Friday, April 26, 2013

Apocalypse Yesterday, Today and Tomorrow

Apocalypse Now
Acts of the Apostles 16:16-34
The Revelation of John 22:12-14, 16-17, 20-21
John 17:20-26

The Seventh Sunday of Easter always seems to be a sort of in-between place - The Feast of the Ascension celebrated just a few days ago, and Pentecost is still another week off. Like the disciples depicted in Luke-Acts, we seem to metaphorically stand staring into the heavens awaiting the next chapter of our story to unfold. The lessons for the day appear to have run out of  resurrection appearances, and instead we get a delightfully odd grouping of texts ranging from the curious tales of Paul and Silas in Philippi involving a slave-girl “who had a spirit of divination and brought her owners a great deal of money by fortunetelling,” an earthquake,and prisoners who do not escape, to the Apocalyptic visions of St. John the Divine, with a prayer from Jesus for all disciples in all times everywhere.

The Bible's Apocalyptic literature always strikes modern and even post-modern ears as strange. Interpreted literally, it has been used as the foundation of strange, scary and even dangerous Christian cult and fringe groups many of whom like the Millerites of the 19th century predict days certain when the world will end and the day of the Lord begin. So we tend to shy away from these rich metaphorical verses, divorcing ourselves from the comfort and assurance they mean to offer people who live in frightening and uncertain times.

And who among us would deny that the times have become all too often frightening and uncertain? Spontaneous and even planned disasters and tragedies of horrific proportions seem to mar the landscape of our common life with greater frequency and untold damage to our individual and collective psyche. I am reminded of standing in one of Israels' ancient cities looking down on the ruins of  a Dionysian Temple that had been toppled like so many pick-up sticks, massive columns scattered all about, by an ancient earthquake, and wondering out loud what sort of impression that must have made on the ancient inhabitants of Beit She’an - what must have seemed like a structure that should last for centuries scattered in pieces in just a few moments of earth shaking horror.

Something like we see in our portion from The Acts of the Apostles. The slave-girl with powers of divination is announcing to all who will listen that Paul and Silas are “slaves of the Most  High God, who proclaim to you a way of salvation.” We are told that this annoys Paul, despite the fact that this is exactly what they are in Philippi to do! Perhaps Paul feels he does not need the services of an advance Public Relations campaign. At any rate, he performs an exorcism which silences the girl, and frees her from demonic possession. Her owners realize they are going to lose a sure source of income and have Paul and Silas imprisoned. Leave it to people to look at the wrong end of a miracle every time. The woman is restored to wholeness, free to live a life of freedom from slavery to her owners and the demon, and all anyone cares about is money. With stories like this in the New Testament Canon one wonders how it is that Christian Charlatans throughout the ages justify taking money for performing ersatz exorcisms under revival tents Elmer Gantry style or on Television.

Despite being jailed, Paul and Silas pray and sing hymns into the night when all of a sudden an earthquake of a magnitude like the one in Beit She’an opens the prison doors. The jailer is about to take his own life believing the prisoners must have all fled when Paul stops him from harming himself, saying, “Look! We are all still here!” Suddenly the horror of the earthquake gives way to the miracle that these Christians are truly out to save him, and before you know it the jailer and his family are added to the thousands recorded in The Book of Acts that are turning to Jesus.

Jesus, who in John’s Gospel is praying. It is Maundy Thursday, the night before his execution. He knows he has been betrayed. He knows he faces capital punishment at the hands of the Roman Empire. Yet, thinking not at all about what lies ahead of him, he takes time out to pray for his disciples. And not just his disciples, “but also on behalf of those who will believe in me through their word, that they may all be that they may be one, as we are one.” That is, he is looking far far ahead. He is praying for us. He is praying for you and for me, and for all Christians everywhere. Do we ever stop to consider just how disappointed he must be? Here we see his last act of devotion is directed to us so that we might be one, united with him, in him, with Jesus and the Father, as one people, one body, through one baptism. And here we are nearly two thousand years later at a time in history in which our profligate misuse of God’s creation is eliminating one species of creature daily, while at the same time we further splinter the body of Christ into more and more denominations, cults and groups at a rate that must be at least one a day. How is it that we conspire to contribute to the greatest body of evidence that prayer is utterly ineffective by spending so much time, energy and resources, yes, money, asserting that our puny little corner of Christianity is the “true church?” Why can’t these Christians, people must say to themselves, spend more time trying to live into their Lord’s prayer for unity with one another, themselves and with God? To borrow from Joe Hickerson and Peter Seeger, “when will we ever learn, when will we ever learn?”

