The Daughter of a Voice

In John 12:28f, Jesus says, “‘Father, glorify thy name.’ Then came there a voice from heaven, saying, ‘I have both glorified it, and will glorify it again.’ The people therefore, that stood by, and heard it, said that it thundered: others said, An angel spake to him.” A.T. Robertson (in Word Pictures) observed the Rabbis called the audible voice of God bath-qol, or “the daughter of a voice.” Now that’s a weird bit of trivia to throw into the commentary that I want to explore.

Consider the question of talking. When I talk to another person there is physical distance between us and that physical distance can be considered a metaphor for the distance between what I mean and what you think I mean. I can never fully say precisely what I mean. As a result, the person hearing my words may hear something rather different than what I mean. There is no direct connection between what I intend to say and what the other person hears. My meaning gets interpreted into words which go from me to you. Those words then get interpreted back into your meaning (or understanding). Hopefully my meaning and your understanding are pretty much the same thing.

We can describe this as a mediated process. Between my meaning and your understanding are several steps that mediate the two. My meaning can never directly touch your understanding; it must be mediated by something. Now this sounds very similar to something else. Moses wanted a direct apprehension of God, but God said, nope, won’t happen. “No one can see my face and live” (Ex. 33:20). God’s presence (that is, his face) had to be mediated by something else in order for us to apprehend God. Thus the Rabbis tended to view the shining glory of God (expressed in Moses’ burning bush, the cloud of the Exodus and the glory that dwelt in the temple), not as God in and of himself but rather as a created container that veiled the true presence. These were all mediated and not direct experiences.

Evidently (if I’m reading Robertson’s quotation of the Rabbis correctly) the Rabbis considered the voice of God a mediated experience also. It wasn’t actually God’s voice, it was “the daughter of a voice.” (That sounds a lot like the distance between my meaning and your understanding that I tried to describe above.) With all of this context in mind, something quite ironic happens in John 12. We have Jesus Christ, the one John calls both “the Word of God” and “the Son of God,” physically present with the people. In the midst of this scene the disembodied “daughter of the voice” of God comes booming out of heaven (v. 28). The irony is while they were curious about Jesus and wanted to see him, they thought the voice from heaven sounded down right angelic! God was right there but what caught their attention was the thing that pointed toward the sky, where they assumed God was supposed to be.

We take for granted that we have a sense of where God is and what God is supposed to do. The longer we’re Christians and part of a congregation, the more comfortable we become with how it all works, and by extension, where God is and what God is supposed to do. As a result, the longer we’ve been doing this, the greater the danger that we will settle for the daughter of the voice of God rather than the living God.

We need to learn to seek for God without mediation. The living God … and by definition, if God is living, God will exist beyond our expectations and even beyond our desires … The living God is a bit tricky to commune with. Compare this relationship with that of a close friend or spouse. Just about the time you have the relationship figured out and start taking it for granted, the other does something unexpected and you end up responding all wrong. It is the same with God but even more so. If we are truly communing with God that relationship is growing and changing day by day. If we get too comfortable, we end up “communing” with a mediated God, the God of last year, God, but mediated by our expectations from an experience in the past. The result is we are attracted to the booming sound, the mere daughter of a voice, when we could be communing with the Son of God himself.

At the end of this passage Jesus says he will draw all people to himself (v. 32). And indeed, at the beginning of this passage we find foreigners asking to see Jesus (v. 21) no doubt because they are drawn to him. That might seem straightforward, but it turns out to be more slippery than we imagine. On our way to see the Son of God we get distracted by the daughter of a voice. It’s beautiful and awesome; the text even tells us it’s angelic (v.29). But it’s not Jesus. And that’s the trick. We have to be discerning enough to recognize the difference and we have to be picky enough not to settle for the mediated experience.

 

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To the Thousandth Generation

To prove that I actually was paying attention at worship on Sunday (see previous post) I heard something that had never quite registered in the Ten Commandments when the Old Testament lesson (Ex. 20:1-17) was read. “You shall not bow down to [other gods or idols] or worship them; for I the LORD your God am a jealous God, punishing children for the iniquity of parents, to the third and the fourth generation of those who reject me, but showing steadfast love to the thousandth generation of those who love me and keep my commandments” (vv 5f).

That phrase “to the third and the fourth generation” has been part of my consciousness for as long as I remember. Of course I’ve heard preachers talk about it, but I’ve also heard psychologists and crime experts use the phrase when talking about a whole host of societal troubles being generational. But on Sunday it was the following phrase that jumped out at me: “But showing steadfast love to the thousandth generation of those who love me and keep my commandments.”

I wish I was still in an academic community, or at the very least still had access to a good theological library because I have a hunch. When that sentence is viewed as a whole, the first half has the feel of folk wisdom. I wonder if that’s not how the people viewed their world apart from any divine revelation. The sort of troubles that were self-inflicted not only affected you, but also your children and grand-children to the third and even fourth generation. I’m wondering if that’s not just how people viewed (and still view) the world. I want to be very clear that I’m not offering an interpretation; I’m speculating. I’m speculating that the explanation of this first commandment begins with a bit of popular wisdom: things you cause have consequences “to the third and the fourth generation.”

