Friday, April 18, 2014

Come and See

It's Holy Week, so I've been busy and it's taken a week to post this.  I sent this out to my church a week ago on April 11.  It's a reflection meant to help us enter Holy Week together--given the subject matter, it is still appropriate to share on Good Friday.

Come and See

This past week I preached from John 11:1-45.  John's gospel is different from the other three we have in the New Testament.  Matthew, Mark and Luke, which are called the Synoptic Gospels--from the Greek "see together" or "look alike"--all follow the same plot structure and often have the same words, but John's gospel looks very different from them.  Only in John do we find the story of Jesus raising his friend Lazarus from the dead--the passage I preached on.  This story is the culmination of the miracles of Jesus in John; miracles which are called signs.  The signs reveal Jesus' identity, and this final sign, the raising of Lazarus, demonstrates God's power over death through him.

As I said in my sermon last Sunday, I know within our church there is a wide range of beliefs when it comes to the divinity of Jesus or lack thereof.  I ask those with doubts about John's picture of the divine Jesus to enter for a while John's narrative.  You don't have to give up your beliefs about Jesus but just take time to understand the point John is trying to make.  In the end, whether you believe Jesus is divine or not, the story still has something to offer.

Unlike in the Synoptic Gospels, John contains no scene in the Garden of Gethsemane.  Although Jesus does enter a garden in chapter 18 where he is arrested, he does not pray in agony over his soon to come torture and death.  In chapter 11, Jesus does weep, however, just before he raises Lazarus from the dead.  In verse 33, Jesus is "greatly disturbed" because of the grief of those gathered to mourn Lazarus, and then in verse 35 are the famous words: "Jesus wept."  Those around him assume Jesus is weeping for his dead friend--so do most commentators, but is Jesus only weeping for Lazarus?  After all, according to John, Jesus knew even before Lazarus died that he would come and raise Lazarus from death.  Why is Jesus crying when he knows everything will be okay?

Bible scholar and master preacher Fred Craddock writes that this is the Gospel of John's Gethsemane story.  Unlike the other gospels, Jesus does not weep on his last night but rather weeps before he does something that will set his death in motion.  Once Jesus raises Lazarus from death, he effectively signs his own death warrant.  The religious powers that be understand that Jesus is a threat they must eliminate.  Only a few verses later they have made the decision to have him killed.

Jesus is weeping, because his own faith will be put to the test.  Once he performs this last miracle there is no turning back for him.  In verse 34, just before Jesus weeps, he asks those gathered where Lazarus has been laid?  They respond, "Lord, come and see."  The words "come and see" in John have special meaning.  One of Jesus' first disciples, Philip, urges his brother Nathaniel, "come and see" the Messiah.  The Samaritan woman urges her fellow townspeople to "come and see" the Messiah.  Now, ironically, it is Jesus who must "come and see" what kind of Messiah he really is.  Soon he will be inhabiting a tomb, just like Lazarus.  Soon he will see what it is to be in need of being raised from the dead.

If Jesus is divine, what might it mean to think that God might know fear of death?  What might it mean to think of God weeping over the power death holds over those whom God loves?   What might it mean that God knows what it is to fear death not only intellectually but also experientialy?  These are the questions about God that John's Gospel asks.  Often John is understood as portraying a divine-looking Jesus who is in control the whole time, but if Jesus is weeping for himself as well as for his dead friend, in this moment at least, Jesus is not in control.

Is it more comforting to you or less to consider a God who knows firsthand what it is to fear death?  I take great comfort in a God who identifies so closely with what we humans must endure.  Whatever you believe about Jesus' divinity or lack thereof, each of us  must at some point "come and see" if what we have faith in will hold up in light of our mortality. 

With our faith and our doubt, let's journey together into Holy Week to hear the old stories one more time.  Together, let us "come and see" what they have to teach us about death and life, despair and hope.  I look forward to seeing you on Palm Sunday.

Grace and Peace,

Recommended Reading 4.13.14 edition

Each week I send out a weekly e-mail of my thoughts to folks in my church.  I include in it what I found worth reading in the past week.  Here's this week's recommended reading (okay, actually it was last week, it took me a long time to post this):

