Jesus Is Not God!

Forensic archeologists say that the historical Jesus looked like this. He was not white and stood about 5 feet tall and weighed about 110 pounds.

Last night we had another meeting of our church’s Lenten series discussing controverted questions of faith. So far, we’ve discussed (1) miracles, (2) healing, (3) Jesus and the poor, (4) the tension between American and Christian identities, and (5) what happens after death. Next week, we’ll address the question of resurrection. It’s all been interesting and at times quite inspiring to interact with more than a dozen gifted and earnest fellow seekers in a very admirable faith community.

However (if you recall), a couple of weeks ago when I was asked to lead the session on Jesus and the Poor, I got “hooked” into defending (at inappropriate length) the centrality of the biblical “preferential option for the poor” as the heart of Christianity. The one who hooked me is a very friendly, intelligent, articulate, and sincere church member whose faith convictions are undeniably robust. I admire him greatly.  

Nevertheless, during last evening’s meeting, it almost happened again. I mean, I was tempted to respond that same interlocutor rather than biting my tongue regarding a revisitation of our topic of two weeks ago about Jesus’ identity. (Remember, last night’s topic was to be what happens after death.)

Instead, my friend in the evening’s opening remark said something like the following: “We’re supposed to be Christians here discussing our faith. But the readings we’ve shared not only this week but two weeks ago, depart quite radically from central Christian beliefs. For instance, this evening’s reading is by Marcus Borg who sees Jesus is nothing more than a prophet. In this, he agrees with Judaism and Islam both of which of course honor Jesus – but as a mere religious genius, not as the Christ or as God. Christian faith on the other hand holds emphatically that Jesus is God, that he is indeed the expected Christ (Messiah). Without those beliefs, you’re simply not a Christian.”

As I said, I had other ideas, but bit my tongue.

However, here’s what I wanted to say in response (but thankfully did not):

Jesus is not God

Following the great Jesuit theologian, Roger Haight, I’ve come to believe that Jesus is not God. Instead, I believe that God is Jesus.

The distinction is not merely semantic. Saying that “Jesus is God” presumes that we know what the term “God” means. But that term, of course, has always been entirely problematic. What exactly is content? Answers to that query are legendarily diverse.

The problem is not only perennial, but in the case of Jesus is compounded by the ironic fact that the identification of Jesus as “God” took place under the aegis of the Roman Empire at the Council of Nicaea in 325. The irony stemmed from the fact that the Council was summoned by the Constantine, the emperor of Rome which had executed the prophet Jesus as an insurgent.

So, Constantine’s own problem was how to transform a rebel against Rome into a God (Deus was the Latin term) not only acceptable to, but supportive of his empire. His conundrum was how to transform Jesus into the son of a God whom worshippers of Zeus could understand.

[By the way, I hope you can see the significance of the similarity in terms Deus and Zeus. Its single consonant variation suggests that the Romans (who knew nothing of the Jewish God, Yahweh) couldn’t help but transform God into a thunder-bold throwing Zeus and Jesus into Zeus’ favorite son Apollo. In practice, no other understandings were possible for them!]

With all of this in mind, remember that Nicaea’s mandate was to answer questions like the following about the identity of Jesus:

  • Was he simply a man, a prophet?
  • Was he simply a god?
  • Was he a man who became a god?
  • Was he a god pretending to be a man?

In Constantine’s 4th century, there were “heresies” that represented each of these viewpoints.

But Nicaea’s answer to such questions was different. It stated that: Jesus was a divine being who was fully Deus/Zeus and fully man as well. The Council however left it for future theologians to explain exactly how that combination was possible.

[In my opinion, no one ever successfully did that. Marcus Borg, I think, came closest by holding that Jesus was fully human before his “resurrection” (however we might interpret that term) and fully God afterwards.]

In any case, throughout history Christians themselves have in practice resolved the fully God/fully human dilemma by emphasizing Jesus’ God dimension while neglecting almost entirely his humanity. Practically speaking, Christians have never truly endorsed Jesus’ humanity.

God Is Jesus

And that’s where the importance of holding that “God is Jesus” surfaces. On the one hand, the formulation recognizes the problematic nature of the term “God.” On the other, it resolves the dilemma by pointing to the Jesus of history to reveal the meaning of the term Deus. Look at the human Jesus, it says, and you’ll better understand the meaning of the word God.

And what do we find when we look at Jesus while bracketing official understandings of God as Zeus and Jesus as Apollo? The answer is entirely surprising and turns official theologies on their heads.

As revealed in Jesus, God shows up as the champion not of imperial majesties, but of slaves escaped from those same imperial majesties. More specifically, God’s embodiment (incarnation) is found in a man actually oppressed, not championed by empire. He is a peasant, the son of an unwed teenage mother, a refugee in Egypt, an enemy of the religious establishment, the leader of a poor people’s movement, a victim of torture and of capital punishment.

According to Christian faith, that’s who Jesus is; that’s who God is – found in the poor, the oppressed, in the torture chamber, on death row. . .

The fact that God chose to reveal God’s self as such is what is meant by the Bible’s “preferential option for the poor.”

Jesus is the Christ

All of this is intimately linked with my church friend’s insistence that Jesus is the Christ, the messiah.  Here too we must remember that “Christ” is not a Roman term; it is entirely Jewish and has specific Jewish meaning impossible to understand apart from its cultural context.

