Sunday, February 17, 2008

The Judge Must Be Crazy

In the beginning God … created the heaven and the earth.

In the beginning … was the Word.

In the beginning there was … no sin. Was there? Then Adam bit into it – and the world was changed. Adam, – Adam meaning the man, the archetypal human being, – distrusted his Creator and took his own way in the world. That meant he learned about death, and sin, and folly, and loss.

And yet, God sent his own Son, to take the form of a human being, to take the form of Adam – that archetypal human being, and, as the Son of Man, he became the new archetype, the new model of what a human being can be – and is.

God sent his Son not to condemn the world but to redeem the world. We do well to remember that judgment was vindication, to the poor, the innocent, and the oppressed, the ones that Jesus came to, and he was their Judge – in the sense that he was their vindicator and defender.

It all reminds me of the worst play I ever saw… well, second worst, if you count the musical version of Major Barbara I sat through in college….

The Caucasian Chalk Circle: The Musical – put on by students at Carlmont High School. Oh, brother.

One of the best plays I ever saw was – The Caucasian Chalk Circle, by Bertolt Brecht, put on by Arena Stage. In it the story of the judgment of Solomon is changed: a rich woman has abandoned her child, a poor woman has taken it as her own and raised it – and now the rich woman wants it back. Azdak, the judge, who has a habit of judging in favor of the poor and oppressed, comes up with a test:

A circle of chalk is drawn and the child is placed in the center. The true mother, says the judge, will be able to pull the child from the center. If they both pull, they will tear the child in half and get half each. The test begins but the poor woman refuses to pull, as she cannot bear to hurt the child. The judge gives her one more chance, but again she cannot pull the child. The judge then declares that the poor woman is the true mother, as she loves the child too much to be able to hurt him.

The judge appears on the stage not to condemn the innocent but to save them: he is the vindicator of the poor and the oppressed. How crazy! How just.

Later, Abraham could have chosen to depend solely on his own efforts – to be a self-made man. “If Abraham was justified by works he has something to boast about,” as the apostle Paul says. But Abraham depended on God – and it was his faith that made him right in the eyes of God. He was a brave man, he worked hard, and he took risks we would hardly dare to take – today would you walk from Baghdad to Cairo and back to Jerusalem? But he depended on God. His life was in God’s hands and it was safe there.

Adam was disobedient and faithless, left the Garden in shame, under a curse. Abraham was obedient and faithful, left the land of his fathers in hope – headed toward promise, under the blessing. Jesus, the son of Adam, is even more the child of Abraham, bringing to us the fulfillment of the promise – that ‘all the families of the earth shall be blessed.’

Nicodemus, a member of the council, is a leader of his people: responsible, brilliant, resourceful, powerful; yet, there is something missing – and he comes to Jesus by night. Being born from above, being born again: this requires becoming vulnerable again, beginning again. He knows he must expose his soul without the carapace of power if he is truly to live.

And then, Jesus tells him: the wind – the spirit, the pneuma, the breath of God – blows where it chooses, and you do not know where it comes from or goes. You have no control over the Spirit.

How can these things be? How, asks the accomplished and prominent member of the council, can a person – with all my advantages and achievements – give it all up to start over? How could he so humble himself? Could he give up all he has, all he has acquired and accumulated, for this one great thing – the gift of life?

He will have to give up his position, won’t he? Or at least admit that what he has based his life on is all wrong, and make the consequences? Take on a new life, based on a new reality?

It seems unlikely – it’s way too hard. It’s asking too much of a man, to start fresh.

And yet later Nicodemus, along with Joseph of Arimathea, is there to receive Jesus’ body in his arms when his body was taken from the Cross. (John 19:39-42)

Something changed for him – something in Jesus’ message, that day, long ago, when he was the vulnerable one. He had been born anew.

His life has found its meaning – his inheritance as a child of Abraham has been fulfilled; he becomes an heir to the promise as he based his life on faith.

He has been born into the promise of Abraham at last; he has received the vindication of God’s justice, and he is saved, not by his own accomplishments and advantages, but by his faith, as innocent and dependent as a newborn child, in God, “the God in whom he believed, who gives life to the dead and calls into existence the things that do not exist.” (Romans 4:17)

Genesis 12:1-4a
Psalm 33:12-22
Romans 4:1-5, 13-17
John 3:1-17

Johannine ‘double-words’:

Nuktos (night)
Semeia (signs)
Anothen (again/above)
Pneuma (spirit/wind/breath)
Hupsao (exalt/lift up)

Wednesday, February 13, 2008

Looking beyond Good Friday

Looking beyond Good Friday, at the end of this season of Lent, requires more than worldly eyes. The historians of the Jesus Seminar, when they voted on the actions of Jesus, culminating in the events of Holy Week, could go no further than his death. He was crucified under Pontius Pilate.

Then what happened? What happened after he died? What happens after you die?

The answers are married, so closely are they related. Jesus became the first-born from the dead, the first one to experience resurrection. Looking at him, and at his appearances to the disciples, to Mary of Magdala and Joanna and to Peter and John and to many others, we see what resurrection life looks like. We know that he was raised, and we know that he continues to lead us, both in this life and beyond, as we approach the throne of God.

The events of Holy Week, and the actions of Jesus, beginning with Palm Sunday's ironic procession - holding up a mirror to the false pretensions of worldly glory of the powers of Empire, confronting entrenched interests even in the precincts of the Temple, holding the Passover meal with his friends, facing a jury-rigged midnight tribunal, and accepting the death of a common criminal, then passing through the tomb: these events, leading up to Easter, emerge in their full significance only when we look beyond the Tomb, to the first day of the week, when the women carrying spices and ointments went to pay their last respects to their dear Friend. There, where they looked for death, they found life: he is not here; he is risen!

As I write this we are still in the season of penitence and preparation, of Lent, and, with intervening celebrations, it is during this season that you will receive this newsletter. We will, on occasion, look back on events of Jesus' life - the wedding feast at Cana, notably - that foreshadow the joy of Easter, the hope of glory, and the love manifest in the Spirit.

In the meantime, however, we will prepare: we will look, at ourselves, our community, our nation and our world, and we will see there the need for God, the need for his presence among his people, the need for his voice and his hands to show his love to the world. We will see the need for his church to become ever more fully the people of God. And, even as we anticipate that last bite of darkness at the end of winter - Good Friday's solemn black - we will know that beyond it comes the dawning of the new day, the Lord's Day.

See you there.