From Jesus to Christ

“Now among those who went up to worship at the [Passover] festival were some [non-Jews].  They came to Philip [one of Jesus’ disciples]…and said to him, “Sir, we wish to see Jesus.”  The Gospel of John 12:20-21

Christ the Redeemer Statue, Rio De Janerio, Brazil

At the top of Corcovado Mountain overlooking Rio de Janeiro in Brazil, a statue weighing 635 metric tons rests atop its peak. Resting atop this 2,300-foot mountain and rising from its base by another 650 feet, the sculpture of Christ the Redeemer is a symbol and cultural icon drawing people from all over the world.

While a local engineer designed the statue and another sculptor created the work, a different artist was explicitly commissioned to create its face. It was this face – the face of Christ – that made the final sculptor, Gheorghe Leonida, famous.

It is not uncommon to think of Christ as being Jesus’ last name.  However, Christ is not a name but a title, meaning anointed.  So there is the name, Jesus, as in Jesus of Nazareth, who was born to impoverished refugees during the reign of Emperor Augustus somewhere between 6 and 4 BC.  Living for thirty-three years, and executed as a common criminal – some scholars speculate that Jesus was not afforded the dignity of a tomb but instead buried in a shallow grave.

In sharp contrast, there is Jesus’ title, Christ, for whom the early architect of the Christian church, the Apostle Paul, describes as, “[the One] who holds it all together.” In other words, “…everything, absolutely everything, above and below, visible and invisible…everything got started in him and found its purpose in him.” Colossians 1:19 & 15

Am I the only one who has trouble reconciling the two?

According to John’s Gospel, Jesus was welcomed by a crowd of people during the Feast of the Passover in Jerusalem (what we customarily call Palm Sunday). Following this, two men of Greek origin (guys clearly outside the Jewish diaspora) approached a couple of Jesus’ disciples. “Can we see Jesus?” they asked.

Excited that outsiders expressed interest in meeting their leader and rabbi, the two disciples quickly sought Jesus out and breathlessly relayed this message. But Jesus’ reply must have both astonished and confounded them, as it does us millennia later.

Signally that his public and earthly ministry was coming abruptly to an end, Jesus said,
“My time is up. The time has come for the Human One to be glorified (exalted).” John 12:23
Then describing how a single kernel wheat must be buried in the ground if it is to flourish and multiply, Jesus tries to explain once again not only what is about to happen to him, but why.

Franciscan writer and teacher, Richar Rohr, emphasized that while Christian orthodoxy taught that Jesus was both “fully human AND fully divine” at the same time, the best any of us mortals could do was see ourselves as only human…with Jesus as only divine.  Only by doing so, “we missed the whole point, which puts the two together in him AND then dare to discover the same mystery in ourselves and all of creation.” We were never intended to be mere spectators, standing on the sidelines.

At the top of Corcovado Mountain overlooking Rio de Janeiro in Brazil, a statue weighing 635 metric tons rests atop its peak. Resting atop this 2,300-foot mountain and rising from its base by another 650 feet, the sculpture of Christ the Redeemer is a symbol and cultural icon drawing people from all over the world. Yet it is the face – the face of Christ – that pulls scores of people to it.

Writes Frederick Buechner, author of, The Hungering Dark, “[t] here is so much about the whole religious enterprise that seems superannuated and irrelevant and as out of place in our age as an antique statue is out of place in the sky. But just for a moment…there can only be silence as something comes to life…”

What comes to life is this startling recognition.

We know this face.

It is Jesus of Nazareth. It is the Christ. The One who came and comes still.

Fiery Serpents on the Way to the Promised Land

“We’ve made some progress but, we still have a distance to travel,” stated [Representative John] Lewis of Atlanta on the 53 anniversary of the crossing of the Bridge in Selma over voting rights
“From Mount Hor [the Israelite wanderers] set out by the way to the Red Sea, to go around the land of Edom [given the refusal of Edom’s King to give them safe passage]” Numbers 21:4

What if the first generation who followed Moses out of Egypt
were not unlike the brave souls who crossed over Selma’s Bridge fifty-three years ago with sights set for the Promised Land?

Like the recent re-enactment of the crossing of the Bridge in Selma, by the time we get to the twenty-first chapter of the Book of Numbers in the Hebrew Bible – we witness the next generation. These are the grown children of those who fled Eygpt; these are the ones who never knew anything else other than living as tent-dwelling Bedouins in a raw, forsaken, wind-swept desert. Though born in liberty, they were the offspring of those condemned to captivity.

