Archive for March, 2005

The Day of Resurrection

Sunday, March 27th, 2005
Acts 10:34-43

Colossians 3:1-4

John 20:1-18

Hallelujah! Christ is risen. Hallelujah! We are risen. Hallelujah! The nations are risen. Hallelujah! The Church is risen. Hallelujah! The world is risen. Hallelujah! More is risen from death and decay than most of you had imagined when you came this morning to celebrate the Easter resurrection of Jesus Christ.

This holiday of resurrection focuses on the resurrection of Jesus Christ, that humble man who spoke the truth about justice and hypocrisy in the wrong places and failed to duck when the political forces of stability and accommodation in Jerusalem lashed out to keep the peace. The week before, Jesus had ridden into Jerusalem, acclaimed by a crowd as a royal descendent of David the Messiah King, a crowd that hoped he would restore Israel’s sovereignty and the justice of its internal administration. But Jesus aimed to be no king. He did not gather an army. He addressed no political matters. He claimed no Davidic royalty over against the House of Herod. He aimed to be a teaching Messiah, and his teachings those four days after Palm Sunday exposed the hypocrisy and compromises of the Temple leaders and some Pharisees, making him no friends. In the last days he gathered his friends close and pointed out that what he had done was to make them friends with one another, his friends, and God’s friends. His Messianic goal was the humble one of creating communities of lovers, whose virtues consisted in making those whom they love better lovers. His love is based on justice, mercy, piety, faith, and hope, and that love is the actuality of the reconciliation of humankind and God.

Uniting people in reconciling love is a humble task compared with conquering enemies with shock and awe. Yet it is much more difficult. History has seen empire-builders by the score, far too many, in fact, and embarrassingly close to home in our time. But the risen Christ’s little communities of love have grown and lasted, while every empire has fallen. Each act of Christian kindness is a witness to the humble Christ’s resurrection. The exact nature of Jesus’ resurrection and his appearances to disciples are inconsistently stated in the gospels and have been debated ever since. Nevertheless, their effects are evident everywhere that his ongoing love and mercy uplift the poor, free the oppressed, give sight to the blind, and make someone a better lover. Resurrection only makes sense against the presumption of death, and we have seen much death around us. Therefore we shout Hallelujah when we see death reversed in new life.

The author of our text from Colossians points to another resurrection, namely our own. This may come as a surprise, because at most what we expected for ourselves today is an occasion to wear Easter spring finery. Colossians, however, says that to be baptized in Christ is to die with him to the life of sin and already to be risen with him at the right hand of God. Now if you take literally Christ’s heavenly journey with us to the right hand seat next to God, then obviously this is a mistake. We are still only a hundred yards off Commonwealth Avenue. But I think the talk of sitting at God’s right hand is a brilliant metaphor, and the reality to which it points is our own state of being free from sin and ready to go with new life because we have accepted the humble man Jesus as our Messiah. Of course, we also live in ordinary life and continue to have the bad habits we had before. Colossians goes on to list fornication, impurity, passion, evil desire, greed, idolatry, anger, wrath, malice, slander, abusive language, and lying. We do these and worse things, but we do not have to: we are not in bondage to them. Colossians says to clean up our act and behave like properly resurrected people. You think you are stuck? Forget it. You have the merciful power of God that raises people to new life coursing through your veins. If you don’t have enough, take more! [Gesture to Communion Table] Hallelujah! We are risen.

The nations are risen too. Peter’s speech recorded in Acts begins, “I truly understand that God shows no partiality, but in every nation anyone who fears him and does what is right is acceptable to him.” He goes on to say that the liberation begun by Jesus in Israel is extended to Rome and then to all the world. What Peter had in mind was that people from all nations could be accepted into the Christian Church, that membership was not limited to Jews. But what he said was more powerful: all are accepted who fear God and do what is right. There are Pagan and Muslim, Hindu and Buddhist, Confucian and Daoist ways of fearing God, each in its own way, and not only Jewish and Christian ways. Justice is commonly defined among religions, even though there are significant cultural variations. God’s resurrecting power works in all.