Here's some stuff I found meaningful to read this past week:
  •  I'm really not a fan of David Brooks, but his column this week on suffering was a powerful meditation on the subject.
  • Once again, Leonard Pitts is copying from my sermons.  Although, be sure to read this response to Pitts' article from UCC minister Rev. Jane Fisler Hoffman, member at Southwood UCC in Raytown. 
  • Historian George Marsden literally wrote THE book on American fundamentalism and evangelicalism over 20 years ago.  Now, he has a new book coming out explaining why conservatives and liberals talk past each other.  It looks to be supremely important and powerful.  
  • The Noah movie is still generating some good discussion out there about the meaning of the flood narrative from the Torah.  Did you know that similar flood narratives from Babylonia and Sumeria pre-date the Bible?  What about similar flood narratives in Islam and Hinduism?  Here's a good discussion of them.  
  • Bill Tammeus has powerful words about the sad events this week at Southwest Early College Campus (formerly Southwest High School) which sits directly across Wornall from our church.   
  •  I still love Chick-Fil-A's food, even though I have big problems with the politics and religious views of the family that owns the restaurant chain.  I'm glad to read that the current CEO, Dan Cathy, has at least learned from the uproar generated when he spouted off about his opposition to same gender marriage.  I doubt his personal views have changed, but I respect that he is listening to people in the company whose views differ from his and even to LGBT rights activists.  He is also a smart businessman and recognizes that the tide of history is against him if he wants to be publicly anti-LGBT while he tries to market to the Millennial generation.     
  • Katherine Edin moved her family to the impoverished post-industrial city of Camden, NJ to learn firsthand about poverty in America.  What she found upends much of what ivory tower writers on poverty have traditionally thought.
  • Now that Stephen Colbert will be taking over David Letterman's spot when the latter host retires, that means a devout Roman Catholic will be hosting one of the premiere late night shows on American TV.  Colbert not only teaches his kids' Sunday School but also explains good Catholic social teachings on caring for the poor to Congressmen.   
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Saturday, April 5, 2014

What the Hell Does It Mean to Say "Christ Descended Into Hell?"

I grew up Southern Baptist and knew nothing about the historic creeds of the church.  Southern Baptists once were adamantly "non-creedal" declaring that each believer had the freedom to interpret scripture with guidance from the Holy Spirit and the church community.  (Of course, when fundamentalists took over the Southern Baptist Convention all sorts of doctrinal statements were enforced.)  It wasn't until I took theology and church history classes in college and seminary that I even learned what the Apostle's Creed and Nicene Creed were.  To this day, I have never committed them to memory and couldn't recite them if I tried. 

When I joined the United Church of Christ, I did so in the northeast in the heart of the Congregationalist part of our denomination.  Our Congregationalist forebears may have recognized various creeds and confessions throughout their history, but over time they too were fiercely protective of both an individual's and congregation's freedom of belief.  Sure, I read about the other denominations that merged to become the United Church of Christ--including the two founded by German immigrants: the German Reformed Church and the German Evangelical Synod of North America, but it really didn't register that I had joined a denomination in which some churches took the creeds seriously.

Although I serve now a congregation that had been Congregational before the UCC was formed in 1957 and just across the state line in Kansas there are a bunch of Congregational churches that were founded back when John Brown and his abolitionists came to Kansas, most of the UCC congregations in Missouri were originally part of the German Evangelical Synod of North America.  These "Evangelical" churches founded by German settlers eventually joined the German Reformed Church (centered around Pennsylvania) to form the Evangelical and Reformed Church (often abbreviated E&R).  They took church unity so seriously they kept uniting and joined with the Congregational Christian Churches to form the UCC.  (You can read a good summary of the UCC's history here.) Yet, if you go into most UCC churches in Missouri on a Sunday morning, you will be walking into a former E&R church.  Many of those churches--unlike the Congregational ones--will recite the Apostle's Creed each Sunday.

The idea of reciting the Apostle's Creed in a morning worship service may not seem strange to you if you grew up Catholic, Lutheran, Episcopalian, Presbyterian, or even United Methodist but it still seems completely alien to me.  If I had to do it in a service, I would probably be looking over my shoulder for the Inquisition coming to check and make sure I really believed what I was saying.  If pressed, I would have to admit that no, there's some stuff here I don't believe--at least not in the traditional way it has been understood for centuries.

I was talking recently to a fellow UCC minister--who like me came from another denomination that didn't recite creeds.  He serves a former E&R congregation where they say the Apostle's Creed each week.  Every time they get to the part where it says, "he descended to the dead," he thinks to himself, "What the hell does that mean?"  A more traditional version of the Apostle's Creed says, "He descended into hell," although it should be noted the creed has had numerous forms throughout the centuries.
The United Church of Christ is quick to state, our denomination declares the historic creeds and confessions and even scripture itself are "testimonies of faith" not "tests of faith."  The UCC declares that "God is Still Speaking" and just because the historic church understood God in one way using particular language in a given historical context, that does not necessarily mean we are bound today to that same understanding of God.  With "God is Still Speaking" in mind, I've been thinking about this peculiar phrase regarding Jesus Christ descending into hell or the realm of the dead.  I may not feel comfortable reciting the Apostle's Creed as a part of my own worship, but plenty of other UCC folks do each week.  Perhaps there is something for me in it as well.

First, a very quick overview of how this phrase has been interpreted in church history.  There's not much in the New Testament to help us understand what this phrase means.  1 Peter 3:18-20 says the following: "For Christ also suffered for sins once for all, the righteous for the unrighteous, in order to bring you to God. He was put to death in the flesh, but made alive in the spirit, in which also he went and made a proclamation to the spirits in prison, who in former times did not obey. . ."  That is vague to say the least and not much help.  Later on, in 1 Peter 4:6 it says, "For this is the reason the gospel was proclaimed even to the dead, so that, though they had been judged in the flesh as everyone is judged, they might live in the spirit as God does."  That's still not particularly clear.

