Monday, April 06, 2009

What Are You Going To Do?

Rating: GT
Mark 1:9-15
In those days Jesus came from Nazareth of Galilee and was baptized by John in the Jordan. And just as he was coming up out of the water, he saw the heavens torn apart and the Spirit descending like a dove on him. And a voice came from heaven, "You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased."
And the Spirit immediately drove him out into the wilderness. He was in the wilderness forty days, tempted by Satan; and he was with the wild beasts; and the angels waited on him.
Now after John was arrested, Jesus came to Galilee, proclaiming the good news of God, and saying, "The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near; repent, and believe in the good news."

Mark’s gospel account reads like a report. This passage is 6 sentences. Seriously. And it covers John baptizing people in the Jordan, Jesus coming to him for baptism, the voice of God claiming Jesus as God’s son, the 40 days in the desert, the temptation by Satan, and the beginning of Jesus’ ministry. 6 sentences. Bam.

Mark is not fooling around. He is getting the information down.

To me, Mark’s account conveys a sense of urgency, a need for information. This is not “come sit by the fire and let me tell you the most amazing story…”
Someone wants to know what the hell happened here?
I imagine Mark’s account to be a response to that urgency. It’s dense; it’s telegraphic; it’s just the facts, ma’am.

Someone wants to know, What the hell happened here?
and Mark starts out by saying, chapter 1 verse 1:
“Beginning of the good news of Jesus Christ”--
That’s verse 1. It only takes him 8 verses to get to “Jesus came from Nazareth of Galilee and was baptized by John in the Jordan.”
Mark is telling this story as fast as he can.
Do you get the sense that there’s no time to waste?

What happened here?

It’s a good question for us at the beginning of Holy Week.

Now is the acceptable time, Paul tells us in his second letter to the Corinthians. No more waiting. There is good work to do and there is no time to waste. Right now.

So let’s talk about reconciliation. Let’s look at what happened here, and what it is we think we’re doing here, today. Right now. The hard stuff. Let’s talk about the hard stuff.

I want to talk about where all this is heading. The season of Lent leading to Holy Week leading to Easter.
Every year, we spend 40 days, excluding Sundays, preparing to remember the betrayal of Jesus by his friends. His arrest and crucifixion and death. The burial. The confusion and chaos. The empty tomb.

What I always want to know is,
How did this happen? How did they let it— how is it that things went this far?
Was it necessary? Was it necessary for our salvation that Jesus died in this horrific way, at the hands of human beings? Why?
Who requires? What kind of God requires that level of agony and degradation? What kind of God requires that human beings torture and destroy the innocent as a condition for granting salvation to the lost?

Why did Christ have to die?
Because Jesus was human. And we tied him to a couple of wooden planks, drove metal spikes through his wrists and ankles, and set him upright until he drowned in his own pleural fluid, that’s why.
When you do that to a human, he dies.

It really is, I have come to believe, truly as simple as that.
Why did Jesus die? Because we killed him. That’s all. That’s why.

I say “we,” because even though you and I were not physically and temporally present, we are connected to those who were. We are connected through our shared capacity, in our very worst moments—not all the time, and not exclusively, but in perhaps only the one or two moments in our lives when we are not at all the persons we want to be—our capacity to engage in acts of destruction, acts of which we are later so deeply ashamed that we lock them away and cannot bear to think of them.

It is not my intention to “make” anyone feel ashamed or guilty, or to take on guilt or shame for someone else’s actions. It’s not necessary, because I don’t think I’ve ever met a person past the age of 8 or 9 who was not familiar with shame. There’s already too much pain and shame in the world. What I want to suggest is that each of us look with some compassion at those moments of shame that already exist in our own lives,
and recognize that this is just the way it is for us: this is the human condition--we are not always at our best.
We are not always the people we would like to be. Sometimes we fall down hard. All of us.

Only compassion allows me to look at those moments of my life. Without compassion, I can’t do it. I cannot. I cannot hold that shame unless I realize that this is the hand we are all dealt. None of us gets it right all the time, and we really are all in the same terrifying, open, and very leaky boat.

When I can do that, when I can find the compassion that enables me to look at my own life, then I can engage the story of Good Friday. It doesn’t matter that I wasn’t there and didn’t do it,
once I realize and face the fact that
if I had been there, I could have done it. If I were at my worst.
If I felt threatened enough,
if I felt betrayed and terrified and angry and helpless enough,
I could have done all of it. I could have sold Jesus out for the “greater good”,
I could have denied knowing him in an attempt to control and contain the damage,
I could have fallen asleep in the garden and run away from the soldiers.