As Jesus-scholar, Reza Aslan, reminds us, the term “Christ” had one meaning and one meaning only for Jews: the Christ was (1) a descendent of Judah’s King David who would (2) reestablish David’s kingdom (3) in a once again sovereign state. And reestablishing sovereignty necessarily meant disestablishing Rome’s kingdom which occupied 1st century Palestine where Jesus lived.

Of course, the Romans understood that. Consequently, they executed Jesus precisely as an insurgent – along with the untold others in the same historical period who made the same messianic claim. Such was the point of the titulus, “King of the Jews” that the Roman procurator, Pontius Pilate insisted be displayed over Jesus’ head as he hung dying on his cross – the instrument of torture and death reserved for insurgents against the Roman empire (John 19:22). The titulus proclaimed the charges against the executed. Jesus’ crime was proclaiming himself “King of the Jews.”

So, historically speaking, claiming that Jesus is the Christ or messiah is a highly political statement. It signifies belief in Jesus as the quintessential opponent of empire and its inevitable oppression of God’s chosen – the poor and oppressed.

Conclusion

I’m glad I didn’t try to say all of that at last night’s meeting. Still, I’m happy for the evocation of such thoughts by my brother in faith at our Talmadge Hill Community Church.

It all reminded me of what I first learned at a memorable lecture by Passionist scripture scholar, Barnabas Ahern back in 1965 (when I was just 25 years old). Ahern’s topic was the historical Jesus. He inspired me to confront the fact that christians (myself included) tend to believe with all our hearts that Jesus is God, while at the same time paying only lip service to Jesus’ humanity. Ever since then, I resolved to avoid that mistake myself.

In fact, I was so impressed by what Fr. Ahern said that the very next day I wrote out from memory the scholar’s entire talk which has since then played a central role in driving me to internalize modern scripture scholarship about the humanity of the historical Jesus.

It has led me to Roger Haight’s formulation that Jesus is not God, but God is Jesus.

With Reza Aslan’s help, I’ve also come to grasp the revolutionary meaning the terms “Christ” and “Messiah” must have had for 1st century Jews. Then writers such as Marcus Borg have helped me understand the post-resurrection process by which the human Jesus himself appropriated his divine nature – human before his resurrection, divine afterwards.

And that entire sequence of lessons has immeasurably enriched my own faith and enabled me to share their insights.

Thank you, my brothers and teachers Barnabas, Roger, Reza and Marcus.

On Leaving behind Our Childhood Faith and Becoming Adult Believers.

Borg
Readings for the 19th Sunday in Ordinary Time: I Kgs. 19:4-8; Eph. 4:30-5:2; Jn. 6:41-51

Recently, I had a long talk with one of my dearest friends in the world. After reading a book I recommended, he found himself in crisis.

“I don’t know what to believe now,” he lamented. “I have no idea who Jesus was or is.

I could sympathize with my friend. I even felt a little guilty that I had recommended that he read the book in question – Marcus Borg’s Meeting Jesus Again for the First Time. In laypersons’ terms, it acquaints readers with the search for the historical Jesus that has been in full swing for more than 100 years.

Borg concludes that the 4th century Council of Nicaea was correct in its assessment that Jesus was a divine person who was fully God and fully human. It just doesn’t say how that’s possible.

Borg’s own explanation is that Jesus was fully human before his resurrection and fully God in the faith of his bereft disciples after the event, whatever its exact nature might have been. That means that the pre-resurrection Jesus was in important respects very like the rest of us. He too shared our spiritual journey and grew (as the Gospel of Luke says) “in age, and wisdom and grace” (LK 2:52).

“Why wasn’t I told any of this before,” my friend complained.

Well, today’s liturgy of the word addresses my friend’s frustration. It highlights the faith quest that all of us share – even with Jesus.

For starters, think about Elijah from I Kings. At first glance, it seems like a child’s tale. I mean: angels, miraculous bread . . .

And then there are those words attributed to Jesus in the reading from John the Evangelist. There, Jesus claims that he is bread, and we’re supposed to eat his flesh?

It all seems so (excuse me) absurd. We’re told Jesus was talking about the Eucharist or something. But, many of us find it harder and harder to believe even what we’ve been taught about that. God in a piece of bread? It’s easy to understand how faith is threatened rather than strengthened by such readings. Spiritually it can be rather discouraging.

But my friend shouldn’t be discouraged by such thoughts. Neither should any of us. On the contrary, they can be seen as signs we’re growing up spiritually. Painful as it is, perhaps it’s time for reassessing our faith.

I mean (if we’re lucky) there comes a point in everyone’s life where faith has to be reevaluated – where what we were taught and believed as children no longer meets our adult needs. At those times discouragement (despondency is the term used in today’s first reading) is actually a good sign. It can mean we’ve outgrown old ways of thinking and are being called to growth which is always difficult. So, we shouldn’t give up in the face of discouragement, but embrace it with hope.

With that in mind, please realize that today’s readings are about the spiritual journey, the search for God and the discouragement that comes along with it. They are about finding God’s presence hidden in plain sight – within our own flesh (as Jesus put it) – closer to us than our jugular vein.