This should be a great relief to us because the nations of the world in our time are a mess, including our own. Jesus’ complaints about hypocrisy and injustice among the religious and governmental leaders of his time apply equally well to the nations in the Islamic world, the Marxist world, the world of South Asia, Southeast Asia, East Asia, Europe, Latin America, and North America. Nevertheless, all these governments can be redeemed. They can be resurrected with less warmongering, less graft, less injustice and prejudice. Hallelujah! We can begin again, even though this requires the slow deconstruction of habits of belligerence, arrogance, greed, inattention to the poor, and oppression.

There’s new life for the Church too. How in the world can the Church be the living Body of Christ when it is made up of people such as ourselves who retain so many of the bad habits of the flesh, as St. Paul delighted to complain ? Is the Church only an institution? So often the Church worries about its institutional self, about increasing its membership, sustaining its continuity, teaching the next generation, competing with alternative institutions, when these concerns seem to be opposite to the obligations of the Body of Christ. The Body of Christ is to serve the world, teaching justice and mercy, reconciliation and love, and to cultivate the life of love among its members. The Church’s institutional organizations are only instrumental ways to perform that service, that teaching, that new way of loving life. The resurrection means that we do not have to cling to institutions that are instrumentally dead. The Church always has new life and can find new wineskins to culture that life. As a Church of the resurrection we do not have to worry about institutions that are failing in numbers and vigor if we preach the word and serve the world in other ways. As a Church of the resurrection we most definitely do have to worry about institutions that claim the Christian name and yet lack the fruits of the spirit—peacemaking, help for the poor, release for the oppressed, stewardship for creation, depth of spirit, courage, joy, and love. Vigorous and growing institutions do exist that, in the name of the Risen Christ, preach war-making, inattention to the poor, curtailment of prisoners’ rights, exploitation of God’s natural creation, fear for the loss of their parochial culture, bitterness about people different from themselves, and hatred of those they deem enemies. The resurrection Church leaves that religion of death behind. No Christian need be stuck there. Hallelujah!

Of course, the world of nature is risen today too. Perhaps the most ancient religious rite of humankind is the celebration of the Earth’s tilting to meet the sun from which light and life come. Longer days and shorter nights are reasons for joy. Spring means renewal of life: new flowers, new crops, new lambs, and a new baseball season (to speak to the interest of Bostonians). Easte
r is the Christian’s version of the spring festival of which every religion has some version, tied as it is to the Jewish spring festival of Passover. The power of spring to symbolize new life in every domain goes beyond Christianity and all religions to quicken the hearts of the Scrooges, secularists, and anti-religion people. In spring we understand that even the passing of the generations makes way for new generations. In its deepest and broadest meaning, none of us can deny the resurrection of life from death for very long, no matter how we grieve some death or other. The entire world is witness to this resurrection.

The resurrection of Jesus is special to us Christians, however, because we see Jesus to have gone through the worst death: untimely, ruinous of his work, agonizing, humiliating, unjust, undeserved. From this we know that the resurrection message is that our projects’ defeat as defined by the world is never the final word, that whatever we suffer for the causes of Christ can be borne, that there is always hope for our community and nation, that the Spirit will always find new ways in the Church, that the very violence of cosmic creation from the Big Bang to the Final Dissipation is the eternal receptacle of the transient glories of life, and that even our own frailty, sicknesses, and inevitable death are not as important as the new life we already touch. Let our souls sing with St. Paul’s familiar song: “Who will separate us from the love of Christ? Will hardship, or distress, or persecution, or famine, or nakedness, or peril, or sword? . . .No, in all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us. For I am convinced that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor rulers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.” Hallelujah! Christ is risen. Amen.

-The Rev. Dr. Robert Cummings Neville

The Power of Humility

Sunday, March 20th, 2005
Isaiah 50:4-9a

Philippians 2:5-11

Matthew 27:11-54

Palm Sunday is commonly represented as a triumphal entry of Jesus into Jerusalem, riding on a donkey, which was the ceremonial act of a king. The crowd hailed Jesus as the Son of David, saying “Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord.” The familiar story is told in the 21st chapter of Matthew, verses 1-11. We know that the crowd was hoping for a messiah as David has been, a king with the military skill and power to deliver Israel from the Romans.

