not Being a Sausage.

Passionately Christian, Compassionately Interfaith

By Sam Candler

Down here in the South, we always care about what the Bible says. No matter whether we are liberal or conservative, many of us Christians grew up breathing biblical stories. We did more than just hear the stories; we grew to see and to trust biblical principles. Even the strangest biblical material had a message for us. That’s why we called it, and still call it, the Word of God; it is living and active, sharper than any two-edged sword.

Therefore, it disturbs me when, in the midst of bona fide theological debate, one group or another begins to abandon biblical support. It even disturbs me when good faith Episcopalians begin to raise reason and tradition as theological authorities over the Bible. If we Christians abandon the Word of the Bible as our principal source of theological authority, we have relinquished our very heritage.

Our trust in, and use of, the Bible is even more critical these days when we begin to discuss interfaith relationships. For, in my opinion, the issue of our time is not sexuality. The issue is interfaith relationships. We live in a world where people of very different religious traditions inevitably know and relate to one another. Will we do justice or violence to one another?

We live in a world where most of us have probably been asked, not what we believe about sexuality, but what we think about other faith traditions. We have all been asked something like: will only Christians be saved? (or some variation of the question). Our answer to that question can bring peace, or it can bring violence.

In this age, our answer must be strong and direct. We are called to be passionately Christian and compassionately interfaith. The world does not need any more wimpy Christians, or lazy liberals, or complacent conservatives. The world needs passion. I do not mean the mean-spirited sort of passion; but I mean the passion committed to peace and justice that brings forth vigor and soul, and the passion which brings forth life itself.

Therefore, the first principle in living in a multi-faith world is to be unabashedly Christian. The world needs more passionate Christians, not less passionate ones. But the world also needs a second principle: compassion in interfaith relationships.

In other words, God does not need more Christians passionate only about wiping out all other forms of religious expression. God needs Christians who are passionate about who we are, about our own identities, but who are yet compassionate toward the religious identities of other folks.

The best “interfaith dialogues” are those where Christians –and others—do not try simply to bend down to the lowest common denominator, or try to soften everything we believe. The best interfaith dialogues are those where people are strong and fully convinced of their own religious identities. The world needs passionate and sure Christians.

In fact, the world needs Christians who believe that Jesus Christ is the way, the truth, and the life. Yes, I know that some of our exclusivist brothers and sisters are accustomed to using John 14.6 as a verse which speaks against interfaith compassion; “no one comes to the Father except through me” is the second part of John 14.6. More liberal types often omit reading aloud that last section of John 14.6 during services.

But I propose that John 14.6 is a verse that witnesses fully both to passionate Christianity and to compassionate interfaith experiences. The verse does allow non-Christians to enjoy salvation. I invite those who use that verse in accusation to consider the verse more literally. Yes, more literally. Jesus did not say, “No one comes to the Father except through the Christian Church.” Jesus used the phrase, “through me.”

We do not need to disavow, or ignore, or change, John 14.6 in order to be passionately Christian and compassionately interfaith. We simply need to realize that Jesus, and the way of Jesus, is larger than the Christian Church. The way to God, through Jesus, may be much larger than the various doors and hurdles which the Christian Church has presented through history.

In short, the way of Jesus is the way of truth and of life. That is the Christian witness which the world needs to see. I know that the Bible, and the Christian witness, have been used violently. But ultimately, the Bible provides the Word of Life even when we engage others in interfaith relationships.

The Very Reverend Sam Candler is dean of St. Philip’s Cathedral in Atlanta. His sermons and reflections on “Good Faith and Common Good” can be found on the Cathedral web site.

Stuff happens

By Deirdre Good

Stuff happens. Accidents. Mental illness. Death. Throughout human history, people have asked "Why?" To ask "why" is to presume that stuff happens for a reason, that behind events lie causes we can discover. It's a question from a privileged perspective. It suggests human omniscience.

After the shock of being diagnosed with colon cancer at 43, I spent considerable energy trying to find out why. Perhaps there were genetic reasons? Perhaps there were environmental causes? Then I asked whether diet or nutrition could have been a factor. Were there emotional or psychological factors resulting in my debilitated immune system? All these factors, genetic make-up, environment, and nutrition may have played a role but in the end I could not find a reason. Perhaps there isn't one. It doesn't mean that research on the causes of cancer or even my particular case is unimportant. It just happened that at age 43 I was diagnosed with stage three colon cancer. Now its part of my identity.

Jesus' disciples, seeing a person blind from birth and wanting an explanation for his condition, asked, "Rabbi, who sinned, this man or his parents, that he was born blind?" Jesus' reply shatters the snare of looking at illness as cause and effect: "It's not that this one sinned, or his parents, but that the works of God might be manifest in him." Stuff happens, Jesus says. There's not necessarily a reason for it. Put the emphasis elsewhere. It's not what happens but what you do with what happens that matters.

Now it also happens that I am lesbian. Many people in the Anglican communion think of us as diseased sinners, equating sexual identity with illness and being gay with sin. Several weeks ago a woman interrogated me after a talk I gave in a nearby church. She asked how, in light of Paul's condemnation of homosexuality in Romans 1, I continued to live out a sinful life style. To this woman it did not matter that Paul sees same-sex relations as a consequence of pagan idolatry and an exchange of what is natural for what is "beyond nature," or that, in chapter 2, both pagan and Jew are condemned for exercising judgment on others, or that Jesus said nothing about same-sex relations. Such discussions, I have learned from having many of them, aren't really about the biblical text. They are about something or someone else. However, it's difficult to get at what really is going on. To break out of such discussions, I sometimes agree that Paul does condemn same-sex relations. I might assent that I am a sinner just as we all are, albeit for different reasons, and that I'm in good company. But then I ask my interrogator whether the Christian gospel can be reduced to condemnation? (I did this better on Swedish Public Radio last Friday than in conversation.) I think not. To preach the good news without emphasizing Jesus' proclamation of God's love for every single one of us is to reduce the gospel to the point of distortion.

Jesus' opponents in the account of the man born blind in John's gospel continue to regard events through the prism of cause and effect. They regard the blind man as a sinner and, despite clear evidence to the contrary, Jesus as a sinner also who cannot have given sight to the blind. In the end they simply cast out the now-sighted man. Jesus finds him and explains the roles of judgment and division in his mission: "For judgment I came into this world, that those who do not see may see, and that those who may see become blind." Stuff happens but the mission has moved on. I hope that all our interrogators can move on with Jesus and us too.

Deirdre Good, professor of New Testament at The General Theological Seminary, specializes in the Synoptic Gospels, Christian Origins, Noncanonical writings and biblical languages. She grew up in Kenya and loves marmite which may explain certain features of her blog, On Not Being a Sausage.

Jesus' family values

By Deirdre Good

Modern families are being transformed: since 2005, statistics show that more women in America live by themselves and married couples now are in a minority. Our daughters, nieces and grandchildren are growing up into a world where being single will be normal at least for longer periods of time. The social and economic implications of this new situation include the reality that single women are heads of households.

Christian commentators who see a nuclear family as normative might want to describe this new reality as evidence of a further decline in family values. In fact, this new family configuration pries open a discussion of what family values were in Jesus' time. Paul's letters describe women like Phoebe as leaders of communities and heads of households. Households were not private and secluded as they might be today, but rather public and accessible to strangers. Heads of households, no matter how small, would have been responsible for slaves. Households then as now included relatives; in the gospels, Luke describes a household of five: father, son, mother, daughter, and mother-in-law. Modern households might include children and ageing parents, grandchildren and grandparents, and children alongside grandchildren. As for Jesus' own family of origin, gospel writers never speak of Joseph as Jesus' father. True, Jesus prohibited divorce but then Jesus wasn't married.