In the early centuries of the church, interpreters understood these verses along with other passages of scripture such as Psalm 139 (which says, "If I ascend to heaven, you are there; if I make my bed in Sheol, you are there.") to mean that after Jesus Christ died on the cross he descended into the realm of the dead (Hell or possibly the Old Testament/Hebrew Bible concept of Sheol or the Greek underworld) to give those who had died prior to Christ's coming a chance at redemption.  These interpreters argued whether Christ offered a chance at grace to all the dead or just to the righteous dead, but many began to believe that between Good Friday and Easter Sunday, Christ dwelt in the depths of the earth preaching to the dead.

Some in the early centuries of the church understood Christ to be the triumphant victor who had defeated death and then raided death's domain to free the souls trapped inside.  Reformers like John Calvin balked at a literal descent into Hell and interpreted it figuratively to mean that on the cross Christ took on the full wrath of God, even experiencing condemnation to Hell to save humanity from having to bear such a punishment. 

I like what contemporary theologian Keith L. Johnson writes, "When we confess that Christ 'descended into hell,' we are not merely making a claim about an event that happened in the past; we are making a claim about the One who lives in and through us in the present."  Instead of getting stuck on the particulars of what happened between Good Friday and Easter Sunday--if anything happened at all--what if we interpreted confessional statements like this to mean that the presence of God is capable of being with us whatever trials we face.  Even when we walk in the "valley of the shadow of death," God goes with us.  Not even death is a barrier to prevent God from coming to us. 

When I visit someone who is homebound or in a hospital bed, I often read from Paul's letter to the Romans where he writes in chapter 8: "Who will separate us from the love of Christ? Will hardship, or distress, or persecution, or famine, or nakedness, or peril, or sword? . . . For I am convinced that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor rulers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord."  It is a comforting thought to remember that not even death can keep God away from us.

I guess if I think about it in these terms, saying this bizarre line in the Apostle's Creed doesn't seem so bad after all.

Grace and Peace,

Recommended Reading 4-4-14 edition

Each week I send out a weekly e-mail of my thoughts to folks in my church.  I include in it what I found worth reading in the past week.  Here's this week's recommended reading:

Here's some stuff I found meaningful to read this past week:
  •  Lots of discussion on the interwebs this week about the new movie Noah.  I haven't seen it yet, but I'm interested in all the different critiques of the movie, especially the writer/director's use of sources in addition to the book of Genesis to tell the story such as rabbinic midrash, Kabbalah and Gnosticism.  One African-American theologian noted that the decision to cast only Caucasian actors was an offensive choice, especially since the Biblical account of Noah's curse of his son Ham was used to justify slavery and later segregation.   Otis Moss III, a noted UCC minister who also happens to be African American, didn't like the all-white casting choice but did like the movie overall.   Here's a critique of the movie by an evangelical scholar who thought the movie was based on the Kabbalah and Gnosticism.  And finally, here's a response to the last critique that agrees there is influence from the Kabbalah but rejects the idea that it's Gnostic.    
  • Speaking of Noah, here's an on-line quiz to see how much you know about the Noah story in Genesis.  I scored poorly on it.   Maybe it's time to re-read the early chapters of Genesis.
  • The week before last the Christian humanitarian group World Vision shocked the world of conservative Christians by declaring it would remove its ban on hiring LGBT employees.  After the ensuing outrage, World Vision reversed itself two days later.  The writer and (former?) evangelical Rachel Held Evans eloquently expresses her outrage over the reversal and protests evangelicals' oppression of LGBT people.   
  • If you are looking for a preview of what I will be preaching on Easter Sunday, here's a column by Molly Marshal, president of Kansas City's Central Baptist Theological Seminary on alternatives to understanding Jesus' death in a way that justifies violence.  
  •  More thoughts on what Jesus' death accomplished: The modern Christian understanding of Jesus' death is called "penal substitutionary atonement" which means Jesus took the punishment ("penal") for humanity's sins in humanity's place ("subsistutionary") in order to reconcile humanity with God ("atonement").  Despite how often this is preached in American churches, there are real difficulties with such views, for example why must God be satisfied by violence?  if Jesus is God's Son, doesn't this mean God is committing child abuse?, throughout Christian history this understanding of Jesus' death has promoted an idea of redemptive violence, and so on.  New Testament scholar N.T. Wright has some thoughts about this Christian doctrine that may help alleviate some of these problems.   
  • Do you remember the mega-best-selling apocalyptic fiction books in the Left Behind series by Tim Lahaye and Jerry Jenkins.  Their particular mash up of biblical apocalyptic writings offers a distorted but wildly popular view of the end of the world.  A man named Fred Clark has been reading the series and posting his criticisms of the bad theology therein--here's a bit about how the Christian characters in the series seem unconcerned about the eternal fate of one of their non-Christian friends when he dies.   
  • Okay, I agree that Buzzfeed's so-called articles that are merely lists are part of what's wrong with the internet, but I did like this one which listed 11 great times when people of different religions demonstrated compassion for one another.  
  • As a white father of two brown-skinned boys, I appreciated this article on how to talk with your children about race.  (Not talking about it does not help.) 
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