Mary 23 – Queen of Heaven

Posted: February 24th, 2012 | Author: | Filed under: Mary | Tags: , , , , , , , , | 2 Comments »

Mary, Queen of Heaven

I thought it would be fitting to close my series on Mary with a reflection on her title as Queen of Heaven. I know from experience that many of my fellow Protestant Christians find that appellation disturbing, though I’m not sure if it’s for theological reasons or because of our American discomfort with monarchical titles. In order to understand this title for Mary, we have to first look at Christ and specifically his Ascension.

To be honest, it’s not clear to me what the typical modern Evangelical thinks or believes about the Ascension of Christ. Sometimes I almost get the sense that they have a vision of Jesus as some cosmic spacemen flying off into outer space. But that’s certainly not what the Scriptures of Christian tradition are describing. When someone was crowned king or emperor, they ascended to their throne, which means they entered into their power. That’s what we see happening with Christ, but he was not ascending to a typical throne. Rather, he was ascending to the throne of God, to the seat of power in the Kingdom of the Heavens (which is to say God’s Kingdom).

And that’s where the “clouds” enter into the picture. Smoke or clouds were associated with the visible presence of God in Hebrew imagery. When God led the Israelites out of Egypt in the desert, he did so as a pillar of clouds. When the shekinah glory of God entered and rested upon the first temple, it did so as smoke. When Isaiah enters the presence of God in visions, he is surrounded by clouds and smoke. And so when Jesus ascends into the clouds, it’s a way of saying he is entering his power and taking the throne of heaven. Heaven, of course, is overlapping and interlocking with the material creation, but it is presently veiled from us, so as Jesus enters his power, he vanishes from their sight. But he didn’t leave and go someplace else. As we read in Matthew, “Lo, I am with you always, even unto the end of the age.” And sometimes that veil is pulled back. Stephen, the protomartyr saw the throne of God at the time of his death. Paul experienced the reality of the third heaven.

So Jesus the Christ, Son of God, is in Christian terms, the reigning King of heaven and earth. In Hebrew culture, going back at least to the time of the Davidic kings, who is the queen? It’s the king’s mother, also called the queen mother. In fact, that’s true in many cultures. In England, the mother of the monarch is even affectionately called the Queen Mum.

So Mary is rightly called the Queen of Heaven because her son is the reigning King of Heaven. Of all her titles, this should be one on which every Christian can agree. If we deny her the title of queen mother, we deny her son as king.

Now, as the Queen of Heaven, what does Mary do? She does what she has always done, which we see exemplified in the story of the wedding at Cana in John 2. She points to her son and commands us all, “Whatever he says to you, do it.”

Are not those the words we all need to hear?


Mary 6 – Brothers

Posted: January 16th, 2012 | Author: | Filed under: Mary | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , | Comments Off on Mary 6 – Brothers

In the comments to Elizabeth Esther’s post, there were primarily two objections from Scripture raised against the doctrine of Mary’s perpetual virginity. The more common one asks about his brothers — two of whom are also considered to have written books of the New Testament. If Mary didn’t have any more children, how is it that Jesus had brothers? I think the fact that it’s such a common and sincere question illustrates how completely disconnected so many modern Christians have become from the historical tradition of the Church. It was my impression that most of the people who asked about Jesus’ brothers in the comments on EE’s post weren’t consciously disagreeing with the tradition of the Church; rather, they knew nothing about it.

The oldest, and I believe most likely, tradition is that Joseph was an older man, a widower, and a father. Thus the siblings of Jesus were Joseph’s children from his prior marriage. That feels right to me on multiple levels. First, we are told that Joseph had earned the name or reputation of tsadiq or righteous. In the context of an externalized honor-shame culture, that public name is even more significant. While I suppose it’s possible a young man could be numbered among the tsadiqim, it feels more like the sort of recognition an older, more established man would have earned — especially in a culture that already tended to respect age over youth.

Also, the snippets of encounters in the Gospels (Mark 3:31-32 and Matthew 12:46-47) have always felt to me more like older brothers trying to straighten out a younger sibling who isn’t doing what they expected him to do. But perhaps that’s just the eldest sibling (and eldest first cousin, for that matter) in me.

And finally, we know that Joseph died sometime after teaching Jesus a trade, but before the Theophany at our Lord’s baptism. While people can and could die at any age from many causes, this fact fits with the idea that he was an older man when he was betrothed to Mary.