Jesus was ahead of the curve in regard to single women. They were disciples, followers, conversation partners and friends. Jesus treated mothers as heads of households, married women as independent from their marriage and as single people. Women disciples and followers of Jesus included Mary Magdalene, Susanna, Joanna, and many others who provided economic support for Jesus' ministry. Jesus’ conversation partners included single parents like the Canaanite woman whose daughter Jesus healed, and married women like the woman at the well with whom Jesus preferred to dialogue as if she were single: "You are right in saying 'I have no husband' for you have had five husbands and he whom you now have is not your husband," Jesus tells her.

Jesus' itinerant ministry implies that female and male disciples must be willing and able to leave families of origin. Luke, the gospel writer who identifies wealthy and mobile female followers of Jesus, implies that Susanna was sufficiently affluent to make a financial contribution to the mission, sufficiently free of household responsibilities to accompany the mission and sufficiently healthy to serve.

Joanna is identified by her husband Chuza, a "steward" or a governor, overseer, or high-ranking administrator, with either economic or political authority in Herod's domain, attached to his private estate or appointed over a political district. Joanna is a continuing member of the mission, and is mentioned by name as a witness to the resurrection. Has she separated from Chuza? If Joanna follows the mission as a woman who has separated from her husband, then perhaps Luke is emphasizing the magnitude of personal sacrifice which disciples are willing to make; but then, where is Joanna getting the resources she is using to support the mission? Independently wealthy women did exist in Jesus' world, but one of the socio-economic reasons for opposition to divorce was the destitution it often imposed on a divorced woman. Perhaps Joanna has not, in fact, separated from her husband, but has gone on mission with Chuza's permission or perhaps even under his direction. Luke may be implying that Chuza the steward of Herod approves of the mission sufficiently to be willing to second his wife to it and undergo the consequent deprivation.

A resurrected Jesus first appeared to a single woman, Mary Magdalene, according to John's gospel. She is commissioned to tell the other disciples what she has seen and heard.

Family values are attributes and qualities affirmed socially and transmitted from one generation to another. Perhaps Jesus learned affirmation of women as independent followers, conversation partners, and friends from his mother. After all, she was an educated Jewish woman who almost became a single parent.

Deirdre Good, professor at the General Theological Seminary, is author most recently of Jesus' Family Values (2006). She keeps the blog, On Not Being a Sausage.

What Paul Meant

Richard Wrightman Fox reviews Garry Wills' new book on St. Paul today on Slate. An excerpt:

One wonders how receptive 21st-century liberal Christians will prove when offered a portrait of Paul as the loyal preinstitutional follower of Jesus, preaching charity for the poor and love of God and neighbor. The last two centuries of American Christian history show how concertedly many liberals have clung to images of orthodox archfoes—especially the first-century Paul and the 18th-century Jonathan Edwards—as convenient targets for dismissal. Edwards' sermon on "Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God" is read in isolation from his rhapsodic hymns to the love between God and believer, then trotted out to make liberals feel liberated from their pinched, judgmental forebears. The same goes for Paul's alleged preoccupation with church rules, sin, guilt, celibacy, and the denigration of women.

An invitation from the Presiding Bishop-elect

The Rev. Susan Russell, has called our attention to this passage in the materials that Episcopal News Service has prepared for this weekend's investiture of Bishop Katharine Jefferts Schori as the new presiding bishop of the Episcopal Church:

Bishop Jefferts Schori’s Saturday homily will be based on Isaiah 25: 1-9, Psalm 98, Ephesians 4:1-8; 11-16, and Luke 4:14-21. Please consider joining her in prayer and contemplation of these texts during the coming week. In the gospel lesson, Jesus reads from Isaiah 61, one of the bishop’s favorite passages, which Jesus takes as his own mission “to bring good news to the oppressed, to bind up the brokenhearted; to proclaim liberty to the captives, and release to the prisoners; to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor ...”

Susan has suggested that the Church share some of this contemplation online. So consider this an invitation to do so.

Here, courtesy of the invaluable folks at Oremus, are links to

The First Lesson

The Psalm

The Second Lesson

and the Gospel.

What do they say to you?

You can share your thoughts in the comment section, or at a blog created just for this purpose.

How is King David like Bill Clinton?

Over at Slate, David Plotz discusses why King David reminds him of Bill Clinton, and asks why David and Jonathan kiss so much in his ongong feature Blogging the Bible.

An excellent sermon

The Rev. Tobias S. Haller preached this sermon not long ago. It includes the following nugget, and is definitely worth your attention if you are confused about the role of the Bible in the Anglican tradition--and even if you are not:

"So, Anglicans found themselves poised in the middle of this triangle of extreme views. In particular, we found a middle point between the Roman tendency to require belief in things you couldn’t find in Scripture, and the Puritan tendency to forbid anything that couldn’t be proved by Scripture.

We came up with the wonderful word sufficient: the belief that God has a purpose for Scripture — and that purpose is salvation. That is what Scripture is for: to lead us into God’s way, God’s truth, and ultimately, God’s life. The most important teachings in Scripture aren’t the things that you could find out by common sense, and without the church’s help, such as that theft and murder are wrong. The truly important supernatural teaching of Scripture is that God created us, and in Christ has redeemed us, and that we are capable of becoming children of God through the grace of God.

So the Anglicans denied the church power to require anything to be believed as essential to salvation if it could not be proved from the Scripture. And at the same time held that the church did have the authority to allow things about which Scripture was silent, as long as they worked for the good of the church and the people ..."

Blogging the Bible

Regular visitors to this blog will remember that during Lent we made our way through the Gospel of Mark. Well, Slate is going us one better with a new feature called Blogging the Bible: What happens when an ignoramus reads the Good Book.

The author, David Plotz, writes:

"My goal is pretty simple. I want to find out what happens when an ignorant person actually reads the book on which his religion is based. I think I'm in the same position as many other lazy but faithful people (Christians, Jews, Moslems, Hindus). I love Judaism; I love (most of) the lessons it has taught me about how to live in the world; and yet I realized I am fundamentally ignorant about its foundation, its essential document. So, what will happen if I approach my Bible empty, unmediated by teachers or rabbis or parents? What will delight and horrify me? How will the Bible relate to the religion I practice, and the lessons I thought I learned in synagogue and Hebrew School?

I'll spend the next few weeks (or months) finding out. I'll begin with "in the beginning" and see how far I get. My wife, struck by my new Biblical obsession, gave me a wonderful Torah translation and commentary for Hannukah, the Etz Hayim, which was prepared by conservative Jewish scholars. I'll read that and dip into the King James and other translations on occasion. (But I'll avoid most commentary, since the whole point is to read the Bible fresh.) I'm sure I'll repeat obvious points made by thousands of Biblical commentators before; I'll misunderstand some passages and distort others—hey, that'll be part of the fun. I hope you'll tell me how I've screwed up by e-mailing me at plotzd@slate.com."

I encourage you to join in the conversation if you are so moved.

A question of relationships

This is the piece I mentioned on Monday that won the Award of Excellence in the Polly Bond competition sponsored by Episcopal Communicators. It originally appeared in the Washington Window in April 2005, just before the Anglican Consultative Council met in Nottingham.