Let’s assume I’m correct for a moment and the explanation for this commandment begins with how people think about the world. God then starts with that assumption and expands (or explodes) it beyond all recognition. Let me rephrase it as follows: “You tend to think in the negative. You think that if you break the covenant it will have consequences not only for yourself but for your offspring for several generations. But your perception of me (that is, God) is backward. The covenant is everlasting, and if you worship me instead of other gods, I will show you unwavering covenant love for a thousand generations (ie, for as long as you can imagine).

We tend to think, “What are all the ways that this can go wrong?” It’s human nature. But I suspect that God is rejecting that sort of thinking and telling us to replace it with a different question: “What are all the ways this can go right beyond our imagination?” We can imagine a lot of bad things. In contrast to our imagination, God is offering us unwavering covenant love beyond what we can even imagine.

So, if there’s any actual Old Testament scholars out there who have the tools to research this stuff, I ask you if I’m on to something. Is the whole “third and fourth generation” thing actually a bit of folk wisdom, or am I completely off base? Whether it is or not, this first commandment is a remarkable statement of divine mercy. Thanks be to God.

 

Have You Ever Seen a Picture of Jesus Cleansing the Temple?

The sermon I heard on Sunday, based on the Gospel lesson about Jesus cleansing the Temple (Jn 2:13-22), caught me completely off guard. We were reminded that we see copies of the Ten Commandments for sale everywhere, even the grocery store (the Old Testament lesson) and images of the cross are ubiquitous (the epistle), but, according to Fr. Jay, you’ve probably never seen a picture of Jesus with a whip in his hand cleansing the temple. At this point I don’t know where the sermon went because I found the statement completely at odds with my experience.

Actually, this image was one of the more common in my childhood. It wasn’t in our home—being fairly hard-core iconoclasts, we didn’t have pictures of Jesus in our home—but it was common throughout the education wing of the church building. Our denomination was quite horrified by all that stuff we thought was idolatrous and for the most part, the only images that were acceptable—pictures for the kids in the education wing—tended toward the dramatic and led to a good story: Adam, Eve, and the snake, Moses with his staff over his head, the Ark with the Animals streaming in, Jesus with the sheep (actually, that one was in the sanctuary, so go figure), and of course, Jesus at the temple, driving out the animals, money changers, etc.

While I don’t know about denominational policies and practices as a whole (I was just a kid, after all), I know that even in college this image (by this time, not a picture on the wall, but a mental image—we were iconoclasts after all) of Jesus, with whip in hand, driving the money changers from the temple was a big deal. For the rest of the sermon (which after this was sort of like Charlie Brown’s school teacher going “Wah, wah, wah” in the Christmas special) I pondered why this image was so central to the tradition of my childhood.

The answer was actually rather obvious. The Bible Church was a weird confluence of the Reformed and Holiness traditions. I call it weird because on theological grounds we rejected holiness doctrine in favor of a Reformed view of salvation (salvation by grace alone through faith and not of works) but at the same time, on practical, everday grounds, being holy was a very big deal. (“We don’t drink, and we don’t chew, and we don’t go with girls that do,” to quote the popular doggeral.) Drinking and smoking (illegal drugs like heroin and legal drugs like opiods weren’t much of a thing yet, so those weren’t on the list) weren’t allowed because the body was the Temple of the Holy Spirit. That image of Jesus, whip overhead, cleansing the Temple, was the icon par excellence of our Christian life.

This whole question of whether I’d ever seen an image of Jesus with a whip above his head cleansing the temple was so arresting to me because I’ve been pondering the book of Joshua. (Speaking of weird, that’s a weird turn for this essay to take, but stay with me. Oh, and I suspect there’s an essay on Joshua coming up eventually.) I recently read Joshua and this trip through the book I was taken by how violent the story is, what with all the genocide, etc. But the church of my youth didn’t treat Joshua primarily as a history. I know that’s odd. The denomination completely missed the point of the early chapters of Genesis, treating them as history, but tended to focus on Joshua and Judges as stories that were types of Christ. We didn’t revel in the violence, we saw in the violence the profound difficulty in living a holy life. If you don’t stamp evil out completely in your life as in the Promised Land, that evil will come back to haunt you.

Similarly, the image of Jesus snapping the whip and driving the money changers from the temple was the image of the danger of allowing the secular world to impinge on the sacred. It was the summation of the tragedy described in Joshua and Judges. It was the single picture of the whole Old Testament story of promises to God undercut by our failure to root out the evil in our lives.

I wonder if anyone else remembers that Sunday School picture in the same way I do.