A different tradition arose in the West, casting Joseph as a younger man closer to Mary in age. In that tradition, the brothers of Jesus are actually his cousins raised in close proximity to him and possibly even in the same household. (The nuclear family as we understand it is quite different from ancient households and families.) That’s certainly possible. It’s true that ancient Aramaic used the same word for all close male relations of a similar age or generation. And the Greek word used also does not necessarily describe a sibling relationship, though it can. From everything I’ve been able to discover, this tradition arises later and exclusively in the West. Jerusalem and the regions in the Gospels are all in the East and this tradition never took root there. For both those reasons, it seems less likely to me.

Finally there is John 19:25-27 to consider.

Now there stood by the cross of Jesus His mother, and His mother’s sister, Mary the wife of Clopas, and Mary Magdalene. When Jesus therefore saw His mother, and the disciple whom He loved standing by, He said to His mother, “Woman, behold your son!” Then He said to the disciple, “Behold your mother!” And from that hour that disciple took her to his own home.

I’ve only been a member of a Southern Baptist Church as a Christian, so I’m familiar with the modern, Protestant understanding of the above passage. Basically it goes that as the eldest son, Jesus was responsible for his widowed mother and since his brothers did not believe he was the Messiah and had rejected him (an assertion, I’ll note, for which there really isn’t any evidence), he chose to have John care for Mary. I suppose that makes sense to our modern sensibilities, but it’s completely anachronistic. First, all the sons of a widow were responsible for her care. And it was an automatic obligation on the eldest surviving son. It wasn’t something that had to be passed along.

Now, think back to my post on the way honor-shame culture works. In that culture, if others believe that I have done something wrong, even if I don’t believe I’ve done anything wrong, I am still shamed and dishonored. So under the above interpretation of John’s gospel account, what’s really happening is that Jesus, John, and Mary are all colluding to publicly shame her other sons. I just don’t believe that’s the case. It doesn’t fit the character of any of them as captured in the gospels. It’s certainly difficult to imagine James, after being so dishonored by Jesus himself, becoming the first leading Bishop of the Jerusalem Church and such an influential early Christian figure.

No, the most reasonable interpretation of the text is that Jesus was Mary’s only son so he gave her into the care of John to ensure she didn’t suffer the fate of widows with no sons. (The ancient world was pretty harsh and there was no social safety net. Widows with no sons often did not survive long.) That’s not to say that his community of followers and extended family wouldn’t have cared for Mary anyway, but by doing this Jesus faithfully discharged even this last obligation. Remember, in Christian understanding, Jesus is the one, true faithful man and the fulfillment of faithful Israel.

Of course, John is known as the theological gospel and everything in it has multiple layers of meaning. This text is no different. However,  those layers of theology are grounded in an actual event. At least, most Christians agree it’s an actual event.


Ancient Texts 4 – Textual Variation

Posted: December 31st, 2010 | Author: | Filed under: Faith | Tags: , , , , , , | Comments Off on Ancient Texts 4 – Textual Variation

There is a great deal of attention and concern given today to textual variation in the Holy Scriptures. There are even books written by people who have lost Christian faith because they held to anachronistic and ultimately unsustainable views about the Bible. So I wanted to devote a post to the manner in which ancient texts were transmitted and preserved, placing the development of what we call the Bible in its proper context.

First, it’s important to recognize that unlike some sacred texts (the Qur’an is one good example) our Holy Scriptures were not written by one person at one point in time. The development of what we call the Bible today is a complex topic, but it certainly has many authors and developed over a long period of time. All of it captures a significant part of a larger oral tradition. Basically, the text of the Holy Scriptures functions as an integral piece of that oral tradition. Some parts, especially from what we call the Old Testament, developed over time — sometimes centuries. The New Testament, by contrast, was largely written by specific individuals and did not particularly develop over time. However, it all fits within a larger tradition and loses its meaning if removed from that tradition.

Next, as we’ve discussed before, these texts were all written and copied by hand. We have a difficult time grasping the difficulty of that task. It was extremely labor-intensive. And the materials were fragile and degraded over time, especially if handled and read frequently. Nor was there any sense in the ancient world that absolute verbatim accuracy in the copy was required. It’s not just a case of scribal error — though that certainly occurred. For instance, it’s possible that John did not originally include the story of the adulterous woman in John 8. It’s possible that a scribe a century later or so, living within a community immersed in the Johannine oral tradition decided that story also needed to be preserved. If so, by accepting the revised Gospel, the Church accepted that story as well. It’s not somehow of lesser importance or reliability. In fact, we would owe a debt to that scribe for preserving that piece of the tradition for us in the text.