We have seen a great deal of triumphalist thinking in recent politics. America’s government has cast the country into the messianic role of saving the world for democracy. But America’s messianic self-understanding is not that of a teaching messiah like Jesus. It is more that of a fighting messiah like David who conquered a lot of territory in his time, or like Cyrus the Great of Persia who conquered a great deal more territory and was called messiah because he sent the Jews back to Jerusalem from their exile. The American messianic mission has led us to conquer Afghanistan and Iraq whose former governments opposed our democratizing plans for them. We’ve threatened Iran and North Korea, whom our President has linked with Iraq as the “Axis of Evil,” and seem surprised when they want to develop nuclear weapons to keep America at bay. Our government is convinced that it can triumph over any country that stands in its way.

Jesus’ triumph, of course, was very short-lived. He offered no armed resistance to the Romans, nor did he collect any army as David had. After his Palm Sunday entry into Jerusalem he spent the next four days teaching, mainly in the Temple, and going each night back to the suburb of Bethany, most likely to stay with Mary, Martha, and Lazarus.

What Jesus taught in those days, according to Matthew, had little or nothing to do with politics, the Roman occupation, or insurrection. In fact, that was the time he said to render to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s and to God the things that are God’s. Jesus teaching was occupied with God, though with a special twist. His teachings those days seemed to focus on hypocrisy in religion, on the sorry performance of those claiming to represent his religion, and on the blindness of the people to God in their midst. Remember the “Seven Woes” from Matthew 23? “Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you lock people out of the kingdom of heaven. . . Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you cross sea and land to make a single convert, and you make the new convert twice as much a child of hell as yourselves. . . Woe to you, blind guides, who say, ‘Whoever swears by the sanctuary is bound by nothing, but whoever swears by the gold of the sanctuary is bound by oath.’ … Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you tithe mint, dill, and cumin, and have neglected the weightier matters of the law: justice and mercy and faith. . . . Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you clean the outside of the cup and of the plate, but inside they are full of greed and self-indulgence. . . Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you are like whitewashed tombs, which on the outside look beautiful, but inside they are full of the bones of the dead and of all kinds of filth. . . . Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you build the tombs of the prophets and decorate the graves of the righteous, and you say, ‘If we had lived in the days of our ancestors, we would not have taken part with them in shedding the blood of the prophets. . . Therefore I send you prophets, sages, and scribes, some of whom you will kill and crucify, and some you will flog in your synagogues and pursue from town to town, so that upon you may come all the righteous blood shed on earth.” That’s all a quote, and it is not the kind of preaching calculated to win friends among the powerbrokers of Jerusalem: by the end of the fourth day Jesus was arrested and by the end of the fifth he was dead. So much for messianic triumphalism!

Jesus, I should hasten to add, was not ranting against Judaism. He was a Jew himself and was attacking some leaders of his own religion whom he thought were viciously hypocritical. Jesus never attacked any one else’s religion, only those whom he thought corrupted the religion of Israel. We need to take care that our own religious leaders are not hypocrites, that none of them attacks other religions without seeing God in them, that none whitewashes the tomb of American jingoism with the peacemaking words of the gospel, that none supports the pursuit of greed with the good and worthy name of Christian missions, that none speaks well of the corrupt leaders in the corporate world because they contribute heavily to churches, and that none mislead simple people with simplistic theologies. Can we guard against such hypocrisy among ourselves? We have not done well so far.

When Jesus was dragged before Pilate, he did not bluster like an aggrieved rebel. Nor did he posture like a king claiming a throne unjustly denied him by the Roman Empire. He was humble. He said hardly anything. He let the words and actions of his betrayers, accusers and judge speak for themselves. And they did. For two thousand years the name of Judas is associated with perfidy. The leaders of the Temple wanted Jesus dead because they believed he threatened the stability of their relation with the Roman occupation forces. and said it is better that one innocent man die than that the nation be destroyed. Ironically, this promoted, though it did not justify, two thousand years of anti-Semitism, one of the most grievous sins of Christianity. Pontius Pilate is still the epitome of corruption in government, knowing what is just but lacking the courage to carry it out when justice has a price. Even without the resurrection, Jesus the humble teacher won that confrontation on Passion Week. Judas, the Temple leaders, and the Romans failed to do the truth. Jesus spoke the truth, and lived the truth. For all he suffered—Jesus’ Passion means he suffered passively what others did to him—Jesus conquered.

