Thursday, April 28, 2011

Karl Barth on the Resurrection

"The New Testament is speaking about an event in time and space. It must not be overlooked that in this event we have to do on the one hand with the telos, the culminating point of the previously recorded concrete history of the life and suffering and death of Jesus Christ which attained its end in his resurrection, and on the other with the beginning of the equally concrete history of faith in him . . . Since the presupposition and the consequence of the Easter message of the New Testament are of this nature, it would be senseless to deny that this message, does at least treat of an event in time and space. It would be senseless to suppose that it is really trying to speak of the non-spatial and timeless being of certain general truths, orders, and relationships, clothing what it really wanted to say in the poetical form of narrative. . . We therefore presuppose agreements that a sound exegesis cannot idealise, symbolize or allegorise, but has to reckon with the fact that the New Testament was here speaking of an event that really happened, as it did when it spoke earlier of the life and death of Jesus Christ which proceeded it and later of the formation of the community that followed it."
(Church Dogmatics IV, 1, 336-339. The Verdict of the Father)

Monday, April 25, 2011

Holy Eucatastrophe!

The Easter Sunday sermon (John 20:1-18) I preached yesterday:

The three-point shot at the buzzer that wins the game. The “Hail Mary” pass, caught against all odds for the winning touchdown. The game-winning grand slam homerun in the bottom of the ninth inning. The improbable go ahead goal at the end of the match. The sudden event in a movie or a novel by which tragedy is just barely avoided and all ends well. We find such sudden turns of fortune exciting and deeply satisfying – at least when it’s our team sinking the three-pointer.

J. R. R. Tolkien coined the word eucatastrophe to describe such phenomena in mythology and literature. A catastrophe is a sudden overturn of things for the worse. A eucatastrophe is a sudden turn of events resulting in unexpected well-being. Eucatastrophe, according to Tolkien, provokes "a catch of breath, a beat and lifting of the heart, a piercing glimpse of joy and the heart's desire."

It is just such a eucatastrophe we celebrate in Easter. Indeed, Easter is the eucatastrophe par excellence. In the midst of the seeming tragedy of human history, God intervenes to overturn the usual way of sin, brokenness, and death. Tolkien said that the Incarnation was the eucatastophe of history and the Resurrection is the eucatastrophe of the Incarnation.

This doesn’t mean that catastrophe isn’t real. That is what Good Friday is all about. We all know catastrophe. The torture terror and tragedy of this world are real. Disease and death are real. Estrangement and alienation are real. The hurt and heartache of our own lives are real. Christianity does not deny, ignore, or avoid that reality. Still, the promise of the Resurrection is that all the disappointments, failures and tragedies of our lives – physical, relational, moral, financial – are subsumed in that most hope-filled event. The catastrophe of sin and death is real. But, the eucatastrophe of Jesus’ death and resurrection is more real.

Mary Magdalene knew catastrophe. You don’t even have to go with the later, unbiblical tradition that she was a prostitute to understand that. Being human, she knew catastrophe. But, we are told she had been possessed by seven demons. What ever that reality was like, it was personally catastrophic. And then she encountered Jesus who healed her and liberated her. Through Jesus she had new hope, new joy, new life. And then there was the catastrophe of the crucifixion. Jesus was dead. And she thought she was dead too. As if that wasn’t enough, when she went in the morning to his tomb his body was gone. Catastrophe upon catastrophe, what new indignity was this? Was it not enough that they had tortured and executed him, did they have to mistreat his corpse as well?

But, then, she hears her Shepherd call her by name and she experiences an improbable but glorious eucatastrophe of life and hope and joy restored – "a catch of breath, a beat and lifting of the heart, a piercing glimpse of joy and the heart's desire."

Can you imagine how she must have felt? Back to Tolkien, I think there is a scene in The Return of the King, the last of the Lord of the Rings trilogy that might get at how Mary felt.

It involves Samwise Gamgee wakening to the presence of the great wizard, Gandalf. The last time Sam had seen Gandalf was the catastrophe of the wizard’s falling to his death against the Balrog demon in the mines of Moria.

