May
2024

A (Holy) Ghost Story

May be an image of text

Want to hear a good ghost story?  You can’t beat Ezekiel 37:1-14, the Hebrew Bible reading for Pentecost Sunday.  If you have never heard this one before, you are likely to wonder, “What is this doing in the Bible?”  It is a scene out of a horror movie, or a Stephen King novel.

First, the prophet is taken in a vision by the hand of the Lord to a valley: an abandoned battlefield, filled with dry, dusty, disjointed bones.

New 5x7 Civil War Photo: Bones on Battlefield of Cold Harbor, Chickahominy River - Picture 1 of 1God asks Ezekiel, “Human one, can these bones live again?” (37:3).  The obvious answer is no—there is no life, and no possibility of life, in this place!  The bodies strewn across the valley are not only dead, they are long dead (37:2).  But since his call, Ezekiel has seen (see 1—3) and done (see 4—5; 12:1-20; 24:15-27; as well as 37:15-28) some very odd things in the Lord’s service.  So he answers, simply “Lord God, only you know” (37:3).

Now, God commands the prophet, “Prophesy over these bones, and say to them, Dry bones, hear the Lord’s word!” (37:4).  As Ezekiel delivers God’s promise of life to the dead bones, he hears “a noise, a rattling, and the bones came together, bone to its bone” (37:7, NRSV).  He watches as, in accordance with the word he had proclaimed (37:5), the bones are joined by tendons and covered over with flesh.  Now, instead of a valley full of dry bones, the prophet is standing in a valley filled with corpses.

Fallen soldiers are pictured at Gettysburg, Pennysylvania, following the historic battle fought during the Civil War in July 1863. In the Battle of Gettysburg, Union forces turned away a Confederate advance in the pivotal battle of the Civil War fought July 1-3, 1863, which was also the wars bloodiest conflict with more than 51,000 casualtiesAgain God speaks: “Prophesy to the breath; prophesy, human one! Say to the breath, The Lord God proclaims: Come from the four winds, breath! Breathe into these dead bodies and let them live” (37:9).

Hebrew writers love puns.  A pun on the different meanings of the Hebrew word ruakh (“breath” in the 37:8-9) runs through this story.  First, this word can mean “breath:” so, to say that there was no ruakh in the bodies (37:8) simply means that they were not breathing.  Related to this meaning is the use of ruakh for “wind” (37:9).  In keeping with the invisible force of the wind and the life-giving power of the breath is a third meaning. Ruakh can be rendered as “spirit”—that is, the empowering, enlivening agency of people, and of God (more on that one shortly).   So, as Ezekiel prophesied to the wind (ruakh), breath (ruakh) entered the bodies, and “they came to life and stood on their feet, an extraordinarily large company” (37:10)–not, please note, this

but this:

With a final flourish, United Methodist conference eliminates all anti-LGBTQ policiesWhat does this vision mean?  In 37:11-14, God explains.  The dry bones are Ezekiel’s community, the house of Israel: exiled, and in despair.  They say, “Our bones are dried up, and our hope has perished. We are completely finished.” (37:11)–and they are right!  Jerusalem is destroyed, the king is in chains, the temple is gone, and the people are scattered, in hiding or in exile.

But, deliverance is promised–a resurrection for dead Israel.  The Lord declares, “I will put my breath [there’s that third meaning of ruakh–God’s spirit, God’s very life]  in you, and you will live. I will plant you on your fertile land, and you will know that I am the Lord. I’ve spoken, and I will do it. This is what the Lord says” (37:14).  Hope for the future, Ezekiel was convinced, would come from God and God alone, through the gift of God’s life-giving Spirit.

Title: Descent of the Holy Spirit [Click for larger image view]

Another ghost story will also be told in churches around the world this Sunday.  Jesus had promised his followers, “Look, I’m sending to you what my Father promised, but you are to stay in the city until you have been furnished with heavenly power” (Lk 24:49).  So they had remained in Jerusalem; as our story begins, they have been there, waiting and praying, ever since Jesus’ resurrection.  It is now Pentecost, the Jewish festival held 50 days after Passover.

Suddenly, the room where they are praying is filled with wind and flame, and each person gathered in that room is filled with an overpowering urge to speak!  They pour out into the street, praising God, and discover to their astonishment and delight that everyone in that crowd, Pentecost pilgrims who had come to Jerusalem from across the Roman world, understands perfectly what they are saying: “we hear them declaring the mighty works of God in our own languages!” (Acts 2:11).

Ezekiel’s ghost story reminds us of our beginning–of how God created we humans from the ground, breathing life into us .

Luke’s ghost story, in Acts 2, also takes us back to Genesis–this time, to the tower of Babel.

Too often, preachers and teachers of Scripture (including me!) have described what happened on Pentecost as undoing the curse of Babel, as though cultural, racial, and linguistic diversity were problems to overcome.  But that is not at all what Luke says!  This passage does not say that, filled with the Spirit, the people all started speaking the same language—that all cultural and ethnic distinctiveness was denied or undone. The Spirit does not return them to “one language and the same words” (Genesis 11:1). Instead, each group hears God’s praise in its own language.

In Ezekiel’s vision, God’s Spirit undoes the exile, bringing those who had thought themselves as good as dead back home.  On Pentecost, God’s Spirit undoes fear, mistrust, and division, enabling the church born on that day to experience unity in diversity.

Perhaps, like Ezekiel’s community, we have experienced abandonment and despair.  Certainly, the real curse of Babel– our fear and mistrust of difference–has stricken deeply into our community, even into our families, bringing division and confusion.  The solution, for us as for them, is God’s Spirit: the Holy Ghost!

That may be hard for us to hear.  Ghosts are scary, after all.  Why should we exchange the visible and tangible, the solid and certain, for the invisible, mysterious, unpredictable world of God’s spirit?  Quite simply, because we must.  We need God’s spirit because we do not have the answers we seek, and we cannot find them.  We need the gift of God’s spirit to empower and enliven us, to renew and reunite us.

My teacher W. Sibley Towner (may light perpetual shine upon him!) put it this way: “We need all the energy and effort we can muster to concentrate on the whisperings of the only ghost that matters, whose name is Holy.  This spirit who proceeds from God doesn’t rock in chairs or frighten dogs, but plants winsome words in the human heart that yield great fruit if the heart is supple and ready.”

So may it be for you and yours this day.  God bless you–and Happy Pentecost!

AFTERWORD:

The image at the head of this blog, “Ezekiel in the Valley of the Dry Bones,” is an anonymous and undated wood carving from St. Nicholas Church, Deptford Green, United Kingdom.  I found this image at Art in the Christian Tradition, a project of the Vanderbilt Divinity Library, Nashville, TN. https://diglib.library.vanderbilt.edu/act-imagelink.pl?RC=55163 [retrieved May 13, 2024]. Original source: http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:St._Nicholas%27_Church,_Deptford_Green,_SE8_-_carved_panel_representing_Ezekiel_in_the_Valley_of_the_Dry_Bones_-_geograph.org.uk_-_1501992.jpg.

The photographs above of unburied bones and corpses come from the battlefields of the American Civil War: the first from Cold Harbor, in Virginia, the second from Gettysburg, in Pennsylvania.

Apr
2024

Listening For the Word Among the Words

How to Get Unstuck from Indecision

I hate to make decisions! Ask anyone in my family, and they’ll tell you about daily scenes like this:

“Hey Dad!  What do you want for dinner?”

“Ummmm. . .”

“Steve, what would you like to do tonight?”

“I don’t know, honey.  What would you like to do?”

In our house, I am famous for presenting endless lists of options: “Okay, we could do A, B, or C, although if we do C, we’d need to decide between x and y. . .”

You get the picture.  Wendy is a saint.

Usually, my indecisiveness, while irritating, doesn’t matter that much: world peace doesn’t depend on whether we get takeout from Chipotle or Five Guys.  However, some decisions do matter.  Sometimes, a choice must be made, and a stand must be taken.  How do we do that?

In our New Testament, 1 John is all about Christian decision-making: discerning the truth among competing claims; listening for the Word within the words.  From its very first chapter, 1 John engages us with matters of discernment, beginning with how we can know whether or not we are true followers of Christ. Significantly, it is not through our confident conviction in our own righteousness:

If we claim, “We don’t have any sin,” we deceive ourselves and the truth is not in us.  But if we confess our sins, he is faithful and just to forgive us our sins and cleanse us from everything we’ve done wrong (1 Jn 1:8-9).