That theme of spiritual journey is announced in the first reading – the story about the prophet Elijah fed by angels under a juniper tree. Elijah did his work in the Northern Kingdom of Israel about 800 years before the birth of Jesus. He is remembered as one of the great, great prophets of the Jewish Testament. In fact, he was so powerful that Jesus’ followers thought Jesus to be the prophet’s reincarnation. John the Baptist’s followers thought the same about him. (Btw: does that mean that Jesus and his contemporaries believed in reincarnation?) So, Elijah is a key figure in our tradition.

In any case, today’s story about Elijah describes the classic stages of the spiritual journey that we’re all called to – from immature believing things about God and Jesus to something more holistic that finds and honors God’s manifestations everywhere.

As we join him in today’s first reading, Elijah is described as beginning a literal journey. He’s traveling to Mt. Horeb (or Sinai) – the place where Moses and the slaves who had escaped from Egypt made their Covenant with their God, Yahweh. Elijah is confused about God (“despondent”), and evidently thinks that by returning to the origins of his faith, he’ll get some clarity.

At this stage of his spiritual growth, Elijah’s faith is less mature. He has a very ethnocentric idea about God. And he’s being called to move beyond that stage of development. The ethnocentric idea has it that God is all about us – our people, our nation, our wars, our prosperity. God is our God and we are his chosen people – truly exceptional. In passages from the Book of Kings just before today’s reading Elijah manifested that understanding of God in a contest with the priests of Baal – a Phoenician God that the King of Israel, Achab and his wife Jezebel had flirted with.

You remember the story. Elijah challenged forty priests to a contest – your sacrifices against ours. Call on your gods to light your sacrificial fires, and I’ll call on Yahweh, and then we’ll see who’s really God. Of course, the priests of Baal can’t get their gods to come through. They chant, and dance, and sing. But the sacrificial wood remains cold. However, Yahweh comes through for his prophet; he lights Elijah’s fire even though in a display of bravado, the prophet had the wood doused with water. Not only that, but Yahweh kills the forty priests for good measure.

That’s the ethnocentric idea: “Our God is better than your god. He has more magic power.” And he’s (this is almost always a male concept) very violent and vindictive. He’ll turn on you and go off on you at the drop of a hat. That’s the God that no longer seems to be working for Elijah. It has made him a wanted man. Queen Jezebel is after him and wants his head. Life is not worth living, the prophet concludes. He wants it all to end – there under the juniper tree.

But two people (whom Elijah later understands as messengers from God) feed him, and on the strength of food provided by strangers he completes his journey and arrives at a cave high on Mt. Sinai. And there, God reveals his true nature not as an ethnocentric God belonging to a single “chosen” people. Neither does God reveal Godself in nature’s elements – not in earth (an earthquake), not in air (a whirlwind), nor in fire (lightning). Instead God (definitely not predominantly male) is disclosed as a “still small voice” within the prophet himself.

And what is a “still” voice, a “small” voice? It seems to me that it’s a communication without sound – one that can be hardly heard – a far cry from the deity who magically lights sacrificial fires and slays Phoenician priests. That magical violent understanding of God seems frankly childish – a God who enters into competition with other “worthy opponents” over whom he has greater magical powers.

No, the revelation to Elijah discloses a God who is much subtler and who resides within all persons be they Hebrew or Phoenician. By traditional standards, it is a “weak” unspectacular God. God is found within; God is small and quiet and belongs to everyone. Or rather, everyone belongs to God regardless of their nationality or race. And in Elijah’s story, it’s not clear that the prophet even grasps the point.

Elijah might not have gotten the point. But it’s evident that his reincarnation in Jesus of Nazareth did – or at least that John the Evangelist writing 60-90 years after Jesus’ death got the point. By then it was possible to put words in Jesus’ mouth that the carpenter from Nazareth could never have said – especially about eating his flesh and above all drinking his blood. Jews, of course, were forbidden from imbibing the blood of any living thing, let alone human blood. However, by John’s time Jesus’ followers had increasingly left behind their Jewish origins. They had become friendly with Gnosticism and were coming to terms with Roman “mystery cults.” Both worshipped “dying and rising gods” who offered “eternal life” to those who ate the god’s body and drank the god’s blood under the forms of bread and wine.

Evidently, John the Evangelist and others like John’s contemporary who wrote “The Gospel of Thomas” recognized an affinity between the teachings of Jesus and the beliefs of the Gnostics who found God’s presence in all of creation. The Gospel of Thomas has Jesus say “Split a block of wood and I am there; lift up a rock and find me there.

In other words, by the end of the first century, Christians were developing an ecumenical understanding of God that went far beyond the Jewish ethnocentrism of Elijah. By that time Christians could see that Jesus was not only a prophet, not only a movement founder of reform within Judaism, not only an insightful story teller and extraordinary healer, but a “Spirit Person” who like the Gnostics found God’s presence in every element of creation – principally in that “still, small voice” revealed to Elijah.

So, Jesus found God’s presence in wood, under rocks, in the breaking of bread, in the sharing of wine, within his self, here and now (not in some afterlife) but in his very flesh and blood. In other words, shared divine presence lent a unity and sameness to everything. Bread and flesh, wine and blood turn out to be the same across time and space. John has Jesus say all of that quite shockingly: “When you eat bread you are eating my flesh; when you drink wine, you are imbibing my blood. We, all of creation, are all one!”

