Wednesday

Holy Week – An Exploration of the Meaning of Kenosis
copyright 2010 by Sea Raven, D.Min.

John 13:21-32; Isaiah 50:4-9a; Hebrews 12:1-3; Psalm 70

For those who chose not to do the Passion readings on Palm Sunday, Isaiah 50:4-9a is revisited now, but not in the context of Paul’s letter to the Philippians (“at the name of Jesus every knee should bend in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord”).  Now the emphasis is on the willingness of the servant to submit to the will of God: “I was not rebellious, I did not turn backward. . . I did not hide my face from insult and spitting.”  John’s Jesus knows who will betray him, and clearly indicates who it is by handing Judas the bread after it has been dipped in the bowl – yet the disciples fail to realize what is right in front of their faces: The hour for Jesus’ death, resurrection, and ascension has arrived. 

If the readings suggested by The Revised Common Lectionary are simply read in the context of traditional Christian belief, the story of the servant depicted in Isaiah easily becomes a prequel to the suffering and death of Jesus, the Messiah.  The Psalm then is a plea on the part of listeners to be saved from such a death: “Be pleased, O God, to deliver me . . . Let those be put to shame and confusion who seek my life . . .”  The verses cherry-picked from the pastoral letter called “Hebrews” reassures that “since we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses . . .” we can indeed “run with perseverance the race that is set before us . . .” 

That portion of the sermon by the writer of Hebrews has been used by would-be preachers and genuine prophets of Christianity for nearly two millennia.  In his last speech, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. made reference to those who did not receive what was promised in their lifetimes, but who, like Moses and King himself, had been to the mountain top and had been privileged to see the promised land.  The “cloud of witnesses” refers to a litany of the Judeo-Christian journey (Heb 11:29-40), and the promise of the power of the Christ coming again.  But if read beyond the portion selected by the RCL, the metaphor soon breaks down into a thinly-veiled antisemitism along with the usual threats of hell-fire and damnation: “. . . for if they did not escape when they refused the one who warned them on earth, how much less will we escape if we reject the one who warns from heaven! . . . for indeed our God is a consuming fire” (12:25-29)

Because we already know the story from Mark, Matthew, and Luke, we assume that John’s Judas has already conspired with the high priest Caiaphas to hand Jesus over to the religious authorities for 30 pieces of silver.  We assume that the reason the “chief priests and the Pharisees” in John’s story wanted to kill Jesus was because of Jesus’s demonstration against the money-changers in the Temple.  We never read John 11:45-57, in which the religious authorities plot to kill Jesus.  We never learn that Jesus’s raising of his friend Lazarus from the dead was the last straw for the high priest Caiaphas.  “This man is performing many signs,” Caiaphas tells the meeting of the council.  “If we let him go on like this, everyone will believe in him, and the Romans will come and destroy both our holy place and our nation.”  (The Romans did indeed destroy Jerusalem, well before John wrote his gospel, but not because Jesus raised Lazarus from the dead, or performed any other “signs.”)  John then says, “Jesus therefore no longer walked about openly among the Jews, but went from there to a town called Ephraim in the region near the wilderness; and he remained there with the disciples” until the time came for him to return to Jerusalem for the final Passover.  “Now the chief priests and the Pharisees had given orders that anyone who knew where Jesus was should let them know, so that they might arrest him.”  The stage is set for Judas leading both Roman soldiers and Temple police to arrest Jesus in the garden, not for the exchange of silver or Judas’s eventual remorseful suicide.

Judas’s motives have been the subject of speculation since the story was first told.  Jesus hands the bread to Judas and tells him to “Do quickly what you are going to do,” and Judas goes out into the night.  John’s version of the story says that “Some thought that because Judas had the common purse,” Jesus was telling him to buy supplies for their Passover festivities, or make a donation to the poor – acts of easy piety.  The writer of John’s gospel concludes that Judas was taken over by Satan.  In The Last Week, Borg and Crossan write that “. . . it is possible to gain control of the earth by demonic collaboration.  It is possible to fall prey to the ancient (and modern) delusion of religious power backed by imperial violence.” (p. 206) Quite probably, Judas did what he thought was right.  He abandoned what had to look like a lost cause in occupied Jerusalem in order to save himself from the consequences of being associated with a man the authorities wanted to arrest.  Caiphas did what he thought he needed to do in order to survive and preserve what he perceived to be the Jewish way of life.  Indeed, John has him say that “it is better to have one man die for the people than to have the whole nation destroyed” (John 11:50).  Ultimately, Pontius Pilate was absolutely correct in sentencing Jesus to death for the sake of preserving law and order and his own position as the Roman ruler of Palestine.