By Albert Scariato

At its June meeting, the Anglican Consultative Council will hear presentations by theologians from the Episcopal Church USA and the Anglican Church of Canada explaining why churches believe there is no Scriptural or theological barrier to the consecration of a gay bishop or to the blessing of monogamous same-sex relationships.

It is fitting that these presentations will focus on "relationship," for embodied in that word is the very core of the current situation that no written document can ever hope to overcome. Christianity is above all else about incarnation. We make the audacious claim that God lived among us as a human being, Jesus, son of Mary. This one person, born of woman through the unhindered Spirit of God, is, we say, God's ultimate revelation to humanity.

Notations on paper or papyrus, no matter how old, venerated or insightful, can hope only to approximate the divine revelation we have in Jesus Christ. The Bible itself admonishes us that beyond its pages much remains to be learned. Indeed Jesus told his disciples that there were matters that they were unable to bear while he was still with them. God's Holy Spirit would, however, guide them ultimately into all truth (John 16:12).

Spanning the history of the church, the Holy Spirit has striven to guide the world, both outside and inside the church, into a more complete understanding of truth. A vital question in Jesus' time and in our own comes from Pilate's lips (John 18:38), "What is truth?" Accessing that truth has been the work that the church has been commissioned to explore, incorporate and proclaim. Never has so great a task been undertaken by mere mortals. Truth has within it the power to create freedom (John 8:32). Freedom itself represents the ultimate gift of our God. From Eden to Sinai to Calvary to the new Jerusalem, we hear a story of God leading humanity from the bondage of self-seeking agendas to a place and time where God is all and in all. When the truth that rushes from God's being and is accepted and inhaled into God's vessels of love - each of us - the incarnation of the divine will dwell beyond the physical and temporal limits of what we now can perceive.

Sadly, it is most often difficult to recognize, let alone to accept, what is truth. Much of what has been revealed to the church and to the world over the years as being ultimately consonant with the Gospel was welcomed not with joy and hope, but rather with skepticism and disdain, or rejected - its messengers often sharing the fate of the one who
"preached peace to those who are far off and those who are near." A rehearsal of this litany would include but not be limited to the truth concerning: the complicity of the church in justifying the often harsh rule of temporal kingdoms, the torture inflicted by the inquisitors, the stifling of Galileo, the conscious encouragement and perpetuation of anti-Semitism, the reactions to the reformers, the use of Scripture to justify slavery, the repression of women, institutional racism, and the list goes on. We have read of it. We have heard it - over and over, council after council, convention after convention, document after document. Today we hear it as well as the bloodiest of centuries, the 20th, has given way to a new millennium in which we hope and pray that we can be led away from yet another stumbling block, sexuality, which keeps us away from the work of bringing the Gospel of peace to a world at war.

God's holy words, the Scriptures, are often manipulated today in an attempt to thwart God's ultimate word, Jesus, who ushered us into an era in which God's will is made known not in written word but in relationship. Divine will entered into relationship with and expressed solidarity with the human condition by seeing, hearing, knowing and coming down to rescue a group of desperate slaves (Exodus 3:7-8). Today, other groups are experiencing God's compassionate response to their cries. Each of us has unique windows, our relationships with other people created in God's image, that reveal the love and truth of God that is revealed in Jesus Christ. Those interpersonal relationships, even with all their foibles and frailties, where we encounter love give us an approximation of the love that God has for each and every human being.

For gay and lesbian Christians, relationships with loved ones are the most vivid reminders of God's love. These relationships, no less than faithful, life-long heterosexual ones, reveal the "mystery of the union between Christ and the church" to men and women who by their very nature are attracted sexually and otherwise to members of their same sex. The business of the church is meant to be about finding God within the bonds of these relationships rather than determining by vague, rather primitive, psychologically twisted, and medically dubious standards that they are immoral.

Scripture has, is, and unfortunately may always be employed to defend the indefensible. Read sermons from the 1850s from Boston and Richmond. Compare and contrast. Where is God? Where is truth? Where is the word made flesh? The Emancipation Proclamation of a secular leader and the amending of a human document, The U.S. Constitution, settled the matter of slavery - not the churches who divided themselves over the issue, and not the bible that was used by slave-holders and abolitionists alike to support their positions.

Somehow the Episcopal Church and most of the Anglican Communion has come to realize correctly that in some instances divorce may be the path of healing in a relationship fraught with hurt and harm. Yet the Gospels speak more clearly on that matter than on the current issues of sexual relationship confronting the church. The
church, the institution of marriage, and society managed to stay intact when the teaching of Jesus in Mark 10:4-12 was reexamined and reinterpreted in the power of the Spirit of God that Jesus promised would lead us into all truth. How did the church come to this interpretation? Was it because more people could empathize with the plight of a lifeless marriage than can understand the basis of same-sex attraction? One would hope that this is not the case. Yet, how can the rigid adherence to what is contrived by some to be the biblical prohibition on homosexuality be squared with the relaxed position of many of these same people on prohibitions of divorce? Questions of logic, bias, and subjection of the minority by the majority (the mighty versus the weak?) come to fore.

Ultimately, one has to face some simple truths. No biblical author addresses the contemporary model of two people of the same sex living with each other in a relationship of equals, faithful and caring. Biblical reference of supposed same-sex relationships is open to a wide range of interpretations. Sides on the present-day debate have staked out their claims. A two-fold truth emerges - the debate will not be settled this way, and in perseverating over this issue so long and so intractably, the church has been driven away from its commission to preach the Gospel.

At the core of the issue of human sexuality is the truth of the incarnation - that God took
on humanity, and in so doing brings humanity into the sacramental realm. One aspect of that humanity is that some are homosexual and others heterosexual. "God looked at everything he had made, and behold it was very good." May our eyes behold God's creation through divinely inspired eyes, ears, hearts and minds. Pen, ink, paper, and even, yes, computers are finite, limited. The Spirit that is at our threshold knows no limits. How then can we impose a boundary on what is boundless? As the Spirit presses against the walls of division and discord, truth will emerge – the truth that liberates - the truth that Jesus promised, that now is hard to bear, but which will lead us to what Anselm called "that than which no greater can be conceived."

The Rev. Albert Scariato, M.D., priest in charge at St. John's, Georgetown. He is completing work at the Catholic University of America on a Ph.D. in Biblical Studies.

Mark 16: the empty tomb

Happy Easter to everyone, especially Daniel, ACermak and Rick Harris who have been faithful commentators on our march through Mark. Before beginning, I also want to put in another plug for the wonderful online Easter meditation that diocesan internet technologies specialist Peter Turner has created for us. Have a look.

I think it was about 20 years ago that I learned that the last chapter of Mark's gospel as I had been reading it for moat of my life was actually about twice as long as the gospel received by Mark's community. The original ending may have been lost. Or, it may simply have ended after verse eight, with frightened women fleeing the empty tomb. To me this seems in keeping with the abrupt, make-of-this-what-you-will quality of this gospel. Whatever the case, the verses that describe Jesus' post-Resurrection appearances almost certainly weren't in the original.

I don't take that to mean there were no post-Resurrection appearances. But I do think that in some measure, one needs to take each gospel on its own terms, and this ending is especially intriguing because it asks quite simply: Given what you've just read, what do you make of an empty tomb?

If you had no evidence beyond what was presented in the previous 15 chapters, would that be enough to move you to faith, and if so, what kind of faith? What did Jesus just do? What did he mean?