However, variations in the text were simply not seen as a problem by anyone in the ancient world. We have homilies preserved by, for example, St. John Chrysostom where he encounters variations in a text. He simply notes that he has also seen it rendered this other way. Sometimes he’ll draw a spiritual point from both variant readings. But it doesn’t bother him when it happens. Now, there is a great deal of fidelity in the Christian manuscripts of the New Testament. Obviously care was lavished on their preservation. But they are a synergy between man and God both in their production and in their preservation. Like the Incarnation itself, the Holy Scriptures and the Church that provides the context for them are as fully human as they are divine — with all which that implies.

I’ll close with one more observation on textual variation. If you read the notes in a modern Bible, you’ll see comments that say things like “the oldest manuscripts do not include this.” Sometimes implied in that is the idea that the older a manuscript is the more accurate it is. But the truth is that we simply don’t know. As I’ve mentioned, the more a text was handled, the more it deteriorated. So it’s equally reasonable to assume that an old, variant manuscript survived because it was recognized as a poor copy and thus wasn’t used. We just don’t know. The only real guide we have lies in the reading or readings that the Church has accepted as valid or useful for edification.

If you ask the wrong questions, you’re unlikely to find the right answers. And a lot of the modern discussion on textual variation in parts of Christianity seems to flow from the wrong questions.


Thirsting for God 7 – Truth is a Promise

Posted: December 13th, 2010 | Author: | Filed under: Faith, Thirsting for God | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , | Comments Off on Thirsting for God 7 – Truth is a Promise

This series is reflecting on Matthew Gallatin’s book, Thirsting for God in a Land of Shallow Wells.

In this chapter, Matthew Gallatin begins by reflecting on Jesus’ own words about his church in Matthew 16:18.

The gates of Hades shall not prevail against it.

Do you believe that is true? Really? Because the vibe I get from many of the modern Protestant strands is that we can”t simply take Jesus at his word. Paul believed it was true. It’s why he did what he did the way he did it. It’s why he calls the church the “pillar and ground of truth” when he’s writing to Timothy. The early Christians did. They wrote of the Church as the ark of salvation and the end of religion. We now knew the truth. Pagans charged them with being atheists.

Jesus’ statement in Matthew’s Gospel is one of his clearer ones, but you wouldn’t think that was the case if you were to read most of the English language commentaries we have available for us today. Many of them explain at some length how Jesus really didn’t mean what he said, but meant something else instead. Matthew Gallatin’s reaction to that question, once he was able to ask it honestly, was straightforward.

First of all, I perceived this would mean that those teachings and practices I had previously dismissed as “Catholic” and “unscriptural” might actually be Spirit-inspired. The Faith as it was understood and practiced everywhere by millions of believers for at least a millennium would embody the truth Christ gave to the Apostles — if I believed that Jesus had the power to live up to His promises.

And that’s really the core of the matter. Do we believe that Jesus has the power to do what he said he was going to do or don’t we? It seems to me that’s the question most people never ask themselves.

How could I have thought my Lord to be the most powerless God ever worshiped?

That’s the point at which Matthew Gallatin found himself. It’s an honest and revealing question.

Now, that is not to say that the Church is or has ever been some perfect, utopian ideal. But then that’s not what Jesus founded. He was starting a hospital. As Jesus said, he didn’t come for the healthy; he came for the sick. The leaves of the tree are for the healing of the nations. Moreover, the Apostles recognized from the outset that the principalities and powers were organized against them and that part of that threat would be from within. John wrote against the docetists in the Church and called them antichrists. Peter wrote about ravening wolves masquerading as shepherds. Jesus himself said that the wheat and the tares had to grow together and would only be separated in the end. Attacks from the outside have usually made the Church stronger. The powers have long recognized that it’s most effective to attack it from within.

And even absent outright attack, the Church is a continuation of the Incarnation. (Paul’s image of body is quite apt.) Jesus emptied himself and became wholly and fully one of us in order to rescue and heal mankind. His victory is manifest and worked out not from a throne, but from a body build from broken, imperfect, and often corrupt humanity. As such, the Church has often done great evil as well as great good. We must acknowledge and confess those wrongs, not excuse them or hide from them. Nevertheless, it’s in our weakness that we are made strong. Jesus has overcome and continues to overcome and he is the cornerstone on which the Church rests. Do we or do we not believe that he has the power to support and maintain that church — even with all its marred and broken stones?