It’s not so much a picture of violence as it is of purity. As Mt. 11:12 says, “From the days of John the Baptist until now the kingdom of heaven has suffered violence, and the violent take it by force.” (Caveat: I’m no longer sure this is the correct interpretation of this verse, but this was certainly how we viewed these words of Jesus at Bible College. It was a description of the difficulty of living the pure life that John the Baptist embodied.) As a result, after I became a Presbyterian and started doing those things that so horrified the Bible Church of my childhood, finding this text at the midpoint of Lent seemed not only natural, but inevitable. It’s at this point, when all of our good intentions have been revealed for what they are, that we are faced with this icon of purity, of Jesus in our hearts driving out the impurities that we have come to accept with thoughtless ease.

So that’s what I got out of church this week. … I still sort of wonder what Fr. Jay was talking about after the part about the picture of Jesus and the whip in the temple. 🙂

Tripping Over God … (then blaming God for it)

We suffer from illusions of an angry God. I will grant you that much of the church is quite angry and they paint angry make-up onto their image of God’s face. But an angry church justifying itself by speaking of an angry God, doesn’t make it so.

It mostly has to do with that biblical word “wrath,” which we too often assume is a synonym of “anger” (as we use that word today). That’s just sloppy thinking. It also has to do with Old Testament experiences, when God had not yet revealed himself personally. From time immemorial everyone assumed the gods were angry and taking it out on us. Is it any surprise that ancient people, encountering the living God for the first time, layered some of those assumptions over their experience? But when God came to us as a person we began to discover just how wrong we were.

Sunday’s Gospel lesson, Matthew 21:33-46, is the springboard for my thinking about divine anger. Karl Barth described divine wrath as follows (and yes, I know I have cited this passage many times in this blog; I’m not that forgetful, it’s just that good). Referring to judgment that Jesus Christ was under, he said, “He stands under the wrath and judgment of God, He is broken and destroyed on God. It cannot be otherwise” (CD, IV;1, p. 175).

Barth never says where he got that image expressed in the words, “he is broken and destroyed on God,” but I suspect he got it from Mt. 21:44. “The one who falls on this stone will be broken to pieces; and it will crush anyone on whom it falls.”

In this text Jesus tells one of his vineyard parables and in the telling explains why the religious leaders of the day and the religion of that day will be set aside and replaced by something of God’s own making. It is a classic judgment text, and by implication it is a “wrath of God” text. But it’s not an angry God text. Far from it!

This wrath is not something God does, it is something we do to ourselves. We steadfastly refuse to go along with reality. We “create our own reality,” to loosely quote the pop psychology of the day. But the rock that we are heading for is actually real and when we – reality deniers that we are – run directly into it and destroy ourselves in the process, we experience exactly what Jesus is talking about.

In verse 42, Jesus said to them, “Have you never read in the scriptures: ‘The stone that the builders rejected has become the cornerstone; this was the Lord’s doing, and it is amazing in our eyes’?” This is an amazing thing! The Greek word used here means “worthy of admiration.” That God uses stuff that our world simply discards and turns it into a beautiful building is the essence of Good News.

And then we go and trip over it, and in our vulgar blindness insist that God is really pissed. Divine Wrath is a frightful thing and something we need to pay attention to. Insisting that this is the same thing as God being mad at us? Well that’s just plain old unbelief.

 

The Usual Daily Wage

Exodus 16:2-15 / Jonah 3:10-4:11; Phil 1:21-30; Mat 20:1-16
(for Sep. 24)

We modern Christians get hung up on the whole salvation by works vs grace thing. On the one hand while Ephesians says, “For by grace you have been saved through faith, and this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God – not the result of works, so that no one may boast” (2:8f). On the other hand there are over two dozen passages that say that in the end, God will judge us by our works, including that rather amazing passage in James 2:14-24 that appears to be an explicit corrective to how Paul’s teaching on grace and works was understood by the church.

The process of salvation is a far more rich and nuanced issue in scripture than our binary of grace and works allows for. This week’s Gospel lesson is a wonderful example of this richness. A landowner needs workers, so he goes to the workers’ market early in the morning to hire a van load of workers. He returns to the workers’ market a few more times, the last trip being around 4:00 pm to pick up his final load of workers for the day. At 5:00 pm, when he pays everyone for their day’s work, everyone gets paid the same, no matter if they worked 8 hours or one hour.

“How’s that fair?” complains the group who worked all day. And indeed! How is this fair at all?

And of course, isn’t this rather the point about the Gospel that Jesus is making. The Gospel isn’t fair nor is it just, it is instead excessively good for everyone involved.

Back to our original question of grace and works, we must start with grace because that is where the New Testament starts. But once we have been given new life in Christ, totally by divine grace, then we have responsibilities to use the gift wisely. What do you suppose would have happened if one of those workers who was hired at 8:00 am just sat around all day instead of doing the work assigned to him? Getting the job implies the responsibility of doing the job. Similarly, receiving the gift of new life means we have several responsibilities: being “a workman who is not ashamed” (2 Tim. 2:15), “enslaving” our bodies (1 Cor. 9:27), “growing up in every way … into Christ” (Eph 4:15), etc. Paul goes as far as to say that if he failed to do these things he feared that he would be “disqualified” (NRSV) or “a castaway” (KJV) (1 Cor. 9:27).