For me the answer lies in the statement by the young man in the white robe (was he pre-figured by the young man in the loin cloth who appears and disappears in a single verse when the guards seize Jesus on Maundy Thursday?). He tells the women to tell the disciples to return to Galilee where they will meet the Risen Christ.

And so we return to the place that Jesus first found us wondering whether he will be there and in what form; wondering, too, what he will want from us, and how our lives will change, because, clearly, if he is there, something not merely life-changing, but world-changing has happened, and we must respond.

Mustn’t we?

So, did you find him? In what form? And how are you responding?

Why the Gospel of Judas is no big deal

Adam Gopnik's excellent review in The New Yorker gets it just right:

"By making the Gospel story more occult, one also drains it of its cosmic significance; making it more mysterious makes it less mystical. (If Dan Brown or the authors of “Holy Blood, Holy Grail” are right—and they aren’t—then Jesus is reduced from the Cosmic Overlord to the founder of a minor line of Merovingian despots.) “The Gospel of Judas” turns Christianity into a mystery cult—Jesus at one point describes to Judas the highly bureaucratic organization of the immortal realm, enumerating hundreds of luminaries—but robs it of its ethical content. Jesus’ message in the new Gospel is entirely supernatural. You don’t have to love thy neighbor; just seek your star. The Gospel of Judas is, in this way, the dead opposite of the now much talked of Gospel of Jefferson, the edition prepared by the third President, in which all the miracles and magic stuff are deleted, and what is left is the ethical teaching."

E. J. Dionne is on to something similar in his column:

Judging by the Gospel of Judas, the "knowledge" claim of the book's author or authors is to a rather bizarre cosmology. The detailed description of a divine realm of assorted angels and an emphasis on the stars -- "Stop struggling with me," the Jesus of the story says. "Each of you has his own star." -- reads like a rejected screenplay for a Spielberg movie.

Mark 15: The Silence of Christ

When I was a child, well, actually, until I was in my mid-40s, I was always extremely frustrated by the fact that Jesus, at least in Mark’s passion, makes no attempt to defend himself before Pilate. I thought like Peter while he was in Get-behind-me-Satan! mode that Jesus should “win” his confrontation with Rome and with the Temple leadership in a way that I understood. And surely, that would include making mincemeat of the charges against him and dazzling Pilate rhetorically. I mean, I felt like I could do it, so why didn’t he do it?

I’d had this view challenged in two ways: one by the priests of my childhood who preached that Jesus knew that by dying he would atone for all of our sins and he more or less wanted to get on with it. (Some of these guys were very big on the virtues of “suffering in silence.”) I didn’t find that persuasive. I believe that Jesus had good reasons for dying, and I don’t doubt the theology of atonement (though I don’t fully understand it, either) but this explanation, to me, denies Jesus’ human nature by relying on his complete understanding of divine purposes. It also suggests, I think, that atoning for sins was all Jesus accomplished on the cross. Not that that isn’t plenty, mind you, but it cuts the scroll too short.

The other challenge came from J. D. Salinger. If I am remembering correctly, Zooey Glass (in Franny and Zooey) says that Jesus’ silence before Pilate was “brilliant,” that no one else would have understood that silence was precisely what was called for at this moment. As I recall, he then takes a swipe at St. Francis of Assisi, who would have had time to “bang out a few canticles.” Though I have been a huge Salinger fan, I never really appreciated what he was getting at there. But reading the Passion this time, it occurred to me that Jesus may have realized that dying bravely, and with as much dignity as the situation allowed, was his best chance to make people understand a message he had been preaching to uncomprehending ears for three years. Greater love hath no man, etc.

Laying down his life was Jesus way of saying, with ultimate emphasis, that he stood—ultimately—behind everything he had said; that he continued to assert it, even in the face of death, that the Kingdom of God was among us. To the smaller audience of his frightened disciples it said: What we have begun together is so important, that I will die for it, so that you will understand and carry it on. In this context, speech, especially defensive speech, or the slick rhetorical footwork he had demonstrated in recent Temple debates would have seemed cheap. It would have diminished what he was doing. Silence, on the other hand, was brilliant.

Mark 14 b

Mark spends only three verses on the institution of the Eucharist. That seems odd given its centrality to Christian worship. He doesn’t give us the washing of the feet. Rather the story hurtles toward Jesus’ death. I admire Jesus for praying that “the hour might pass.” That, and his cry of desolation from the cross, makes it easy for me to accept that he did indeed have a human nature.

While Jesus is a still point amidst the churning confusion and brutality of this chapter, you don’t get a sense of him controlling the action, as much as letting events unfold around him. His surrender is absolute, as, I suppose, ours must be. I find such total surrender impossible, and console myself with the fact that Jesus was clear on what and whom he was surrendering to, and that that clarity makes the surrender possible. So my prayer today is for clarity.

I am always mystified by verses 51-52: A certain young man was following him, wearing nothing but a linen cloth. They caught hold of him, but he left the linen cloth and ran off naked.

Does the young man symbolize Jesus’ soul making its escape? Or is this a reference that an earlier community understood, but that is lost on us. Or is it just stuck in there because it happened. I doubt the latter. Mark is a ruthlessly economical storyteller, and these two verses don’t add a lot if they are purely descriptive.

I identify with Peter’s betrayal of Christ. Not just because I am a sinful person, but because I can imagine Peter calculating, as I tend to, whether this is the time and place to make my stand, or whether I should fight on ground of my own choosing.

Mark 14 (a)

If you are a writer and a Christian, it is difficult to tell whether your appreciation of the Passion is colored by your sense of plot, theme, etc. or whether your sense of plot, theme, etc. is formed primarily by the Passion, which you hard a few dozen times growing up.

Anyway, Chapter 14.

We start with another great example of Mark’s economy. I realize that we cant describe our finished product here to a particular individual. But at some point, somebody with a terrific, and oddly contemporary, sense of timing had his or her hand on this. It takes only two verses to give a sense of heightened emotion.


Read more »

Judas was framed!

Have a look at this story in The Washington Post. It begins:

"The National Geographic Society today released the first modern translation of the ancient "Gospel of Judas," which says that the most reviled villain in Christian history was simply doing his master's bidding when he betrayed Jesus.

"The 2nd century text, denounced as heresy 1,700 years ago by orthodox Christian clergy, describes conversations between Jesus and Judas Iscariot during the week before the Jewish holiday of Passover in which Jesus tells Judas "secrets no other person has ever seen.' "

Then have a look at the document on The National Geogrpahic Society's Web site.

I am passing this along before forming any sort of opinion about it. (So I hope you didn't take the healdine of this article seriously.) In general, I think the non-canonical gospels are historically interesting, but not theologically compelling. And I think that all claims to secret knowledge, especially secret knowledge of God, are suspect.

Mark 13

Today I happen to be reading from the New Revised Stardard Version published by the American Bible Society. The sub-heads in chapter 13 convey the message: destruction (of the Temple), persecution (of the disciples). The Desolating Sacrilege. So, it's an upbeat kind of text.

This chapter suggests, even more strongly than some of the material we've already discussed, that Jesus did indeed think that he was living in an end time. The emphasis on watchfulness has an urgency to it that goes beyond the sort of "live a good life so you are ready to meet your maker" sermonizing that this chapter sometimes inspires. And if Jesus did think he was living in an end time, it opens up an avenue for some interesting speculation about what Jesus knew and didn't know, about the interplay between his human and divine natures in shaping his awareness of the world. To what extent, in his moment to moment mental processes was he the omniscient God, and to what extent was he confined the limitations of time and place?