In fact, the only one amongst them who had never known the lash of the overseer’s whip was Moses. Moses – born into privilege. Moses – educated by the best that Pharoah’s household had to offer. Moses – who was adopted by a princess and raised as a ruler’s son.

So when the Book of Numbers talks about the second generation of escaped slaves being bitten by fiery serpents because of they rejected the provisions of our Sovereign Lord (Numbers 21:4-9), I find myself wondering what is not said. Is there more to this account than stated? Could there be more to this story particularly when we consider that fifteen hundred years later Jesus uses this incident to prefigure his death?

When extensively hiking the deserts of California, recognizing poisonous snakes AND treating snakebite – is a necessary skill when traversing its wind-swept and rocky terrain.  Take heed, unlike the ancient account from the Book of Numbers, gazing upon a bronze snake set upon an upright pole won’t be found in backpacking first aid manuals or elsewhere. But nevertheless, both ancient scripture and current medical treatment underscore the venom’s systemic threat, potentially causing paralysis, severe swelling, difficulty breathing, cardiac arrest and death.

Fifteen hundred years later, Jesus used this account and image when speaking to a prominent religious leader who came to him under cover of night.  “If I have told you about earthly things and you don’t believe, how can I tell you about heavenly things?” Jesus said, “…[for] just as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of Man be lifted up, that whoever believes in him may have eternal life.” (John 3:12, 14)

Millennia later, you and I read this account and ponder what Jesus meant by these words. Save this. What if the only thing that can heal the likes of us is nothing short of a systemic remedy, one that treats toxin ravaged souls as well as bodies? What if the crosses we wear and those posted on church steeples and elsewhere are as holy witnesses – testifying that God-in-Christ sustains not by taking us out of the wilderness but by remaining – even in the most godforsaken places and times.*

*Inspiration is credited to Professor Terence E. Fretheim’s  outstanding commentary on this passage

 

Dismantled Temples

“Destroy this temple, and in three days I will raise it up.” John 2:19

The church on the Town Common. The Cathedral in the City Square. The chapel in the country village
The shrine sitting on a distant mountaintop. The house of prayer nestled between the pawn shop and laundromat.

Built by human hands, each structure emerges with a unique story to tell. Some are fairly recent. Others span centuries. These are our houses of worship, sanctuaries, and parish houses; monasteries, retreat centers, and mission outposts; chantries, tabernacles, and basilicas.

Fresh from changing water into wine on the third day in Cana of Galilee, Jesus strides into one of the holiest places in the ancient near-east world and begins turning over tables. Making a whip of cords, he drives out the sheep and the cattle and the people who had been selling them. Doves escape from overturned cages, hard currency flung onto the temple floor, and the exchange of money/goods utterly disrupted.

Angered, temple officials and marketers demand evidence. “What sign can you show us for doing this?”

Nonplused, Jesus replies, “Destroy this temple, and in three days I will raise it up.”

The Nicene Creed declares, “We believe in one God, the Father Almighty…and in one Lord Jesus Christ, [whom] for us and our salvation…was crucified under Pontious Pilate; … suffered and was buried.

The third day he rose again, according to the Scriptures…”

Years ago when memorizing the Nicene Creed – I questioned the effort expended over the recitation of this ancient confession. Laboring line after line to commit the language to memory, it wasn’t until years later that I appreciated its fuller historical context – and why its development in the first place. Faced with the heresies of its day – and those that invariably followed – the early church responded, providing a framework and orthodoxy of the Christian faith. Knowing the tendency of mortals to limit the efficacy of God-in-Christ’s Sovereignty, a confessional context was wholly necessary, then as now.

Once, an enigmatic prophet strode into one of the holiest places in the ancient near-east world, turning over tables and practices that undermined the Sovereignty and Holiness of God. And we, we who fear that our institutions, our houses of worship and our hope in the future – are being reduced to the moral equivalent of rubble, would do well to return to the promises of scripture and this ancient confession, that soars in God’s victorious affirmation:

[and on] “The third day our Lord rose again, according to the promises of Scripture.”

Thanks be to God. Amen.

When All Seems Lost

“When Abram was ninety-nine years old, the LORD appeared to Abram, and said to him, “‘I am God Almighty; walk before me, and be blameless.’” Genesis 17:1

It is dusk.  Overhead, the dark blue canopy of the night sky envelopes him.   From one horizon to another, the sky is awash with stars.   Even in his advanced age, it is so quiet that Abram can hear his own labored breathing.