When I was a young believer, persuaded that I had failed at following Jesus and that there was therefore no hope for me, those verses were my lifeline!

Image result for LOVE statue

Another question for discernment is the nature of the church: What is the true mark of the Christian community? For 1 John, the answer is a single word: LOVE!

“This is the message that you heard from the beginning: love each other” (1 Jn 3:11)

“Little children, let’s not love with words or speech but with action and truth” (1 Jn 3:18).

My favorite Bible passage is 1 John 4:7-8, a text which I believe to be the Golden Text of Scripture.  If you are looking for a succinct statement of what the Bible is all about, it is hard to beat this:

Dear friends, let’s love each other, because love is from God, and everyone who loves is born from God and knows God.  The person who doesn’t love does not know God, because God is love.

1 John 5:1-5 sums up the connection between love for one another and love for God:

Everyone who believes that Jesus is the Christ has been born from God. Whoever loves someone who is a parent loves the child born to the parent.  This is how we know that we love the children of God: when we love God and keep God’s commandments.  This is the love of God: we keep God’s commandments. God’s commandments are not difficult,  because everyone who is born from God defeats the world. And this is the victory that has defeated the world: our faith.  Who defeats the world? Isn’t it the one who believes that Jesus is God’s Son?

Just as the proof of love for God is love for one another, so also love for God and obedience to God’s commandments means love for one another: the two are tightly and inseparably intertwined.

hagia sophia

How are we to evaluate Christian preaching and testimony? Once more, 1 John answers with a single word: JESUS!  Does this testimony, this sermon, this soundbite proclaim Jesus?

This is how you know if a spirit comes from God: every spirit that confesses that Jesus Christ has come as a human is from God,  and every spirit that doesn’t confess Jesus is not from God (1 Jn 4:2-3).

Here, it  seems, 1 John is drawing on the testimony of the Gospel of John, specifically on its Prologue:

In the beginning was the Word
    and the Word was with God
    and the Word was God. . . .

The Word became flesh
    and made his home among us.
We have seen his glory,
    glory like that of a father’s only son,
        full of grace and truth (John 1:1, 14).

In similarly mystical, poetic language, 1 John 5:6-9 relates God’s testimony regarding the Son:

This is the one who came by water and blood: Jesus Christ. Not by water only but by water and blood. And the Spirit is the one who testifies, because the Spirit is the truth.  The three are testifying— the Spirit, the water, and the blood—and the three are united in agreement.  If we receive human testimony, God’s testimony is greater, because this is what God testified: he has testified about his Son.

In Deuteronomy, a court case requires two or three witnesses (Deut 17:6, 19:15).  Just so, 1 John says, there are three witnesses that confirm Jesus as God’s son: the Spirit, the water, and the blood.  Once again, it seems likely that the author of 1 John is drawing here on the Fourth Gospel.  In John 3:5-6, Jesus tells Nicodemus

I assure you, unless someone is born of water and the Spirit, it’s not possible to enter God’s kingdom.  Whatever is born of the flesh is flesh, and whatever is born of the Spirit is spirit.

So being “born of water” seems to refer to the waters of the womb, and to natural, physical birth.   The reference to the blood seems to be a reference back to 1 John 1:7:

But if we live in the light in the same way as he is in the light, we have fellowship with each other, and the blood of Jesus, his Son, cleanses us from every sin.

So, while the water witnesses to Jesus’ birth, the blood witnesses to his death on the cross.  The true testimony about Jesus, as we saw in 1 Jn 4:2-3, is a testimony to his humanity. The witness of the Spirit assumes Jesus’ divinity as Son of God, but apart from the incarnation, that truth is neither accessible nor relevant to us.

Complex vs Complicated Problems: What's the Difference?

This is all very complicated and messy.  God calls us, in each circumstance, to do the loving thing–but what does that mean?  God’s testimony about Jesus is likewise messy, tied up inextricably with his, and our, humanity.  Isn’t there a shortcut to discernment–something that just tells us straightforwardly what to do and say and believe?

Some would claim that there is: the Bible as the Word of God is our infallible guide and rulebook. Speaker of the House Mike Johnson told Fox News’ Sean Hannity:

I am a Bible-believing Christian. Someone asked me today in the media, they said, ‘People are curious, what does Mike Johnson think about any issue under the sun?’ I said, “Well, go pick up a Bible off your shelf and read it.”  That’s my worldview.

I am sure, friends, that Mr. Johnson was sincere.  But as it happens, the Scripture text we have been unpacking provides a ready critique of that claim.  In the King James Bible of 1611, 1 John 5:6-8 reads as follows:

This is he that came by water and blood, even Jesus Christ; not by water only, but by water and blood. And it is the Spirit that beareth witness, because the Spirit is truth.  For there are three that bear record in heaven, the Father, the Word, and the Holy Ghost: and these three are one.  And there are three that bear witness in earth, the Spirit, and the water, and the blood: and these three agree in one.

The explicit reference to the Trinity in the KJV (boldfaced in the paragraph above) does not appear in the NRSVue, the CEB, the NIV, or indeed in any modern English translation of 1 John.  That is not because of some conspiracy among Bible translators who do not believe in the Trinity!  Rather, that verse is not found in the oldest and best texts of this book; in fact, it does not appear in any Greek text of 1 John before the 14th century!

Holbein-erasmus.jpg

So, why does the KJV include it? King James’ 1611 translators were strongly influenced by Erasmus’ 1516 Textus receptus (“the received [and therefore presumably authoritative] text” of the Greek NT), and by the Latin Vulgate, where this verse does appear–but only in late (fourth century) Latin texts.  Simply put, this neat Trinitarian confession does not belong to 1 John, but rather reflects later Christian reflection on that text.  Modern translators are right to exclude it.

So, why am I telling you this?  It certainly is not to persuade you that the Bible is unreliable, or that it isn’t the Word of God!  Certainly, there was no deception involved on the part of the King James translators, or of Erasmus.  Most likely, a Christian scribe copying the Latin text of 1 John, prompted by the mention of three witnesses in 1 Jn 5:6-9, added a note in the margin referencing the Trinity, and a later scribe included that note in the text itself–prompting still later scribes to add this to their Greek texts too, as Erasmus did.

Still, the point is that we do not have a single, pristine, “original” text of any biblical book, New Testament or Old–so responsible Bible scholars encounter this sort of problem all the time.  Bible translators do not begin with how best and most faithfully to render the biblical languages into clear and understandable English. The prior question is which ancient version of a text to translate!  Addressing that question requires expert knowledge–and even experts may disagree.

In short, friends, the Bible is no short cut, setting us free from our task of interpretation and discernment.  The Bible, too, is messy and complicated. So being honest about how we read Scripture requires us to think hard and to pray hard on what exactly we do mean when we say that the Bible is word of God for people of God.

What if, instead of a rule book compelling our obedience, or a list of propositions requiring our assent, the Bible is an invitation into relationship with God, calling for our commitment?  What if the Bible is a love letter from God–an invitation to open conversations, rather than an authoritative stopper that closes them?  Then we will need to be guided in our reading as in our living by the principle of God’s love and by the example of Jesus, as we carefully and prayerfully listen for the Word among the words.

 

Apr
2024

“. . . the Father of lights, with whom is no variableness, neither shadow of turning.”

Most of the time, we can comfortably live as though we are at the center of the universe.  This month’s eclipse was a vivid reminder that we are not:  that the universe is far larger, stranger, and more wonderful than our day-to-day experience may lead us to believe.

A solar eclipse happens whenever the moon passes between the earth and the sun, so that the moon’s shadow falls on the earth. Eclipses are not unusual–one happens somewhere on the earth’s surface every 18 months. But before August 21, 2017, the last one visible in North America was in June 8, 1918.  Wendy and I were in Bowling Green, Kentucky in 2017 for that eclipse.  We learned then that the next eclipse visible here in the continental U.S. would be April 8, 2024, and immediately made plans to go.  So, two weeks ago, Wendy, Anthony, and I were at a motel in Sandusky, Ohio in the center of the zone of totality–and it did not disappoint!

We watched through our viewers as the moon advanced across the sun’s disk, from a wee bite off the lower right edge until the moon’s disk entirely covered the sun.  The sunlight faded until the world became twilit.  All  around us, the horizon looked like a sunrise.