What I’m saying here is that faith changes and grows. Discouragement with old models and paradigms is a hopeful sign. Think of today’s readings and the distance traveled from Elijah’s Magical Killer God to the Still Small Voice to the God present in bread, wine, and in every cell of Jesus’ and our own bodies.

If your own spiritual journey has you longing for further exploration of such adult themes, I can’t do better than to recommend the book I urged that friend of mine to read. I’m referring to Marcus Borg’s Meeting Jesus again for the First Time. His The Heart of Christianity is similarly helpful.

Like my friend, you might find them initially disturbing. But they will deepen your faith and help make it more worthy of a mature adult.

Summary and Conclusions about the Historical Jesus (Part Two)

(This is the fourteenth in a series of “mini-classes” on the historical Jesus. Together the pieces are intended to assist those who wish to “dig deeper” into the scholarly foundations of postmodern faith and to understand the methodology behind the postings on the blog site. Today’s post is the last of a two-part conclusion of the series.)

In searching for the historical Jesus, it helps to remember that we know much more about the object of our quest than ever before. Mid-twentieth century discoveries at the Palestinian locations Qum Ran and Nag Hamadi have yielded manuscripts that have acquainted scholars with previously unknown sources about Jesus. Just as importantly, developments in the fields of history, linguistics, and archeology have made us more knowledgeable about Jesus’ historical context than any previous generation. Acquaintance with such context constitutes actual knowledge about Jesus and the people with whom he interacted.

Similarly, the disciplines like sociology, economics, psychology, and political science have developed principles that describe how individuals within given networks typically act in particular circumstances. One such standard might be termed the “principle of analogy. It holds that: We should ordinarily expect to have happened in the past what routinely happens in the present as described by the social sciences.  For instance, we know that Jesus grew up under Roman oppression. About the time of his birth, the recently unearthed capital of Galilee (Sepphoris – just six miles from Nazareth) was destroyed by Roman soldiers trying to wipe out insurgent patriots. Sociologists tell us (and imperial armies act upon this knowledge) that such wars of resistance end up involving virtually the entire local population. This means that Jesus and his family were likely involved as well. All such extra-biblical information helps us better understand the historical Jesus.

Such determinations also coincide with two interpretative guidelines that have emerged from third world scholarship over the last forty years or so. One standard is called the “preferential option for the poor.” The other is “the hermeneutical privilege of the poor.” Both signal a source of knowledge of the historical Jesus that is often neglected and even denigrated by mainstream biblical scholarship.

The option for the poor highlights the biblical fact that the God of the Bible in general and of the Christian Testament in particular takes sides with the poor in their ongoing struggle with the rich. In the Jewish Testament this taking sides is evident in two of what Jesus scholar, Marcus Borg, terms the tradition’s three “macro-stories.” These are the Bible’s primary stories that fired the imaginations of Jewish people and early Christians. They are the tales that gave coherence to their interpretations of life, their relationships with God, and of sacred scripture itself. The first two of these macro-stories tell of the Exodus and the Exile. The third is what Borg refers to as the Priestly Story.

Both the Exodus and Exile stories reveal God’s preference for the poor – 13 century slaves in Egypt and 6th century exiles in Babylon. They show God’s preference for slaves over their slave-masters and for prisoners of war over their captors. For its part, the priestly story prioritizes temple worship and the priesthood. It is a narrative of sin, guilt and forgiveness mediated by an ordained priesthood. The priestly story was the object of criticism by the prophets of the Jewish Tradition including Jesus of Nazareth.

Above all, the New Testament’s Jesus story is one of God’s preferential option for the poor. In that story God is understood as literally siding with the under-classes. First and foremost, it is no accident that the Divine chooses as its site of revelation a poor person rather than a figure of royalty or priesthood. Theologically and sociologically speaking, this point of incarnation represents God’s fundamental disclosure about divine commitment. Such commitment is underlined by the words and practice of Jesus as described in all the sources of the Christian Testament. In the gospel traditions, Jesus’ program consists in bringing Good News to the poor (Lk. 4: 16-21). The Kingdom of God, he insists, belongs to the poor and persecuted (Mt. 5: 3& 10). Moreover, the beneficiaries of Jesus’ acts of healing and exorcism are overwhelmingly the poor and outcast (Mk. 1: 41; 6:34; 8:2; Mt. 9:36; 14:14 15:21-28; 15:32; 17:14-29; 20:29-34; Lk. 7: 13-14, 17: 11-19 . . .). The Final Judgment will be based on one’s attitude and actions to relieve the sufferings of the hungry, thirsty, naked, sick, and imprisoned (Mt. 25: 31-46).

All of this means that God’s Chosen People are the poor. (Hebrew slaves in Egypt are merely the paradigmatic example of such divine preference.) What we know more than anything about the historical Jesus is his embodiment of God’s choice. Jesus is the symbol par excellence of the divine one’s preferential option for the poor.  For our purposes here, this divine fundamental option provides an interpretative principle for locating the authentic words and deeds of the historical Jesus.  Words and deeds attributed to Jesus’ favoring the poor over the rich are probably authentically his. Words and deeds placing the rich or privileged classes favorably must be interpreted in the light of their impact on the poor who are the primary beneficiaries of Jesus proclamation and practice.