Ultimately, Matthew Gallatin had the following thought.

By the mercy of Christ, I’d always somehow known that when I found the real truth, I would find real love. After all, Truth is no a thing; it is a Person. And that Person, the Incarnate Son of God, is infinite Love.


Jesus Creed 25 – In the Jordan with Jesus

Posted: October 15th, 2010 | Author: | Filed under: The Jesus Creed | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , | Comments Off on Jesus Creed 25 – In the Jordan with Jesus

Hear, O Israel, the Lord our God, the Lord is one.
Love the Lord you God with all your heart,
with all your soul,
with all your mind, and with all your strength.
The second is this: Love your neighbor as yourself.
There is no commandment greater than these.

This is a series of reflections on Scot McKnight’s book, The Jesus Creed: Loving God, Loving Others. It’s a book I unequivocally recommend for anyone. Each chapter opens with recommended Gospel readings. The reading for this chapter is: Matthew 3:13-17.

This last part of the book looks at the active obedience of Jesus as he lives a perfect life of love. McKnight starts at the Jordan, but it really starts at Jesus’ birth. We just don’t know a whole lot until the Jordan. But we needed someone to pave the way for us. Or as Scot puts it after an opening illustration, “Opening a path to a spiritual clearing is what Jesus does for us with his entire life.”

I’m not sure I fully understand why this aspect of the grace and atonement of Jesus is so very important to me. But I do not I’m not alone. Iraneaus writes about it in the second century. Paul mentions it more than once in the first. For a time recently, people have seemed to find it less important, but that time appears to be passing. I hadn’t particularly noticed this train of thought when I first read The Jesus Creed, but after reading Embracing Grace I’m able to connect it to my reaction. I used different words and found most of my examples in putting it together in the early fathers. But I’ve come to see it’s the same basic idea.

To get these theological terms in focus, we need to remind ourselves of what God asks from us. Here’s the mystery of the Jesus Creed: Jesus both loves God and loves others for us and he summons us to love God and to love others. Three theological terms clarify this. First, Jesus substitutes for us in loving God and others perfectly. The term ‘substitution’ tends to be a little too clinical for what the Bible is getting at, so it is important to observe that, in substituting for us, Jesus also represents us before God in loving God and others. Further, by representing us he empowers us to participate with him in loving God and loving others.

I’m not sure this can be stressed enough. I sometimes have the sense, with some of the things we say and some of the songs we sing that we have reduced the gospel to virtually nothing but the cross. And that’s bizarre for something that doesn’t even show up in Christian art until the fourth century or so. Is the cross important? Absolutely! But when it seems to overwhelm Jesus’ life, his resurrection, the coming of the Spirit, and his promise to come again, which it sometimes seems to do, I think we’re going too far. The whole picture is not just important, but essential. I don’t think I see any ‘most important’ aspect, unless you wanted to say they are all ‘most important’.

Scot then spends some time emphasizing the fact that John’s baptism was for repentance. Why? So he could explore it in this section.

John’s baptism is for repentance, but Jesus is sinless. So why was Jesus baptized? To begin with, we are no more baffled than John himself, for he does his prophet’s best to keep Jesus from jumping into the Jordan with this jumble of sinners. … According to John, never were two people more unequal: the sinful John and the sinless Jesus.

But Jesus is baptized anyway. John’s baptism is for repentance, and Jesus doesn’t need to repent. Clearly then, if Jesus doesn’t need to repent, then he must be repenting for others, for us. Why would he do that?

Because in so ‘repenting for us,’ Jesus begins to unleash the power of the Holy Spirit for his followers. John baptizes with ‘water,’ but Jesus will baptize ‘with the Holy Spirit and with fire.’ John is referring here to the prophetic prediction of the coming of the Holy Spirit. That Spirit comes upon Jesus at his baptism when it comes down as a dove, and it comes on all his followers on the great day of Pentecost when they are flooded with the Spirit.

With these considerations, the baptism of Jesus becomes clear: Jesus is baptized to repent perfectly so God can send the Spirit to empower us for our vocations. … The only person who could do it perfectly would be a perfect person — and he would not need it.