Paul put the point starkly in his great hymn in Philippians. Jesus aboriginally has the form of God. That means, in the conceptions of his age, that he dwelt in the highest heaven with God and had the body and mind appropriate to that heaven. But Jesus then descended to earth and took on the form, not only of a human, but of a human slave. “And being found in human form, he humbled himself and became obedient to the point of death—even death on a cross. Therefore God also highly exalted him and gave him the name that is above every name, so that at the name of Jesus every knee should bend, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue should confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father.”

Why should we confess that Jesus Christ is Lord? Because he is a political lord, a king? No, he wasn’t. Because he beat the Romans? No, he didn’t. Because he established the perfect justice of Isaiah’s messianic expectation? No, the rabbis were right that things were no better in the next generation. Jesus is Lord because humility of his sort is the stuff of divinity. To speak the truth and accept the consequences is to be humble. To stay with the truth when it costs pain and life itself is to be humble. To be obedient to the point of death—even death on a cross—is to be humble. To hope that one’s judgments will win out in the world and yet see no divine intervention to make it so, forsaken on the cross at the point of death, crying, Why? Why?, and then saying to the absent Father, “Into your hands I commend my spirit,” that is the humility of God.

As we enter into Passio
n Week, let us have the humble humor to see that our best vehicle is a donkey, not a Humvee. We will not convert the world to democracy by destroying non-democratic governments and installing our own. That only leads to resistance. We can try humbly to convert the world by speaking the truth about the culture-shaking responsibilities of democracies, and inviting others to those responsibilities. Democracy destroys cultures based on tribal or other community allegiances by insisting on the individualism of one person, one vote; democracy destroys cultures that separate gender roles and class distinctions. Many cultures have much to lose by adopting democracy, and will always lose if it is imposed upon them rather than chosen by them. We need the humility of truth in advertising, even if we ourselves are convinced that democracy is worth the cost. We can not force a messianic Christian culture on America by saying that God blesses America more than any other nation, by saying that corporate greed is really an expression of freedom, by saying that religious bigotry is upholding standards of humanity, by saying that racial and gender prejudice are justified by the Bible, by saying that exploitation of the environment is proper stewardship, or by saying that neglect of the poor is what they deserve. Yet people have said in recent months that jingoism, corporate greed, bigotry, prejudice, and environmental exploitation are just what the gospel ordered if we can disguise how they are named. We can try humbly to expose and correct those evils by learning and speaking the truth.

You all know that Passion Week is not like opening Christmas presents. Beginning with that cheap and shallow patriotism of the people who threw palms in Jesus’ path, to his angry attack on the money-changers in the temple, to his parables and woes about hypocrisy, to his betrayal, arrest, and crucifixion, it was a downhill week. By the Sabbath of Holy Saturday, God was off resting, the disciples were hopeless, and Jesus was just dead. There is no guarantee for us that our humble efforts to be peacemakers will succeed, that our invitation to choose democracy will be heeded, that our exposures of hypocrisy in our own religion and culture will go unpunished. The power of evil forces is very great, no less strong now than in Jesus’ time. We should expect humility to be crucified. But the more it suffers, the stronger it gets. The more the arrogance of might and hypocrisy strike at the humble, the more their evil is exposed. The humbler we are, like Jesus, the more God is incarnate in our efforts and we are worthy of the glory peculiar to the Lord of Humility. Humility has a power passing the intrigue of Judas, the political compromises of the Temple leaders, and the mighty imperial weakness of Pilate. There is power in humility, the power of God. If you want to know what humility is worth, not its power but its worth, come back next week. Amen.

-The Rev. Dr. Robert Cummings Neville

Spirit and Flesh

Sunday, March 13th, 2005
Ezekiel 37:1-14

Romans 8:6-11

John 11:1-45

The three texts of our scripture today have given rise to three different, and perhaps problematic, theologies of the relation of spirit to flesh. We are fleshly people, evolving in nature with needs and appetites that fuel human society. Yet we are spiritual people in our relation to God. If we are not well-related to God, our spiritual lives are poor. Ideally, our spirit is supposed to be infused with God’s spirit. In fact, the most fundamental theme of Christian redemption is that the Word of God takes on human flesh and walks among us. We do not have to go to God. God is incarnate in and among us. The Christian approach to spirit is not to find it above life or in the bye and bye, but in the very flesh of life. Yet Christian incarnationalism is very difficult to grasp, and when grasped, it is still difficult to swallow.