God’s preferential option for the poor leads us to the second important tool of discernment. It is helpful not so much for locating the authentic words and deeds of Jesus but for interpreting them in his spirit – for getting at the underlying ideas and values of his words and actions. This is the principle of the hermeneutical privilege of the poor. This principle recognizes that the poor (i.e. our contemporaries closest in sociological position to the primary intended recipients of Jesus’ Good News) find themselves in a better position to interpret the words and deeds of Jesus than do the non-poor.

For example, when the well-to-do read Jesus’ words, “Blessed are you poor, for yours is the Kingdom of God” (Lk. 6:20), they are likely to unconsciously substitute Matthew’s less radical version (and therefore less likely to have come from the historical Jesus), “Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven” (Mt. 5:3). As a result, the well-off are prone to spiritualize even the surprising Lucan text. For them Jesus’ words become a promise of an after-life heaven for those who though rich are not attached to their wealth.  However, when the poor read Luke’s words, they take it as a divine pledge that God is on their side in their struggles with the rich.  Luke’s Jesus assures them that the future belongs to them precisely because they are poor, and that God’s kingdom will bring happiness to them and their children on this side of the grave.

Give Up Church for Lent!

Readings for 2nd Sunday in Advent: Bar. 5: 1-9; Ps. 126: 1-6; Phil. 1: 4-6, 8-12; Lk. 3: 1-6 http://www.usccb.org/bible/readings/120912.cfm

In my town of Berea, Kentucky, a kind of religious revival is taking place. A spirited group of people across denominational lines meets once a month to experiment with and “Ecumenical Table Fellowship.” It’s a community of Christians without benefit of clerical leadership meeting to reflect on our common biblical tradition in the light of what Vatican II called “the signs of the times.” The group breaks bread liturgically in the spirit of Jesus’ Last Supper and of the early church. Roman Catholics are prominent in the group. They are discouraged by today’s conservative pre-Vatican II “restorationism” that emphasizes the power of the church hierarchy and ordained priesthood at the expense of Vatican II’s emphasis on the priesthood of the faithful.

Some in the group agree with spiritual theologian, Matthew Fox that their church leadership is in schism against the spirit of the Second Vatican Council, which remains the official teaching of the Catholic Church. Pope John Paul II, Benedict XVI, and the conservative bishops they have appointed are the culprits in schism. These clerics are defensive of hierarchy and the power of an exclusively male priesthood. They devalue lay leadership and the prominent biblical stories of Exodus and Return from Exile that are highlighted in today’s liturgy of the word where they are contrasted with “the priestly story” that currently plagues the Catholic Church.

The great Jesus scholar, Marcus Borg, reminds us that amid the literally hundreds of stories in the Bible, there are three “macro-stories” that give coherence to the Jewish Testament and its Christian counterpart. The first and most important is the story of Exodus. Its’ a tale of liberation from slavery and journey to a “Promised Land.” For the ancient Hebrews, the Exodus was grounded in an actual historical event, the release of slaves from their oppression under the pharaohs of Egypt perhaps 1200 years before the birth of Jesus.  It was the Exodus that provided the ancient Hebrews with their first experience of their God, Yahweh.  For them, Yahweh’s fundamental identity was the One Who Liberates from Oppression. In our day, the macro-story of Exodus has become central for third world people living under the harsh realities of U.S. imperialism.

The second Old Testament macro-story is Exile and Return. It too was grounded in history. In the year 587 BCE, the Hebrews were conquered by Babylon (modern Iraq). The Babylonians transported the Hebrew elite to Iraq till the Persian King Cyrus released them after conquering Babylon in 539.The story of exile and return shaped the ancient Israelites almost as much as the Exodus story. Like oppression and slavery, that narrative represents a human archetype that all of us can relate to it in one way or another.  The archetype evokes the feelings of grief, sadness and displacement reflected in one of the psalms of exile, “By the rivers of Babylon, there we sat down and wept when we remembered Zion.” The Advent Hymn “O Come Emanuel” expresses the same feelings in its own reference to the Babylonian Exile: “O Come O Come, Emanuel, and ransom captive Israel, that mourns in lonely exile here.”  For one reason or another, all of us feel somehow exiled, sad, and displaced.

The third macro-story of the Jewish Testament comes from priestly sources. It is not grounded in a particular historical event, but in temple ritual and worship. It is the story of sin, guilt and of forgiveness mediated by the priestly class, their sacrifices, rules, rituals and prayers. Judging from the attitudes of Israel’s prophets and especially of Jesus, the priestly narrative is far less important than either Exodus or Exile. In fact, along with many other prophets, Jesus expressed harsh criticism and even hostility towards priestly pretensions and business-as-usual within the temple precincts. And yet, the priestly narrative has carried the day in terms of dominant Judeo-Christian spirituality. “Jewish guilt” and “Catholic guilt” are legendary. Jesus is primarily understood as the one who “died for our sins.” God’s wrath and the threat of hell are staples of Sunday sermons and of Christian neuroses.

The focus of today’s liturgy of the word is Exile and Return in sharp contrast to the Priestly Story of sin, guilt, sacrifice and forgiveness. The first reading from the Book of Baruch was probably written about 150 BCE when Israel was under the sway of the Seleucid Greeks. However the book is presented as though it were written 400 years earlier during the Babylonian Exile – as if it were addressed to the exiles then. Baruch’s real audience however was the Jews at war with the Greeks. His real intention was to encourage his contemporaries in their resistance to Greece – promising them that the rough road they were then traveling would soon be made smooth by Yahweh –   the one who frees the oppressed and brings exiles back from captivity.