 

The photo at the head of this blog is not ours: it comes from the New York Times, and was taken by professional photographer @meghandhaliwal.  Our own photos do not capture such detail, and are not nearly equal to our memories:

During the four and a half minutes of totality, when we could look up with unprotected eyes, the sun was a dark black circle–like a hole in the sky.  The corona was as bright as I remembered, a ring of brilliant white fire.  We could see a single bright star in the sky: the planet Venus.  At the bottom of the sun’s dark disk was a bright pinkish spot that we later learned was a prominence: a solar flare!

Eclipses are minor miracles.  The earth is just far enough away from our sun, and our moon is just large enough and just far enough away from us, that the moon and the sun have about the same apparent size in the sky.  This means that, from our perspective, the moon can entirely block the sun’s disk: a total eclipse.

Ancient people of course also experienced eclipses, and so it should be no surprise that these awesome events are described in Scripture.  The King James Version of Revelation 6:12 reads,

And I beheld when he had opened the sixth seal, and, lo, there was a great earthquake; and the sun became black as sackcloth of hair, and the moon became as blood. . .

The “moon became as blood”  describes another, more commonly observed event, when the moon passes into the shadow of the earth: a lunar eclipse.

Although ancient people did not know what caused lunar and solar eclipses, they certainly knew that these events never happened in conjunction.  So the sun becoming “black as sackcloth” and the moon becoming “as blood” could only mean an undoing of the fundamental laws of creation.  John in Revelation draws on a stock of images of the coming day of the LORD, particularly Joel 2:30-31 (3:3-4 in Hebrew):

I will give signs in the heavens and on the earth—blood and fire and columns of smoke. The sun will be turned to darkness, and the moon to blood before the great and dreadful day of the LORD comes.

This image is also found in the Gospel pronouncements concerning the end:

In those days, after the suffering of that time, the sun will become dark, and the moon won’t give its light. The stars will fall from the sky, and the planets and other heavenly bodies will be shaken (Mark 13:24-25; see also Matt 24:29; Luke 21:25).

Another, surprising reference to the eclipse–and the title of this blog post!–comes from James 1:17:

Every good gift, every perfect gift, comes from above. These gifts come down from the Father, the creator of the heavenly lights, in whose character there is no change at all.

While the Common English Bible catches the sense of this passage, it obscures some subtleties in the language.  First, the CEB unpacks the Greek phrase patros ton photon as “the Father, creator of the heavenly lights.”  A more literal rendering of  patros ton photon would be “the Father of lights” (see the NRSV and KJV of this verse).  The reference is likely to Genesis 1:14-19, where God populates the sky dome with lights–both the greater lights of the sun and moon, and the lesser lights of the stars.

This astronomical image of God continues in the following phrase: par’ ho ouk eni parallage he tropes aposkiasma.  Here, the CEB again paraphrases to capture the point of this image: God does not change, but is the constant and dependable source of “every good gift.”

But the KJV renders the Greek more literally, in a way that captures the astronomical reference: “with whom is no variableness, neither shadow of turning.”  The stars change as the heavens turn above us.  Indeed, the ancients knew well not only that the stars varied in brightness and color (see 1 Cor 15:31), but that some individual stars varied in brightness over time.  They knew that sometimes new stars, as well as meteors and comets, could appear; and that the planets (from the Greek word for “wanderer”) followed from our perspective quite unique and distinct courses through the cosmos.

Photographic composite showing the retrograde motion of Mars' orbit.

Unlike the heavenly lights, then, God their Father is constant!  But the expression he tropes aposkiasma (literally, “nor of turning a shadow”) is particularly intriguing.  I believe that it describes the eclipse.

The moon may wax, or wane, or turn blood-red, and the sun itself may dim, and even disappear–but God’s love and goodness cannot be eclipsed!  As the apostle Paul wrote,

I’m convinced that nothing can separate us from God’s love in Christ Jesus our Lord: not death or life, not angels or rulers, not present things or future things, not powers or height or depth, or any other thing that is created (Rom 8:38-39).

AFTERWORD:

If you missed the joy and wonder of seeing the 2024 eclipse, your next chance in North America will be August 23, 2044, when an eclipse will be briefly visible from Montana, North Dakota and South Dakota–and I will be 88.  However, the very next year (August 12, 2045), the path of totality will cut across the southern U.S., so maybe this old Bible Guy will see another eclipse after all!

 

Mar
2024

The Womb and the Tomb

FOREWORD: Today I am reposting my very first Easter blog, posted on Holy Saturday, March 30, 2013, in thankfulness for God’s love and faithfulness through these years!  Christ is risen, friends–he is risen indeed!  Hallelujah!

 

It is Holy Saturday—a day of waiting and expectancy, poised between the anguish of Good Friday and the exultant, full-throated joy of Easter.  As part of my Lenten discipline, I have been learning to pray the Rosary.  On Friday, then, I was meditating on the Sorrowful Mysteries of Jesus’ suffering and death—a meditation driven home powerfully and poignantly by the readings and music of Good Friday worship.

The meditations set for Saturdays are the Joyful Mysteries—Gabriel announcing Jesus’ birth to Mary, her visit to Elizabeth, the birth of Jesus, his presentation at the temple as a baby, and Mary and Joseph finding Jesus, now a young boy, in the temple asking questions (see Luke 1:26—2:52).  As I was praying, it suddenly hit me: the womb and the tomb and Jesus coming forth, from each, to new life!

When you go to the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem, you discover that the spot traditionally recognized as Jesus’ birthplace is in a cave.

The limestone hills of the region are honeycombed with caves, which were used in Jesus’ day for storage, as stables, and as homes, so it may well be that this is indeed the spot.  Startling to think on that today, reflecting on the broken, abused body of Jesus, taken from the cross and laid in another cave: the rock-hewn tomb of Joseph of Arimathea (Luke 23:50-56).

The womb and tomb connections were driven home particularly by a song that has been in my head since Wednesday.  In chapel that day, remembering Jesus’ tomb, we gathered around the baptismal font and heard, beautifully played and sung, this contemporary setting of an old hymn (I have given the original words below).  The line “Standing at this tomb of water” has stayed with me, and meditating on the waters of Mary’s womb has given them a new resonance.  Water of life, water of death; beginning and ending and beginning again.

The power of this image, its depth and richness, are that it is not just a story about long ago and far away.  Jesus defeated death, not just for himself, but for us all.  His triumph over sin, death, hell, and the grave is our triumph, too!  Remember this, friends, when this day of waiting is over, and Easter morning dawns.  Christ is risen!  He is risen indeed!  And so are we.

“Baptism Hymn”

Hast thou said, exalted Jesus,

Take thy cross and follow Me?

Shall the word with terror seize us?

Shall we from the burden flee?

Lord, I’ll take it, Lord, I’ll take it,

And rejoicing, follow Thee.

 

Sweet the sign that thus reminds me,

Savior, of Thy love to me;

Sweeter still the love that binds me

In its deathless bond to Thee.

Oh, what pleasure, oh, what pleasure,

Buried with my Lord to be!

 

While this liquid tomb surveying,

Can I run from mercy’s wave?

Shall I shun its brink, betraying

Feelings worthy of a slave?

No! I’ll enter, No! I’ll enter;

Jesus enter’d Jordan’s wave.

 

Should it rend some fond connection,

Should I suffer shame or loss,

Yet the fragrant, blest reflection:

I have been where Jesus was,

Will revive me, will revive me,

When I faint beneath the cross.

 

Then baptized in love and glory,

Lamb of God, Thy praise I’ll sing,

Loudly with the immortal story

All the harps of heaven shall ring.

Saints and seraphs, Saints and seraphs

Love and worship then will bring!

John Eustace Giles (1805-1875)

Mar
2024

“Crucified With Christ”

File:Jan Lievens, Painting of St Paul, ca. 1627-29. Oil on canvas. Nationalmuseum Sweden.jpg - Wikimedia CommonsThis week, as Christian pastors and laity alike turn in their devotions to reflection on Jesus’ betrayal, trial, torture, and death, it seems appropriate to turn to the witness of the apostle Paul, our first-century peer.