Which brings us to the final words of all Holy Scripture: Come, Lord Jesus! The Spirit and the bride say, “Come.” And let everyone who hears say, “Come.” And let everyone who is thirsty come. Let anyone who wishes take the water of life as a gift...Come, Lord Jesus! Are we among those who hear? Are we thirsty enough to come? Are we willing to let “anyone who wishes” to take the water of life as a gift? How long can we pretend to hold people, faithful, seeking people, at arm’s length with all sorts of conditions, rules, rituals and behaviors from frolicking in the waters of life? Are we to be gate keepers? Or, those people who open the flood gates of God’s unconditional love and mercy? Are we really prepared to cry out with one voice like John the Revelator imploring Jesus to “Come!”?

The Seventh Sunday of Easter Year C poses some very serious questions to those of us who claim to be disciples of Jesus Christ. Is it any wonder that some congregations opt to celebrate The Ascension today rather than wrestle with all that today’s lessons have to challenge us with. The Seventh Sunday of Easter offers us these odd stories in an attempt to shake us open just as the earthquake opened the doors of the prison in Philippi, and loosed the chains on all those in the prison. The world is looking to us to live into our Lord’s most devout moment of prayer. The world looks to us to be unbound ourselves so that we might be those people who make the waters of life, the waters of God’s unconditional love and mercy, truly and honestly available to all persons. How do we say it in our Baptism? We will be those people who seek and serve Christ in all persons. We will be those people who strive for justice and peace among all people, and respect the dignity of every human being? Yes! This is who we want to be. Yet, we find it so hard to believe that we can do this. It should be no wonder that the very last words of Holy Writ are, “Come, Lord Jesus!” If ever we need  him to come into our lives, it is here, and now in this time and in this place. The Good News is that he promises he is with us to the end of the age! Amen. Come, Lord Jesus!

Saturday, April 6, 2013

For Fear Of The Jews

“For Fear Of The Jews”

Just five words – yet, so much trouble.  This nineteenth verse from the 20th chapter of the Gospel of John is just one example of similar sayings in all four gospels and The Acts of the Apostles: “When it was evening on that day, the first day of the week, and the doors of the house where the disciples had met were locked for fear of the Jews, Jesus came and stood among them and said, ‘Peace be with you.’” John 20:19-31

Early Christian preachers and theologians used such sayings to condemn the Jewish people. This marked the beginnings of modern anti-Semitism. One result was the Holocaust – the genocidal murder of 6 million Jews, including one and one-half million children each of whom represents a poem never written, a painting never painted, a symphony never composed, an invention never invented, a dream never dreamed.

Nevertheless, every Second Sunday of Easter throughout much of Christendom, John 20:19-31 is read. It concerns a second appearance to the disciples of the risen Jesus and Thomas who had not been present on the first occurrence. Thus, it is often regrettably called Doubting Thomas Sunday simply because he desired to have a personal experience of the Risen Jesus similar to that which the others had experienced a week earlier.

My concern is with the translation of the Koine Greek word, ‘Ioudaioi.  Translation from one language to another is always difficult, especially when the word under consideration is itself an attempt to put into Greek a word, a concept, from the native Aramaic or Hebrew of the first century. Unique among the four gospels is John’s use of this word over 70 times, most often to identify Jesus’ adversaries and opponents. It is translated simply as, “the Jews.”

In its original context ‘Ioudaioi most likely means “Judeans,” those who lived in the southern region of Roman Syria-Palestine. It distinguishes those inhabitants from, for instance, inhabitants of the northern region of Galilee, known as Galileans. The inhabitants of both regions were a mix of peoples, ethnicities and religions from all over the ancient world.

Jesus lived and carried out most of his ministry in the region of Galilee. The majority of his followers were Galileans. The heart of the story concerns a pilgrimage they make together to Jerusalem for the feast of the Passover – the annual festival that recalls the escape from slavery in Egypt recorded in Exodus. People from all over the ancient world, those who practiced the monotheistic religion of the sons and daughters of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, and interested gentiles and religious seekers of all kinds attended this annual festival.