The dry bones text from Ezekiel is one of the most vivid images in the whole Bible. One of my earliest memories is of a men’s quartet in my church in St. Louis singing, “Them bones, them bones, them dry bones.” The connection of the thigh bone to the hip bone was my first conscious awareness that human anatomy is more than skin deep. Imagine Ezekiel surveying that ancient battlefield of dry bones and calling upon them to come together with a great rattle, then grow sinews, muscles, and skin. But they were only bodies, like the doll God made out of mud according to Genesis 2. God had to breath his breath, or spirit, into Adam to make him a living creature. God tells Ezekiel to call in the divine breath to give living spirit to the army of newly enfleshed dead men. When the divine wind comes at his call, the people come to life.

The point of Ezekiel’s text, however, was not a parable about God breathing life into otherwise inanimate bodies, as in the Genesis account. Rather, his point was that Israel had been defeated and scattered in exile like a beaten army, and that God would recall Israel home. Ezekiel was rather harsh in his reasons for Israel’s defeat: they had to do with Israel abandoning God and pursuing sin and idolatry. God was behind their defeat. But God would also redeem them as a people and bring them back to the Promised Land. In Ezekiel’s text, God does not directly reassemble the bones and breathe life into them; rather, he has Ezekiel cause all this by “prophesying.” I suspect that Ezekiel saw a significant role for prophets such as himself in the redemption and re-establishment of Israel.

We Americans today might not identify much with ancient Israel’s sorry state, for we are still the nation that dictates to others. Many of us believe, however, that Ezekiel’s indictment of Israel might have some application to us. Where is our godly commitment to peacemaking, to putting the poor and oppressed first, to policies that heal those afflicted with diseases such as AIDS, to feeding the hungry, clothing the naked, and freeing the prisoners? Why do we make war out of anger, set our foreign and domestic policies to feed the greed of the rich, and back away from multilateral treaties that would require some restraint from us to protect the environment and establish international law? Where did we get the idolatrous idea that we should impose our political polities on people who do not choose them? Ezekiel sounds a warning to which we should listen. He also promises hope that, no matter how far we fall, and how much we suffer the consequences of greedy belligerence, God can redeem the nation. Those who despair should remember that the bones did come together, grow flesh, and receive the divine breath of life.

Paul’s text tells a darker story. For him the term “flesh” did not symbolize God’s creation, which was pronounced good. For Paul “flesh” symbolized a commitment to sensuality, especially sexuality, that fails to put sensual impulses in their places. He probably recognized that sex in its place is good, although he does not say that. Acquisition of wealth is good if distributed with charity. Eating and drinking are good if not done to excess. The flesh is good if infused with the spirit. In Paul’s rather dour world-view, however, sex, productive work, eating and drinking, and other ordinary functions of life typically become addictions. He frequently characterized sin as bondage, as addictions are matters of bondage. He pictured human beings as so addicted to the things that otherwise are healthy needs and purposes that they lose their health and become ends in themselves, binding us in slavery to sin. Recent theologians often fault Paul for denying the goodness of creation by harping on how human beings have distorted it. Because of Paul, the Christian tradition has little good to say about sex except for its utilitarian function of reproduction, little good to say about marriage except that it can keep you out of adultery, and little good to say about enjoying life except as a foretaste of a better life to come. Paul looked for a quick ending of the present age and a flight from it to be with Jesus without much attention to the redemption of the flesh in this life. We can fault his theology of creation, perhaps.

But was he not right in so much of what he said about our bondage to the flesh? And did he not say also in our passage that, “If the Spirit of him who raised Jesus from the dead dwells in you, he who raised Christ from the dead will give life to your mortal bodies also through his Spirit that dwells in you”? Paul did proclaim the incarnation even if he was reluctant to say much about how the indwelling Spirit of God might improve our mortal bodies of flesh.

John’s Gospel is the opposite of Paul’s in this respect. For John, Jesus was all about the loveliness of the flesh, of this life. To be sure, there is a high symbolic structure to John’s Gospel. The raising of Lazarus is the last and most spectacular of the miracles that Jesus performed, beginning with the simple, almost frivolous one of making wine out of water at the wedding in Cana. The miracles all were to show the power of God to be manifest in the world in ways most people missed. Jesus’ own resurrection was the crowning demonstration of the Lordship of God within the world. The raising of Lazarus was also the incident that set the government and temple authorities out to get Jesus. But pay attention to the loving details of the story.

