Monday, January 30, 2006

Jesus vs. the Religious Experts

They were astounded at [Jesus'] teaching, for he taught them as one having authority, and not as the scribes. Mark 1:22

Jesus exemplifies authentic spiritual teaching, and the people are astounded. Unlike the scribes, the religious experts, who cite precedent and legitimate their teaching through a reverent and sometimes convoluted interpretation of tradition, Jesus speaks plainly and directly. He knows the tradition as well as anybody, but unlike the religious experts who want to police the boundaries, Jesus acts to break them open. The experts focus on the past. Jesus focuses on the present.

Jesus teaches with “authority” according to Mark’s Gospel. The Greek word translated as “authority” is exousia: literally, “out of being.” Jesus taught out of the depths of his being, not by quoting texts (although he can quote the sacred texts when it suits him). His authority was rooted in holiness, a profoundly unifying experience of divine love that welled up from the depths of his being. But exousia is also related to the Greek word existen, meaning “it is free” or “it is permitted.” He taught with freedom, with a sense of legitimacy rooted in his relationship with God. The experts’ teaching is theoretical and confining, while Jesus’ teaching is experiential and expansive.

This all becomes clear in the healing of the man with an unclean spirit. Jesus enacts his teaching now, he lives the truth that he proclaims in the present moment. The story begins with Jesus teaching in the synagogue. Note here that synagogue does not refer to a building; most likely the people gathered outdoors in the center of town for worship. It is this gathering of the community that is synagogue; not a building.

Jesus astounds the synagogue with the authority of his teaching, the authenticity and freedom with which he teaches. This is demonstrated by his response to the man with an unclean spirit. Now the scribes, the religious experts, citing precedent and invoking the weight of tradition, would have demanded that the man be thrown out of the synagogue. The presence of this unclean spirit threatened the purity of the community, compromising its integrity. The fact that the unclean spirit recognizes the holiness of Jesus would only further justify the experts’ concern, for surely the witness of the demon could only serve to underscore that Jesus’ teaching is itself demonic, a departure from received truth that would only confuse and lead the people astray.

And so the conflict is heightened: is the spiritual authority of Jesus legitimate, or not? How do we know: by conformity to sacred text and traditional interpretation, or by some other criteria? Jesus further confounds the situation by casting out the unclean spirit and commanding its silence, even though it has spoken the truth about Jesus’ identity. Jesus reveals an astonishing freedom with respect both to received tradition and to the demonic. What is going on here?

This story of healing demonstrates that love is the mark of authentic spiritual teaching, for even the Devil can quote Scripture. “Jesus will not abide the dominion of that which defaces the dignity of the image of God, even when it wears the mask of piety.”[1] He is more concerned with restoring this poor man to human community, than with the correctness of the demon’s (or the religious experts’) theological convictions. Jesus chooses love and restores the man and the synagogue to the possibility of experiencing joy again. It is his remarkable freedom to redraw the circle of love so as to include the man with the unclean spirit in the community that sets Jesus apart from the religious experts.

The religious experts want to control access to God, and the demons want to subvert it. Both can quote Scripture to serve their own purposes, but that proves nothing. We can quote Scripture, repeat the Nicene Creed, brandish our orthodox credentials until we are blue in the face, but it means nothing if we fail to love people in such a way as to affirm their human dignity and include them as members of the community.

This is a story of healing, but it is the synagogue much more than the man with the unclean spirit that is healed, by being restored to its purpose of enhancing, rather than restricting, access to God. Today, the Church badly needs such healing, as much or more than the outcasts of our own time and place. The Church, the people of God gathered for worship, realizes its true purpose only to the degree that we reject the invidious distinction between clean and unclean. The religious experts and the demons need each other; they are but the flip side of each other in their determination to constrain access to God.

Jesus models a very different kind of teaching, where spiritual authority is placed in the service of healing rather than division. Jesus demonstrates the authority of his teaching, not by setting himself apart from others, but by setting people free to experience God’s love directly for themselves. He breaks down the barriers that separate people from God and from participation in the community gathered to worship God.