Near the end of the story, when Sam awakes from a deep sleep of exhaustion after the destruction of the One Ring in Mount Doom, Gandalf stands before him alive, robed in white, his face glistening in the sunlight Gandalf greets Sam (imagine Jesus with Mary):

“Well, Master Samwise, how do you feel?” (in the gospel, Jesus says, “Mary.”)

But Sam lay back, and stared with open mouth, and for a moment, between bewilderment and great joy, he could not answer.

At last he gasped: “Gandalf! (Rabouni/Teacher!) I thought you were dead! But then I thought I was dead myself. Is everything sad going to come untrue? What’s happened to the world?”

“A great shadow has departed,” said Gandalf, and then he laughed, and the sound was like music, or like water in a parched land; and as he listened the thought came to Sam that he had not heard laughter, the pure sound of merriment, for days without count. It fell upon Sam's ears like the echo of all the joys he had ever known. But he himself burst into tears. Then as a sweet rain will pass down a wind of spring and the sun will shine out the clearer, his tears ceased, and his laughter welled up, and laughing he sprang from bed…

“How do I feel?” he cried.” Well, I don’t know how to say it. I feel, I feel” – he waved his arms in the air – “I feel like spring after winter, and sun on the leaves; and like trumpets and harps and all the songs I have ever heard!”

I wonder if Sam ever saw the world the same. I wonder if Mary Magdalene ever saw the world the same. Or did she forever see the world and her life with Easter eyes?

And now she saw eucatastrophe all around her: Every sunrise. Every spring. Every recovery from illness. Every reconciliation of estranged persons. Every act of forgiveness. Every birth. Every rebirth. All were now more then ordinary events. They were signs and anticipations of the day when all that was sad would come untrue. And even the sadness along the way. The disappointments and failures, and griefs. The dying of friends, and her own dying when it came, were now understood in a new light. There was still plenty of catastrophe in the world. Even after hearing Jesus call her name and reveal himself risen from the dead, Mary continued to walk in the valley of the shadow of death. But now that shadow was the shadow of the cross backlit by the brightness of resurrection joy.

This side of the final Eucatastrophe of the kingdom of God and the restoration of all things when everything sad will come untrue. We will suffer many little (and not so little) catastrophes along the way to our final breath. But, “Jesus Christ is raised from the dead trampling down death by death and upon those in the tombs bestowing life.”

Because his tomb is empty, our hope is full. We can see the world and our own lives with Easter eyes. As Tolkien wrote, “This story begins and ends in joy.”

Tuesday, April 19, 2011

No More Sacrifices - the God of Easter and the Death of Death

Sermon for Easter Morning
Acts 10:34-43, Psalm 118:1-2, 14-24 Colossians 3:1-4, John 20:1-18

"If you have been raised with Christ, seek the things that are above, where Christ is, seated at the right hand of God. Set your minds on things that are above, not on things that are on earth, 3 for you have died, and your life is hidden with Christ in God."

You have died. You have been raised. Your life is hidden with Christ. You are thus dead to Death and it's power. You are free.

In the death and resurrection of Jesus, Death itself was mortally wounded. Jesus’ death is the death of Death. The great Puritan theologian, John Owen, wrote a book called The Death of Death in the Death of Christ. In the book, John Owen unfolds what it means for us to believe that in the death of Christ the power of Death has been emptied. Death has been emptied of its power over us. The great Anglican poet, John Donne, wrote in his poem Death Be Not Proud a summary of how Christians now live in the light of death because death no longer has power over us. He wrote,“Death be not proud. Though some have called thee mighty and dreadful, for thou art not so. For those whom thou thinkst thou dost overthrow die not, poor death. Nor yet canst thou kill me.” The poem ends with, “One short sleep past, we awake eternally, and death shall be no more. Death, thou shalt die.”