Like us, Paul never met the earthly Jesus–he was, after all, from Tarsus, in what we know today as Turkey, and not from Palestine.  Indeed, unlike the Evangelists Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John, Paul spends no time recounting the events of Jesus’ life, and even the words of Jesus appear only a few times in his letters (1 Thes 4:15, see Mark 13:26-27 [the second coming]; 1 Cor 7:10, see Matt 19:4-6 [divorce]; 1 Cor 9:14, see Matt 10:9 [wages for ministers]; 1 Cor 11:23-25, see Luke 22:17-20 [Eucharist]).  Paul can go so far as to say,

So then, from this point on we won’t recognize people by human standards [Greek kata sarka; mechanistically, “according to the flesh”]. Even though we used to know Christ by human standards, that isn’t how we know him now (2 Cor 5:16).

And yet–Paul everywhere insists on the title “apostle” (from the Greek apostello)–that is, one sent out by Jesus (23 times in his certainly authentic letters: for example, Rom 1:1; 1 Cor 1:1; 2 Cor 1:1; Gal 1:1; 1 Thess 2:7).  The opening of Galatians is particularly interesting:

From Paul, an apostle who is not sent from human authority or commissioned through human agency, but sent through Jesus Christ and God the Father who raised him from the dead.

The Road to Damascus (Acts 9:1-19)So–when and how did Jesus send him?  In 1 Corinthians 15:1-7, Paul rehearses the tradition regarding Jesus’ resurrection appearances, some of which we also find in our four gospels (appearances to Peter, who, as usual, Paul addresses as Cephas,  the Aramaic form of his name, and to the Twelve) and some otherwise unknown to us (a mass appearance to five hundred, and an appearance to Jesus’ brother James, leader of the Jewish Christians in Jerusalem).  Then, Paul says,

last of all he appeared to me, as if I were born at the wrong time. I’m the least important of the apostles. I don’t deserve to be called an apostle, because I harassed God’s church. I am what I am by God’s grace, and God’s grace hasn’t been for nothing. In fact, I have worked harder than all the others—that is, it wasn’t me but the grace of God that is with me (1 Cor 15:8-10).

Paul regards his encounter with Christ on the Damascus road (Acts 9:1-31; see Paul’s own brief account in Gal 1:11-24) as a resurrection appearance, and his experience as no less real than the experiences of those, like Cephas and James, who had known Jesus in Galilee.  Like them, Paul says, he is a witness to the resurrection:

Am I not free? Am I not an apostle? Haven’t I seen Jesus our Lord? (1 Cor 9:1).

Yet the heart of Paul’s gospel is not the resurrection of Jesus, but his death.  Paul must speak, always and everywhere, of the cross.  As he tells the fractious congregation at Corinth,

When I came to you, brothers and sisters, I didn’t come preaching God’s secrets to you like I was an expert in speech or wisdom.  I had made up my mind not to think about anything while I was with you except Jesus Christ, and to preach him as crucified (1 Cor 2:1-2).

undefinedPaul freely acknowledges that this is absurd on its face:

Jews ask for signs, and Greeks look for wisdom, but we preach Christ crucified, which is a scandal to Jews and foolishness to Gentiles. But to those who are called—both Jews and Greeks—Christ is God’s power and God’s wisdom. This is because the foolishness of God is wiser than human wisdom, and the weakness of God is stronger than human strength (1 Cor 1:22-25).

Rather than through the signs and demonstrations of power that Jewish messianism expected, or through the reasoned, careful arguments of Greek philosophy, God has shown Godself in Jesus on the cross: a crucified, naked, dying man.  The wisdom of God and the power of God alike are manifest, paradoxically, in the weakness and foolishness of the cross.  So the person of faith is neither convinced by argument nor swayed by signs, but instead experiences God’s salvation through participation in the death and resurrection of Jesus.

As church historian Diana Butler Bass observes, this same emphasis underlies the language of Christianity’s creeds.  After all, the Latin verb credo, from which we our word “creed” comes, means not (as it is usually translated) “I believe,” but rather “I set my heart upon.” That difference is “a shift from information about to experience of.” 

Therefore, Paul speaks of our being “in Christ,” as though Christ were a country (2 Cor 5:17), or being “clothed with Christ,” as though Christ were an overcoat (Gal 3:27)!  So too when Paul says that the church is the body of Christ (1 Cor 12:12-31), it is no mere word picture.  For Paul, we are quite literally joined to Christ, and so to one another.

 

This means that the death of Jesus on the cross is not just about Jesus (2 Cor 5:14).  As Paul describes his own experience of faith,

 I have been crucified with Christ and I no longer live, but Christ lives in me. And the life that I now live in my body, I live by faith, indeed, by the faithfulness of God’s Son, who loved me and gave himself for me (Gal 2:20).

For Paul, the cross is not a doctrine, but an experience.  That identity with Christ is enacted through baptism:

[D]on’t you know that all who were baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death?  Therefore, we were buried together with him through baptism into his death, so that just as Christ was raised from the dead through the glory of the Father, we too can walk in newness of life.  If we were united together in a death like his, we will also be united together in a resurrection like his (Rom 6:3-5).

Good Friday, friends, is not a memorial.  It is an invitation to the death of our former selves, and rebirth as the people God created us to be.  Indeed, Paul says that the cross of Christ marks the end of an old world, and the beginning of a new one:

So then, if anyone is in Christ, that person is part of the new creation. The old things have gone away, and look, new things have arrived!  All of these new things are from God, who reconciled us to himself through Christ (2 Cor 5:17-18).

As citizens of that new world, we have a responsibility to those who remain in bondage to the old one, for God has given us “the ministry of reconciliation”:

God was reconciling the world to himself through Christ, by not counting people’s sins against them. He has trusted us with this message of reconciliation (2 Cor 5:18-19).

May this Triduum (Holy Thursday, Good Friday, and Easter Sunday) mark, not only the celebration of Christ’s victory over death, but our own death and rebirth with him.  May we all be, like our brother Paul, “crucified with Christ.”

 

 

 

Mar
2024

Happy Pi Day!

Triple Berry Pi Day Pie In our American date format, today is 3/14, which is also, as it happens, pi to the first two digits–making March 14 Pi Day!  To refresh from high school geography, pi is the ratio between the circumference of a circle and its diameter–so, if you know the radius of a circle, you can use pi to calculate its circumference (2πr) or its area (πr squared: prompting the very bad pun, “No, pie are round; cornbread are square”).  That ratio is, approximately, 3.14159–although mathematicians have now calculated its value out 62.8 trillion places with no repetition (here are the first million digits), making pi an irrational number.  

Mathematicians have used the Greek letter π to represent this value since 1706, when Welsh mathematician William Jones had the idea, although its use was popularized by the Swiss polymath Leonhard Euler.  However, ancient people already knew that this value was just a bit larger than three:

The ancient Babylonians calculated the area of a circle by taking 3 times the square of its radius, which gave a value of pi = 3. One Babylonian tablet (ca. 1900–1680 BC) indicates a value of 3.125 for π, which is a closer approximation.

The Rhind Papyrus (ca.1650 BC) gives us insight into the mathematics of ancient Egypt. The Egyptians calculated the area of a circle by a formula that gave the approximate value of 3.1605 for π.

The first calculation of π was done by Archimedes of Syracuse (287–212 BC), one of the greatest mathematicians of the ancient world. Archimedes approximated the area of a circle by using the Pythagorean Theorem to find the areas of two regular polygons: the polygon inscribed within the circle and the polygon within which the circle was circumscribed. Since the actual area of the circle lies between the areas of the inscribed and circumscribed polygons, the areas of the polygons gave upper and lower bounds for the area of the circle. Archimedes knew that he had not found the value of π but only an approximation within those limits. In this way, Archimedes showed that π is between 3 1/7 and 3 10/71.

So, why is the Bible Guy going on and on about pi?  As it happens, this ratio does pop up in the Bible–in the dimensions and volume given for the bronze sea. 

The sea (2 Chr 4:2-5//1 Kgs 7:23-26) was a huge bronze basin of fresh water, placed in the temple forecourt to the south of the altar (2 Chr 4:10). It was supported on the backs of twelve bronze oxen, arranged so that three faced in each direction–symbolizing, perhaps, the twelve tribes of Israel.  The NRSVue follows the KJV in calling this basin the “molten” sea (the Hebrew is mutsaq)– meaning that the sea was cast out of molten bronze, as opposed to being beaten with hammers out of a thin bronze sheet, which was the way bronze bowls and vessels were usually made (CEB has “a tank of cast metal”).  The sheer size of the sea makes it unlikely that it was cast in one piece, however.