The story begins by establishing that Jesus loved Lazarus as a friend, along with his sisters Mary and Martha; the other gospels never indicate that Jesus had friends, only disciples. The other miracle healing stories all have to do with first encounters, not with a pre-existing love. Then the story says that the sisters sent to Jesus who was in hiding because his enemies had tried to stone him. Jesus’ felt their need of him but with great reluctance stayed back so that sick Lazarus would die before he can go perform a miraculous healing. Jesus apparently wanted him to die so that he could raise someone from the dead, not just cure an illness. Notice Jesus’ intense dialogue with his disciples about all this, especially with Thomas. When Jesus finally came to Bethany, Lazarus had been in the tomb four days; folk religion of the time believed that souls of the dead stayed near the body for about four days and then left, meaning that after four days Lazarus was as dead as dead can be. Friends of the family from Jerusalem were consoling the sisters.

As he approached, Martha ran to meet Jesus with a somewhat incoherent speech about how he could have helped if he had been there earlier. Jesus told her that Lazarus would live again, which she interpreted to mean that he would rise at the last general resurrection. Jesus replied that he himself, there in the flesh, was the resurrecti
on. Martha, better at managing things than at theology, ran back for Mary, the contemplative one. Mary fell down at Jesus’ feet in worship and said Lazarus would not have died if Jesus had been there. At this point, Jesus’ high resolution to let Lazarus die so he could demonstrate divine power wavered. He broke down when he saw the sisters’ grief, and that of the mourners. “See how he loved him,” said the people.

When the group arrived at the tomb, Jesus broke down again. And then he called Lazarus, whose body was in a state of decay, to come out of the tomb, to come back to them, to live again. This was not a fancy resurrection to a celestial body, as Paul imagined it in 1st Corinthians. This was a call back to the flesh. It demonstrated God’s power, but not for a general resurrection of the dead. It demonstrated God’s power to bring Lazarus back to this life. Lazarus was deeply loved, by Jesus, his sisters, and the crowd. And they wanted him amongst them again.

John’s gospel is startling with its complicated theological representations of the drama of divine power, of Jesus’ sometimes outrageous claims about himself, and its apparent approval of using people’s suffering to demonstrate divine power. Yet the genius of the gospel is that it illustrates those things with the intimacy of personal love. John’s Jesus had a social life; his conversations are recorded as well as his speeches. Jesus weeping over Jerusalem in the other gospels was a symbolic act. Weeping over Lazarus was the squeezing of his heart. John says that the power of resurrection came to a man who broke down at the pain caused by what he had to do. The mighty power of God’s spirit dwelt in a man whose flesh loved, laughed, grieved, and wept.

The lesson for us is not that we should go out and attempt miracles. Rather we should love, laugh, grieve, and weep. We should not buffer ourselves against human contact. We should not pass up opportunities to enjoy friends and celebrate life’s moments. We should not fail to cultivate family and friendships, entering emotionally into all their affairs. We should not fail to bear one another’s burdens. We should not protect ourselves from grief. We should not hold back tears or protect our hearts from being broken. For it is in the intensity of open, loving, intimate personal life that we can receive God’s spirit and be truly spiritual people.

God’s spirit is not something blown into us from the outside, as Ezekiel might have thought. Our flesh with its loving, weepy sensuality should not be suppressed until covered by the Spirit, as Paul might have thought. By making our flesh supple, full, porous, and open to life’s intimacies we welcome the Spirit of God and can live intensely as we were created to be in fleshly form before God our creator, judge, and lover.

In John’s gospel, Jesus insists that his great work has been to make his disciples friends with one another and with him, and through him with God. He instructs them with his new commandment, to love one another as he has loved them. We Christians are still obligated by that commandment, to love with the fullness of incarnation. When we do that, we bear God’s Spirit and have our own true spiritual nature.

Moreover, I am pleased to tell you, friends, that when we engage life with divinely passionate love, miracles do happen. We might not make wine from water without benefit of grapes, but we can make bounties happen for the humble of the earth. We might not cure the blind by putting mud on their eyes, but we can cure them many other ways. We might not raise the long-dead but we can prevent many deaths and with sufficient love keep the memory of the dead alive for those to whom they are bound in heart. With love we can open the eyes of the spiritually blind. With love we can comfort the oppressed and dismantle their oppression. With love we can make peace where others would make war. With love we can feed the hungry and cloth the naked. With love we can break the bonds of sin and open the doors of the prisons so that all might be free. With love we can gather the people exiled in alienation and unite them as loving friends. The flesh of loving intimacy among friends is the perfect vehicle for God’s Spirit.