There is nothing supernatural about Jesus’ conviction that he would be turned over to the religious authorities, and likely ultimately executed by the Roman occupiers.  Jesus maintains his integrity in the service of justice-compassion, against the normalcy of civilization, relying upon the same kind of faith as Isaiah’s Servant.  But the kenosis illustrated by the third servant song of Isaiah is not submission to the will of an interventionist God who wants a sacrifice in payment for sin, or who “disciplines those whom he loves, and chastises every child whom he accepts” (Heb. 12:5-6 ref Proverbs 3:11-12).  Instead this kenosis means actively listening to the desire of a relational spirit for an exiled people to live in justice-compassion.  The servant says, “Morning by morning he wakens my ear to listen as those [do] who are taught.”  The servant listens and continues to teach reconciliation with that spirit and distributive justice among the people.  The servant does this despite persecution, torture, failure, and insult.  He empowers the people to maintain their covenant with God against the demonic forces that impel the people to collaborate with the empire that has carried them off into exile. 

The disciples could not hear what John’s Jesus was trying to tell them.  The others around the table that night apparently had no clue of the danger that he (and they) were in because of the threat that he (and they) presented to law and order under Roman occupation.  Judas was not the only follower of Jesus to be caught up in the mind-set that reduces teachings of non-violent justice-compassion to empty piety.  To live and practice non-violent justice-compassion is to actively counter the imperial forces that seduce us into going shopping, hiring illegal aliens as slave labor, and joining the military because we have been convinced that it is the only way to “be all we can be.” 

The creators of the Revised Common Lectionary leave out verses 10 and 11 of Isaiah 50, and they should not because the Servant addresses those very conditions that produce empty piety instead of an active counter to imperial retributive systems.  The Servant wonders “who [among you] walks in darkness and has no light, yet trusts in the name of the Lord and relies upon his God?”  The conclusion is, few if any.  But in a post-modern world, where the interventionist god died long ago, the Servant’s challenge to faith has meaning only if we accept the invitation to participate in the ongoing great work of justice-compassion.  Then we become partners with the kenotic servant God in restoring God’s justice-compassion to the world – which belongs to that kenotic servant God.  And the life and death of the servant-teacher Jesus is the model.

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Tuesday

Holy Week – An Exploration of the Meaning of Kenosis
copyright 2010 by Sea Raven, D.Min.

John 12:20-36; Isaiah 49:1-7; 1 Corinthians 1:18-31

Light versus darkness, revelation versus secrecy, wisdom versus foolishness are the motifs that are interwoven in the readings for this day.  Christian tradition has so intertwined and literalized these metaphors that it is nearly impossible for post-modern exiles to glean any other meaning than what has come to be “orthodox” (correct) belief.  The Revised Common Lectionary (RCL) does not follow the sequence of John’s narrative.  Knowing that John’s Gospel was written 70 to 90 years after the death of Jesus, and 30 to 50 years after the fall of Jerusalem and the destruction of the temple hardly helps.  As presented by the RCL, John’s Gospel bears little if any connection to participation in God’s justice-compassion on earth, here and now.  Instead, it dazzles and distracts us with promises of becoming “children of light” if we will only believe.  The story is not important; conveying the theology and proving the supremacy of Christianity is what matters.

The “servant’s songs” in Isaiah are attributed to an unknown prophet who lived in Babylon during the Babylonian exile of the Jewish people during the 6th Century, BCE.  The servant is often interpreted to be the nation of Israel, not an individual, and in this second song (Is. 49:1-7) God declares to the entire earth (bounded by the “coastlands”) that the nation of Israel has been called to serve God’s justice-compassion.  The servant Israel has been hidden away, and even though it looks as though that great work of justice-compassion has gone unnoticed, it has not.  God will restore the Servant people to power and kings and emperors will stand up and take notice.  God says, “I will give you as a light to the nations, that my salvation may reach to the end of the earth.”  “Salvation” in this context does not mean “going to heaven at death.”  “Salvation” in terms of the Isaiah of the Babylonian exile means liberation from enemies.  In the wider sense of Isaiah 55, it means living in God’s kingdom of distributive justice and peace for all of the days allotted to life, whether of the community, or the individual members.