Because we are united with Christ’s death, we too are dead to the power of Death and we are free. Because we know that our life is hidden in the one whose life is more powerful than Death, we are free. Because we know that Christ has hold of us - and Christ will not let go - we are free. We are free from the power of Sin and Death and the Devil. They have no ultimate claim on us. Christ has proven the one sufficient sacrifice. Therefore, the only sacrifice we need to offer God is our own broken spirit and broken, contrite heart and the living sacrifice of love for one another and for God.

Because that is the only sacrifice and worship we need to offer, we need not sacrifice falsely as humans again and again have been inclined to do. In our attempts to appease the powers of Death and suffering, humans have all too often sought to sacrifice others that we might gain some security from the powers of Death.

The idea has a powerful hold on the human imagination. We see it in mythology in the idea that if you sacrifice a virgin to the dragon, perhaps the dragon – a symbol of Death – will not burn and destroy the village. Or, the legends of tossing a virgin (why is it always a young virgin?) into the volcano to appease the gods of the volcano.

But it’s not just human mythology. The hold that idea has on us has been acted out in history. In the Old Testament, time and again God tells Israel, “Do not sacrifice your children the way your neighbors do". The ancient Carthaginians tossed their children into the sacred fire, hoping that in doing so they might appease the gods and buy some time against the Romans. The ancient Aztecs carved out the hearts of their sacrificial victims to feed the gods and to buy themselves some security, making a contract with Death.

But we need to beware lest we pat ourselves on the back and say, “We don’t sacrifice people. We don’t carve out their hearts on some sacrificial altar or toss people into the fire.” I think, if we are honest with ourselves, we need to acknowledge that all too often we have indeed offered up sacrificial victims for our own security and way of life, hoping to stave off the power of Death.

We sacrifice young people when they are asked to offer life and limb in battle on our behalf.

We sacrifice innocent people who are killed in our wars. Estimates in the current war(s) suggest that some 50 to 100 thousand innocent Iraqis and Afghanistanis have just happened to get in the way of our sense of security. We call it collateral damage, but it is human sacrifice for our security.

We sacrifice criminals, hoping that if we kill the killers we might feel a bit more safe. If that worked, Texas would be the safest state in the Union. Even if it worked, we would have to ask ourselves if that sacrifice is the kind of sacrifice we want to offer - especially given the evidence that many truly innocent people have eneded up on death row.

We sacrifice the unwelcome intruder of the womb in abortion.

Whatever its hoped for promise, embryonic stem cell research is the sacrifice of life in order to stave off Death for some others.

More subtley, perhaps, we sacrifice others in an economic system in whch the rich get richer and the poor get poorer and whole parts of the world suffer so the status quo can be maintained.

There is another way, ironically, in which we sometimes worship death. We prove ourselves to fear Death more than we trust the God of life. We worship Death when we make death the one bad thing, the one thing that must be resisted and put off at all cost. We go to extraordinary lengths to make life keep going after its time. I think the Anglican bishops who gathered in Lambeth in 1998 made a helpful distinction. To help someone die, or to cause someone to die, even to remove suffering, is to collude with the powers of death. But given modern technology to extend life indefinitely through artificial means is not the same thing. It is no less “playing God” to keep someone alive by extraordinary means than to let them die by withholding or withdrawing such means. And the time comes, if we know our life is now hidden with Christ in God, when we can, with peace, say, “Enough is enough. Death is not the worst thing that can happen to us or to our loved ones.”

All such recourse to violence against others or ourselves is a false sacrifice and is a particpation in the way of this world which is death and not the Spirit of Jesus Christ which is life and peace (Romans 8:6). But, if Christ has made the one sufficient sacrifice, then we can take shelter at the foot of his cross and lay down our hammer and nails. And we can learn what this means, "I desire mercy, not sacrifice" (Matthew 9:13)

Christians who know that the death of Christ was indeed the death of Death are freed from the fear of Death and the myriad ways humans have sought to appease its power. Indeed, Athanasius, the early Christian theologian, claimed that Christians laugh at Death because we know it has been defanged. We know that it has been emptied of its power. We worship the one who was crucified yet lives. Even, though, this side of the kingdom of God we all die; we know that Death has no real power over us. We worship the crucified and risen Lord, the one who has defeated Death, the one in whose life our life is hid. We need not fear or worship the power of Death and we ought not sacrifice others to that fear. Because we know that Christ, crucified and risen, has defeated the power of Death, we need not sacrifice the life of others to protect our own life. The death of Christ was the death of Death. Our lives are now hidden with Christ in God. And we are free.