At this point – the point of being good stewards of the new life that has been graciously given to us – the grace/works binary breaks down and ends up being more harmful than helpful. Work is not what you do or don’t do, it’s a frame of reference. Instead of a binary of opposites (grace/work) which James clearly rejects in ch. 2 of his letter, we need to think in terms of complimentary responses. Divine grace draws out human gratitude. God’s mighty work draws out my own labor.

Furthermore, work (in the positive context) has less to do with actions and more to do with expectations. True love expects nothing in return. Like grace drawing out gratitude, so our work in God’s vineyard should be the result of God’s love for us. As soon as we begin to think that we’re becoming a special Christian, or even, God forbid, someone that God simply can’t do without, then our expectations have misled us and we end up being like the laborers who worked all day. We think that God needs us and fail to understand (as the landowner says in the parable that God is simply generous. (“Am I not allowed to do what I choose with what belongs to me? Or are you envious because I am generous?” Mt. 20:15)

The parable ends with a common theme in the parables: “So the last will be first, and the first will be last.” We must always remember that there is nothing fair about the kingdom. Everything is upside down. If you go about your life seeking justice, then you are not seeking God. God’s generosity (the word from the parable that is a synonym for divine grace) is not fairness; it is not payment for what is owed. Thinking about life in terms of fairness, justice, and becoming a powerful Christian because of how my life has been transformed will get you nowhere in the Kingdom of heaven.

Can we delight in God as God delights in us or will we fall back into the trap of expecting even more for all the “good” things we have done?

Both Discipline and Forgiveness

Sep 10 Gospel – Matthew 18:15-20; Sep 17 Gospel – Matthew 18:21-35

I was the Associate Pastor at a congregation that had previously had a pastor who was both a crook (literally – he dared not go to Florida because of pending fraud charges connected with skimming church funds) and a sexual predator. Not surprisingly he was smooth and very convincing. He still had a strong following in the congregation. Part of the difficulty in removing him was the denominational disciplinary system was not set up to deal well with a person who was that deceitful and convincing and unrepentant. Despite the wickedness, he was a good fund raiser, so tragically, another denomination gave him credentials and allowed him to serve a large and very prosperous congregation after he had been fired and defrocked by the PC(USA).

This is not a hard case. Someone like this needs to be both disciplined by the church and prosecuted by the state. But the starkness of the case highlights the difficulty of Jesus’ teaching in the two lectionary readings from Mt. 18. This week’s lesson about forgiveness is the second half of last week’s lesson about church discipline. This is Matthew writing toward the end of the first century looking back on Jesus’ teaching and recognizing that Jesus knew where this whole “church” thing was going. It was going to get organized, there would be bad apples, and eventually there would be problems.

Jesus’ solution is best describes as progressive discipline. There is need to work with the sinner in stages. Restoration is at first personal (“point out the fault when the two of you are alone” v. 15) and then discreet (“take one or two others along with you, so that every word may be confirmed by the evidence of two or three witnesses” v. 16). If this informal approach does not work, the process of restoration becomes formal and ultimately public (“tell it to the church …” vv. 17f).

But in order to avoid this process becoming a series of witch hunts, this is immediately followed by the teaching on forgiveness. Peter asks, “How many times should I forgive” (v. 21)? Jesus’ answer, told in parable form, assumes that we are to forgive as we are forgiven. The specific teaching is that if I refuse to forgive as I have been forgiven then I am “a wicked servant.” When the forgiven servant refused to forgive others, the master sent him to jail until all his debts were paid. The last verse is chilling. “This is how my heavenly Father will treat each of you unless you forgive your brother or sister from your heart” (v. 25).

This is typical of the normal pattern of Jesus’ teaching. Rules and regulations are not dismissed as unimportant but are placed in the context of our heart, that is, our affections, attitudes, and desires. Trying to find that narrow path between being rule-bound and ignoring problems is delicate and difficult. Returning to the opening story, the pastor was fired and defrocked without a lot of information given to the church. His predatory sexual exploitations were not revealed because of the privacy of the victims. The possibility of fraud was not explained in detail because a thorough audit had not yet been completed and the Presbytery didn’t want to damage any possible case the state might have against him.

Because all the details were, for what seemed good reasons at the time, not made public (in contrast to “tell it to the church” v. 17), the gossip exploded and a significant portion of the congregation took his side (he was a smooth talker after all!) and opposed the presbytery. They accused the Presbytery and those who sided with the Presbytery of not being willing to forgive. In the rough and tumble context of real life, the proper application of Jesus’ teaching is not so obvious.

Successful application of both sides of this process (forgiveness and discipline), whether in an individual context or the formal context of church structure, requires the ability to discern the heart of both parties. While this passage is about the structures of our corporate church life, Jesus is saying less about that and more about the state of each of our hearts. (Again, this is the typical and normal pattern of Jesus’ teaching.) The implication of this text is that any criticism I have of another Christian, or another person in general, is a mirror revealing and then reflecting my hidden heart back to me. As individual Christians or more formally as congregations, any actions we take to “encourage,” “correct,” or “improve” others is as much about us as it is about them. Our salvation is not so much a thing that resides within me, it rather rides on interactions and relationships I have with others.