The Jesus of the Synoptic Gospels may have pointed to these prophecies as encouragement to his followers, struggling to love justice and live in non-violent resistance to Rome.  He is highly unlikely to have claimed that he himself was the fore-ordained embodiment of Isaiah 49, which Christian tradition continues to do.

The readings for holy week from John’s gospel do follow their own logic.  On Monday, Mary, the sister of Lazarus and Martha, anoints Jesus’s body in advance for burial.  On Tuesday, John’s Jesus delivers his last public dialogue, in which he claims the metaphor of seed and grain, life and light, and God Himself speaks from heaven in response to Jesus’ pious invocation: “Father, glorify your name.”  God thunders that “I have glorified it, and I will glorify it again.”  And we understand that to mean the glorification of the once and future Christ Jesus.  Jesus proclaims that the ruler of this world (Satan) will be driven out, and that Jesus the Christ will be lifted up and “will draw all people to myself. . . While you have the light, believe in the light, so that you may become children of light.”

After this, Jesus (the Servant) goes into hiding.  This is not the first time in John that Jesus has disappeared for some period of time (see 7:1,10; 8:59).  Most recently (12:36) after the raising of Lazarus, Caiaphas, the high priest, declares “. . . it is better for you to have one man die for the people than to have the whole nation destroyed.”  From that time on, John says, “they planned to put Jesus to death.”  So Jesus “no longer walked about openly among the Jews, but went from there to a town called Ephraim in the region near the wilderness; and he remained there with the disciples.”

Jesus does a lot of hiding out in John, and swears everyone to secrecy in Mark.  But that is no reason to think that when the prophet says in Isaiah 49:2b “in the shadow of his hand he hid me,” the prophet is talking about Jesus.  When the prophet says “I will give you as a light to the nations,” he is not talking about John’s Jesus, who says, when the people ask him who is the Son of Man who will be lifted up, “The light is with you for a little longer. . . While you have the light believe in the light, so that you may become children of light.”  That is John’s insightful metaphor, which may be said to claim that Jesus is the fulfillment of the servant song.  But in order to fulfill that prophecy, the servant must suffer the consequences of countering the political powers that be.

The portion from 1st Corinthians is apparently pivotal to Christian orthodoxy because it is required reading in all three lectionary years:  twice in years B and C and three times in year A: Holy Cross (all three years; September 14); Lent 3 (year B); Tuesday of Holy Week (all three years); and 4 Epiphany (year A).  But 1st Corinthians 1:18 cannot be taken at face value: “For the message about the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God.”  Taken out of its context, and put together with the other readings understood in the traditional way, this verse is arrogant, exclusive, and – given its association with verse 23b – antisemitic.

Paul’s opening salvo needs to be studied in its whole context, from 1:10 through 2:17.  Two points made by Crossan and Reed in In Search of Paul need to be kept in mind.  First, Paul’s theology sets the realm/kingdom of God in opposition to the empire of Rome.  Second, Paul’s theology contrasts the self-serving normalcy of civilized life with the radical denial of self-interest (kenosis) of those who are committed to the great work of restoring God’s distributive justice-compassion.  When these two points are understood, antisemitism disappears, along with Christian spiritual exclusivity and Christian political hegemony.

So, Paul is blasting his friends in Corinth for fighting about which baptism carries the most weight.  Paul says he wishes he hadn’t baptized anyone, because Christ did not send him to baptize people but to proclaim the power of the cross of Christ.  That power, says Paul, makes no sense to those who are “perishing” by living according to the unjust systems of Roman imperial society.  But those who get the point of the crucifixion of Jesus are liberated from injustice, and empowered to join and continue the work.  Paul calls for the Corinthians to consider who they were when they joined the group.  “Not many of you” were powerful or of noble birth – which implies that some indeed were.  But those who were of high rank or social status don’t get to brag about that, and claim power over others in the community.  “Let the one who boasts boast in the Lord,” Paul says.

21st Century Christian leaders must repudiate the emphasis on Paul’s phrase, “we proclaim Christ crucified, a stumbling block for Jews and foolishness to Gentiles.” Clearly, this phrase has been used in the service of antisemitism from the beginning of the organized Christian Church.  Further, “Gentiles” has often meant non-Christians other than Jews who do not believe the Christian myth.  Both interpretations have been and continue to be anachronisms because the phrase has been lifted out of its context.  Paul goes on to say that “to those who are called, both Jews and Greeks, Christ [is] the power of God and the wisdom of God.”  In other words, to those who agree to participate in the restoration of God’s realm of distributive justice-compassion, regardless of who they may be, the crucified Christ symbolizes the power and the wisdom of God’s kenotic action in the world.