Alleluia! Christ is risen!
The Lord is risen indeed. Alleluia!

Saturday, April 16, 2011

Loving vs. Infatuation with God

Sunday of the Passion: Palm Sunday

I had a friend in college I'll call “Bob”. Bob was drop dead cute. He had big brown puppy eyes and girls just swooned around him. I hated that! And Bob was never without a girlfriend. Bob’s problem was he could never keep a girlfriend for more than a couple of months. Bob would fall "in love" with a girl and he would be absolutely sure that this was the woman for him. Everything about her was perfect. She was pretty. She was bright. She had all the qualities that he was looking for – for a couple months. After a couple of months, about the time something was expected of him, things started to change. Bob started to realize that what he was dealing with was actually another person. She was not just a projection of all his fantasies but actually had her own perspective and her own opinions. She actually had her own way of doing things. She actually had her own expectations. At that point, Bob would break up with her, disillusioned. And then fall in love soon with another girl and start the whole sequence over again. He was continually fascinated with the idea of love, but disillusioned with the reality. Or, better put, he was good at infatuation, not so good at actual love.

I wonder if that isn’t how most of us engage God much of the time. We are in love with the idea of God. We are infatuated with God. We want to welcome God with shouts of “Hosanna. Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord.” But mostly we are really just projecting our own expectations and wishes onto the idea of God. When God turns out to be something other than our preconceived notion of what God is or should be, we must either change or do something to avoid changing. And our Hosannas turn to, “Crucify him!”

[And let’s be clear here: In the passion narratives, when the gospels refer to "the Jews" the Jews are the representatives of all humans and the evil that lies close at hand when we want to do good. (Romans 7).]

It’s not just that Jesus, as the Messiah and the enfleshed presence of God, did not conform to the expectations of his fellow Jews. It’s that Jesus – and the God that Jesus reveals – messes with the usual categories of all of us for what God should be. And Jesus calls into question many things that each of us wants to otherwise assume about what is right and good and true about life.

It’s not just that the Jews expected a Warrior Messiah and got a non-violent, self-sacrificing Messiah instead. It’s that all of us prefer the Lion of Judah to the Lamb of God. All of us want to enlist God in our battles – literally when we go to war, but also our political and other battles.

What we want, I am thinking – what we are infatuated with – is a God we can use for our own comfort and to our own ends. We want a God we can use to prop up our own preconceived notions about what life is all about. We want a God we can use against those who threaten those notions. Indeed, we often want a God we can enlist to beat up our enemies – rhetorically at least, but often enough literally.

But that is precisely where the God we know in Jesus frustrates our infatuation. A God who empties himself is hard to exploit. Certainly hard to use as a stick with which to whack one’s opponents.

Such a God will frustrate all easy certainties about what God is like and what God wants. To believe in such a “humble” God demands humility and circumspection.

To move from infatuation to love requires a willingness to get to know the one we claim to love. It means to be prepared to let go of even our most cherished fantasies of what God is or should be. If the God we claim to love is the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, Philippians 2 is a good place to start. Becoming deeply familiar with Jesus in each of the four Gospels and the creeds will also be necessary lest we “make up” our own Jesus instead. And it will require that we not gloss over or ignore those things Jesus says and does that challenge our prejudices and assumptions about God and life. And, even then, when we think we know, we will be humble, patient, and circumspect about it. Our shouts of Hosanna must always be tempered by the self-awareness of our own tendency, when the God we know in Jesus does not suit our agenda, to cry, “Crucify him!”