[1] Theodore Jennings, The Insurrection of the Crucified: The “Gospel of Mark” as Theological Manifesto (Chicago: Exploration Press, 2003), p. 25.

Sunday, January 8, 2006

The Bath that Makes Us "Dirty"

This morning as we celebrate the feast of the baptism of our Lord, we are invited to consider the meaning of our own baptismal politics. I say “politics,” because baptism confers membership and draws boundaries. Those who are baptized assume a new identity and profess a particular allegiance that marks the boundary between those who are Christians and those who are not. Pledging allegiance and marking boundaries are always political acts that constitute a particular community: allegiance to this authority, and not that one; defining my community as these people, and not those people.

All this is true, and yet the politics of baptism is a peculiar politics. It demands loyalty to Christ, the Human One who gave his life for each and all. It marks a boundary between insiders and outsiders so as to place us firmly on the outside. Baptism is the bath that makes us dirty.[i] It washes off the clean, the pure, the invidious distinctions that separate us from “those people,” the disposable people of the earth. It makes us one with all people by accepting the beauty, dignity, vulnerability, and suffering of our common humanity. In baptism, we commit ourselves to the practice of sacrificial love for the sake of that common humanity and, indeed, for the sake of the whole creation. Baptism is the bath that makes us dirty.

It is in this sense, as the bath that makes us dirty, that our practice of baptism is continuous with the baptism that Jesus experienced. The baptismal practice of John demanded that his fellow Jews relinquish their claim to be already the people of God. Like Gentiles converting to Judaism, John requires them to undergo a ritual process of purification. “In this way, the mission of John clearly anticipates the gospel with its news that the outsider is included in the people of God while the insider can be included only on the basis of a recognition of also being an outsider.”[ii]

The baptism of John marked a change of allegiance that subverted the status quo. John gathered the people on the east bank of the Jordan, re-enacting the exodus of the Hebrews from Egypt and their conquest of the Promised Land. One-by-one, the people enter the Jordan, are washed, and enter into the Promised Land on the other side. This highly charged symbolic action, while entirely nonviolent in its practice, represented a profound commitment to the sovereignty of God, to whom the land ultimately belongs, and an expectation of God’s benevolent reign of justice over and against Roman occupation and exploitation of the land. John is preparing the people for imminent regime change, courtesy of God, and inciting hope for liberation.

What is more, all this is taking place in the wilderness at no charge, rather than at the Temple in Jerusalem. John is offering a “free and populist alternative” to the Temple’s purification process and the economy of sacrifice upon which it was built.[iii] This is an implicit judgment against the local ruler, Herod Antipas, and the priestly class whose collaboration with Roman occupation served to maintain their elite status. In his unusual choice of lifestyle and in his rhetoric, John identifies with the landless poor and assures them that God has nothing to do with the violence that keeps them in subjection. Indeed, God is coming to set them free, and they need to renounce the temptations of submission to, or collaboration with, oppression.

The baptism of John was a radical act that demanded a change of loyalty and a redrawing of boundaries between insiders and outsiders. No wonder then that, as the Jewish historian Josephus reports, "Herod decided . . . that it would be much better to strike first and be rid of him before his work led to an uprising . . . John, because of Herod’s suspicions, was brought in chains to Machaerus . . . and there put to death."[iv] His baptismal practice marked him as subversive, “dirty,” as disposable as the impoverished peasants with whom he identified. John anticipates Jesus both in his mission, and in his execution by the authorities.