By this time, Abram, later known as Abraham, was “…as good as dead.”  (Romans 4:19).    Nearing one hundred years old, he and his aged wife, Sarah, were childless.   Still, under the massive canopy of the night sky, God reiterates the promise – that Abraham will be the ancestor of a “multitude of nations.”   Later in this same chapter of Genesis, scripture records Abraham falling on his face and laughing, saying to himself, “Can a child be born to a man who is a hundred years old?   Can Sarah, who is ninety years old, bear a child?”

The author and Franciscan priest, Richard Rohr, writes, “Metaphor is the only possible language available to religion because it alone is honest about Mystery.”   Concerning this account of divine promises still unfulfilled –  invariably the long-awaited child remains the focus.   Yet what if the language of metaphor is also at work in this exchange between Abraham and God?  What then?

It is written that when the Lord appeared to Abraham, God said to him, “I am God Almighty; walk before me and be blameless.”   Take note that this phrase – I am – emphasizes that not only is a divine exchange underway – but that a pivotal dimension of God’s self-is unfolding in real-time.    The I am becomes as much about Abraham’s new identity (and the rest of us) as it is about God.

In Hebrew, God Almighty – El Shaddai – is made up of the root name of God, El, followed by another word designating an aspect of God’s character, Shaddai.   Shaddai is associated with nourishment, strength, power and supplying God’s people with all that they need.

“I am your Sustainer; walk before me and be blameless.”

When all seems lost….when the cacophony of strident voices denounce the cries of those who suffer; when the fragility of our common life is pulled asunder by those who profit from it; when futility engulfs us and we wonder how we will go on.

God says to us, we who would dare go on laboring for justice, defending the vulnerable, advocating for the least of these…

“I am your Sustainer, [Dan and Marilyn, Rhonda and Robert, Steve and Elizabeth, Walter and Katherine…]; walk before me and be blameless.”

And from one horizon to another, the sky is awash with stars…

Reconstitution of the Heart as a Spiritual Discipline – Ash Wednesday and Beyond

“Create in me a clean heart, O God, and put a new and right spirit within me.” Psalm 51:10

Last week and on Ash Wednesday, there was another school shooting – this time in Parkland, Florida.  Among the heartbreaking images, was of an anguished parent.   A cross of ash was etched across her forehead while her right arm clutched another woman overcome with terror and grief.    As if hitting the replay button, a crescendo of news flashes and responses from DC and elsewhere followed:

“Let us hold those affected in our prayer,”
or “Our thoughts are with the students, parents, teachers and first responders,” and this,
”Now is not the time to talk about [the lie that shackles the very institutions charged with protecting its citzenry].”

“Create in me a clean heart, O God, and put a new and right Spirit within me,” wrote the psalmist.

Take note there is no mention of cleansing the heart. Nor is the psalmist’s petition to amend or correct it.
Instead, its author implores the Creator God to act…decisively.

We know that the Holy Writ sees the heart more than a mere organ within the human body.  As the seat and foundation of human personality, the heart is the determiner of one’s ability to differentiate and understand, impacting the choices made even when the welfare of the many is at stake. But this same heart when diseased behaves as scar tissue. It becomes wholly desensitized. Reduced to cauterized tissue: the heart becomes hardened, unable to distinguish truth from fiction, the material from the merely trivial, the indispensable from the consumable.

Going back in Biblical history, the repercussions that come with the hardening of the heart are well documented.  One extreme example is recorded in the Book of Exodus – where chapter one records what had been a pattern of lethal violence directed at children.   Years later, Moses, who had raised in the royal household, is sent back to Eygpt by God to confront Pharoah. However, even on the heels of this directive – Yahweh cautions him – lest Moses hold onto the expectation that reasonableness and good intentions will be sufficient to change the despot’s disposition.

“When you go back to Egypt, see that you perform all the wonders I have put in your power; but I will harden Pharaoh’s heart.” (Exodus 4:21)

Given the devastating implications, why did God harden Pharaoh’s heart? For that matter, why would God harden anyone’s heart? Or could the hardening of Pharaoh’s heart and the vast multitude of pharaohs since then be the inescapable outcome of their cruelty; a callous indifference kept under a guise of respectability?  Was what ailed Pharaoh then a malignancy; that insatiable and diabolical malady that renders senseless any appropriation towards the good, the just and the peaceable?

So what of us, who are summoned to confront the pharaohs of our day? What of us, tasked with unmasking the pretense of religiosity and self-righteousness; who speak for the marginalized, the foreigner, the forgotten, and this fragile, blue planet we call home. We whose hearts are also at risk of being hardened, by the very forces we face.