In today’s gospel, Luke presents John the Baptist in terms of both Exile and Return and Exodus. Luke sees John as fulfilling the words of the prophet Isaiah nearly 600 years earlier. By anchoring John’s appearance in Isaiah, Luke is implying that John represents a continuation of Isaiah’s work of announcing the end of exile. This was a bold claim for Luke, since many Jews of his day believed that prophetic voices – nearly always lay people – had forever fallen silent. But here is John presented as fulfilling Isaiah’s words. He is making the rough way smooth. He’s leveling mountains and filling in valleys.  At the same time, John’s proclamation as presented by Luke has overtones of the priestly story. Luke shows John proclaiming a baptism of repentance for forgiveness of sin.

But here it is important to note the Exodus dimensions of John’s work. He is presented as preaching and baptizing specifically outside the temple and sphere of the priests. In fact, John appears in the wilderness – in the desert. For Jews, this would not only have evoked overtones of the Exodus macro-story, it would also have signaled a subversive significance in John’s work. After all, the “desert” or “wilderness” was the place where contemporary resistance movements were spawned. As scripture scholar, Ched Myers points out, Luke could not have picked a narrative “coordinate” further removed from the temple. For Luke the regeneration of prophecy was happening not in Baruch’s Zion but at the margins of Jewish society – in the desert where it all began with the Exodus. In other words, Luke presents John’s ministry as a complete break with the priestly establishment which controlled the mechanisms of social redemption from their power base in Jerusalem.

All of this raises questions for thoughtful Christians in the context of our own exilic sadness as we face the contemporary irrelevance of what happens in our own “temples.”  Is it time to move out of that realm now dominated by schismatic popes, bishops and priests and to relocate where our worship tradition began – in homes with Eucharists led by lay people?

Perhaps we’re not yet ready to substitute an Ecumenical Table experience for weekly Mass. But we could supplement Sunday Mass with such fellowship once a month. Alternatively, what if an Ecumenical Table were offered each Sunday at the very time of our parish Mass (9:00 am at St. Clare’s in Berea)?  That would give parishioners a choice. At least on occasion they could attend the Ecumenical Table and compare it with “business as usual.”

Another idea: Lent is fast approaching (Ash Wednesday is Feb. 13th). Might Lent not be a good time to “give up” church, and for six weeks and experiment with this alternative form of worship?

In today’s excerpt from his letter to Philemon, Paul prays that the church meeting at Philemon’s house might be given discernment to distinguish what is really important. Today’s liturgy of the word suggests that Exodus from business as usual and return from the Exile of pre-Vatican II Restorationism might be more important than honoring the priestly order that has dominated Catholic consciousness for too long.

Let’s consider trying to recapture Philemon’s home church experience and see what happens – if only for Lent’s six weeks. At the very least, the absence of people at Sunday Mass might get the attention of our bishop and pastor. It might help them realize that something’s amiss!

(Discussion follows)

Women Show the Way to Fullness of Life (Not to Heaven)

Readings for the 29th Sunday in Ordinary Time: Is. 53:10-11; Ps. 33:4-5, 18-19, 20, 22; Heb. 4: 14-16; Mk. 10:35-45 http://usccb.org/bible/readings/102112.cfm

Marcus Borg, the great Jesus scholar, talks about his list of the “Ten Worst Contributions of Religion to Human Culture.” Topping that list, he says, is popular Christianity’s belief in the afterlife. When asked about the other nine, Borg says he can’t remember what they are. . . .

Second on my own list (perhaps even first) would be the idea that God has designated men to be rulers of the world and church, while women are to be seen and not heard. Today’s liturgy of the word addresses both of those items in Religion’s Worst Ideas.

Take that first one about heaven and hell. Borg sees belief in the afterlife is so harmful because it has led to a law and rule-based Christianity that centers on “going to heaven” as a reward for “keeping the commandments.” Such quid pro quo thinking, he says, is a complete distortion of Christianity.

Borg reminds us that the afterlife is not at all the focus of Christian belief – nor of Jewish “Old Testament” faith for that matter. In fact, ideas about life after death didn’t surface in Judaism till well after the Babylonian Exile six centuries before the birth of Jesus – probably as a result of contact with the Persians.  And the first unambiguous biblical reference to meaningful survival of the individual after death comes only in the book of Daniel which was written about 150 years before the birth of Jesus. That means that Adam, Noah, Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, Moses, and none of the prophets were motivated by desire for heaven or escape from hell. Those ideas were simply not part of their mental landscapes.

Instead, for those tribal people, faith in the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob was about land – the Land of Canaan which was celebrated as God’s gift to his favored People. The word “salvation” then meant a Palestine free from occupation by imperialists, be they Egyptians, Assyrians, Babylonians, Persians, Greeks, or Romans.

With that in mind, consider today’s readings and their references to “long life,” “fullness of days,” and “greatness” for the “Suffering Servant” who is “crushed” and loses his life on behalf of others. The words are reminiscent of Jesus’ pronouncement that sacrificing one’s life was the way to save it. Conversely, trying to “save one’s life” was the sure way to lose it.