I could have washed my hands of my responsibility for enacting justice.
I could have just followed orders.
I could have done as I was told.
I could have acquiesced to the authority of those in power
and abdicated my agency to stand up and speak out.

Not all the time. Not even most of the time, maybe.
But in my very worst moments, those few moments in my life when I have been least myself,
when I have been the most alienated from my own heart and soul and mind,
when I have felt most helpless and most isolated—
then, yes, I could have. Caught at exactly the wrong moment—
I could have done it.

God does not require Jesus’ death on the cross as recompense for our badness.
We are the ones who require it—-simply by being capable, in our worst moments, of such atrocities.

The good news of the crucifixion is that it is something that each of us, at our worst, is capable of doing. Jesus dying on the cross is the manifestation of our very worst.
We have, quite literally, done our worst--

and God still lives;
God is still God, and God’s love for us is unchanged.
We have done our worst. We have done our worst. Christ has died.
And Christ is risen.
And Christ is coming, again. And again. And again and again and again.

Christ had to die because we are capable of killing him.
It’s as simple and as horrifying and as bewildering and as heartrending as that.
Jesus died because we are capable of killing him.

Because the fact that we are capable of killing him
is why Jesus came to us in the first place.
God knows that we are in such bad shape
that our eventual response to the presence of God’s Incarnate Word among us
will be to nail him to a cross until he can no longer breathe and his heart stops beating. Jesus dying on the cross is the physical enactment of our absolute need to be rescued.
That, right there, is what God moves to save us from—-not by intervening and preventing us from doing it: because we’d still be just as capable of it, we’d still be just as broken.
God saves us by being God, by staying with us through all of it and by being God,
the same God who told Moses, “I am that I am.”
Jesus’ death was not “necessary”; it was simply inevitable.
As inevitable as God being God and raising Jesus from the dead.
Because God is still God: Creator, Spirit, Word, one God.
Christ has died.
Christ is risen.
Christ is coming again.
We have done our worst; and even our worst cannot separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord. [Romans 8:37-39]
That, my brothers and sisters, is good news. That is the good news that our brother Mark is telling us with such urgency and determination. That’s the story that he is telling as fast as he can.
That is what is happening here. Today. This day.

No matter what we have done or not done, no matter whom we have hurt or failed—-
God is still God.
And we are loved relentlessly.
We can begin again. We can come up out of the water and see the heavens open
and the Spirit descending upon us
and hear the voice of God naming us as beloved children

We can begin again. Right now.
Now is the acceptable time.
There is good work to do and there is no time to waste.
You are loved relentlessly—-relentlessly loved,
Beloved and cherished. Right now.

What are you going to do about it?

yours in the struggle,


At 11:15 PM, Blogger Kirstin said...

Loved this live. Love it now. And you. :-)

At 11:07 AM, Anonymous Zelator Orion said...

Hello Max

I would like to set aside the issue of belief for the moment if I may?

We look back on these events from the perspective of the Pauline Christian Church. In that we have to be aware of the politics that prevailed. Not the politics of empire and government but the politics of establishing a new religion.

Paul was not a desciple he came after. You don't see him at the table of the Last Supper. He took a slightly obscure Jewish sect and made it into something capable of marketing to a much wider community.

They say that the victors write the history books and I consider that to be the case here. It was convenient to disassociate fledgling Christianity from the Jewish faith. To that end it is useful to portray them as the villians of the events. The Romans being mere participants responding to the wishes of the community and so able to 'wash their hands' of it all.

If you set aside the discussions that the death and resurrection were following in the long traditions of Eastern Mystery schools. It can be thought that it is helpful to have the Messiah murdered by the competition.

The early Christian church was significantly anti semitic. Not averse to using tactics which we are very familiar with in the these latter centuries.

The three major manifestations of Abrahamic religions have vied for ascendency all through their histories. The People of the Book are apparently divided by a hunger for power and influence not truth.

Too much scripture is conveniently ignored, obscured or worse destroyed, if it does not fit the accepted framework.

So to go to your question 'Why did this have to happen?'

I consider that it was useful, not as a lesson in God's love, or as an example of sacrifice. Instead I think it was helpful in the aggrandisement of power by the early Christian Church, struggling to be a force of influence.

Now if I may put belief back into the mix? It may be that Paul believed he had a mission to convert the world to a new way of thinking. I just find the methods questionable.

No doubt I have managed to offend 90% of the population with these words.

However, what you believe does not have to be true, just right for you. We are genetically constructed to be predisposed to believe. It is healthy to believe, believers are proven to live longer.