There is something about this chapter that I find perversely appealing. It undercuts the sort of "Jesus is my buddy, and if I hang with him, things will work out all right for me," sort of spirituality that is flourishing in the United States right now, especially among the disciples of prosperity theologians. What is on offer here is neither comfort, nor reassurance, but rescue from the brink of catastrophe.

As someone who thinks that the phrase "personal savior" sounds a bit too much like "personal trainer"--and therefore seems to relegate the salvation of the world to a sector of the service economy)--I take an odd pleasure when God becomes too frightening for us to cuddle up with him.

This perhaps says more about me than about the deeper meanings of this passage, but there it is.

Mark 12

Earlier in our discussion about the Gospel of Mark, I mentioned that the passages about the feeding miracles had occasioned some of the best sermons I had ever heard. Conversely, I don't think I've ever heard a satisfying sermon on giving to Caesar what is Caesar's and giving God what is God's. And I have to admit I have never understood the verse. I assume that all things are God's, so the duality Jesus speaks of here is lost on me. Likewise, I don't grasp what Jesus is saying when he describes the afterlife in verse 25. I can understand that life in the Resurrection will be different than life on earth. But Jesus seems to be saying, at least here, that the relationships we formed in our lifetimes won't matter in the Resurrection--that even a relationship as central as the one we had with our spouse will be as nothing. This seems to go against Trinitarian theology, which posits a three-person godhead in relationship with itself. I have always been vexed by it.

In the midst of this vexing chapter, however, comes verse 29, in which we find Jesus doing what people in my line of work try to do all the time: boil a message down to its essence: Love God, and your neighbor as yourself. This priority-setting passage is honored primarily in the breech. It is too simple for us to accept, and so we build intricate systems of rules that make it easier for us to judge our neighbors than to love them.

The chapter closes with Jesus' observation about the window's mites. This story always makes me uncomfortable because, unlike the widow, I give from my surplus much more frequently than I give from my substance.

Mark 11

This chapter begins with Jesus triumphant entry into Jerusalem which we will celebrate a week from today on Palm Sunday. I wish there were a way to get a sense of how popular Jesus was, and how big a threat he posed to Temple authority and to Roman authority. Obviously he was known by many in the crowd, but just as obviously the deserted him days later. I also wish there were some way to know what his motives were both for his very public entrance into Jerusalem, and for his confrontational cleansing of the Temple. (Speaking of the Temple does the cleansing tell us anything about Jesus attitude toward commerece, or should the passage be read more narrowly?)

If you believe, as seems plausible, that he was taking the actions he took to fulfill the Scriptures regarding the Son of Man (which Mark has quoted numerous times) then you could argue simply that he was embracing his destiny. But I have always wondered whether Jesus did indeed intend for his earthly (perhaps pre-Resurrection would be a better description) ministry to fail.

I think it is obvious that he went to Jerusalem to provoke a confrontation. The entrance, the cleansing, the combative banter with the Temple insiders would seem to support this. But what if, rather that seeking to fulfill the Scriptures, Jesus thought of this strategy as his last best chance to get the Jewish people to hear what he was saying to them. Such an interpretation makes better sense given Jesus words and actions amidst the pathos of what is about to unfold. At least to me.

By the way, anybody know what to make of the cursed fig tree? Even my Oxford Annotated says Jesus meaning is unclear.

Mark 10

Verses 11-12: "Whoever divorces his wife and marries another commits adultery against her; and if she divorces her husband and maries another, she commits adultery."

This seems pretty clear teaching from the mouth of Jesus himself. Yet most Christian churches permit remarriage after divorce. And Paul, who I am gathering must have been familiar with Jesus' teaching in this regard, felt free to modify it to allow for divorce when it facilitated church membership. This raises a couple of questions: Is Jesus just expressing an ideal here, or is he laying down law? Why did Paul feel he had the right to take what, I think, has to be construed as a softer stance on the issue than Jesus did? Why do people who insist that same-sex intimacy is incompatible with Scripture not think that divorce is incompatible with Scripture? Some of the loudest voices raised against gays and lesbians in our church are by male leaders in second marriages.

And speaking of fairly explicit passages, verse 23: How hard it will be for those who have wealth to enter the Kingdom of God." Is Jesus saying that the possession of wealth in the midst of scrarcity is an injustice, and the unjust will not enter heaven? Or is he saying that wealth is a distraction that keeps one from focusing on the Kingdom. Or both? One thing I think is clear, when he says, in verse 27 that nothing is impossible with God, it isn't meant as a free pass to every pious porker who clings to his riches while attesting to the power of Christ in his life. Yet those folks are about the hottest evangelists in the game right now. And you never hear anybody whining about their orthodoxy.

If, like many Episcopalians, you are used to having some questionably interpreted passages from Scripture used as proof that you are not following the true faith, it makes you wonder why those who wield the Bible like a billy club pay so little attention to what seem to be clear teachings on divorce and on the accumulation of wealth.

Mark 9

Getting back to our Lenten reading...

In the first verse Jesus says there are people listening to him who "will not taste death until they see the kingdom of God has come with power." Some interpreters have taken this as evidence that Jesus thought he was living in an end time. If he did think so, he was wrong. Could Jesus make mistakes? Or is the Kingdom of God a state of being or state of mind that people could indeed "taste" in their lifetimes? Or is something else going on here?

We move from this verse to the Transfiguration. An interesting side note here. Verse 2 begins with the words "six days later." Chronological precision is not exactly rife in the New Testament. Wonder what is up with this?

I have nothing to say about the Transfiguration that you haven't heard before. The passage definitely establishes Peter and the others as first among the apostles. And it establishes Jesus in a noble Jewish line of succession. In some ways, it makes you wonder how Peter and the others could ever have entertained doubt again.

I have never actually been able to come up with a satisfying image of what the transfigured Jesus looked like. And as I was thinking about this, I did a little Web trolling and found that this is one of the least frequently depicted scenes in the life of Christ. Witnessing the Transfiguration must have been a staggering visual experience. Yet, it has inspired comparatively little art. Maybe it is beyond our imagining. Maybe any attempt to portray it would have seemed immediately cliched.

In this chapter we also get more of Mark's fascination with Jesus' relationship with and knowledge of demons. I get a kick out of Jesus saying "This kind can come out only through prayer." As though he were reflecting on a long medical career and giving the apostles a useful craftsman's tip. My Oxford Annotated contains a footnote that says: Failure is attributed to a wrong attitude. The disciple must speak from faith, not from argument." Now, that last sentence is very good advice, but in this context, it seems like an attempt to read a moral into a story that is too unusual to support one.

Verses 42-48, if your eye offends you, pluck it out, etc. are generally interpreted metaphorically, and I don't quarrel with that. I don't think you should pluck your eyes out. But sometimes I think we read the metaphor too broadly. Jesus isn't just saying stay away from stuff that might jeopardize your salvation. He is saying cut yourself off from things you previously considered essential to your well being if it gets in the way of your relationship with God. I am trying to think about whether I have ever done that, or felt I had to. There is a bit of a conundrum here. Ideally, you would not make something an essential part of your life if you thought it got in the way of your relationship with God. At least not knowingly. It seems Jesus is asking for some fairly intesne self-scrutiny, a measuring of every element in your life against the standard of whether it helps or hinders your relationship with God.