Here’s the big picture and how baptism fits into it: the spiritually formed person loves God (by following Jesus) and others. Jesus loves God and others perfectly. We don’t love God perfectly, and we might as well admit it. We love God and others perfectly only when we follow Jesus through our piles of sin, which we do when we participate in Jesus’ own life. This expression ‘following Jesus’ that we’ve often used now gains full clarity: To follow Jesus means to participate in his life, to let his life be ours.

I know that was a long excerpt, but this strikes me as so important. Scot summarizes it in this following thought.

There is only one reason for Jesus to repent for us: We can’t repent adequately.

He proceeds to explore why, and we fail in all areas. We don’t know our own hearts perfectly. We never truly and completely tell the truth to God about sin, however hard we try. Our decisions or commitments to change are flawed and tend to contain that connector ‘but’, and we do not follow through with consistently changed behavior. Basically, we’re pretty lousy at repenting, so Jesus does it for us.

It’s also important to note that John’s baptism was one both of repentance and for forgiveness of sins. By participating in Jesus’ repentance, our sins are truly forgiven. The renovation of our hearts begins. One of the things Baptism today is still for is the repentance of sins. It’s one of a long list of things such as our adoption or entrance into the communion of God’s family and Jesus’ body, but still also for the forgiveness of sins.

Jesus paved the way for us — with his entire life of active obedience.

That cannot be reduced to a single event or sequence of events within his life. His whole life paved the way for us. He blazed the trail through the impenetrable jungle. And it’s the only path that actually leads out.


Four Hundred Texts on Theology (Third Century) 11

Posted: October 12th, 2010 | Author: | Filed under: St. Maximos the Confessor | Tags: , , , , , , | Comments Off on Four Hundred Texts on Theology (Third Century) 11

28. Blessed is he who knows in truth that we are but tools in God’s hands; that it is God who effects within us all ascetic practice and contemplation, virtue and spiritual knowledge, victory and wisdom, goodness and truth; and that to all this we contribute nothing at all except a disposition that desires what is good. Zerubbabel had this disposition when he said to God: ‘Blessed art Thou who hast given me, wisdom; I give thanks to Thee, 0 Lord of our fathers; from Thee comes victory and wisdom; and Thine is the glory and I am Thy servant’ (1 Esd. 4:59-60). As a truly grateful servant he ascribed all things to God, who had given him everything. He possessed wisdom as a gift from God and attributed to Him as Lord of his fathers the efficacy of the blessings bestowed on him. These blessings are, as we have said, the union of victory and wisdom, virtue and spiritual knowledge, ascetic practice and contemplation, goodness and truth. For when these are united together they shine with a single divine glory and brightness.

It has always been the Christian teaching that our true inner transformation, our reshaping according to the image of Jesus, happens in and through the power of God. As St. Maximos says here, “we contribute nothing at all except a disposition that desires what is good” — which is to say a disposition that desires God.

However, there sometimes seem to be many Christians today who discount the importance of that disposition. We must desire the light over the darkness. As John writes, “This is the message which we have heard from Him and declare to you, that God is light and in Him is no darkness at all. If we say that we have fellowship with Him, and walk in darkness, we lie and do not practice the truth. But if we walk in the light as He is in the light, we have fellowship with one another, and the blood of Jesus Christ His Son cleanses us from all sin. (1 John 1:5-7)” If we choose to walk in darkness, if we choose to try to refashion ourselves in the image of idols, God will let us do so.

However slight, we must begin with a disposition turned toward God, which necessarily means a disposition turned toward love. We might not even be able to want to love our enemies. But perhaps we can want to want to love them. Failing that, if we can even want to want to want to love them, it’s a place to start. (I believe I heard that once from Fr. Thomas Hopko.) We have to have a disposition that desire good and desires God, however faint that desire might initially be.


Jesus Creed 20 – Abiding in Jesus

Posted: September 29th, 2010 | Author: | Filed under: The Jesus Creed | Tags: , , , , , , , , , | Comments Off on Jesus Creed 20 – Abiding in Jesus

Hear, O Israel, the Lord our God, the Lord is one.
Love the Lord you God with all your heart,
with all your soul,
with all your mind, and with all your strength.
The second is this: Love your neighbor as yourself.
There is no commandment greater than these.

This is a series of reflections on Scot McKnight’s book, The Jesus Creed: Loving God, Loving Others. It’s a book I unequivocally recommend for anyone. Each chapter opens with recommended Gospel readings. The readings for this chapter are: Luke 10:38-42; John 15:1-17.