Perhaps the reconstitution of the heart is a necessary spiritual discipline – not only for those whose hearts are hardened – but those of us who are at risk. What if last week’s alignment of Ash Wednesday AND Valentine’s Day was not coincidental at all?

Unison Prayer – 2 Kings 2:1-15

Unison Prayer

  God of the Whirlwind, you have gathered us to be wholly present in this moment. Acknowledging your providence, we offer our gratitude for this place of worship and community – even while we ponder what lies ahead.  What if as in days of old, we too have been passed the mantle of discipleship?  What if as Christ’s followers we are summoned to be the champions of mercy, the beacons of justice, and the embodiment of love?

  In this season of life, give us the grace to ask for a “double portion of your spirit.” So that by faith we might step into the riverbed of life’s Jordan – aided by your mercy, claiming the charge and blessing given us at baptism. In the surety of your promises, we boldly ask this in Jesus’ name, the One who was and is and is to be. Amen.

Prayer(s) for Illumination – Isaiah 40:21-31 & 1 Corinthians 9:16-23

Dear Friends:

Inspired by the work of Maren Tirabassi, author, poet, workshop leader and pastor, AND in the context of this week’s State of the Union Address, I offer two Prayers for Illumination in anticipation of this Sunday’s lectionary readings.

Prayer for Illumination – Isaiah: 40:21-31

You, the Source of All That Is and Was and Is to Be, just as you spoke through generations past, offering them words of assurance and inspiration…we too have been sustained by your Word.   But now, many of your children find themselves overcome with trepidation. Long-standing divisions have resurfaced; the assaults upon the land and it’s most vulnerable continue on relentlessly. We concede that we know not from day to day, much less week-to-week what the future holds.

So allow us to hear these words afresh…as if perceiving them for the first time.   For you are God.  The One who is as near to us as our own breath.  The One who strengthens us in our weakness.  The One who calls us by name.   Hear now these words of scripture, we pray…

Isaiah 40:21-3 (NRSV)

Have you not known? Have you not heard? Has it not been told you from the beginning? Have you not understood from the foundations of the earth? It is he who sits above the circle of the earth, and its inhabitants are like grasshoppers; who stretches out the heavens like a curtain, and spreads them like a tent to live in; who brings princes to naught, and makes the rulers of the earth as nothing. Scarcely are they planted, scarcely sown, scarcely has their stem taken root in the earth, when he blows upon them, and they wither, and the tempest carries them off like stubble. To whom then will you compare me, or who is my equal? says the Holy One. Lift up your eyes on high and see: Who created these? He who brings out their host and numbers them, calling them all by name; because he is great in strength, mighty in power, not one is missing.

Why do you say, O Jacob, and speak, O Israel, “My way is hidden from the Lord, and my right is disregarded by my God”? Have you not known? Have you not heard? The Lord is the everlasting God, the Creator of the ends of the earth. He does not faint or grow weary; his understanding is unsearchable. He gives power to the faint, and strengthens the powerless. Even youths will faint and be weary, and the young will fall exhausted; but those who wait for the Lord shall renew their strength, they shall mount up with wings like eagles, they shall run and not be weary, they shall walk and not faint.

Prayer for Illumination – First Corinthians 9:16-23

God who speaks to us through the living Word, we are a people caught between competing loyalties…. particularly now.    As Christians, we discover that when we seek to make God’s love known through our actions as well as our speech, then the Gospel becomes real.   But as depicted in this ancient but relevant text, Christians can also do irreparable harm when self-serving actions and/or policies undermine the costliness of the Gospel and thereby the beloved people of God.   O God, as people of faith who are free in Christ – save for the utmost obligation to love – open our hearts and ears to the hearing of this passage.

First Corinthians 9:16-23  (NRSV) 

If I proclaim the gospel, this gives me no ground for boasting, for an obligation is laid on me, and woe betide me if I do not proclaim the gospel! For if I do this of my own will, I have a reward; but if not of my own will, I am entrusted with a commission. What then is my reward? Just this: that in my proclamation I may make the gospel free of charge, so as not to make full use of my rights in the gospel.

 For though I am free with respect to all, I have made myself a slave to all, so that I might win more of them. To the Jews I became as a Jew, in order to win Jews. To those under the law I became as one under the law (though I myself am not under the law) so that I might win those under the law. To those outside the law I became as one outside the law (though I am not free from God’s law but am under Christ’s law) so that I might win those outside the law. To the weak I became weak, so that I might win the weak. I have become all things to all people, so that I might by any means save some. I do it all for the sake of the gospel, so that I may share in its blessings.