The account of Jesus’ baptism in Mark’s Gospel demonstrates the continuity between John and Jesus, as well as the differences. If John redraws boundaries in anticipation of things to come, Jesus crosses them in celebration of what already is. Jesus’ baptism indicated the fulfillment of John’s expectation, and further radicalized his baptismal practice: "And when [Jesus] came up out of the water, immediately he saw the sky ripped apart and the spirit swooping into him like a dove; and there was a voice from the sky, “you are my beloved son, with you I was delighted."[v]

The very boundary between heaven and earth, the divine and the human, is transcended. God’s presence is here, now, in the power of the Spirit. The words spoken by the voice from the sky echo Psalm 2, a royal coronation anthem, as well as recalling the words of the prophet Isaiah: "Behold my servant, whom I uphold, my chosen, in whom my soul delights; I have put my spirit upon him, he will bring forth justice to the nations . . . He will not fail or be discouraged till he has established justice in the earth."[vi]

Jesus’ mission goes beyond that of John, because Jesus is commissioned to establish an international rule of justice. And the bath that he takes will make him even “dirtier” than John. Jesus expands John’s populist movement to embrace Jews and Gentiles, men and women, adults and children, elites and outcasts, neighbors and enemies. The presence of God’s kingdom already is available in the practice of unconditional healing and open table fellowship, offered freely to all. Jesus invites us to live in such a way that "God’s power, rule, and dominion are evidently present to all observers."[vii] It is to this God and God’s kingdom of justice and joy that we are to give our sole allegiance. That is the baptismal politics of Jesus.

Baptism is the bath that makes us dirty; or, at least, it should. All too often, it instead serves to make us squeaky clean, to reinforce social status and privilege. One of my colleagues, we’ll call her “Susie,” is a life-long Episcopalian who remembers her baptism well; which is very odd for a life-long Episcopalian. Her parents were both upstanding Episcopalians, the right kind of people – and alcoholics – who apparently failed to have little Susie baptized when she was born.

Later, when Susie was about five years old, her parents where sitting around one night having martinis with the parish priest before dinner. As they were chatting, her mother suddenly exclaimed, “My God, we forgot to have Susie ‘done!’” The party immediately adjourned to the church, where Susie was baptized promptly, before the main course could get cold and in plenty of time for after-dinner drinks.

I can’t think of a more stunning example of baptism reduced to a matter of social propriety, the failure to “have the baby done” being little more than a breach of social etiquette. Baptism is here nearly turned on its head, becoming a means of reinforcing social and religious privilege, defining us as already the people of God rather than serving to remind us of our need for God’s mercy – just like everybody else.

Baptism is not something that we “do” to demonstrate that we are the “right kind of people.” Baptism is something that “undoes” us and our cherished notions of a secure identity based on insider status. Baptism throws us back upon the astonishingly generous and generative grace of God as the source and foundation of our identity and security. It frees us from our obsession with who is up and who is down, who is in and who is out, so that we can become the “wrong kind of people,” the kind of people God can make use of in the struggle for a more just and sustainable world.

Like any powerful ritual act, the symbolic resonance of baptism encompasses more than one meaning. Baptism is the bath that makes us dirty, and it is also the bath that makes us clean. It makes us “dirty” because it demands a new allegiance and a new way of life that places us squarely in conflict with much that defines normalcy and success in the world.

And yet it makes us clean also. It washes off all the “not-human” that encrusts us like barnacles, all the beliefs, attitudes, roles, and competing loyalties that lure us into believing we are either more than human, or less than human. We are neither. We are simply human – no better and no worse than anyone else. When we see that clearly, it is as if the scales have dropped from our eyes. We then behold a world filled with a terrible beauty and a noble suffering, evoking the fundamental religious impulses of gratitude and compassion.

Baptism liberates us from our preoccupation with self so that we can become usable for God. Cleansed from the denial and illusion with which we try to secure ourselves against reality, we can see and participate in the reign of God right here and now. And, we can expect that our loyalty to that kingdom will meet with resistance from those who benefit from a world enchanted with denial and illusion. Baptism is the bath that makes us dirty precisely because it washes us so clean.