Chronicles and Kings give the same figures for the height, diameter, and circumference of the bronze sea: fifteen feet across, seven and a half feet high, and forty-five feet around.  Given the dimensions of this circular vessel, the Israelites (like the Babylonians) put the value of pi at 3. However, the volume of the sea in Chronicles is three thousand baths, or 15,000 gallons: a thousand baths, or 5,000 gallons, more than that given in 1 Kings. While some scholars have proposed that the difference can be accounted for by different shapes imagined for the sea (a hemisphere in Kings, a cylinder in Chronicles), it is more likely either that Chronicles is exaggerating (as it is prone to doing!), or that the Chronicler’s standard measure of volume is different from that presumed by his source.

Certainly this was the case for the standard measure of length, the cubit.  In Chronicles, the dimensions of the temple are given “in cubits of the old standard” (2 Chr 3:3, NRSVue). Evidently, the length of the cubit in the Chronicler’s time was not the same as it had been in Solomon’s. A likely explanation is that the Persians had imposed a new standard, different from Israel’s traditional units of measurement (for another indication of a longer, Persian-period cubit, see Ezek 40:5 and 43:13). For his readers to visualize Solomon’s temple properly, the Chronicler needs to remind them that Solomon used the old cubit, not the new Persian standard.


Chronicles goes on to describe briefly the ten smaller basins which accompanied the monumental sea (2 Chr 4:6//1 Kgs 7:38-39; the detailed description of the wheeled stands for the basins in 1 Kgs 7:27-37 does not appear in Chronicles). The purpose of both the basins and the sea, we are told, is for ritual cleansing: the smaller basins are for washing the sacrifices, while the sea is for the ablutions of the priests. However, as the lip of the basin would have been around ten feet off the ground, that seems unlikely.  In the Talmud, the rabbis get around this problem by providing the sea with spigots, fashioned by the priestly craftsman Ben Kattin (see for example b. Yoma 25b)!  

the-spirit-of-god-hovers-over-the-face-of-the-waters.jpeg | Local News | clevelandjewishnews.com
The bronze sea was far too big for any practical use.  Much more likely is a symbolic function, indicated already by the name given to this huge bronze cauldron: the sea. In the ancient Near East, the sea was regarded as a symbol of the primordial chaos that ruled before the gods imposed order on the world. The authority of the creator god over the waters of chaos was emphasized in myth and poetry, and symbolized concretely by placing a large vessel of fresh water in the temple precincts. In Babylon, this vessel was called the apsu, or the waters of the abyss. As the waters of chaos beneath the earth were also considered the source of the earth’s fruitfulness, these temple vessels further symbolized the god’s control over fertility.

The LORD’s victory and supremacy over the waters of the sea is acclaimed throughout the Hebrew Bible, especially in the Psalms (see, for example, Psalms 24 and 46).  Most likely, then, the sea represented the LORD’s victory over the waters of chaos, and–because of that victory–the LORD’s control over the life-giving waters of fertility.

AFTERWORD:

I would be seriously remiss if I did not also mention that Sunday is St. Patrick’s Day.  For Patrick’s legend, I commend you to my blog post on the saint.  

St. Patrick’s Breastplate” is a classic expression of Celtic spirituality (perhaps best known from this familiar hymn), and a full-throated celebration of the Triune God.  Here is the prayer in full, translated into English verse by Cecil Frances Alexander in 1889:

I arise today
Through a mighty strength, the invocation of the Trinity,
Through belief in the Threeness,
Through confession of the Oneness
of the Creator of creation.

I arise today
Through the strength of Christ’s birth with His baptism,
Through the strength of His crucifixion with His burial,
Through the strength of His resurrection with His ascension,
Through the strength of His descent for the judgment of doom.

I arise today
Through the strength of the love of cherubim,
In the obedience of angels,
In the service of archangels,
In the hope of resurrection to meet with reward,
In the prayers of patriarchs,
In the predictions of prophets,
In the preaching of apostles,
In the faith of confessors,
In the innocence of holy virgins,
In the deeds of righteous men.

I arise today, through
The strength of heaven,
The light of the sun,
The radiance of the moon,
The splendor of fire,
The speed of lightning,
The swiftness of wind,
The depth of the sea,
The stability of the earth,
The firmness of rock.

I arise today, through
God’s strength to pilot me,
God’s might to uphold me,
God’s wisdom to guide me,
God’s eye to look before me,
God’s ear to hear me,
God’s word to speak for me,
God’s hand to guard me,
God’s shield to protect me,
God’s host to save me
From snares of devils,
From temptation of vices,
From everyone who shall wish me ill,
afar and near.

I summon today
All these powers between me and those evils,
Against every cruel and merciless power
that may oppose my body and soul,
Against incantations of false prophets,
Against black laws of pagandom,
Against false laws of heretics,
Against craft of idolatry,
Against spells of witches and smiths and wizards,
Against every knowledge that corrupts man’s body and soul;
Christ to shield me today
Against poison, against burning,
Against drowning, against wounding,
So that there may come to me an abundance of reward.

Christ with me,
Christ before me,
Christ behind me,
Christ in me,
Christ beneath me,
Christ above me,
Christ on my right,
Christ on my left,
Christ when I lie down,
Christ when I sit down,
Christ when I arise,
Christ in the heart of every man who thinks of me,
Christ in the mouth of everyone who speaks of me,
Christ in every eye that sees me,
Christ in every ear that hears me.

I arise today
Through a mighty strength, the invocation of the Trinity,
Through belief in the Threeness,
Through confession of the Oneness
of the Creator of creation.

Beannachtai Na Feile Padraig Oraibh, friends–May the blessing of St. Patrick’s Day be upon you!

Mar
2024

Proving Your Faith

Judge banging judge's gavel. Law Lord wearing gown using a hammer for attention and verdict, justice judgment at courts of law Stock Photo | Adobe Stock

When I was a young Christian, I remember covering my high school notebook with Jesus People slogans: “One Way,” “Jesus Saves,” “PTL” (Praise the Lord), “In case of Rapture, this notebook will be abandoned.”  One of those sayings has came back to me powerfully this week: “If you were put on trial for being a Christian, would there be enough evidence to convict you?”

For Iranian Christians seeking asylum in Europe, that has become a very real question.  A recent Religious News Service article describes what Christians in Iran face:

The Islamic Republic forbids anyone born Muslim from converting to another religion, with violations punishable by arrest and even death. There are about 1.25 million Christians in Iran and those born Christian are allowed to practice their beliefs in the shadows, but converts face increasing persecution, including mass arrests last summer. In addition to government pressure, converts are often exiled from families or forced into Islamic marriages, according to Open Doors International, a watchdog monitoring global Christian persecution.

But, in order to be given asylum, converts who have fled to Europe from Iran must first prove in court that they are indeed Christians.  According to a 2021 study published in the Annals of the American Academy of Political and Social Sciences, religious conversions to Christianity are the “most frequent reason for asylum claims by Iranians” in Germany and the United Kingdom:

The U.K.’s grant rate for Iranian asylum-seekers is 80%. In comparison, data from the German government shows that just 22.3% of Iranian asylum claims in 2019 were successful in first decisions, dropping to 19.9% on appeal. The study, based on 36 asylum appeal hearings in Germany, found that judges largely expect applicants to show church attendance is not motivated by a desire to form social bonds. As a result, joining an Iranian-only congregation with Farsi liturgy could be held against applicants — even though many do not know English. 

In the United Kingdom, the increasing number of asylum-seekers claiming to be Christian converts has generated a Conservative backlash.  After an Afghan refugee granted asylum as a Christian convert attacked 12 people with acid, right-wing provocateur Nigel Farage blamed the Church of England: “How many hundreds or thousands of people who come from Muslim countries, who now claim they are Christian and have been allowed to stay?  We must be mad.”

The Rev. Mark Wallace, the priest at St. Peter's Colchester Church. (RNS photo/Hanna Vioque)

So: how do you prove that you really are a Christian?  What evidence can be offered?  The Rev. Mark Wallace, a priest at St. Peter’s Colchester who has testified on behalf of Iranian Christians seeking asylum, observes,

“The things that one does to articulate a genuine Christian faith are very difficult objectively to prove. So much of the question of faith is about our relationship between us and God and that can’t be verified in one sense in court.” . . . There are, however, certain behaviors that strongly indicate authenticity, Wallace stresses. Commitment to regular worship, to serving others, to being kind and sacrificially generous is a “good demonstration of someone’s commitment.”  