Perhaps Atheisim should come with a Surgeon General's Health Warning?

My sincere regards

At 8:05 PM, Blogger Max Rainey said...

Zelator: you may enjoy “Bible?!? Are You Effing KIDDING Me???” which you can find in the archives (January 2007).

I’m curious to know what about Paul’s methods you find questionable. As far as I know, he basically walked around talking to people. Occasionally he had one companion or another with him, but that’s about it… from time to time he would be imprisoned by the Roman government, until they finally got around to executing him.

The methods that I find not merely questionable, but horrifically objectionable, were those employed after the Constantinian conversion in the 4th century CE—long, long after Paul had shuffled off this mortal coil. But for three-and-a-half centuries before that, Christianity was very much a grass-roots, word-of-mouth kind of thing… people talking to other people, which frankly seems perfectly OK to me.

As for the “early Church” being “anti-Semitic,” I suppose it depends on to what you refer by “the early Church.” To say that the Apostle Paul was anti-Semitic is a little problematic, given that the Apostle Paul was a Semite. And I’m not convinced that he thought of himself as promoting a “new” religion. The God of Jesus of Nazareth was, for Paul, the same Lord he had worshipped his whole life. Paul simply believed that Jesus was the Messiah spoken of by the prophets, the savior of Israel and a light to the Gentiles—the one who would bring all “the nations” (i.e., non-Jews) to the worship of the one true God: the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob (aka Israel).

If by “the early church” you mean the post-Constantinian church, then yes… given that the conversion of the Emperor Constantine in the 4th century CE established the Institutional Church, and effected the conflation of the Institutional Church with the Roman Empire. Constantine was converted by his conviction that this “Christian” God would grant him global conquest, so the Church became the servant of the State and the State became the champion of the Church, so that the Church might better serve the State… and on and on and tragically on. The seeds of the doctrine of the divine right of kings are sown.

Incidentally, if you ask most U.S. citizens today what they think of the notion of the “divine right of kings,” – and if they have any idea what you’re talking about – they will utterly denounce the notion, and anyone who could have held it, in the most scathing terms. However, most of those same U.S. citizens will avow the divine right and duty of the U.S. to assert our will over the rest of the world, without blinking an eye. Our lack of clue as to the utter irony of our entire existence is just embarrassing.

I can say that, because I am a U.S. citizen, and therefore have both the historical perspective to observe our flaws, and the moral obligation to articulate them. This does not, as some of my countryfellows would claim, make me anti-American. As a matter of fact, I love this country. It is my commitment to and my bone-deep identification with my U.S. citizenship that makes me so horrified at some of the things we do.

I point this out in order to illustrate what I believe is a terribly pervasive and destructive misconception about 1st-century Christian documents. Those 1st-century writings that have been interpreted in the modern age (and by “modern age,” I refer to the roughly 400 years spanning the last half of the 16th century through the first half of the 20th) as “anti-Semitic” – by both modern anti-Semitic “Christians” and critics of Christianity – are almost all written by Semites. Any criticism therein is that of one writing of himself and his own. When we go back and read these texts with the conscious understanding that we are reading the words of a Jewish writer, we find that they savor much more of critical self-reflection than of xenophobia, and refer to specific, discrete events rather than a general condemnation of Israel.

Criticism of specific, discrete events and actions are a deeply integral part of Jewish tradition. Take a look at Hosea, Ezekiel, Micah, Amos… to name a scant few of the books of the Hebrew Bible in which the author(s) engage in blistering social criticism of institutional injustice. This calling-to-account of one’s own society is part of the Jewish understanding of the Divine’s constant preferential option for the victim and action on the side of justice. The fact that this kind of writing makes up such a large part of Hebrew sacred text is testimony to the core values of justice, mercy and loving-kindness in ancient Israel. Otherwise, these writings would not have been canonized as holy scripture.

I agree with you that in subsequent centuries, the institutional church engaged in egregious, horrific, sinful anti-Semitism, shamelessly co-opting sacred texts to bolster its own agenda of conquest and imperial domination. But your assertion that “The early Christian church was significantly anti semitic” is a little too vague in terms of history (are you referring to 1st century church? 4th century? 9th century?) and too unspecific and assumptive (“significant” according to whom? and for whom? by what criteria? what about the many Semite Christian communities?) to stand unexamined.