Scot begins with the idea that proper posture is important. There is no better place to abide in Jesus than at his feet.

God’s love for us in Christ is like a cellular connection: It is constantly available. He calls us to sit at his feet, attend to him, and absorb his life and love for us. How might we attend to Jesus so we have constant access to his love and life?

I do agree that we are called to union with Christ — that is our salvation. And I agree that such union is only possible when we assume a posture of humility. Moreover, Jesus is our only source of life and if we are not willing to receive our life from him, we have no life. However, the image of sitting at his feet is the image and posture of a student learning from the teacher. Jesus is the Teacher. That is certainly true. But as the gospel reading in John says, he is also the Vine. Posture is important, but as with all our metaphors, it falls short of capturing the fullness of the reality.

McKnight answers the question he asks above with the following three ways.

We can best attend to Jesus in at least three ways: listening to the Word, participating physically in worship and the sacraments, and engaging in Christian fellowship.

I don’t really disagree that those are three ways. Certainly the sacraments or mysteries sustain our union with Christ. But what about prayer? Fasting? Almsgiving? I don’t think abiding in Christ can be reduced to any three activities just as no one metaphor suffices.

Every time we fellowship with other disciples, we are in the presence of Jesus, and he is in our presence. What I mean here by ‘fellowship’ is any connection of Christians where, because they are together, they are in the presence of the Lord. Because the church is the body of Christ, each gathering of believers offers a whisper of his presence or the lingering aroma of his fragrance. This means that when we are in fellowship with others, we are actually attending to Jesus.

McKnight does bring Brother Lawrence into his discussion of abiding, so he recognizes the importance of continual prayer.  This was a hard chapter to summarize in any meaningful way. I suppose if he had really tried to delve deeply into the topic of abiding in Jesus, it wouldn’t have been a chapter. It would have been a whole book in its own right.


Jesus Creed 14 – A Society of Mustard Seeds

Posted: September 13th, 2010 | Author: | Filed under: The Jesus Creed | Tags: , , , , , , , , | Comments Off on Jesus Creed 14 – A Society of Mustard Seeds

Hear, O Israel, the Lord our God, the Lord is one.
Love the Lord you God with all your heart,
with all your soul,
with all your mind, and with all your strength.
The second is this: Love your neighbor as yourself.
There is no commandment greater than these.

This is a series of reflections on Scot McKnight’s book, The Jesus Creed: Loving God, Loving Others. It’s a book I unequivocally recommend for anyone. Each chapter opens with recommended Gospel readings. The reading for this chapter is: Matthew 13:31-32.

Jesus thinks paradoxes best explain the kingdom.

Is there any better way to capture Jesus’ parables? What are they if not paradoxes? And the particular parable under discussion in this chapter is even more the paradox than many. N.T. Wright has noted that Jesus did things and when questions or challenges were posed him as a result, sometimes he refused to answer and other times he told a story that forced his listeners to work out the meaning of his actions themselves.

But instead of defining ‘kingdom’ as paradise, Jesus defines it with a paradox. If you want to see what the kingdom is like, look at a mustard seed. This surprises everyone because it asks everyone to think of ‘kingdom’ in a new way. We should look at what they were already thinking — and be honest enough to admit that what they were thinking is what we are thinking — before we look at what Jesus means by a mustard seed.

When we think ‘KINGDOM’, do we really think mustard seed? That’s not the impression I get, whatever people say. The following expresses it well.

Why does a mustard seed attract comparison to the kingdom of God? Because for Jesus the kingdom is about the ordinariness of loving God and loving others. The kingdom is as common as sparrows, as earthy as backyard bushes, as routine as breakfast coffee, and as normal as aging. He hallows the ordinary act of love, making it extraordinary. Instead of finding it in the majestic, Jesus sees God’s kingdom in the mundane. The kingdom of God is the transforming presence of God in ordinary humans who live out the Jesus Creed.

Jesus inaugurates the Kingdom of God, but it doesn’t look like any sort of kingdom that people expected. Paul saw that Kingdom growing and spreading and the word he most commonly used to describe it was ecclesia, a word that did not have a strictly or even primarily religious meaning before it was adopted by Christians. (At least, that seems to be the general consensus.) We translate it Church, of course, in English.

The mustard-seed paradox of Jesus surprises in many ways. The first surprise is that Jesus finds the presence of his kingdom at work in the most unlikely of persons. … Time and time again Jesus chooses odd people to follow him, and then he holds them up as examples of what the kingdom is all about.