Worship, service, kindness, generosity: according to Rev. Wallace, these are evidence of an authentic faith.  Jesus would agree, friends!  In the Sermon on the Mount, he urges,

You are the light of the world. A city on top of a hill can’t be hidden.  Neither do people light a lamp and put it under a basket. Instead, they put it on top of a lampstand, and it shines on all who are in the house.  In the same way, let your light shine before people, so they can see the good things you do and praise your Father who is in heaven (Matthew 5:14-16).

Faith not only can be, but must be, evidenced by “the good things you do”–by deeds of love and service.  Indeed, Jesus offers kindness as the guiding principle for our conduct: “Therefore, you should treat people in the same way that you want people to treat you; this is the Law and the Prophets” (Matthew 7:12).

This makes me wonder: confronted by the challenge Iranian converts now face in European courts, how would American Christians fare? Would our service, kindness, and generosity serve as a “good demonstration” of our faith?

Sadly, when most people think of the church in America today, kindness and service are not what come to mind: as a survey conducted by the Barna Group demonstrates:

Note that among non-Christians surveyed, 44% said that churches in their area were known, not for their confession of Christ, their kindness, or their generosity, but “for the things they are against.”  Little wonder that non-Christians characterized churches they knew as “Judgmental” (51%) and “Irrelevant to me” (59%).

Postcards From Babylon with Brian Zahnd — Can I Say This At Church PodcastEvangelical pastor and author Brian Zahnd is concerned that much of American Christianity today is characterized, not by service or kindness, but by fear and anger–even hatred.  Challenging his fellow pastors and leaders, Zahnd says,

You are forming your people in anger and hate. You are helping to intensify their capacity to hate other people. You are giving them permission to carry around this permanent rage (in Tim Alberta, The Kingdom, the Power, and the Glory: American Evangelicals in an Age of Extremism [San Francisco: HarperCollins, 2023), 293)

Nex Benedict death: Police video shows non-binary teen describe fight in high school bathroom | CNN

Sadly, a major target of that hatred has been people who are lesbian, gay, bisexual, or transgender.  Nonbinary teen Nex Benedict of Owasso, Oklahoma died last week after being beaten by bullies in a high school bathroom.  Investigations (including one by the U.S. Department of Education) are ongoing, but many have expressed concern that actions by the Oklahoma legislature (prohibiting children from receiving gender-affirming medical care,  prohibiting the use of nonbinary gender markers on birth certificates, prohibiting transgender girls and women from playing on female sports teams, and preventing transgender children from using school bathrooms that correspond to their gender identity) contributed to the hostility and bullying Nex and other transgender youth have endured

In a Public Forum in Tahlequah, Oklahoma, State Senator Tom Woods was asked to respond to these concerns.  He said

We are a Republican state, a supermajority, in the House and Senate. I represent a constituency that doesn’t want that filth in Oklahoma. We are a religious state, and we are going to fight it to keep that filth out of the state of Oklahoma because we are a Christian state. We are a moral state.

Later, challenged by his peers (including Senate Pro Tem Greg Treat), Sen. Woods issued a statement (not an apology):

Firstly, I want to say that a child losing their life is horrible. They were a victim of bullying and that is never okay. It is always a tragedy when someone loses their life. I said that Friday and I mean that still today. I hope anyone struggling in a similar position gets the help they need as soon as possible.

I also want to say that I stand behind what I believe in. The groups and individuals who push gender reassignment on children in our schools, and anyone else who is trying to normalize behavior that shouldn’t be tolerated, is unacceptable in my mind.

If we were put on trial for following Jesus, would there be enough evidence to convict us?  Or would the evidence instead prove that our faith was a facade, a flimsy cover for our hatred, fear, and the quest for power over others?

Feb
2024

Hearts and Flowers and. . . Ashes?

Once again (it happened in 2018, too, remember!) Ash Wednesday falls on Valentines Day.  Certainly the contrast– the sweetest and most sentimental of secular holidays juxtaposed with the grimmest and most lugubrious of Christian fast days–is striking, and may prompt us to wonder why the church should be such a downer–so determined, it seems, to quash anything  fun.

The Old Testament reading for Ash Wednesday, Joel 2:1-2, 12-17, certainly seems to fit that killjoy perception:

Blow the trumpet in Zion; sound the alarm on my holy mountain! Let all the inhabitants of the land tremble, for the day of the LORD is coming, it is near—a day of darkness and gloom, a day of clouds and thick darkness! (Joel 2:1-2).

Then again, the relentless glee of what my colleague Andrew Purves scornfully termed “happy clappy worship” can be no less oppressive and unwelcoming!  I still remember a courageous sermon preached in the PTS chapel, observing that our community was a very hard place to be if you were sad. People who were hurting or depressed were likely either to be ignored, or worse, to be jollied: to be told to cheer up and trust in Jesus—as though sorrow and pain were somehow a denial of their faith.

As Donald Gowan ruefully observes,

Christian worship tends to be all triumph, all good news (even the confession of sin is not a very awesome experience because we know the assurance of pardon is coming; it’s printed in the bulletin). And what does that say to those who, at the moment, know nothing of triumph?” (Don Gowan, The Triumph of Faith in Habakkuk [Atlanta: John Knox, 1976], 38).

But true repentance leading to new life requires lament: not only our own authentic lament at the realization of our sin, but also providing space for, and attending to, the laments of others.

Walter Brueggemann writes that the loss of lament in worship means “the loss of genuine covenant interaction because the second party to the covenant (the petitioner) has become voiceless or has a voice that is permitted to speak only praise and doxology” (Walter Brueggemann, “The Costly Loss of Lament,” Journal for the Study of the Old Testament 36 [1986]: 60).

No wonder Joel urges the priests, “Gather the elders and all the inhabitants of the land to the house of the LORD your God, and cry out to the LORD” (Joel 1:14). By stifling lament, we shut off the genuine interaction that a living relationship with God presumes.

In his famous lament, the “Letter From a Birmingham Jail,” Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. told “my Christian and Jewish brothers”

I must confess that over the past few years I have been gravely disappointed with the white moderate . . . who is more devoted to “order” than to justice; who prefers a negative peace which is the absence of tension to a positive peace which is the presence of justice. . .  Shallow understanding from people of good will is more frustrating than absolute misunderstanding from people of ill will. Lukewarm acceptance is much more bewildering than outright rejection.

Of  course we prefer the easy road that avoids confrontation, the “negative peace which is the absence of tension.”  But for Joel as for Dr. King, true peace doesn’t come so easily!

Yet even now, says the LORD, return to me with all your heart, with fasting, with weeping, and with mourning; rend your hearts and not your clothing (Joel 2:12-13).

Joel calls upon his community to demonstrate their whole-hearted desire to return to the Lord, and their deep sorrow at past wrong-doing, “with fasting, with weeping, with mourning.” This can be no superficial demonstration: “rend your heart,” the LORD demands, “and not your clothing.”

The setting for much of Joel’s remarkable book of prophecy is a locust plague, which has decimated Judah.  After the swarm has passed, when the locusts all are gone, reassurance is offered to the community, the “children of Zion” (Joel 2:23), who twice are promised, “my people shall never again be put to shame” (Joel 2:26, 27).

But the people also learn that they are part of a larger community than they had known.

After that I will pour out my spirit upon everyone;
        your sons and your daughters will prophesy,
        your old men will dream dreams,
        and your young men will see visions.
In those days, I will also pour out my
    spirit on the male and female slaves.

I will give signs in the heavens and on the earth—blood and fire and columns of smoke (Joel 2:28-30).

In this passage—the most familiar passage from this book, quoted by Peter in his sermon at Pentecost (Acts 2:17-21)—the “children of Zion,” called “my people” by the Lord, include not just the adult men of the worshipping congregation, but women, children, the aged—even slaves.

Joel reminds us that we too belong to a larger community than we had known.  We may have forgotten that—I confess that often I have forgotten that.  We succumb to the temptation to define our community too narrowly, as including only those like us, whether ethnically or ideologically or theologically.