Those are mysterious words. What might they mean: by giving one’s life for others, one actually achieves long life and fullness of days? How can one have long life and fullness of days when he or she is dead? (You can see how that question would lead subsequent generations of Christians to adopt the “afterlife” hopes of Greco-Roman, Persian and Egyptian cultures to answer that question.)

Given Jesus’ centralization of God’s Kingdom, the answer of Jesus (and that of Second Isaiah) seems to have been that self-sacrificial non-violent resistance to all forms of imperial domination provides such a powerful example and inspiring force that the community rises with new energy, life, and fullness of life when the suffering servant is inevitably killed by imperial forces.

For Mark’s community, that had proven true in the case of Jesus; its members experienced Jesus’ presence more intensely and more meaningfully following his execution than before. For us, we can see the same truth illustrated in the cases of Mahatma Gandhi, Martin Luther King, Oscar Romero, and Rachel Corrie and Karen Silkwood. After their deaths, and arguably because of their deaths, they exercise more influence on us today than they did while they were alive. That’s the mystery Jesus gestures towards in today’s reading.

What can this mean for us? For one, it calls us to recommit ourselves to non-violent resistance of the anti-kingdom forces among us. That’s our political task as we live out our lives in the belly of empire’s beast here in the United States.

But Jesus’ words about servanthood show us that such resistance should permeate our lives at the domestic every-day level as well. (And here’s where the point about women comes in.)  In both cases, the political and domestic, the kingdom is not brought on by exercising the kind of “power over” that characterizes empire, and that apparently motivates the request of the Sons of Zebedee in this morning’s Gospel. The Zebedee boys have a typically patriarchal approach; they’re asking Jesus to let them exercise “power over” others.  This typically male idea sees force and violence as the solution to most problems.

Instead, the approach of “servanthood”—of putting the needs of others first – is typically feminine. And in Mark’s Gospel from beginning to the end it is women who are referred to in servant language. In the beginning of Mark (1:31), the first act of Peter’s mother in law upon being cured by Jesus is to serve food to her benefactor and his companion. And at the end Mark (15:41) Mary Magdalene along with another Mary and Salome are identified beneath Jesus’ cross as “those who used to follow him and provide for him when he was in Galilee.”

All of that suggests, as scripture scholar Ched Myers has said, that Jesus here is proposing the notion of “servant leadership.” It suggests that the practical content of that concept is typically embodied not in men, but in women.

In fact, I think, it suggests that in a patriarchal system like ours (politically, domestically, and in the church) the only ones fit to exercise leadership are women. Typically, they are the ones who shed light on the meaning of “servant-leader” and of fullness of life. And they do so in ways that those bad ideas of heaven and “power-over” simply cannot.   What do you think?

(Discussion follows)

How’s Your Spiritual Journey Going? (Nineteenth Sunday in Ordinary Time)

Readings: I Kgs. 19:4-8; Eph. 4:30-5:2; Jn. 6:41-51

How’s your spiritual journey going these days?

Does the question surprise you?

“’Journey’ did you say?” you might ask. “What journey?”

Well, my question was about growth in awareness of God’s presence and of God’s various manifestations. Do you feel yourself closer to God than you did, say, as a child?

“Oh, if that’s what you mean,” you might answer, “there hasn’t been much going on there. Actually, I’m quite discouraged about the whole thing. There hasn’t really been much of what I’d call ‘growth.’ I’m kind of treading water. And then when I think something’s going on – after I’ve read a good book or article on the topic – some bishop or priest tells me I’m wrong and am losing my faith. It seems they want me to stand still rather than ‘journey,’

“For instance, take today’s readings. That story about Elijah seems like a child’s tale. I mean: angels, miraculous bread  . . .  And then those words of Jesus: he is bread; we’re supposed to eat his flesh? It all seems so (excuse me) absurd. I suppose Jesus was talking about the Eucharist or something. But I’m finding it harder and harder to believe even what I’ve been taught about that. God in a piece of bread? I’m afraid my faith is threatened rather than strengthened by readings like those in this morning’s liturgy. Spiritually I’m feeling rather discouraged.”

If what I’ve just said reflects your own thoughts and feelings, you’re in good company. There comes a point in everyone’s life where faith has to be reassessed – where what we were taught and believed as children no longer meets our adult needs. At those times discouragement (despondency is the term used in today’s first reading) is actually a good sign. It can mean we’ve outgrown old ways of thinking and are being called to growth which is always difficult. So we shouldn’t give up in the face of discouragement, but embrace it with hope.

With that in mind, please realize that today’s readings are about the spiritual journey, the search for God and the discouragement that comes along with it. They are about finding God’s presence hidden in plain sight – within our own flesh (as Jesus put it) – closer to us than our jugular vein.

That theme of spiritual journey is announced in the first reading – the story about the prophet Elijah fed by angels under a juniper tree. Elijah did his work in the Northern Kingdom of Israel about 800 years before the birth of Jesus. He is remembered as one of the great, great prophets of the Jewish Testament. In fact, he was so powerful that Jesus’ followers thought Jesus to be the prophet’s reincarnation. John the Baptist’s followers thought the same about him. (Btw: does that mean that Jesus and his contemporaries believed in reincarnation?) So Elijah is a key figure in our tradition.

In any case, today’s story about Elijah describes the classic stages of the spiritual journey that we’re all called to – from immature believing things about God and Jesus to something more holistic that finds and honors God’s manifestations everywhere.  