Mark 8(b)

So, as I was saying six days ago:

Two questions have always dogged my reading of the Gospels: What did Jesus know and when did he know it? And: What did the disciples know and when did they know it? These questions are born partly of a writer’s curiosity, a desire for more information about the consciousness and the emotional experience of the “characters.” But there is more at stake. Because, if Jesus “knew” everything that was going to happen to him, and verses 31-38 certainly argue that he did, then his suffering seems less profound. And the agony on the Mount of Olives and his cry of despair from the cross are difficult to make sense of. It is possible, maybe even likely—I haven’t reread the literature on this—that these verses are the efforts of early Christian apologists to create the impression that Jesus was all-knowing, and, therefore, always in control of his own fate. But if that is the case, the attempt creates more questions than it answers, for it gives us an invulnerable God who was never really at risk, but simply fulfilling his end of some barbaric bargain with his blood-lusting Father. I can’t make theological sense of that. So I am always distrustful of these passages in which Jesus speaks in such detail of what is about to befall him.

The question of the disciples’ consciousness arises in verse 29 when Peter makes his confession of faith. “You are the Messiah.” Peter makes this confession in all of the synoptic gospels. It confers on him the status as the first to believe. Yet his belief is in a Messiah of his own imaging as is clear in verse 33, when he attempts to talk Jesus off the deathward path. I have to admit that this is one instance (the story of Martha and Mary is another) when I am on the wrong side of the gospels. No matter how many times I read those stories, I “accept” rather than fully fathom their morals. Sure Peter has set his mind on human rather than on divine things. But he is human, bound by the specifics of his time, his place and his culture. He’s got no context in which to understand a messiah who not only fails to conquer, but dies trying. Despite his friendship with Jesus’, he is no more equipped than the rest of us to limn God’s intention. So I always wonder whether he deserves the rebuke that Jesus administers. And I wonder why the Church makes so much of Peter’s confession, when he is asserting faith in what amounts to a false perception of God.

Finally, I appreciate the nice linguistic reversals in verses 34-38. He who loses will save, and he who saves will lose. And I have no trouble fathoming what Jesus is saying here. But, again, this passage feels like an apologetic appendage, rather than eye witness testimony. Note that Jesus refers to the cross, which would seem to indicate not only that he knew he was going to die, but how, and at whose command (Rome’s.) This goes even further than the sort of knowledge he disclosed about his impending trials earlier in the chapter. The fact that no one remarks upon this seems odd to me.

I understand that theologically speaking, this section of Mark’s gospel, and similar passages in its synoptic sisters have great theological and ecclesiological importance. They were no doubt critical in first century apologetics. But that may well be the problem. To my eyes, Peter is too obviously a stand-in for those who cannot accept the plausibility of a crucified Messiah, and Jesus too obviously speaks the words that the author wrote for him. This kind of didacticism indicates an unwillingness to trust the reader with unadorned facts. And, as Mark does this so infrequently, it is both jarring and disillusioning.

Mark 8a: What's the best sermon you've ever heard?

The first half of this chapter contains the second "feeding miracle." The feeding miracles have occasioned some of the best sermons I have ever heard, so I thought I'd pose the question up in the headline to keep us busy over the weekend.

The first terrific feeding miracle sermon I heard was given by a young priest who had worked at the same summer camp where I'd been a counselor. He spoke of the surprising reality that when you broke your self up and passed your self around, there was somehow more of you when you pulled yourself back together again. It was an exhortation to a life of generous service, although delivered in a laid back unexhortative kind of way.

The second terrific sermon on this passage was not one I heard, but one I heard about. It related what I am told was a popular interpretation of the feeding miracle in African-American pulpits, although one I hadn't previously heard. The preacher said that what happened when it became clear that Jesus and his disciples were willing to give away the only food they had for the sake of the crowd, everybody else felt moved to give as well. So, as the food came around, instead of taking something out of the basket, people put some of what they had been saving for themselves in.

To see the theme of this passage rendered with great cinematic power, just slip It's a Wonderful Life into the DVD player. The last scene, in which George Bailey's friends arrive with their small contributions to deliver him from ruin, is my favorite few minutes in the history of film.

Mark 7

I have two questions about this chapter. The first is ideologically loaded, and the second is theologically loaded. The first:

In the space of seven verses (17-23) Jesus sets aside the dietary laws--a cornerstone of first century Jewish observance and identity. He does so after a disquisition about people who honor God by observing the letter of the law, but not its spirit. It seems to me that some interpreters, in explaining this passage, have embraced precisely the bonds from which Jesus tries to free us. They have said, well, yes, we can eat pork, and sure it is wrong to rely to much on ritualized observance as a means of grace, but we should assume no metaphorical intent on behalf of the author. This isn't a passage about the primacy of a pure heart, and it isn't an assertion that God understands us well enough to judge by intention and not by action. Nope, it is a passage about pork and lobsters that we may be able to plunder later to preach against the Mass.

Jesus sets aside the dietary laws, but in doing so he isn't suggesting that we set aside any of the Old Testament dicta that remain as essential to our worldview as those laws were to first century Jews. He'd never do that because... because...because we won't let him.

The second question: Jesus meets the Syrophoeecian woman and--disconcertingly--refuses to heal her child, saying--more or less--that his mission is to the Jews. She says, in effect, okay, but how about the leftovers?And he changes his mind. I can't emphasize enough how hard that passage hit me when I first came to understand it: JESUS CHANGES HIS MIND. He's God, no? He's right about everything. In advance. So how come he changes his mind after this brief exchange with a human being--a Gentile woman, or all incredible first century things. Mark doesn't explore this incident, he merely relates it, so we ae left to wonder: was there a change in the mind of God and, perhaps more importantly for present day Christians--in the mission of Christ that can be traced to the comments of this woman?

You tell me, eh?

Mark 6

Two things I can't get past in this chapter: v.5 says "and he could do no deed of power there, except that he laid his hands on a few sick people and cured them."

It seems utter predictable that Jesus would be "dissed" in his hometown. They knew him "when." I remember when I was an intern at Newsday, the Long Island (and Queens!) newspaper, and I was sitting with one of the veteran writers and he was talking about a guy who had a part-time job covering high school sports. He said, "He has to get out of here. They are never going to realize how good he is until he leaves." I hate to admit it, but in that moment, I thought of this anecdote: A prophet without honor in his hometown, etc. I realize the moral scale is all wrong, but the dynamic is similar. In some ways, the people who watched you grow up know you better than anyone. But in other ways, their knowledge of your early life blinds them to what you have become. They perceive limits on your future that are derived from their understanding of your past.

Does it make you wonder how your own situation compromises your ability to hear the Good News? Does it make you wonder whether God holds it against you?

Then to verses 7-13. Jesus sends the twelve out in pairs with authority over unclean spirits. The continuing focus on unclean spirits deserves deeper inspection on another day. Mark seems to see the world as a place of spiritual combat which might seem Manichean to some readers—or might seem fair enough. But even to those who find it an accurate description, the nature of un-cleanliness might seem peculiar—so much a product of spirits and so little matter of choice.

This incident is one of several in the NT about which I wish I knew more. As death closes in on Jesus, one doesn’t get a sense of the 12 as a confident bunch who have participated in drawing the Kingdom near. Granted, they were about to lose the person who had made every wonderful thing in their lives seem possible, but … If you had gone on a mission, cast out demons, and participated in Christ’s wonder-working power, would you really collapse as completely as these men collapsed?