The Roman Empire accorded Jews living within its borders a certain protected minority status—for example, Jews were exempt from certain required sacrifices to Roman gods—but Roman society in general could be characterized as “anti-Semitic.” Jews who came to believe that Jesus of Nazareth was the Messiah still enjoyed the protections of their Jewish status, while their Gentile counterparts did not. Understandably, if tragically, this caused some friction in the early Christian community when Gentile Christians were fined or arrested or stripped of property for refusing to participate in ritual sacrifices to Roman gods (including Caesar) while their Jewish brethren were left in peace, although one wonders what Gentile Christians expected them to do…

oh, I could go on and on (I know, I know, I already have)...

thanks for pulling my string, Zelator Orion! keep stirring the stew.

yours in the struggle,

At 9:25 AM, Anonymous Zelator Orion said...

Hmmm. You have a persuasive way with words Max. I feel that we probably agree more than disagree. However,(you were expecting the however, right?)

Paul was not one of the original 12, and he had to work pretty hard to impose his vison on what the church was going to be. Now one can take the view that Paul was chosen for his work by a higher power and that what happened was part of the plan. What I see is a smart operator, a freedom fighter of sorts who worked to change what Christ had left behind into something that could and has moved the world. That vision did not include the Jewish faith and had to be distanced from it.

Coming from a country where the Monarch is also the head of the church I have a perspective on the Divine Right of Kings as well. I should just like to make the point that Kingship goes back nearly 7.000 years to Sumer in what is now Iraq/Iran. The Gods of the Sumerians described their Kings as Shepherds too. Perhaps we are looking at a longer lead in than just the last 2,000 years.

My regards Max

Send the light my way?

At 10:56 PM, Blogger Max Rainey said...

Z.O., of course: light and love to you, always and in all ways.

Yes, we are looking at a much, much longer lead-in than just the last 2000 years! I guess that was sort of the point I was trying to make: that Paul was not attempting to establish a "new" religion, but proclaiming salvation through an ancient truth being fulfilled in a way that exploded expectations.

Having said that...
a lively exchange about Pauline writings, deutero-Pauline writings, and post-second-century interpretation of those writings: all this could be fun and educational. I can't help noticing, though, that we've drifted quite a ways from the subject of this post, which is based on the Marcan gospel account.

So I'm left to wonder what your response to this post might be? Given your objection to the anti-Semitism expressed throughout the centuries by the insitutional church -- which I certainly share -- what do you make of my contention that the betrayal and death of Jesus has nothing to do with Semitism in general and everything to do with humanity: all of us, each of us, every day?

Just doing a little stew-stirring myself... thanks for coming back. I appreciate your engagement!

yours in the struggle,

At 5:57 AM, Anonymous Zelator Orion said...

Hello Max

Apologies for the delay in response, Easter is fast dissapearing over the horizon but the message of sacrifice and inhumane behaviour remains current.

I will try and resist sidetracking apart from this. I consider that the Mar Thoma Christian Church out of Kerrula, India perhaps has a more honest claim to being closer to Jesus than the Western Pauline Church. Thomas was after all one of the twelve and a doubter after my own heart. The Nazranis there carry their faith directly from converts of Thomas himself. He laid hands on the risen body, you can't get closer than that!

To come to the message and not the messenger.

The example of inhumanity that was the crucifixion is, as you say, something that we could all be capable of, despite our protestations to the contrary. That we are deemed worthy of forgiveness for such an outrage is comforting.

However, there have been, are and will be even greater outrages and inhuman acts perpetrated by mankind against mankind.
Historically from the wholesale murder of defeated peoples in Pre Columbian South America through to 'ethnic cleansing' ongoing today all over the world.

The total denial of human rights and equality sits on the same planet surface as the most liberal and enlightened social experiments.

Each of us is only a heartbeat away from such deplorable behaviour as was exhibited by Jesus' own people.

It would seem to me that it is the internal struggle to be better than we are, that is the thing. I do not like being told by others what it is I should believe. Especially when their claim to 'higher knowledge' is based on flawed provenance. If I have any belief it is in personal knowledge, the Gnosis of the devine. The message of the crucifiction and resurrection is a personal one for me.

I choose the name Zelator Orion as it means seeker/student and hunter. I follow the Path of the Fool seeking personal knowledge uninterpreted by an 'establishment'.
Christ speaks to me only in that there can be a way to self realise, to awaken into an understanding, however poor, of some truth.

So many of us never wake up. Instead we sleepwalk through an existance that is unenlightened and governed by others thoughts not our own.

I think it is reasonably safe to say that should Christ or someone like Him arrive on the planet tomorrow, we would most likely replicate what was done 2000 years ago.

Sorry to be so depressing!

My regards

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