May this Valentines Day/Ash Wednesday, and the days of Lent that follow, reawaken us to our connections to one another.  May we give one another space to lament, to grieve, to disagree.  May we begin to listen to one another—not necessarily to agree, but to listen, to learn, and to understand. God’s promises of deliverance, of vindication, of freedom from shame cannot be experienced by us separately and severally. They are not offered to us in that way. We will find them together—all of us—or we will not find them at all.

Feb
2024

Credo

In this Black History Month, I am remembering and celebrating W. E. B. Du Bois (1868-1963), a pivotal figure in American history.  Du Bois was an educator (serving as a professor at Fisk University and Atlanta University), author (The Souls of Black Folk, Dusk of Dawnand his posthumously published Autobiography), and a tireless activist and advocate for racial equality (he was the founder of the Niagara Movement, a parent of  the NAACP).

I only recently learned of another important work of Du Bois: his prose poem “Credo,” published in the New York Independent 57 (Oct. 6, 1904): 787.

I learned of this piece through a concert at my home church, St. Paul’s UMC, by Archipelago, an extraordinary vocal ensemble conducted by Caron Daley of Duquesne University. The climax of the evening was a wonderful choral setting of DuBois’ “Credo” by African American composer Margaret Bonds (1913-1972).  Although she composed this piece in 1965, it was lost, and only recently rediscovered and published.

Several features of Du Bois’ “Credo” stand out to this Bible Guy and United Methodist minister.  First is Du Bois’ understanding, already in 1904, that God “made of one blood all the races that dwell on the earth.”

I had attributed this insight, that in light of Genesis all the people of the earth are one human family, to African American theologian George Kelsey (1910-1996), who was the Henry Anson Buttz Professor emeritus of Christian Ethics at Drew University, where he taught for 24 years, and who was a mentor to Martin Luther King, Jr. at Morehouse College.

In his book Racism and the Christian Understanding of Man (New York: Scribner, 1965),  Kelsey wrote:

All men are equal because God has bestowed upon all the very same dignity. He has created them in His own image and herein lies their dignity. Human dignity is not an achievement, nor is it an intrinsic quality; it is a gift, a bestowal. Christian faith asserts that all men are equally human; all are creatures and all are potentially spiritual sons of God (Kelsey 1965, 87).

But already in 1904, Du Bois wrote that “all men are brothers, varying through Time and Opportunity, in form and gift and feature, but differing in no essential feature, and alike in soul.”  Further, Du Bois recognized that affirming our common humanity in no way meant settling for some bland homogeneity.  Du Bois fearlessly and joyously affirms “the Negro Race” and “pride of race and lineage and self. . . so deep as to scorn injustice to other selves.”

John Wesley (1703–1791), as an Old Man

Methodism’s founder John Wesley would applaud Du Bois’ statement that all humanity shares “in the possibility of infinite development,” although of course he would insist that it is through the grace of God and the working of the Spirit that this is so.  Further Wesley, who urged his preachers never to be “triflingly employed,” would agree fully with Du Bois’ statement that “Work is Heaven, Idleness is Hell”!

When I heard this piece performed, one part of Du Bois’ “Credo” deeply troubled me–and troubles me still:

I was reminded of a time in chapel at PTS, when an African American student addressed a goodly part of her prayer to Satan, binding him and rejecting his power and presence.  At the time, I objected to this: surely, our prayers should be addressed to God alone!  But reading Du Bois’ “Credo,” I wonder how much of my refusal to acknowledge the Enemy’s power and influence is a reflection of my own privilege?  How often have I been confronted with and threatened by the power of evil in the way that Du Bois describes, and that my Black sisters and brothers face each and every day?

In his City of God (XI, 9), Augustine wrote, “For evil has no positive nature; but the loss of good has received the name ‘evil.’”  But I am persuaded that Augustine’s notion that evil is merely the absence of good is far too weak: evil is real, a power and presence in our world.  So I acknowledge the importance and symbolic power of the idea of Satan.  But I am also persuaded that there is good reason that the historic creeds of the church, unlike Du Bois’ “Credo,” do not confess a “belief” in “the Devil and His Angels.”  We are not dualistic bi-theists, friends.  Jesus tells his followers,

“I saw Satan fall from heaven like lightning.  Look, I have given you authority to crush snakes and scorpions underfoot. I have given you authority over all the power of the enemy. Nothing will harm you.  Nevertheless, don’t rejoice because the spirits submit to you. Rejoice instead that your names are written in heaven” (Luke 10:18-20).

I am persuaded that one huge problem with American Christianity is the degree to which we have behaved as though the Enemy was as powerful in this world as the Lord, to the end that we have embraced a macho warrior “Christ” that bears little resemblance to the Jesus of the Gospels, and a militant “Christianity” likewise divorced from the biblical or historical Church.  Further, we are far too ready to project that dualism onto our political issues and adversaries, so that those with whom we disagree become, often quite literally, demonic.  In his book The Kingdom, the Power, and the Glory: American Evangelicals in an Age of Extremism (San Francisco: Harper, 2023), Tim Alberta describes the preaching of Greg Locke, leader of the Global Mission Bible Church in Mt. Joliet, Tennessee: “He called Democrats ‘God-denying demons’ and said, ‘You cannot be a Christian and vote Democrat in this nation'” (p. 227).

It is worth taking a little time to recognize the way that the Hebrew word satan and the proper name Satan are used in Scripture.  In the New Testament, “Satan” is used thirty-five times as the personal name of a personal devil and spiritual adversary.  In the Hebrew Bible, however, the Hebrew term satan often appears with reference to a human enemy (satan is translated “adversary” in the NRSV of 1 Sam 29:4; 2 Sam 19:22; 1 Kgs 5:4; 11:14, 23, 25; and as “accuser” in Ps 109:6).

Satan is definitely used to designate a heavenly being in three places. The first involves the angel of the LORD, who becomes for a time a satan (the NRSV reads “adversary”) to the prophet Balaam (Num 22:22, 32). In the other two cases, Job 1–2 and Zechariah 3:1-2, satan appears with the article, as a title: hassatan, or “the satan.” In both places, the NRSV (following the KJV) used the proper name “Satan;” however, the NRSVue has a much better rendering of the Hebrew: “the adversary.”  In each case, the satan is a member of the LORD’s heavenly court, and functions as a kind of celestial prosecuting attorney. So, in the book of Job, the satan accuses the righteous Job of serving the LORD out of self-interest, because God has always blessed him.  “But stretch out your hand now, and touch all that he has,” the satan claims, “and he will curse you to your face” (Job 1:11). Similarly, until rebuked by the Lord, the satan stands ready in Zechariah 3 to accuse the high priest Joshua.

This brings us to 1 Chronicles 21:1. Here, instead of hassatan (“the satan”) the Hebrew text reads simply “satan.” Most interpreters take this to mean that Satan here is a proper name–the first such occurrence in Scripture, and the only one in the Hebrew Bible.  However, it is also possible to translate the term as “an adversary” (so, for example, Sara Japhet, Chronicles, pp. 374-375; and Paul Redditt, 1&2 Chronicles, p. 147). In that case, some nameless, human advisor would be responsible for influencing David’s decision. Favoring this mundane reading is the absence of any other trace of a personal Satan in Chronicles.

On the other hand, the Greek Septuagint of 1 Chronicles 21:1 reads diabolos here, a Greek word generally translated as “devil” in the New Testament. This is not definitive, as the Septuagint uses diabolos three times with reference to a human enemy (the nameless accuser in Ps 109:6; Haman in Esther 7:1; 8:1; and Antiochus in 1 Macc 1:36). But elsewhere, diabolos is used in all the Hebrew references to a heavenly, supernatural satan, suggesting that the figure in 1 Chronicles was also understood by the Greek translators to be a supernatural adversary.  Other elements of the supernatural in 1 Chronicles 21 (David’s conversation with God through the prophet Gad in 1 Chr 21:8-13; the angel with a drawn sword and the fire from heaven in 1 Chr 21:18-27) further support the likelihood that Satan, too, is a supernatural being here.

A modern reader may find it odd that conducting a census should be regarded as an evil act. But David’s census of “men available for military service” (1 Chr 21:5) shows an unwillingness to trust God to defend and deliver Israel.  In Chronicles, David is enticed by Satan, yields to that temptation, and carries out an act he knows to be wrong–an act, furthermore, that his general Joab warned him against (1 Chr 21:3).