As we join him in today’s first reading, Elijah is described as beginning a literal journey. He’s traveling to Mt. Horeb (or Sinai) – the place where Moses and the slaves who had escaped from Egypt made their Covenant with their God, Yahweh.  As pick up the story, Elijah is confused about God (“despondent”), and evidently thinks that by returning to the origins of his faith, he’ll get some clarity.

At this stage of his spiritual growth, Elijah’s faith is less mature. He has a very ethnocentric idea about God. And he’s being called to move beyond that stage of development. The ethnocentric idea has it that God is all about us – our people, our nation, our wars, our prosperity. God is our God and we are his chosen people – truly exceptional. In passages from the Book of Kings just before today’s reading Elijah manifested that understanding of God in a contest with the priests of Baal – a Phoenician God that the King of Israel, Achab and his wife Jezebel had flirted with.

You remember the story. Elijah challenged forty priests to a contest – your sacrifices against ours. Call on your gods to light your sacrificial fires, and I’ll call on Yahweh, and then we’ll see who’s really God. Of course, the priests of Baal can’t get their gods to come through. They chant, and dance, and sing. But the sacrificial wood remains cold. However Yahweh comes through for his prophet; he lights Elijah’s fire even though in a display of bravado, the prophet had the wood doused with water. Not only that, but Yahweh kills the forty priests for good measure.

That’s the ethnocentric idea: “Our God is better than your god. He has more magic power.” And he’s (this is almost always a male concept) very violent and vindictive. He’ll turn on you and go off on you at the drop of a hat. That’s the God that no longer seems to be working for Elijah. It has made him a wanted man. Queen Jezebel is after him and wants his head. Life is not worth living, the prophet concludes. He wants it all to end – there under the juniper tree.

But two people (whom Elijah later understands as messengers from God) feed him, and on the strength of food provided by strangers he completes his journey and arrives at a cave high on Mt. Sinai. And there God reveals his true nature not as an ethnocentric God belonging to a single “chosen” people. Neither does God reveal Godself in nature’s elements – not in earth (an earthquake), not in air (a whirlwind), nor in fire (lightning). Instead God (definitely not predominantly male) is disclosed as a “still small voice” within the prophet himself.

And what is a “still” voice, a “small” voice? It seems to me that it’s a communication without sound – one that can be hardly heard – a far cry from the deity who magically lights sacrificial fires and slays Phoenician priests. That magical violent understanding of God seems frankly childish – a God who enters into competition with other “worthy opponents” over whom he has greater magical powers.

No, the revelation to Elijah discloses a God who is much more subtle and who resides within all persons be they Hebrew or Phoenician. By traditional standards, it is a “weak” unspectacular God. God is found within; God is small and quiet and belongs to everyone. Or rather, everyone belongs to God regardless of their nationality or race. And in Elijah’s story, it’s not clear that the prophet even grasps the point.

Elijah might not have gotten the point. But it’s clear that his reincarnation in Jesus of Nazareth did – or at least that John the Evangelist writing 60-90 years after Jesus’ death got the point. By then it was possible to put words in Jesus’ mouth that the carpenter from Nazareth could never have said – especially about eating his flesh and above all drinking his blood. Jews, of course, were forbidden from imbibing the blood of any living thing, let alone human blood. However by John’s time Jesus’ followers had increasingly left behind their Jewish origins. They had become friendly with Gnosticism and were coming to terms with Roman “mystery cults.” Both worshipped “dying and rising gods” who offered “eternal life” to those who ate the god’s body and drank the god’s blood under the forms of bread and wine.

Evidently, John the Evangelist and others like John’s contemporary who wrote “The Gospel of Thomas” recognized an affinity between the teachings of Jesus and the beliefs of the Gnostics who found God’s presence in all of creation. The Gospel of Thomas has Jesus say “Split a block of wood and I am there; lift up a rock and find me there.”

 In other words, by the end of the first century, Christians were developing an ecumenical understanding of God that went far beyond the Jewish ethnocentrism of Elijah. By that time Christians could see that Jesus was not only a prophet, not only a movement founder of reform within Judaism,  not only an insightful story teller and extraordinary healer, but a “Spirit Person” who like the Gnostics found God’s presence in every element of creation – principally in that “still, small voice” revealed to Elijah.

So Jesus found God’s presence in wood, under rocks, in the breaking of bread, in the sharing of wine, within his self, here and now (not in some afterlife) but in his very flesh and blood. In other words, shared divine presence lent a unity and sameness to everything. Bread and flesh, wine and blood turn out to be the same across time and space. John has Jesus say all of that quite shockingly: “When you eat bread you are eating my flesh; when you drink wine, you are imbibing my blood. We, all of creation, are all one!”

What I’m saying here is that faith changes and grows. Discouragement with old models and paradigms is a hopeful sign. Think of today’s readings and the distance traveled from Elijah’s Magical Killer God to the Still Small Voice to the God present in bread, wine, and in every cell of Jesus’ and our own bodies.

If your own spiritual journey has you longing for further exploration of such adult themes, I can’t do better than to urge you along your ways by recommending Marcus Borg’s The Heart of Christianity. His Meeting Jesus again for the First Time is similarly helpful. Or perhaps during Advent or Lent we can get together to discuss those books and truly renew our faith. What do you think? (Discussion follows)