Friday, April 8, 2011

Bono & John Newton on Spiritual Progress

A little something as Lent roles on:

"I have heard of people having life-changing, miraculous turn-arounds, people set free from addiction after a single prayer, relationships saved when both parties ‘let go, and let God’. But it was not like that for me. For all that 'I was lost, I am found’, it is probably more accurate to say, 'I was really lost, I’m a little less so at the moment'. And then a little less and a little less again. That to me is the spiritual life. The slow reworking and rebooting of a computer at regular intervals, reading the small print of the service manual. It has slowly rebuilt me in a better image. It has taken years though, and it is not over yet."
- Bono of the rock band, U2
U2 BY U2, p. 6

And here are a couple of pertinent quotes from John Newton, the author of Amazing Grace:

"I am not what I ought to be, I am not what I want to be, I am not what I hope to be in another world; but still I am not what I once used to be, and by the grace of God I am what I am"

"Although my memory's fading, I remember two things very clearly: I am a great sinner and Christ is a mighty Savior."

Monday, April 4, 2011

We fall down and we get up

Today we begin the second half of Lent. As I rededicate myself to Lenten discipline, and by extension, the discipline of Christian living, I am reminded of how herky-jerky the spiritual path can be. It often seems like a two steps forward/one step back affair. We commit, we fail, and we recommit. We find ourselves returning again and again to some of the same sin. We can become discouraged by our own spiritual intransigence. We are tempted to give up or give in.

It is good to remember that this is - and has always been - standard fair for those seeking to live into holiness. It is also good to remember that our call to live lives of disciplined faithfulness comes within the context of the amazing grace we know in Jesus Christ. That discipline in the context of grace is demonstrated in this story from the early church:

Dorotheos of Gaza was a monk in the sixth century who, among other things, oversaw the infirmary at his monastery. Dorotheos had an assistant whose name was Dosithy. Dosithy was an earnest monk who desired to please Dorotheos and God. But Dossithy sometimes became impatient with his patients and would get angry and abuse them verbally. One time in particular he had done that and after he had gotten over his anger and was convicted of his sin, he began to weep and despair. Some of the other monks went to Dorotheos and told Dorotheos. Dorotheos called Dosithy to him and he asked him what was wrong. Dosithy said, “Father, I have sinned. I have abused my brother.” Dorotheos said, “So, Dosithy, you took it upon yourself to judge your brother? You got angry at your brother and abused him? Did you forget that he is Christ? And, when you cause him to suffer you cause Christ to suffer?” Dosithy, continuing to cry, said, “Yes.” Dorotheos said, “There, there Dosithy. You are forgiven. Get up. Let us begin again from now and let us be more attentive and God will help us.” Dosithy wiped his eyes and went back.

Some time later, Dosithy in tears comes again to Dorotheos and, again, Dorotheos says, “Up now, Dosithy. Get up. Start again. You are forgiven.” And again and again Dosithy fell and Dorotheos said, “Get up. You are forgiven.”
Dorotheos of Gaza: Discourses and Sayings

When asked what about life in the monastery, a monk answered, “We fall down and we get up, we fall down and we get up.”

Bernard of Clairvaux said once, “The difference between the damned and the saved is that everyone, except the damned, gets up and stumbles on.”

Up now! Let us begin from now and let us be more attentive and God will help us.

Friday, April 1, 2011

F. D. Maurice

Today is the Feast Day of Federick Denison Maurice (1805-1872) who was one of the great Anglican theologians of the 19th century. Maurice (pronounced like Morris) critiqued the usual church factions of his day and was seen as suspect by each of them as a result. He was an early proponent of "Christian Socialism" which also made him suspect to both "unsocial Christians" and "unChristian socialists." In our own era of church factionalism, I find refreshing Maurice's ability cut across party lines to engage appreciatively and critically with just about everyone.

Whatever one thinks of the possibility of Christian Socialism, Maurice remains among the great "worthies" of the Anglican tradition. Along with the two volumes of his magnus opus, The Kingdom of Christ one of my prize possessions is a volume of his sermons on The Prayer Book and The Lord's Prayer published in 1893. The following quotes are from those books and from here and here:

"I do not see my way further than this: competition is put forth as the law of the universe. That is a lie."