My friends, let our prayer be that we inhabit our own flesh with such vigor and gratitude that it becomes the natural dwelling place of God’s spirit in all we are and do. Amen.

-The Rev. Dr. Robert Cummings Neville

Seeing beyond Expectations

Sunday, March 6th, 2005
1 Samuel 16:1-13

Ephesians 5:8-14

John 9:1-41

Some people say that “seeing is believing,” by which they mean that the testimony of the senses is far better than hearsay, or even than reasoning that is subject to error. Our texts from 1 Samuel and John, however, suggest that we ordinarily see what we already believe, that our sight is guided by our expectations. Genuine sight needs to get beneath the appearances governed by our expectations.

In the case of Samuel’s search for someone to anoint as the new king of Israel, everyone expected him to pick Jesse’s first son, Eliab, because he was big and strong, rather like King Saul, the first anointed king who subsequently had been rejected by God. But God said to Samuel about Eliab, “Do not look on his appearance or on the height of his stature, because I have rejected him; for the Lord does not see as mortals see; they look on the outward appearance, but the Lord looks on the heart.” We look on the outward appearance, but God looks on the heart. How true! At the Lord’s urging, Samuel rejected all the other sons of Jesse, save the last and least, David, who had been left to tend the flocks. Samuel anointed David to be the next King; the word for the anointed one in this sense was the Hebrew cognate of “messiah.” King Saul was the first “messiah,” for he too had been anointed. But David better fulfilled the ideal of the kingly messiah, uniting Israel after Saul’s death, defeating its enemies, and extending its territory to its greatest extent; he was a mighty warrior and a brilliant strategist, defeating both external enemies and armed rebellions among his own people. In Jesus’ time, the Pharisees and others hoped for another messiah on the model of David, someone who would drive out the Romans and re-establish the power of the Israelite or Jewish nation. Jesus obviously was not that kind of person, and so was rejected by those who hoped for another David.

Before leaving the story of David, however, it is worthwhile to recall that he was a complex character. Although ultimately uniting the twelve tribes of Israel and giving identity to a unified nation, David early had a falling out with King Saul and formed his own mercenary army that worked for the Philistines for a while. With that army he conquered Jerusalem, which belonged to a Canaanite people called the Jebusites. That is why Jerusalem is called the “City of David,” because he conquered it with his private army, not with a levy of warriors from the twelve tribes of Israel like the army of Saul. This made Jerusalem a good neutral capital, not a town owned by any of the tribes, though it was in the territory of David’s own tribe, Judah. As an individual, David was a sexual predator, sending Bathseba’s husband to his death so that she might be his. David’s family was filled with intrigue, with his wives and sons plotting against one another to determine his successor. His children were involved in rape and incest, as well as outright rebellion in the case of Absalom whom David loved dearly. David was a complex, deeply flawed human being, just as we are, only with kingly proportions. His greatest virtue, however, was that he danced before the Lord, both literally and figuratively. When he sinned he repented. When he made mistakes he sought the Lord. When he won battles, he credited God. When he governed the state, he did it for God. What he learned in his long life, he learned from living before the Lord. Despite all his mistakes and sins, he died with a wise son to succeed him and a healthy kingdom to pass on. Who would have seen this God-intoxicated world-beater, this voracious consumer of life’s loves and opportunities, looking at young David standing before Samuel, ruddy, with beautiful eyes, and handsome, almost a feminine creature in comparison with his brothers? Only someone who could see beyond the expectations of appearances into the heart.

John’s story of Jesus and the blind man is a far more complex case of seeing beyond expectations. John has an elaborate theme of visibility and invisibility, sight and blindness. As Jesus and his disciples were walking along they encountered the blind beggar. The disciples asked whether the man was born blind because of his own sin or because of that of his parents. The connection of blindness to sin has a powerfully ironic twist at the end of the story when Jesus said “’I came into this world for judgment so that those who do not see may see, and those who do see may become blind.’ Some of the Pharisees near him heard this and said to him, ‘Surely we are not blind, are we?’ Jesus said to them, ‘If you were blind, you would not have sin. But now that you say, “we see,” your sin remains.’” In other words, if they had not claimed understanding, they would not be accountable for sin.