Secondary Education

Jer. 15:15-21 (Ex. 3:1-15), Rom. 12:9-21, Mt. 16:21-28 (for Sep 3, 2017)

We have come to the great turning point in Matthew in the Revised Common Lectionary. We might think of it as the end of primary school and the matriculation to secondary school. So far the message has been the Kingdom of God but now we move to the Cross of Christ. We might summarize Jesus’ message as follows:

  1. Virtue will ultimately win (the message of the Kingdom of God)
  2. Virtue can only win by losing (the Cross of Christ)
  3. Virtue is not incremental (the process of getting better and better) but emergent.

The hard part of this lesson (the thing that makes this secondary education rather than primary education) lies in the question, “But why does evil have to win?” The answer is that it’s not precisely accurate to say that evil has to win, rather it has to reveal itself for what it is. This goes back to the Parable of the Wheat and the Tares. One dare not remove the tares from the wheat until they are both mature or the harvester will inevitably confuse the two. There is a catch: a tare, being a tare, will grow more aggressively and it will appear that the tare will squeeze out the wheat. In other words, it will appear that evil is winning.

With this in mind, let’s return to the third point above. Not only is virtue emergent, evil is also emergent. Prior to the most recent election cycle there was a predominant (barely predominant, but predominant nonetheless) consensus that liberalism was virtuous and conservatism was not. The conservative tendency to hold on to “outdated” ideas (and for this consensus to hold, the questionable assumptions must be made 1. that it is outdated and 2. that which is outdated is less virtuous) made it “obvious” that conservativism is mean (which literally means “small minded”). When Donald Trump won the Republican nomination, there was a great deal of fear (driven by the predominant consensus) that a great deal of meanness and evil would result when (not if, but when) Hillary Clinton won the election.

We will never know whether the Republicans would have lost graciously, but what was revealed was a shocking level of malevolence and evil on behalf of supposedly virtuous liberal culture toward conservative culture. “Sore loser” doesn’t even come close to describing it. The media, rather than just analyzing the loss, began to systematically dehumanize Donald Trump and his supporters. (This is, by the way, when I canceled my subscription to the Washington Post. They had by far the best post-election coverage, but mixed in with that outstanding coverage was a malevolence and dehumanization of the perceived enemy that sunk to such depths I couldn’t read the paper without being dragged down into the muck.

This is not to say the conservatives were virtuous. Tit for tat, they were busy dehumanizing the liberals and also participating in the same evil the liberals were enslaved by and American society sunk to a new low of dehumanization and evil that has led many intellectuals to seriously wonder whether this is the beginning of the end of democratic experiment of America that was begun some 250 years ago.

And this brings me back to the Gospel lesson. In the midst of this emergent evil I try valiantly to not become a Peter. In Matthew Jesus said that he must be crucified at the hands of the religious leaders. Peter said it absolutely would not happen, and Jesus immediately and with no equivocation said to Peter, “Get behind me Satan.” To use a football metaphor, it’s the third quarter and virtue is losing badly in this quarter. (The leader of the apostles just got called satan!) To return to the parable, this is the quarter where the tares grow madly like weeds (which they are) while the wheat continues its steady pace. But it’s only the third quarter and the victory of losing (the victory of the cross) will only be revealed at the resurrection. The end game is not yet afoot.

But Jesus has now turned to our secondary education. We must learn that what we thought was virtue must die so that a new and even more glorious virtue can emerge. Virtue is not the good stuff we used to do made even better; virtue is a divine gift that can only be received when we recognize that the stuff we were holding on to is rubbish. The Kingdom of God is the first half of the game. The Cross is the third quarter (where we are now), but victory only comes in the fourth quarter.

This doesn’t mean that I believe the United States will come out of this stronger and better. (This isn’t about the U.S., it’s about the Kingdom of God and we ought not confuse the two!) The United States as a leader in democracy, human rights, and what we thought to be virtuous, might be in its final death throes (although I actually doubt that is the case). What we do know is that we need to let our old virtue die. We need to recognize that the whole myth of a Christian nation was not wheat but tares. We need to recognize the tares, the evil, for what it is. Only when we let go all those values we held so dearly … only when we die, will it be revealed what actual victory looks like. “Get behind me Satan!”

Commenting on God’s promise to Abraham that his offspring would be slaves for 400 years before they became a great nation (in Lecture X of his “Bible Series” on YouTube), Jordan B. Peterson observed that tyranny precedes freedom. “All people are subject to the tyranny before freedom.” The only way to throw off the shackles tyranny is to die, and so the path through is the path of the Cross. To deny this is satanic and to that Jesus says, “Get behind me Satan!” As Peterson would probably say to this, “Yeah, that’s one hell of a deal, man.” But that’s the way it is. Welcome to your secondary education.