"Every hope I had for human culture, for the reconciliation of opposing schools, for blessings to mankind, was based on theology. What sympathy then could I have with the Liberal Party, which was emphatically anti-theological, which was ready to tolerate all opinion in theology only because people could know nothing about it?"

"My great wish is to show you, that the Anglican Church was led, not by reason of any peculiar excellence or glory in the members or teachers of it, but by a course of providential discipline, to put worship and sacraments before views, to make those acts which directly connect man with God the prominent part of their system, that which was meant to embody the very form and meaning of Christianity, and those verbal distinctions which are necessary to keep the understanding of men from error and confusion, as its accessory and subordinate part."

From The Kingdom of Christ:
Our Lord's Sacrifice is not merely a pattern or example of our sacrifices, nor merely the power by which these sacrifices are effected. It must have an entirely distinct character; otherwise it is of no worth as an example or as a power. The Sacrifice of Christ is that, with which alone God can be satisfied, and in the sight of which alone He can contemplate our race. It is, therefore, the only meeting-point of communion with Him. But, this communion being established, it must be by presenting the finished sacrifice before God, that we both bear witness what our position is, and realize the glory of it.--Kingdom of Christ, vol. ii. pp. 91, 93.

We must feel every evil which we call upon others to repent of has its origin and root in us, and that we must repent of it first. Kingdom of Christ, vol. ii. p. 331

From a Sermon on the Creed:
Let us understand this well, brethren, for it is very important in reference to notions that are current in the present day. If there is to be a religion of trust, and not of slavish cowardly fear, that religion must have a Revelation, the revelation of a Name for its basis. A religion which creates its own object cannot be one of trust. I cannot rest upon that which I feel and know that I have made for myself. I cannot trust in that which I look upon as a form of my own mind or a projection from it. . . Neither can I trust in any shadowy, impalpable essence, or in any Soul of the world. If this be the God I worship, my worship will be one of doubt and distrust, whenever it is at all sincere. If I do not seek all strange, monstrous means of propitiating the unknown Being, it is only because I am altogether uncertain whether he is real enough for such services. . . All superstition, all priestcraft, in its worst and most evil sense -- we cannot repeat this proposition too often, or put it in too may shapes -- has its root in vague, indefinite religious apprehensions; not resting upon the knowledge and confession of a Being who is not our image, but who has declared Himself to us that we might receive His image . . .

But the question -- How is He a Father, how do I know He is? cannot be evaded. The Church had no wish to evade it. She acknowledged that something more was implied in the Revelation of a Father than His Name; that there must be some one to reveal Him. She proclaimed the Name of His only-begotten Son, our Lord. She says that He revealed Himself as he Son of God by being conceived of the Holy Ghost our Lord, by being born of the Virgin Mary, by suffering our death, our burial, by going down into the Hell we tremble to think of; by facing all our enemies visible and invisible, all that we actually know we must meet, all that our imagination dreams of; that He rose again from the dead, and ascended into heaven, and sat down on the right of the Father, and will come again to judge the quick and the dead.

If God be absolute, eternal love, as St, Augustine makes the Catechist affirm, how has he shewn it? Has it come forth, or is it all hidden in his own nature? Has it come forth to some other creature, or to man? Has it met him where he needs to be met or somewhere else? Has it encountered the actual woes of mankind, or only those which affect a particular set of men? Has it been found mightier than these, or has it sunk under them? Has this love been cheerfully entertained, or did it encounter ingratitude? Was the ingratitude too strong for the love, or the love for the ingratitude? Is the victory for all times, or only for that time? Is He who you say is our Lord really our Lord? Does He reign over us? Will he leave all things just as they are, or set them right at last? These questions have a claim to be answered; that is no Gospel to humanity which does not answer them; the Christian Church said, 'This is the answer' . . . And again, supposing the words be true, all we have to do is to proclaim them and live upon them. He who has sent us into the world for that end can prove them. Those that know His Name will trust in Him, and so they find that He has not deceived them . . .