Judeans, and particularly those Judeans who lived in Jerusalem, the very heart of Judea, were merchant class traders and artisans, the priestly caste who operated the Jerusalem Temple (the cultic center of Hebrew sacrificial religion), and whatever constituted an aristocracy at the time. Galileans, on the other hand, were much more of an agricultural class – farmers and fishermen – as evidenced by Jesus’ constant use of agricultural parables and metaphors when teaching in the regions around Galilee. The Judeans saw themselves as more sophisticated, and viewed the Galileans as inferior country bumpkin types who talked funny – with some sort of accent peculiar to the region. When Jesus is identified as coming from Nazareth in Galilee early on in John’s gospel, Nathanael quips to Philip, “Can anything good come out of Nazareth?” (John 1:46).

It may be safe to assume that Galileans visiting Jerusalem on any occasion might feel uncomfortable, seeing as though they were often the butt of such prejudice, sniggering, and frequently made fun of. Now add to that the fact that in the week before our passage they had together with Jesus staged a political demonstration outside the gates of the city (Palm Sunday), Jesus had precipitated an economic crisis and disturbance of the peace in the Temple courtyards (turning over the tables of the money changers and drove out the animals necessary for the Temple sacrifices), and Jesus had been arrested and tried for treason against the Roman Empire.  He was executed by the Empire just a few days prior to this week’s reading from John.

In a Jerusalem under military occupation, with Temple and local leadership employed by the Empire to maintain peace during the large festivals, it is not difficult to understand why several days after the execution by crucifixion of their leader, their master, their Lord, that this tattered group of Galileans might in fact be hiding behind closed doors – fearful that all in the local population, Jews and non-Jews, that is Judeans of all stripes, would want to expel them at the least, or crucify them as well. They were all associated with these public acts of political and religious defiance.

Whatever the religionists of the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob were at that time, on that day they were not “Jews” as we understand that word to mean today. “Judaism,” or more correctly Rabbinic Judaism as opposed to Priestly/Sacrificial Judaism, was reborn as a virtually all-new ritual, ethnic and ethical religion long after the time of Jesus – specifically sometime after the destruction of the Jerusalem Temple in the year 70 – coinciding with the separation of those who followed Jesus from their Hebrew origins.

No matter how one chooses to interpret the events of that week in first century Jerusalem, the Jewish people as constituted today, and even as late as the 5th and 6th centuries, were not involved. It is that simple. The Church has a lot to answer for in its implicit as well as explicit scapegoating of the Jews. The good news is that acknowledgement and renunciation of nearly 2,000 years of Christian anti-Semitism is finally being addressed.

The bad news is that thanks to the internet and events throughout the Middle East and Asia, and the steady growth of Aryan Supremacy groups in American prisons, anti-Semitism persists to this day. And reading texts such as John 20:19-31 in church every Second Sunday of Easter without placing it in its historical context remains a dangerous tradition. There are those who argue against changing the translation. To do so, however is also a tricky business. The Open English Bible suggests replacing “Jews” with “the religious authorities,” but that pretty much retains the status quo reading of the text. To change it to Judeans might force preachers and teachers to pay more attention to the historical context of the passage and all of the Fourth Gospel.

There is another ironic textual problem. The Risen Jesus depicted as saying to the disciples, “Peace be with you,” is an attempt to render into English the Aramaic/Hebrew word, “Shalom.” The biblical concept of Shalom means more than “peace.” It understands that peace, or shalom, is only possible if there is justice and peace for all people. Shalom demands respect and dignity for every human being. How ironic that the passage that historically has been used to foster anti-Semitism has Jesus commissioning his disciples to usher in an era of God’s Shalom, God’s justice and peace for all persons – envisioning world, as that first New Testament witness Paul would write, in which there is neither Jew nor Gentile, male nor female, free nor slave, but that all persons would be respected, honored and served as if they were God’s Christ himself. [Galatians 3:28] God’s Shalom envisions us as all being One People in the world of God’s Shalom.  

As we read and hear this Gospel of Easter 2 may we be moved by the Spirit of Shalom that is at its heart, and is at the very heart of God’s invitation to love others as God loves us. All others. Amen.