But we can take courage, because that same Spirit that swooped into Jesus like a dove at his baptism continues to make us “dirty” for the sake of the kingdom of God. The dove in antiquity was a symbol of generativity, rather like we conceive of the rabbit. God’s kingdom is contagious, drawing to itself an ever-expanding circle of adherents. It generates new disciples like a bunny – or, a dove, as it were. If we are able live as people of this kingdom with just an ounce of credibility, our example will be irresistible.

Baptism marks our initiation into the politics of Jesus: a commitment to the justice, generosity, and joy of the kingdom of God. It is an important beginning, but it is only a beginning. We will spend a lifetime washing off the “not human” that continually becomes attached to us, but we can do so trusting that the fecund Spirit that animated Jesus’ ministry also will continually find ways to make us “dirty” for the sake of the kingdom of God. Amen.

[i] See Gordon Lathrop’s discussion of baptism as “the bath that makes you unclean with the unclean” in Holy Ground: A Liturgical Cosmology (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2003), pp. 117-119.
[ii] Theodore Jennings, The Insurrection of the Crucified: The “Gospel of Mark” as Theological Manifesto (Chicago: Exploration Press, 2003), p. 11.
[iii] See John Dominic Crossan’s discussion of John’s program in Who Killed Jesus? Exposing the Roots of Anti-Semitism in the Gospel Story of the Death of Jesus (San Francisco: HarperCollins, 1996), pp. 42-46.
[iv] Jewish Antiquities 18:116-119.
[v] Mark 1:10-11. The translation is from Jennings, p. 13.
[vi] Isaiah 42:1,4.
[vii] Crossan, p. 47.

Monday, January 2, 2006

Current Reading

I'm working my way through two books at the moment. John Dominic Crossan's Who Killed Jesus? and George Lindbeck's The Nature of Doctrine. Crossan's book is an exegetical polemic that takes issue with Raymond Brown's reading of the passion narratives in his The Death of the Messiah. Crossan is more skeptical about the historicity of the narratives, seeing them more as "prophecy historicized" than "history remembered." His is particularly concerned with the anti-Jewish polemic in the passion narratives, and the way they have been used to justify the long and sad history of Christian violence against Jews. Whether or not one agrees with Crossan, his accessible way of laying out the major interpretive options is invaluable. This is must reading before Holy Week.

Lindbeck's book has been around for more than twenty years, and inspired a whole theological movement. He tries to move theology from the modern "turn to the self" represented by "experiential-expressive" theories of religion and doctrine (which understand religions as diverse expressions of a core human religious experience), to a postmodern "turn to language" represented by a "cultural-linguistic" theory that understands religions as analogous to languages with different grammars. Doctrine functions as the grammar, the rules governing the use of the language. His work is heavy-going with respect to the philosophical arguments, but is a fascinating framework for thinking about such issues as interfaith and ecumenical dialogue and the role of catechesis. In particular, I find his discussion of doctrinal statements as performative truth (rather than propositional truth) provocative. It calls to mind the Johannine notion of "doing the truth."

Sunday, January 1, 2006

A Sermon for the Feast of St. John the Evangelist

Jesus said to Peter, “Follow me.” Amen. John 21:19b.

Today we celebrate the feast of our patron, Saint John the Apostle and Evangelist (who, by the way, is almost certainly not the author of the gospel which bears his name, and probably is not the disciple whom Jesus loved – but that is another story; we will celebrate anyway!). The lesson from the Gospel According to John appointed for this celebration is a curious exchange between Jesus and Peter about the fate of the disciple whom Jesus loved. In fact, this scene is the final of four scenes in which Peter and the disciple whom Jesus loved appear together. The relationship between these two disciples, and their relationship to Jesus, seems to be an important subtext of this Gospel.

Two things can be noted about this anonymous disciple, which make him very interesting indeed. The first is the very existence at all of an anonymous man identified simply as the disciple whom Jesus loved. In what sense does Jesus love this particular disciple in such a way as to distinguish Jesus’ love of him from his love for the other disciples? Have you ever thought about that? What is the significance of Jesus’ relationship with this disciple? How does it inform our understanding of what it means to follow Jesus?