The Embrace of Peter and Paul

This is a lectionary reflection on this week’s Gospel lesson, Mt. 16:13-20, the story of Jesus giving Peter the keys to the kingdom, but once again I want to get at it through an icon. One of the popular icons in contemporary Eastern Orthodoxy is the icon of the Embrace of Saints Peter and Paul. Putting these two apostles together goes back in church history as far as we can go. They are unique among the apostles in that they are commemorated together rather than individually. Their Feast is June 29, which is the culmination of the Apostles Fast, beginning immediately after Pentecost. That fast and feast is ancient, but this icon featuring an embrace is a recent development, first showing up in Crete in the 15th century.

The Eastern Orthodox Church has always seen Peter and Paul as inseparable. Peter was the Apostle to the Jews while Paul was the Apostle to the Greeks. Peter was the first bishop of Antioch, the congregation that first accepted Paul as a Christian and then sent him out as a missionary. Many years later the Paul travelled to Rome and essentially gave that congregation apostolic approval. Shortly after, Peter became Rome’s bishop.

The Western church was initially (and has always remained) very Greek in its sensibilities, and this was Paul’s gift to the church – reframing a Jewish sect so that it made sense to the world of Greek culture. (This is the meaning of the phrase, “They were first called Christians in Antioch.” Prior to this the church was simply considered the Way of Jesus. It was essentially a sect of Judaism. That Greek word “Christian” marks the beginning of this reframing of Jesus’ teachings into another culture.)

It is ironic that the Roman Catholic Church is often called the church of St. Peter because Peter never did manage to embrace this reframing of Christianity that Paul oversaw and Rome represented. That was a Pauline thing. Peter was and is far more representative of the church along the Eastern Mediterranean (Jerusalem, Antioch to the north, Crete to the west and Alexandria to the south). These were and are churches that maintained a strongly Semitic outlook, and that was Peter’s thing.

But Peter is first among the apostles, it was to Peter that Jesus gave authority (Mt., 16:13-20). As the power of the Roman bishop grew and as Rome grew increasingly alienated from the rest of the church, it was politically necessary that Rome cement its connection with Peter even though their soul was far more Pauline.

It had been coming for centuries but the official break of the Roman bishop from the larger church occurred in 1054. Historically there was an inevitability to the break, especially after the imperial capital was moved from Rome to Constantinople. But no one was happy that the Roman Bishop had fallen out of fellowship with the Bishops (by this time called Patriarchs) of Jerusalem, Antioch, Alexandria, and Constantinople.

In the 1438 the fall of the imperial city of Constantinople was still in the future (that happened in 1453), but the demise of the Eastern Roman Empire was already obvious. There was an opportunity for rapprochement between east and west and this was addressed at the Council of Ferrara-Florence in 1438-39. The reconciliation failed, but out of that effort grew an idealized memory of the past.

Much of the Byzantine court (particularly, worship specialists, as well as the art, music, and documents) had been moved from Constantinople to Crete in order to save it from the inevitable sack of the city. It was in Crete (Constantinople in exile) during the period of the council that an iconographer named Angelos first painted the Embrace of Peter and Paul. It is almost certainly historically inaccurate, but it expressed the hopes of the future as well as the rosy memories of the past for much of the church in the 15th century.

In one sense this story has nothing to do with us because that moment, the possibility of reunion envisioned by Ferrara-Florence is no longer feasible without unimaginable changes. But this icon from this period has much to do with Protestants, Roman Catholics, and Eastern Orthodox, if we but choose to see it. Matthew 16:13-20 is a touchstone of deep division, given that this text has been co-opted (in the Protestant and Orthodox view) by the Catholics to bolster their vison of a universal pope to rule them all.

The icon has an odd feature that makes it quite precisely our story. Peter and Paul may be embracing, but they’re not looking at each other, they are looking past each other. (I personally have a hard time seeing this, but both art experts and icon experts have commented on this, so I’m taking their word for it.) One wonders if Angelos, while expressing his hope for union in the embrace, didn’t also express his expectation of failure in his depiction of the eyes. While the embrace almost certainly never happened, the not seeing eye to eye certainly did. Peter and Paul never did fully reconcile and James, the Bishop of Jerusalem, finally separated them, sending Paul to evangelize out west and (from the silence of scripture, I assume) allowing Peter to stay put in the Jerusalem to Antioch corridor on the eastern end of the Mediterranean.

Looking back over history, I would argue that one of the strengths of the church is that east and west has never seen eye to eye. Those terrible Judaizers that ran around Asia Minor and Greece were almost certainly the everyday Christians of the eastern Mediterranean coast. That Judaizing debate was the disagreement between Peter and Paul writ large. Paul thought the central issue was works (and this is the side of the story that is recorded in Paul’s letters). The Eastern Christians thought the issue was how we go about incorporating the Gospel into our everyday lives (more reflective of James and the Petrine letters). When Peter and Paul (East and West) were in the same room they fought and misconstrued each other, but when given a degree of separation they tended to bring a balance to each other in the first millennium before the great split in 1054. That was the wisdom of James, the Bishop of Jerusalem and the effect of that first Jerusalem council.