Because Paul was a devout Jew, and a Pharisee, he uses Jewish theology to powerful effect.  One aspect of Jewish theological tradition is the concept of the Wisdom of God.  Wisdom is personified as the feminine spirit who was with God from the beginning, who pitched her tents among the people, who calls from the heights beside the way.  When Paul says that “Christ [is] the power and the wisdom of God,” he is drawing on ancient and revered Jewish tradition.  In 1 Corinthians 2:8, he says “Yet among the mature we do speak wisdom . . . But we speak God’s wisdom, secret and hidden, which God decreed before the ages for our glory.” “Lay aside immaturity,” Wisdom says, “and live and walk in the way of insight” (Proverbs 9:6; see, especially, Proverbs 8).

God’s wisdom is revealed through God’s kenotic, radically self-denying spirit, which was embodied in Jesus.  When Jesus died, that same spirit was then extended to those who can accept it.  This is craziness to people caught up in the normalcy of social hierarchy and control.  It is liberation to those who are able to discern that it is spiritual truth.  They (we) “have the mind of Christ” – as we were inspired to do by the readings for Palm Sunday.

What is revolutionary in these readings is not the magic of believing a story about Jesus.  What is revolutionary is that the very nature of power as humanity generally understands it is reversed.  The servant is the cornerstone.  Relinquishing one’s very well-being to the point of death carries more power than any earthly ruler who relies on retributive systems to maintain his or her position.  Faith is knowing the truth of that assertion regardless of all evidence to the contrary.

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Holy Monday

Holy Week – An Exploration of the Meaning of Kenosis
copyright 2010 by Sea Raven, D.Min.

John 12:1-11; Isaiah 42:1-9; Hebrews 9:11-15

The reading from John’s Gospel for Monday of Holy Week revisits the story of the woman with the alabaster jar.  The story is so powerful that it appears in all the gospels, and is considered twice by the lectionary readings in Year C.  For that reason, some form of this incident may very well have actually happened.  The question is when, and under what circumstances.  She must have been an important member – even a leader – in Jesus’ entourage, even though she is unnamed in Mark, Matthew, and Luke.  Mark, Matthew, and John place the story in Jesus’ last days as he journeys toward Jerusalem, death, and resurrection.  In Luke’s version this demonstration was not associated with Jesus’s last days.  It was an intrusion on a symposium, or banquet, for men only.  The woman was a penitent prostitute (by legend, Mary Magdalene), and the story is treated as a scandal.

John assumes she was Mary, the sister of Martha and Lazarus, close friends of Jesus.  In John’s version of the story, “six days before the Passover,” there is a dinner for Jesus at the home of Lazarus, whom Jesus has raised from the dead.  At this dinner, Lazarus is one of those at table with him, and Martha serves.  Mary takes a pound of expensive perfume and anoints Jesus’ feet with it, then wipes his feet with her hair.

The Revised Common Lectionary includes Hebrews 9:11-15 with the readings for Monday of Holy Week.  The writer of Hebrews argues that the Christ came as a high priest from the mysterious order of Melchizedek.  This high priest overthrew the old ways of purification through animal sacrifice.  “How much more will the blood of Christ, who through the eternal Spirit offered himself without blemish to God, purify our conscience from dead works to worship the living God!”  Heb. 9:14.  The writer is talking about purity and redemption (buy-back) for transgressions committed under Moses’s old covenant.  It is because of Jesus’s pure blood sacrifice that “those who are called” can “received the promised eternal inheritance.”  These passages – lifted from the context of the full argument – place anti-Semitism like a faint watermark in the background. 

But from Israel’s ancient past, Isaiah’s “suffering servant” models a different kind of power that brings God’s justice-compassion.  Whether the servant is a person – perhaps a future king – or represents the collective people of ancient Israel, power is redefined as kenotic power.  That is, power that is self-denying, not self-aggrandizing.  In the first of these “servant songs,” the prophet says that the former ways of doing business are well established, but new ways are coming.  The mandate is unmistakable: the servant is a partner with God in establishing God’s justice, and “the coastlands” – the earth within its coastal boundaries – actively wait – anticipate – look forward to hearing – whatever the servant has to say.  Suddenly there is no threat of retributive mayhem or payback, and the universe – perhaps weary of the constant bombardment of human unwillingness to live in trust and wholeness – is waiting for that teaching. 