As one of those unlikely persons, I certainly empathize with this. Think about it. Don’t you see it again and again in the gospels?

Our natural tendency is to search for the perfect, for the powerful, for the pure, and so prepare for paradise. But Jesus’ kingdom is about tiny mustard seeds, not big coconuts; it is about the ordinary act of loving God and loving others with a sacred love that transforms.

Love God. Love others. The two cannot be separated. And it’s work and requires discipline and a willingness to change. Moreover, we have to love others even though they disappoint us and hurt us. But if we say we love God and hate our brother, we are liars. John said that, though I’ve noticed we don’t much like to read what he says.

Jesus’ Parable of the Mustard Seed tells us that the mustard seed, though small when it is planted, becomes a large bush. It grows. So also the kingdom of Jesus: it spreads like seeds, one at a time, from person to person.

And I suppose that captures the essence of my discomfort with “programs” of evangelism. I see that they ‘work’ with some people, whatever that means. At the same time, I see how thoroughly I could have decimated any of them if someone had naively attempted to convert me using one of them. It wasn’t any ‘program‘ that reached me. There were a number of individuals over time who acted out of love toward me. Over time that softened my dismissal and rejection of Christianity. I doubt anything else could have ever reached me.

In the world of Jesus, there are only two ways the kingdom can be established: either wait patiently and peacefully for God’s time or force the rule of God with violence.

That’s certainly a true observation. Which did Jesus choose? Can there be any doubt at all? What does that say about us?

Jesus has a thing for paradox. The thing is that it works.


The Jesus Creed 11 – John: The Story of Love

Posted: September 1st, 2010 | Author: | Filed under: The Jesus Creed | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Comments Off on The Jesus Creed 11 – John: The Story of Love

Hear, O Israel, the Lord our God, the Lord is one.
Love the Lord you God with all your heart,
with all your soul,
with all your mind, and with all your strength.
The second is this: Love your neighbor as yourself.
There is no commandment greater than these.

This is a series of reflections on Scot McKnight’s book, The Jesus Creed: Loving God, Loving Others. It’s a book I unequivocally recommend for anyone. Each chapter opens with recommended Gospel readings. The readings for this chapter are: Mark 10:35-45; Luke 9:49-56; John 13.

In John’s story we see the process of learning to love. John became the Apostle of Love, but he didn’t start that way. Not even close. In fact, not once during the gospels does John show any evidence of the love for which he would later be celebrated. Read them. They tell the truth. And the truth about John shows little love.

John does learn about love. He even ties loving God and loving others together, “Whoever loves God must also love his brother.” But John had a long way to go before he learned to live lovingly. In the gospels, John fails when he is tested in love. His failures are less celebrated than Peter’s denials, but I’m not sure that should be the case.

First, there’s John and James ‘request’ to let one sit on Jesus’ left and the other on his right. “If love is service (which is what Jesus goes on to explain to the brothers), then John fails in love.

Then John fails to recognize someone exorcising demons in Jesus’ name. John tries to stop them and ‘tells on them’ to Jesus. “To which Jesus gives the agelessly valuable response, ‘whoever is not against us is for us.’ Anyone following the Jesus Creed would not denounce someone who is breaking down demonic walls. Except John.

And then finally there’s John wanting to call down fire from heaven on the Samaritan town refusing Jesus hospitality because he was heading for Jerusalem.

John does eventually learn love. But key to that is that he was loved and loved deeply by Jesus. How does he describe himself? The disciple whom Jesus loved. John is a slow learner, but that constant exposure sinks in.

I probably empathize and connect more with John’s story of learning love than anyone’s, though Peter’s story of conversion is a close second.  I have always loved and desired family, but love of others was never my creed. At best, my perspective was that which fulfills the Wiccan Rede: An Ye Harm None, Do What Ye Will. At worst, my perspective was more along the lines of: Do unto others before they do unto you.

I still don’t think I would say that I’ve learned love.  I would say that I now desire to love — to truly love as Christ loves. While that’s quite a step for me, I don’t think it counts for all that much until I actually love. Until then, I pray for mercy as the least loving of all.