Now there are three siblings (Orthodox, Catholic, Protestant) who can’t get along. Like Peter and Paul, even in their embrace, we’ll probably never see eye to eye, but we should at least be embracing each other. Behind our embrace is the profound wisdom of James who understood that the Gospel is simply too big for any one of us to grasp the whole thing.

Canaanites, Dogs, and St. Christopher

NOTE: Because of an unexpectedly busy week (ah, the tyranny of the urgent but pointless!) I didn’t get this essay edited to post in a timely manner. Sunday’s Gospel lesson is at the center of one of my current fascinations, so I’m posting it anyway; better late than never.

I want to approach this Sunday’s lectionary Gospel lesson by way of a bizarre Eastern Orthodox icon that I just recently discovered when listening to this video by iconographer and medievalist Jonathan Pageau. He explains the icon in far more depth in this article in the Orthodox Arts Journal.

This is how St. Christopher was traditionally represented in Eastern Orthodox iconography. In the West, St. Christopher typically appears as a giant carrying a traveler on his shoulder. And not just any giant! He was said to be a “Cainite” (offspring of Cain) and Nephilim, the half angel, half human creature that was the primary cause of the flood, according the standard medieval interpretation of Genesis.

The reason he is shown with a dog’s head is that the Eastern tradition says he was a Canaanite. Canaanites were a particularly despised people group in the near east at the time of Jesus and the early church. And this brings us to this week’s Gospel lesson (Mt. 15:21-28), where a Canaanite woman pled with Jesus to heal her daughter who was tormented by a demon. Jesus initially ignored her and called the Canaanites dogs (as everyone did). Eventually he did heal her, but the Gospel story leaves a sour taste in our modern mouths.

By today’s standards Jesus’ words would probably be considered hate speech. For the followers of Jesus, the scandal was not that Jesus referred to the Canaanites as dogs, but rather that he relented and delivered the woman’s daughter.

The Canaanite woman and Christopher, the Canaanite saint, are examples of how the Gospel reaches beyond the borderlands of culture into chaos. They are uncomfortable edge cases which punctuate our prejudices that often dehumanize the person who is completely other, whether it is a person of another culture or skin color  or are different in other ways, such as deformities, deficiencies, or simply lack of good taste or proper politics.

But this is why Christopher has endured as an honored saint. Of course pure people (that is, us in our self-perception) can be Christ-bearers. We also affirm that foreigners can be Christ-bearers, because Jesus sent the apostles to spread the Gospel to the whole world. But the world is also populated by things that are simply “unnatural” and otherwise beyond. It’s too easy for us to see certain people and think that they are beyond redemption, like dogs.

Jesus could have done the correct thing and welcomed the Canaanite woman with open arms, but if he would have done that, an important lesson would have been missed. In order to emphasize the surprising inclusivity of the Gospel he began by emphasizing the exclusivity of polite society. He started with that which people required, and from there he moved to including the unnatural and unredeemable under the umbrella of the Gospel.

In the Western tradition, according to Pageau, Christopher never entered the nave of the church only coming in as far as the narthex. This is a very interesting bit of the story. The church has rules. In all except the most liberal of churches (which are most of the Protestant churches of today especially in America, but both worldwide and historically, this is an outlier) the Table is “fenced.” Not just anyone can receive communion because, to speak metaphorically, the Cup is like a raging flame, and if one is not prepared by God, the Cup might be experienced as judgment rather than an internal enlightenment.

The one who is recognized as a saint that isn’t fully a part of the Body of Christ (entering the church only as far as the narthex), embodies the self-imposed quandary we find ourselves in. Historically, with a handful of exceptions (modernity being one of them), the church has felt strongly that rules are required in order to be faithful to Christ. But as soon as we make rules we discover that the Gospel can extend beyond the rules. Rules always look backward while the Gospel looks forward and outward. Rules, while required, always end up being complicated.

The other problem, and this isn’t a quandary, this is just plain old wickedness hiding in the form of high sounding rules, is that we often want to exclude certain people, and even worse, certain classes of people just because they are our “Canaanites.” In Sioux City it tends to be Native Americans, in South Sioux City it might be Hispanics or refugee immigrants. Elsewhere it more likely to be blacks, while in a small town thirty miles from where I taught high school, it was whites. When I was in college it was Democrats; in seminary it was Republicans (and that was over thirty years ago … it is far worse now).

Those whom God recognizes as saints might appear to us to be dog-headed men, just as in the icon. In the 18th century the Russian Orthodox Church disallowed icons including any dog-headed men. I suspect that decision had to do with the werewolf traditions throughout that region. Today such icons are nearly impossible to find simply because we fancy ourselves too polite, and such an icon seems utterly gauche. (It’s the same reason we shrink from today’s Gospel lesson.) This is a pity. Having holy objects that included dog-headed men, and especially beloved St. Christopher, presented as a dog-headed man, would be a constant reminder that for us the Gospel rarely includes everyone. Each and every one of us have someone that we would rather remain in the narthex. Each and every church communion has someone who doesn’t fit their standards of life-style or belief. And those dogs?

Far away from us, hanging around with St. Christopher at the very margins warming their hands on the divine glory.