The second interesting thing about this anonymous disciple is that he is always paired with Peter in the Gospel According to John. It appears that we are meant to interpret the significance of these two disciples and their relationship with Jesus in light of each other. Something important is being communicated about what it means to follow Jesus by the way in which these two disciples are compared and contrasted.

The disciple whom Jesus loved appears in the Gospel According to John, always with Peter, at four critical points in the narrative: at the Last Supper, at the Crucifixion, at the Empty Tomb, and in a post-Resurrection appearance story, part of which we heard this morning. We first find him at the Last Supper, after Jesus announced that one of the disciples would betray him. A literal translation reads as follows:

One of his disciples was lying in Jesus’ lap, the one Jesus loved; so Simon Peter nods to this one and says: “Tell, who is he talking about.” That one, falling back on Jesus’ chest says to him: “Lord, who is it?” Jesus answers: “It is the one to whom I will give this morsel when I dip it.” So when he dipped the morsel he gave it to Judas, the son of Simon Iscariot. John 13:23-26[i]

We next encounter this anonymous disciple at the foot of the cross with Mary, the mother of Jesus, and several other women disciples. Peter is notable by his absence, having denied and abandoned Jesus along with the other male disciples. Here we are informed that Jesus, seeing his mother and the disciple standing by whom he loved, he said to his mother, “Woman, see your son.” Then he says to the disciple, “See your mother.” And from that hour the disciple took her to his own [home]. John 19:26-27

After Jesus’ death and burial, Mary the Magdalene first discovers the empty tomb. She runs to tell Peter and the disciple whom Jesus loved. Together, they race to the tomb, but the anonymous disciple arrives first; he peers in but refrains from entering. Peter enters the tomb and observes the burial wrappings separately folded and set aside; but no body. We are not told Peter’s reaction, but Then the other disciple, who had come to the tomb first, also entered and he saw and believed . . .” John 20:9

Finally, after a series of post-Resurrection appearances, we have the last post-Resurrection story in which Jesus appears incognito to a small group of disciples, who are fishing. Interestingly, it is the disciple whom Jesus loved who recognizes Jesus first and says to Peter, “It’s the Lord.” After a miraculous catch of fish, the disciples share breakfast with Jesus on the beach. There follows a long dialogue in which Jesus questions Peter three times: “Do you love me?” Each time, Peter responds affirmatively and is commanded by Jesus, “Feed my sheep.” Jesus then makes an enigmatic prediction of Peter’s martyrdom, concluding with the words, “Follow me.”

Turning, Peter sees the disciple that Jesus loved following them, who also was the one who leaned on Jesus’ chest at the supper and had said, “Lord, who is the one betraying you?” Peter, seeing this one says to Jesus, “Lord, and what of him?” Jesus says to him, “If I want him to remain until I come, what is that to you? You follow me!” John 21:20-22. Notice how this final scene recalls the Last Supper, where we are first introduced to the disciple whom Jesus loved, indicating to us that we should read this last scene as being of a piece with the previous pairings of Peter and the disciple whom Jesus loved.

Now, what are we to make of all this? One thing that stands out for me is that not all relationships with Jesus are the same; in fact, each is unique. And it follows from this that what it means to follow Jesus will be somewhat different for each disciple. Peter and the disciple whom Jesus loved exemplify this in spades.

As Ted Jennings argues persuasively in his book, The Man Jesus Loved, on the basis of the Gospel text the relationship between Jesus and the disciple whom he loved can best be described as one of lovers, a relationship marked by bodily intimacy and singular fidelity. The text indicates, in terms quite familiar to first century readers of the Gospel, that Jesus was the lover of a beloved. This intimacy is clearly conveyed at the Last Supper, where Peter implicitly acknowledges it by assuming that the anonymous disciple knows the identity of Jesus’ betrayer.