It occurs to me that scattered through my posts, I mention Wicca, Buddhism, Hinduism, Taoism, and other spiritual paths. It’s unlikely that many who read will be familiar with the many threads that shape my thoughts and thus my references. As a rule, I’m more drawn to the more ancient religions. Even so, though I have never been Wiccan, I have had friends who were and it’s one of the modern spiritualities that has to one extent or another shaped my life. I still remember how struck my wife was at the final line of a Wiccan handfasting of some friends of ours many years ago. You have been married since you met. She said that line described how she felt with me.

With that in mind, for those who may have never read or heard, I’m going to share the full Wiccan Rede. I do not believe it reveals the fullness of truth or I would be Wiccan rather than Christian. But there are ways to shape your life that are much worse.

The Wiccan Rede

Bide within the Law you must, in perfect Love and perfect Trust.
Live you must and let to live, fairly take and fairly give.

For tread the Circle thrice about to keep unwelcome spirits out.
To bind the spell well every time, let the spell be said in rhyme.

Light of eye and soft of touch, speak you little, listen much.
Honor the Old Ones in deed and name,
let love and light be our guides again.

Deosil go by the waxing moon, chanting out the joyful tune.
Widdershins go when the moon doth wane,
and the werewolf howls by the dread wolfsbane.

When the Lady’s moon is new, kiss the hand to Her times two.
When the moon rides at Her peak then your heart’s desire seek.

Heed the North winds mighty gale, lock the door and trim the sail.
When the Wind blows from the East, expect the new and set the feast.

When the wind comes from the South, love will kiss you on the mouth.
When the wind whispers from the West, all hearts will find peace and rest.

Nine woods in the Cauldron go, burn them fast and burn them slow.
Birch in the fire goes to represent what the Lady knows.

Oak in the forest towers with might, in the fire it brings the God’s
insight.   Rowan is a tree of power causing life and magick to flower.

Willows at the waterside stand ready to help us to the Summerland.
Hawthorn is burned to purify and to draw faerie to your eye.

Hazel-the tree of wisdom and learning adds its strength to the bright fire burning.
White are the flowers of Apple tree that brings us fruits of fertility.

Grapes grow upon the vine giving us both joy and wine.
Fir does mark the evergreen to represent immortality seen.

Elder is the Lady’s tree burn it not or cursed you’ll be.
Four times the Major Sabbats mark in the light and in the dark.

As the old year starts to wane the new begins, it’s now Samhain.
When the time for Imbolc shows watch for flowers through the snows.

When the wheel begins to turn soon the Beltane fires will burn.
As the wheel turns to Lamas night power is brought to magick rite.

Four times the Minor Sabbats fall use the Sun to mark them all.
When the wheel has turned to Yule light the log the Horned One rules.

In the spring, when night equals day time for Ostara to come our way.
When the Sun has reached it’s height time for Oak and Holly to fight.

Harvesting comes to one and all when the Autumn Equinox does fall.
Heed the flower, bush, and tree by the Lady blessed you’ll be.

Where the rippling waters go cast a stone, the truth you’ll know.
When you have and hold a need, harken not to others greed.

With a fool no season spend or be counted as his friend.
Merry Meet and Merry Part bright the cheeks and warm the heart.

Mind the Three-fold Laws you should three times bad and three times good.
When misfortune is enow wear the star upon your brow.

Be true in love this you must do unless your love is false to you.

These Eight words the Rede fulfill:

“An Ye Harm None, Do What Ye Will”


Four Hundred Texts on Love (Second Century) 25

Posted: August 19th, 2010 | Author: | Filed under: St. Maximos the Confessor | Tags: , , , , , | 3 Comments »

93. Death in the true sense is separation from God, and ‘the sting of death is sin’  (1 Cor. 15:56). Adam, who received the sting, became at the same time an exile from the tree of life, from paradise and from God (cf. Gen. 3); and this was necessarily followed by the body’s death. Life, in the true sense, is He who said, ‘I am the life’ (John 11:25), and who, having entered into death, led back to life him who had died.

Frederica Mathewes-Green recounts an event in her conversion when she heard Jesus tell her that he was her life — the other paths she was pursuing were not her life. I’ve never experienced anything quite as dramatic — though admittedly my life has been such that perhaps I’m not the best judge of what qualifies as drama — but the journey of my life has been marked by encounters, events, and experiences that are hard to explain in ways other than God’s active love for me. If Jesus is truly our life, then whatever we might find along other paths and from other sources is not ultimately life.

When I try to explore the reasons I remain Christian, this is probably close to the center. I feel at times somewhat like the disciples in John 6. Where else are we going to go, Lord? You have the words of life.