Truth Arising from the Touch of Jesus’ outstretched hand

I have a long history of engagement with Sunday’s Revised Common Lectionary readings. The epistle, Romans 10:5-15, is one of those texts that is deeply problematic for Protestants while at the same time one of the most beloved. In a variety of classes in both college and seminary the instructor has posed the question, “What is Paul talking about?”

Moses writes concerning the righteousness that comes from the law, that “the person who does these things will live by them.” But the righteousness that comes from faith says, “Do not say in your heart, ‘Who will ascend into heaven?’” (that is, to bring Christ down) “or ‘Who will descend into the abyss?’” (that is, to bring Christ up from the dead). But what does it say? “The word is near you, / on your lips and in your heart” – (that is, the word of faith that we proclaim); because if you confess with your lips that Jesus is Lord and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved. For one believes with the heart and so is justified, and one confesses with the mouth and so is saved. The scripture says, “No one who believes in him will be put to shame.” For there is no distinction between Jew and Greek; the same Lord is Lord of all and is generous to all who call on him. For, “Everyone who calls on the name of the Lord shall be saved.”

That’s the hard part of the text, the beloved part follows in v. 15

But how are they to call on one in whom they have not believed? And how are they to believe in one of whom they have never heard? And how are they to hear without someone to proclaim him? And how are they to proclaim him unless they are sent? As it is written, “How beautiful are the feet of those who bring good news!”

The associated Gospel, from Mt 14:22-33, is the story of Peter walking on the water. Fairly early on in my pastoral life I put the two texts together. I had been reading Michael Polanyi’s Personal Knowledge and it dawned on me what everyone (Polanyi, Paul, and Matthew) were getting on about.

There is a facile reading of Romans which interprets Paul as saying that the point is neither rote repetition nor salvation by works, it is rather a personal relationship with Jesus Christ that is required. This is true as far as it goes but misses Paul’s larger argument that cuts to the heart of our assumptions about how the universe works.

A very long time ago an influential bishop by the name of Augustine, reading the Bible through the lens of Plato, came up with the hair-brained platonic idea that truth was a philosophical concept that was absolute, along the same lines as gravity. The Western church has been either vociferously defending Augustine or trying to overcome him ever since. Calvin and Luther, and thus Protestants in general, were quite enamored of Augustine, so this has been a particular problem for Protestants.

The older western theologians, such as Ireneaus, and pretty much all of the eastern church understood that truth is not so much a philosophical absolute as it is an outgrowth of a loving relationship. Saying truth is absolute is remarkably parallel to Isaac Newton saying that time and space are absolute. While these ideas work on an everyday level, they are simply wrong at a fundamental level. It was Einstein who figured out that it’s the speed of light that’s absolute and time and space coordinate to the speed of light. Thus, as we approach the speed of light, time and space are bent toward the more fundamental reality.

Similarly, the fundamental reality for Christians is the living Lord, Jesus Christ. The radix, or fundament of the faith is the incarnation, the joining together by God, of eternal God with creation itself. This change of focus from truth as a philosophical construct to the living and loving person of Jesus Christ is a “Copernican revolution” of sorts that Protestants and Catholics struggle with. Just as the Sun is the center of the solar system and not the earth, so the Son, the living Word, is the center of Christian faith, and not truth or written word.

Paul’s point in Rom. 10 is that objectifying truth ultimately blinds us and leads us away from the living and loving Truth of Jesus Christ. By objectifying the truth we bring Christ to us (either bring him down from heaven or up from the grave, in the words of Paul) and thus make Christ our servant. That is not the path of salvation. Instead of bringing Christ to us, we need to go to Christ. Christ is very near, but it requires us to enter into relationship.

And this, as we come to the end of the lectionary reading, is why the one who preaches good news is so blessed. It simply does not do to read the text. Truth isn’t there to be grasped and eaten like an apple, it arises in the midst of relationship. As the person sharing the Gospel and the hearer of the Gospel come together, truth arises and salvation is possible. Just as true Truth is found at the coming together of Creator and creation in Jesus Christ, so salvation is found in relationship and community, not in words on the page.

And if you haven’t figured it out yet, this is the point of the Sea of Galillee, the storm, Peter in the boat, and Jesus walking on the water. As long as Peter was in communion with Jesus, moving toward him, entering into that living and loving relationship, Peter too could walk on the water. But Peter “objectified” rather than “relationalized” the situation. He looked at the stormy water surrounding him; he looked back at the boat far away, he looked at Jesus, also far away, and he became isolated and alone in his predicament. Salvation is far away when we are isolated and alone.

But Jesus, ever loving and ever drawing us toward himself, reached out and lifted Peter from the stormy depths. Relationship was restored and the truth of salvation was once again established in the interaction of God and human.

In short, we can’t make it on our own. Truth and salvation come only at the crossroads where we enter into community: community with God and community with others. The truth, as an objectified philosophical thing, will never save us, but moving toward relation with God, the Living One, the Truth – the living Truth – reveals itself in the relationship itself, and salvation is the result. Thanks be to God.