Satan’s temptation strikes at David’s desires and weaknesses: particularly, it seems, at his pride. Joab’s response to David’s command is a rebuke to such overweening pride: “May the Lord increase his people a hundred times! Sir, aren’t you the king, and aren’t they all your servants? Why do you want to do this? Why bring guilt on Israel?” (1 Chr 21:3). David’s need to count his people, like the compulsion of a miser to count his gold, speaks at once of possessive pride, and of neurotic insecurity. God has promised to preserve David’s kingdom. Why then should David worry about how many swords he can place in the field? In Chronicles, David in his righteousness was a model for the Chronicler’s community. So also, in his pride and rebellion, David stands as a warning. If even David could fall, and had to face the consequences of his failure, the Chronicler’s community needed to be all the more attentive and obedient to the will of the Lord.

When, as in De Bois’ “Credo” and in Chronicles, the Devil stands for the deadly and seductive power of evil, this biblical image is appropriate, indeed necessary.  But when we exalt Satan as a god to rival Christ, and when we demonize our earthly adversaries, denying their humanity, we fall guilty of idolatry, and forget the command of our Lord,

I say to you, love your enemies and pray for those who harass you so that you will be acting as children of your Father who is in heaven. He makes the sun rise on both the evil and the good and sends rain on both the righteous and the unrighteous (Matthew 5:44-45).

Jan
2024

Not Just Groundhog Day

Groundhog Day | MovieGeekBlog

FOREWORD:   I am reposting this (lightly edited) blog from two years ago.  My apologies for not posting yet in this new year–I contracted COVID at our Christmas Eve service, and am really only now getting my bearings!  Thankfully, in the Tuell household we are all vaccinated and boosted, and so none of us was ever in real danger–but make no mistake, friends.  The new COVID variant is even more virulent, and bodes to be just as deadly, as the last: here in Allegheny County, it is killing about a person a day.  If you are not yet vaccinated, or have not yet gotten the booster, please go to your doctor or drug store IMMEDIATELY: not just for yourself, but for your family and your community.

 

In the United States (and Canada, too), Friday February 2 is  Groundhog Day. We will wait with trepidation to see if a groundhog (in Pennsylvania, THE Groundhog, Punxsatawney Phil) sees his shadow–because if he does, then there will be six more weeks of winter.  Where in the world could this bizarre custom have come from?

February 2 marks the quarter-year: midwinter, as Hallowe’en is midautumn.  Celts called this day Imbolc,  and identified it as the time when ewes begin to give milk, in preparation for spring lambing.  According to Plutarch’s Parallel Lives, shepherds in Roman times also celebrated a midwinter festival on February 2.

Protecting Your Fruit Trees from Frost Damage | Organic Gardening Blog – Grow OrganicThis day, in the dead of winter, is associated with hope for the return of warmer weather–but not too soon.  A “false spring” after all may be followed by a killing frost, wiping out trees that have budded too early, and threatening lambs born out of season.  Therefore, sunny weather on this midwinter day (so that a groundhog can see its shadow!) is held to be a bad omen of more bleak days ahead, while cold and cloudy weather appropriate to the season augurs the swift return of sunshine and greenery.

In addition to its ancient folk connections, this day also has a biblical warrant: by the Western Church’s reckoning, February 2 comes forty days after Christmas, the celebration of Jesus’ birth.  Leviticus 12:2-8 stipulates the rites of purification for cleansing from the ritual uncleanness caused by childbirth: for a baby boy, 7 days of impurity, followed by an additional 33 days during which the mother “must not touch anything holy or enter the sacred area” (Lev 12:4).

Luke 2:22-40 records that Joseph and Mary, as observant first-century Jews, made the pilgrimage to the Jerusalem temple with their son Jesus “[w]hen the time came for their ritual cleansing, in accordance with the Law from Moses” (Luke 2:22): that is, forty days after Jesus’ birth.  In Roman Catholicism prior to Vatican II, this day was accordingly called “the Feast of the Purification of the Virgin;” today it is known as “the Presentation of the Lord.”

Title: Presentation in the Temple [Click for larger image view]This tapestry depicting Luke’s scene is from the Abbey Church of St. Walpurga in Virginia Dale, Colorado.  The Order of St. Walpurga was established in the 11th century in Bavaria.  The nuns of that order fled to the United States in 1935 to escape the Nazis, and settled in the Colorado mountains. The walls of their church are lined with tapestries like this one of the Presentation of the Lord, all inspired by biblical texts.

Mary is in the center, followed by Joseph (in the slouch hat).  Joseph carries the two turtledoves that Leviticus 12:8 says a poor family may offer instead of a sheep as a sacrifice (see Luke 2:24).

Also pictured is Simeon, who had been promised “that he wouldn’t die before he had seen the Lord’s Christ” (Luke 2:26).  Simeon holds baby Jesus, praises God for him, and prays a beautiful prayer, called (after its opening words in Latin) the Nunc dimittis:

Now, master, let your servant go in peace according to your word,
     because my eyes have seen your salvation.
 You prepared this salvation in the presence of all peoples.
 It’s a light for revelation to the Gentiles
    and a glory for your people Israel (Luke 2:29-32).

The Latin inscription on the St. Walpurga abbey tapestry refers to this prayer: Lux ad revelationem Gentium means “a light for revelation to the Gentiles.”  Simeon’s prayer in turn alludes to several passages in Isaiah (see Isa 42:6; 49:6; 51:4; 60:3), but particularly to Isaiah 49:5-6, from the second Servant Song:

And now the Lord has decided—
    the one who formed me from the womb as his servant—
    to restore Jacob to God,
    so that Israel might return to him.
    Moreover, I’m honored in the Lord’s eyes;
    my God has become my strength.
He said: It is not enough, since you are my servant,
    to raise up the tribes of Jacob
    and to bring back the survivors of Israel.
    Hence, I will also appoint you as light to the nations
    so that my salvation may reach to the end of the earth.

The salvation offered through Jesus is for everyone.

After this prayer of thanksgiving, Simeon gives to Mary a much more somber word:

This boy is assigned to be the cause of the falling and rising of many in Israel and to be a sign that generates opposition so that the inner thoughts of many will be revealed (Luke 2:34-35).

Michelangelo's Pieta | High Renaissance History and CharacteristicsAlthough Jesus has come for everyone, not everyone will receive him.  Simeon’s words prefigure Jesus’ coming rejection–his trial, condemnation, and crucifixion, and so Mary’s coming sorrow: “And a sword will pierce your innermost being too” (Luke 2:35).  In this season after Epiphany, we rightly remember that Jesus’ way leads us to God’s light–but that way must pass through the darkness of the cross.  Simeon offers no illusions that God’s salvation comes easily, without opposition or conflict.

The fifth person pictured on the St. Walpurga tapestry is Anna, an 84 year old widow who “never left the temple area but worshipped God with fasting and prayer night and day (Luke 2:37).  Luke does not quote her words, as he does Simeon’s.  But he does tell us that her words are directed, not just privately to the family, but publicly, to everyone in earshot:  “She approached at that very moment and began to praise God and to speak about Jesus to everyone who was looking forward to the redemption of Jerusalem” (Luke 2:38).  In Luke’s gospel, from the very first, anyone with eyes to see and a heart to believe knows who Jesus is!

La Candlemas: history and curiosities

February 2 has one more traditional church connection–and one more name!  In the Western Christian calendar, this midwinter day is often called Candlemas, and was traditionally when the candles used in the coming year were blessed.  Friends, may we remember on this day of light and hope that Jesus leads us in the way of “[God’s] salvation . . . a light for revelation to the Gentiles and a glory for your people Israel.”

AFTERWORD:

A prayer for this day, from Revised Common Lectionary Prayers copyright © 2002 Consultation on Common Texts admin. Augsburg Fortress.

God of love,
you refine silver and shelter the sparrow’s nest.
Accept the prayers we bring this day,
for you know all that tests and troubles us.
Embrace our needs in your blessing,
so that we may be sustained,
even in times of trial.
Strong and mighty God, Father of our Lord Jesus,
the presentation of your Son in the temple
was his first entrance into the place of sacrifice.
Grant that, trusting in his offering upon the cross
to forgive our sins and uphold us in the time of trial,
we may sing your praises
and live in the light of your salvation, Jesus Christ. Amen.