On a more academic note, these verses seem to steal the thunder of Pentecost. If you’ve already felt this sort of power, does the descent of the Holy Spirit come as such a surprise? Maybe so. Maybe it was all so fleeting that it was impossible to believe, like Peter walking on water for a step or two and then plunging in.

This is a rich chapter, and I am going to pass on the death of John and the loaves and the fishes, partly because I get another shot in a little while at the loaves and fishes.

Mark 5

Let's see, where were we?

Jesus has crossed the Sea of Galilee and come to "the country of the Gerasenes." There he meets a man possessed by an unclean spirit whose name is Legion "for we are many." Jesus casts the spirit(s?) out into a herd of 2,000 swine, which promptly stampede over the edge of a cliff and drown in the sea. The swineherds run off and tell people what has happened, and they come out to find the man who had been possessed "Clothed and in his right mind...and they were afraid."

Mark and the other evangelists often use unbelieving observers as foils, but I must admit that in this instance I sympathize with the frightened people. It isn't clear that these people have heard of Jesus, his ministry of healing and his mastery over evil spirits. So their first encounter with him includes, as its dramatic high point, a massive stampede that ends up with 2,000 dead hogs floating in the sea. I like to believe that were I alive in Jesus time I might have been among those who would have responded to his teaching. (But, really, who can say this for certain?) In this case, though, I think the surpassing strangeness of the events described would have set my teeth on edge.

Dead waterlogged pigs to the left of us! Dead waterlogged pigs to the right of us! And that lunatic who haunts the tombs neatly turned out and speaking good sense. I realize I am dwelling on this to the exclusion of Jesus restoring “Legion” to his right mind—and I realize the story might be metaphoric—but this seems to me one of those passages that resists domestication. You can't easily explain why Jesus did what he did in the particular way that he did it. I understand that Jews regarded pigs as unclean and all that, but causing 2,000 of them to hurl themselves off a cliff still seems a bit gratuitous. I read this story and marvel at the cultural distance that separates us from Mark’s original audience, and the challenges we face in trying to make sense of what the evangelists are saying and what Jesus is doing.

Mark 4: sowers and seeds

An acquaintance who farmed potatoes in upstate New York once said that he had a hard time focusing on what would seem to be the moral of this parable because he was distracted by the way in which the sower sowed. He is profligate with his seed, casting it all over the place, unconcerned about waste, making no effort to increase his yield by sowing only in the best soil. God's seemingly careless generativity is confounding, and Jesus doesn't attempt to explain it. Rather, he gives a metaphoric accounting of how different sorts of people respond to the Word of God. This parable can seem deterministic--Salvation derives from the quality of the soil, over which the seed has no control.--unless you assume that the soil is not your environment but your heart.

I wonder what people make of the other agricultural parable in this chapter, verses 26-29. A man scatters seed, does nothing to cultivate it, but it grows and he harvests it. My New Oxford Annotated Bible contains this footnote: "The growth of God's kingdom in the world is beyond human understanding or control. Yet people may recognize its progress and play a part in it."

Fair enough. But it sure seems as though this second sower could be a heck of a lot more diligent. What perplexes me about this parable--and about the nature of grace, I guess--is that this man's diligence is not required. It is easy enough to say that this indicates that God doesn't need our help. Of course he doesn't. But to what extent does God want our help? Or, to put it another way, to what extent does our striving indicate commitment to the Gospel, and to what extent does it betray an arrogant belief that we can earn our salvation?

Mark 3

This chapter contains one quote and one incident that have been puzzling people for probably as long as the gospels have been read.

Although I must admit that the meaning of verses 28-30 seem clearer to me this time through. Here they are:

"Truly I tell you, people will be forgiven for their sins and whatever blasphemies they utter; but whoever blasphemes against the Holy Spirit can never have forgiveness, but is guilty of an eternal sin"--for they had said, "He has an unclean spirit."

The whole notion of unforgivable sin is a troubling one. It goes against one of the principal tenets of the faith as we have received it. What constitutes a blasphemy against the Holy Spirit and why that is a more serious offense than blasphemy against the Father or Son, are intriguing questions. But my own sense here is that Jesus is saying it is eternally sinful to attribute the work of God to the devil.

This happens more than you might imagine, and churches are perhaps more guilty of this than other institutions because we are often eager to pronounce on what is godly. I've got two friends--lesbians in their 50s, who are raising two boys that they adopted from a Brazilian orphanage. Both of the kids have significant learning disabilities, and one of them has been working all of his young life to control his rage. But with my friends' love and their other resources, one of the kids is flourishing and the other is making slow progress toward maturity. I think of them every time I read this verse, because in my position I've been told over and over again that same-sex relationships are diabolical. In this instance, that seems to me a blasphemy against the Holy Spirit.

And speaking of families, verses 31-35 tell the story of Jesus being sought by his mother, brothers and sisters who, according to an earlier verse (21) have been told by the locals that "He has gone out of his mind." A footnote in The New Oxford Annotated Bible (New Revised Standard Version, for those of you keeping score at home) says perhaps Mary and his siblings were concerned for his safety as well as his sanity. Whatever the case, Jesus makes no effort to draw them close to him, and indeed says that within the family of God, his listeners are every bit as close to him as his biological family.

I guess all of this is clear enough in the text. But if you, like me, were raised Roman Catholic in a family with a real devotion to the Holy Family, and if you were taught to write JMJ (Jesus, Mary and Joseph) at the top of all of your papers in parochial school, the notion that families, by the nature of their bonds with one another, are not the essential building block of the Kingdom of God remains difficult to accept. (This is not to say that the family can't be the place in which you hear the Word of God and see if lived most powerfully. It certainly was for me.) The idea that Jesus' vocation (Vocation?) may have been a source of dissent within his family and a source of pain (even pre-Calvary) to his mother does not go down particularly easy either. (Especially if you grew up in an Irish household and would rather nibble off your own fingers than cause pain to your mother.)

And then there is this whole business about Mary being a Virgin and Jesus having brothers and sisters. The Biblical scholars that I read--and they are a pretty ecumenical lot--dismiss the argument that the words for brothers and sisters in this context coudl just as easily mean "cousins." So what does one do with that information viz. the Nicene Creed.

I don’t have an answer for that. I do, however, find these verses, and they aren’t unique to Mark, give us a much better sense of the cost of discipleship. It convulsed the life of Jesus, and the lives of those who tried to follow him. And I find that both consoling and, I use the word advisedly, threatening. Consoling because in times of conflict, these verses remind me that conflict comes with the territory that Christ calls us to cross. Threatening because I realize that I assume some judgment attaches to all the times I’ve chosen tranquility over fidelity.

Mark 2

For some reason I had never previously taken note of the first sentence of this chapter--"...it was reported that he was at home."--but this time through I am really struck by it. You don't picture Jesus "at home." Or at least I don't. If he isn't in public, he's alone at prayer. You don't think of him sitting around the house and doing the first century equivalent of reading the paper, having a cup of coffee, catching up on the mail, mowing the lawn. It is easier to picture him in a banquet hall with a cup of wine in his fist than it is to imagine him in a hammock or whatever it was he would have dropped into if he wanted to relax. What are the implications of a Jesus at rest, a domestic God?