In response to the disciples’ question about who was responsible for the beggar’s blindness, Jesus denied that any one was responsible. But he did say that the man’s blindness had a purpose, namely, to set Jesus up for an important public miracle, demonstrating the work of God. Now you and I might not approve of this conception of a God who makes a man suffer blindness from birth to adulthood just to demonstrate Jesus’ divine powers. We do not believe that illness has a purpose, for punishment or anything else, although of course we can give meaning to illness. At any rate, Jesus gave the blind man sight, without even being asked to do so, by the way. The man’s neighbors were incredulous. The Pharisees asked how he had been healed and the formerly blind man gave them just the facts: he put mud on my eyes, and washed, and I could see. When asked where Jesus was, the man said simply that he didn’t know, which was true.

The Pharisees then got into a theological wrangle. One side said that Jesus must be a sinner because he worked on the Sabbath, while the other side said that he could not do such miraculous healings unless he were from God. Then, strangely, they asked the formerly blind man what he thought about Jesus, strange because the man had been blind all his life and worked only as a beggar, not a likely theological consultant. The man said Jesus was a prophet because of his power to heal. Not believing in miraculous healings, the Pharisees then decided that the man could not have been blind previously. But his parents confirmed that he had been. The parents, however, expected to be thrown out of the temple community for not agreeing with the Pharisees, so they sent them back to talk with their son. When the Pharisees told him that Jesus must be a sinner, the man said he didn’t know about that. What he did know was that he had been blind and Jesus gave him sight. When the Pharisees annoyed the man, he suggested wryly that they must want to be Jesus’ disciples because they kept questioning him about Jesus. He then said that, if they were right about God listening only to the righteous, then Jesus the healer must be from God.

Both the Pharisees and the man’s parents were blinded by their expectations, the former by their theological expectations, the latter by expectations of retribution from the Pharisees. Even Jesus was a bit callous toward the blind man by treating him as an occasion for a revelatory miracle, although when he heard that the Pharisees expelled the formerly blind man from the temple he sought the man out and declared his identity as the Son of Man or messiah. Jesus gave the man not only sight but a new home when both the temple and his parents failed him.

The one person in this story who had perfect sight was the blind man. He knew who he was, a blind beggar, and had no expectations. He accepted Jesus’ gift of sight with gratitude, and told the story of it with no embellishments. Unlike his pa
rents, he saw through the confused and hypocritical Pharisees with fearless steadiness and irony. He learned who Jesus was only when Jesus told him, not from any religious expectation, although he always understood his healing to have been divinely caused. When he realized who Jesus was, he worshipped him.

Would we not be blessed to have the sight of the blind man?! With no ego expectations of grandiose righteousness or self-excusing victimization, we would know just who we are without illusions. We could accept the demeaning status of having to beg without being demeaned by it. We could accept sudden and unexpected blessings, such as serious healing, with gratitude and equanimity. We could tell others the truth, saying what we know and admitting what we do not know, without having to embellish the truth with hopes and disappointments. We could take the consequences of the truth without fear, knowing that whatever is comes from God. Best of all, we would not hate God because of the pain in our lives and we would not love God because of the good in our lives. Rather, with the blind man’s sight, with his ascetic lack of expectations, we would love God for God’s own sake when we meet him. We would delight to discover that the person who heals our disabilities and dispenses grace is also the Son of God. We would see through to God as found in the least of our brothers and sisters.

My friends, I know that it is customary to see God primarily in terms of what God can do to us or for us. Fear of divine wrath on the one hand and hope in divine promises on the other are the doorways of most religious views, if not the substance of most religion itself. Yet those are only appearances, too human ways of seeing, because they really are about us, projections of our fears and desires, rather than about God. Like God, we should strive to see beyond the appearances into the heart of individuals, human affairs, and God. We might see beyond the handsome, ruddy boy with beautiful eyes to the soul of a hero of humanity. We might see beyond the hypocritical intrigues about religious righteousness to the humility of true repentance and gratitude. And we might see beyond God “for us” to the true God to whom the only real response is worship. Amen.

-The Rev. Dr. Robert Cummings Neville