It is significant that the disciple, in fact, does not know and has to ask Jesus. Against those who try to sublimate the homoerotic aspect of the text by seeing the anonymous disciple as having an authority rivaling Peter’s, the text emphasizes that his intimacy with Jesus does not translate into any special insider knowledge or status among the disciples. Peter is always “in charge.” The “specialness” of the disciple whom Jesus loved lies elsewhere.

The unique bond of intimacy and fidelity shared by Jesus and the anonymous disciple is reinforced by the fact that he alone among the male disciples does not abandon Jesus, but rather takes his place with the women at the foot of the cross. It is striking that Jesus commends his mother and the anonymous disciple to each other’s care, essentially commanding their mutual adoption. This is particularly striking, because John’s Gospel makes mention repeatedly of Jesus’ brothers, who would normally be responsible for the care of their mother after his death. Against those who would allegorize the disciple whom Jesus loved as a type of Jesus’ love for the Church, Jesus simply instructs his mother to treat him as her son-in-law.

So, we should not be surprised that this disciple whom Jesus loved is the first to believe in the hope of the Resurrection and to recognize Jesus when he appears. And yet, the special nature of Jesus’ love for him, and his fidelity to that love, does not in any way privilege this disciple or obviate Jesus’ love for each and all. In spite of everything, it is Peter, who denied Jesus, who is commissioned to care for the community of Jesus’ disciples. Following Jesus is clearly not a matter of being special or worthy. It is simply a matter of loving Jesus enough to respond to the call, of trusting in Jesus’ love to sustain us in our ministries. Jesus judges us, not according to who we are, but on the basis of who we were created to become.

There will always be those, like the disciple whom Jesus loved, who seem to have an especially intimate relationship with Jesus, who feel his loving presence in their lives in a singularly powerful way; people whose fidelity to that love strikes us as simply astonishing. Consider Teresa of Avila, the great 16th Century mystic and saint who recounts the following vision.

He was not tall, but short, and very beautiful, his face so aflame that he appeared to be one of the highest types of angel who seem to be all afire ... In his hands I saw a long golden spear and at the end of the iron tip I seemed to see a point of fire. With this he seemed to pierce my heart several times so that it penetrated to my entrails. When he drew it out, I thought he was drawing them out with it and he left me completely afire with a great love for God. The pain was so sharp that it made me utter several moans; and so excessive was the sweetness caused me by the intense pain that one can never wish to lose it, nor will one's soul be content with anything less than God.

One almost blushes at the thought of such a relationship with Jesus. If this is chastity, give me poverty! But we should not envy people like Teresa. As the story of the disciple whom Jesus loved reminds us, such intimate experiences are not the basis for any claims of superior discipleship. Such experiences are a gift, given to some but not to others for reasons known to God alone. In her lifetime, Teresa was rather reticent about such experiences (I can imagine why!), and emphasized more the ordinary sense of serenity she cultivated on a daily basis. The anonymity of the disciple whom Jesus loved is itself a reminder that such intimacy should, if anything, instill in us a greater sense of humility.

And there will always be disciples, like Peter, whose authority we recognize, not because they are particularly holy or faithful, but simply because we discern that they are called by Jesus, whose presence among us in the power of the Spirit continues to raise up leaders to care for his disciples. Clearly, Jesus chooses to make use of people whom we would not choose ourselves. Sometimes those people are you and me! We should not envy such people, because they, like Peter, are often called to a very demanding practice of sacrificial love.

Some of us may be notable for the way in which Jesus loves us – with a breathtaking sense of personal intimacy. Some of us may be notable for the way in which we love Jesus – even unto death. Most of us fall somewhere in between. The point is not to get too exercised about where we fall along this spectrum, or too preoccupied with the business of comparison. As Jesus told Peter when he inquired about the anonymous disciples’ fate, “It’s none of your business. Your business is to follow me!” Amen.

[i] The translations from Scripture and their interpretation are taken from Theodore Jennings, the man jesus loved: homoerotic narratives from the new testament (Cleaveland, OH: The Pilgrim Press, 2003).