Mark doesn't tell us because no sooner do we learn that Jesus is at home than he's got visitors. Tons of them, including one who comes in via a hole in the roof. The theme of this chapter is: giving offense. Jesus angers the religious establishment both by healing the parlytic and forgiving his sins. He angers them again by eating with the likes of Levi. Again by failing to insist that his disciples fast, and again by violating a strict interpretation of the Sabbath.

He does this, I think, as a way of establishing his authority over and against that of his critics. In doing so, it seems to me, he relies on a trump card: his success as a healer. His healings simultaneously win him an audience and establish his credibility. That is why I am persuaded that the healings stand up to even the harshest critical scrutinty. (That and the fact that Father John Meier, author of the monumental trilogy A Marginal Jew belives it too, and I tend to follow his lead in an ovine fashion.)

But a question arises explicitly in this chapter that was also hinted at in Chapter 1. What is the relationship between physical and spiritual healing in Jesus ministry? As I've got a bedtime story to read to my younger son, I am not gong to lay out what little I know about the first century understanding that illness was a punishment for sins. So I can't offer an entirely satsifying answer. But Jesus explicitly says that he is healing the paralytic man who was lowered through this roof "so that you may know that the Son of Man has authority to forgive sins." It is almost as though this great physical act of mercy wasn't quite worth performing simply so that the fellow could get up and walk.

I don't feel I've explored this issue with any real depth, but as I say, there is a bedtime story to be read. So I'd be delighted if one of you would deepen the discussion.

Ash Wednesday

In her sermon on Sunday, the Rev. Margaret Guenther urged parishioners of St. Columba's parish in D. C. to read the Gospel according to Mark as a Lenten observance. As I tend to weigh every enterprise by whether it will produce blog fodder, I thought: good idea. So, if you are game, join me for a 16-day read-along of my favorite Gospel.

One of the reasons I love Mark is that it is sudden, mysterious and doesn't stop to explain itself. There is no effort to seduce, only to inform. "This is what happened!" it exclaims. "Make of it what you will." For this reason, it feels like a more authentic eye witness account than do the other gospels. I am not saying it is more authentic. Nor am I saying that it is an eye witness account. But it feels that way because of its style.

Let's look at Chapter One. In the space of two double-columned pages (complete with copious footnotes in my New Oxford Annotated Bible we meet John; he baptizes Jesus; the Spirit drives Jesus into the wilderness where he is tempted; he returns, declares the Kingdom has come near; recruits the first disciples; preaches with authority; is recognized by an unclean spirit; casts the spirit out; heals Peter's mother-in-law; seeks solitude in which to pray; sets off on a preaching and healing tour of Galilee; heals a leper and becomes such a regional celebrity that he can't even go into towns.

Things happen; they happen fast, and there isn't much time to reflect on what is going on. But there is such narrative momentum, you don't mind because it is such an exhilerating ride.

Two things strike me, and I am sure neither of these is original.

One: the demons know Jesus. They call him by name. What's up with that? I can think of a few possible answers, most of them involving such extensive cosmological speculation that I instinctively distrust them. Is there some other world in which Jesus and the unclean spirits previously met? Is there some kind of dog-whistle type-communication going on all around us all the time that only those tuned into the divine-demonic frequency can pick up?

Two: Jesus insists on secrecy. He admonishes the people he heals and the spirits he casts out not to tell people about him. There seems to be a tension between proclaiming the Good News and giving evidence of the nature of the Kingdom and disclosing his true nature that I don't quite grasp.

Please chime in.

The Song of Songs

Maybe this is simplay a matter of religion writers hunting for a fresh angle on Valentine's Day. Or maybe it is that most-beloved of journalistic conventions: A TREND. Whatever the case, the Song of Songs, easily the most erotically-charged book in the Bible is enjoying a bit of a renaissance. The Washington Post has the story here, via Adelle Banks of Religion News Service.

My favorite quote: "When you start talking about a man and a woman's accountability to God in the home, and especially in the areas of sexuality and tenderness, you're about to get a real quiet church service," Nelson said.

Some of the people in Banks' story also turn up in this piece by Cathleen Falsani of the Chicago Sun-Times.

My favorite quote: "It's not to get you horny," Bickel insists. "It's to put romantic thoughts into your head and make you see your spouse in a different light."

Getting it right

A friend of mine, who is deeply involved in the current controversy about the place of gay Christians in the Church sometimes says, that despite the depth of his involvement, he doesn't see the issue as central to his salvation. To paraphrase him:

When I arive at the gates of heaven, I don't expect St. Peter to say, You are XXX and you were on the right side of the homosexuality controversy in the Episcopal Church circa 2003. Well donegood a faithful servant, you may enter the Kingdom of God.

His point, if I can put a few words in his mouth, is that arriving at one's position on a controversial issue is, at least in part, an act of one's intellect, and he doens't believe that God is not a schoolmaster who demands a passing grade on a test of doctrinal propositions. This, to his mind, would indicate that God rewards success, in this case intellectual success, rather than through fidelity.

So I guess my question for today is, given that we all make mistakes in judgement, given that some people are blessed with greater intellect than others, given that many people are born without the mental capacity to accept or reject factual claims of any sort, and given that many human beings die before they can reasonably be expected to make a serious declaration of faith:

How important is getting it right?

I have asked this question in a way that suggests I think it isn't important, and that actually isn't the case. I think it is important for the Church to sruggle with all sorts of issues because right teaching needs to be preserved and perpetuated. But is my friend going ot be kept out of heaven if he is on the wrong side of the debate? Am I? Does someone forefeit slavation in they have doubts about a line in the Nicene or Apostles Creed--the virginity of Mary for instance, or the descent into hell?

One request: if we could manage to discuss the importance of getting it right, rather than reprise earlier conversations about gay Christians, I'd really apprecite it.

"It's God's Will."

I am struck by how certain many of yesterday's commenters were regarding their knowledge of God's will. I would like to talk about that today.

If you believe Scripture is inerrant, and draw your conclusions accordingly, can you say a little bit about why you think Scripture is inerrant.

If you discern God's will in some other way, what is it?

This prayer by the American mystic Thomas Merton, informs my own thinking. The underlining is not in the original.

MY LORD GOD, I have no idea where I am going.
I do not see the road ahead of me.
I cannot know for certain where it will end.
Nor do I really know myself, and the fact that I think that I am following your will does not mean that I am actually doing so.
But I believe that the desire to please you does in fact please you.
And I hope I have that desire in all that I am doing.
I hope that I will never do anything apart from that desire.
And I know that if I do this you will lead me by the right road though I may know nothing about it.
Therefore will I trust you always though I may seem to be lost and in the shadow of death.
I will not fear, for you are ever with me, and you will never leave me to face my perils alone.

Interpreting Scripture

There is a distressing amount of "you aren't a real Christian" sort of commentary going on on the blog today, much of it centered on the interpretation of Scripture. I am wondering if this discussion might be more productive if people commented on a document, and explained their own method of interpreting Scripture, rather than continuing to question one another's character, motives, intellect, etc.

Several years ago, the Episcopal Diocese of New York published "Let the Reader Understand," which is one of the best concise statements of how (at least some} Episcopalians interpret Scripture.

Here is a sentence to whet your appetite from a commentary by our friend, the Rev. Tobias S. Haller, BSG, that was published in conjunction with the document:

"To attempt to turn the Scriptures themselves into an unchanging “thing” rather than approaching them as
the story and song and case history of which they largely consist, is to come very close to a form of idolatry."

By all means, read the whole thing.

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