Mary’s action at Lazarus’s dinner party claims unequivocally that the first part of the prophecy in Isaiah 42 has been fulfilled in Jesus.  The meaning of this story is far removed from what is presented in Hebrews. 

    “Here is my servant, whom I uphold, my chosen, in whom my soul delights; I have put my spirit upon him; he will bring forth justice to the nations.  He will not cry or lift up his voice, or make it heard in the street; a bruised reed he will not break, and a dimly burning wick he will not quench; he will faithfully bring forth justice.  He will not grow faint or be crushed until he has established justice in the earth; and the coastlands wait for his teaching.”

Three times, God says his servant will bring justice, and while it will come with non-violence, and without fanfare, it will come nevertheless with power.  How is justice brought forth with power and without violence?  Here is where post-modern Christian exiles must part company with the Christian orthodoxy represented by the writer of Hebrews.  Jesus death was not a blood sacrifice required to “purify our conscience from dead works to worship the living God.”  Jesus’s death was in the service of God’s distributive justice-compassion.

That death – although violent – did not happen in order to bring about God’s distributive justice-compassion.  That violent death was a result of subverting the old ways of doing business – retributive justice, payback, the usual power structures.  Isaiah says that the servant “will bring forth justice to the nations.  He will not cry or lift up his voice . . . a bruised reed he will not break, and a dimly burning wick he will not quench; he will faithfully bring forth justice.”

The poor and those denied access to the usual social and political powers afforded to citizens of civilized societies (the disenfranchised) demand justice because they live with injustice daily.  But any human being is susceptible to the corruption of political, social, economic, and personal power systems that lead seemingly inevitably to what John Dominic Crossan calls “the normalcy of civilization.”  Justice under this “normal” condition is retributive.  Power-over others and getting even define the only power that seems to make a difference.  The rich – the privileged – who control access to the usual expressions of political or social power are the ones most easily corrupted by the power they hold. 

This may be the trap Judas found himself in.  Mary, Martha, and Lazarus may have been among the rich patrons who supported Jesus.  Lazarus sponsored a dinner party for Jesus.  Mary may have bought the perfume herself.  So what is Judas complaining about?  In John’s story, Judas is outraged by Mary’s extravagant waste of a commodity that could have been sold and the money given to the poor.  But it is a false piety.  “He said this not because he cared about the poor, but because he was a thief,” says John.  “He kept the common purse and used to steal what was put into it.”  The writer was probably setting up Judas for the betrayal to come.  But money is not what brings God’s distributive justice.  What brings God’s distributive justice is “my servant, whom I uphold, my chosen, in whom my soul delights.”  Mary uses the money to buy a pound of pure nard, and instead of keeping it “for the day of my burial,” as Jesus suggests, she anoints Jesus’s feet with it.  Jesus says, “You always have the poor with you, but you do not always have me.”  Money designated by the rich for the poor merely continues to buy into the normal systems that keep injustice and violence in place.  Instead of making the expected donation, Mary has acknowledged Jesus as the servant of God, and has anticipated his death.  The writers of both Luke and John say that the reason Judas betrayed Jesus was that he was possessed by Satan.  Without working through the metaphor suggested by this characterization (“the love of money is a root of all kinds of evil” 1 Timothy 6:10), it is possible that after Mary’s extravagant misuse of the company funds, the only way Judas could see to ensure his own economic survival was to turn Jesus in to the collaborators with Roman authority.

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Palm Sunday

Holy Week – An Exploration of the Meaning of Kenosis
copyright 2010 by Sea Raven, D.Min.

Luke 19:28-40; Luke 22:14-23:56; Isaiah 50:4-9a; Philippians 2:5-11 (Readings from Year C)

Palm Sunday is also known as “Passion Sunday.”  The minister has the choice of concentrating on Jesus’s triumphal entrance into Jerusalem, hailed as a conquering hero by the fickle crowds (the “Liturgy of the Palms”), or telling the entire “passion” story.  The Abingdon Press edition of The Revised Common Lectionary of 1992 (RCL) admonishes worship planners that “whenever possible, the whole passion narrative should be read.”  As a result, the liturgy on Palm Sunday can run the dizzying gamut from adulatory parade to Pilate’s death sentence in an hour.

In Year C, the RCL offers for consideration Luke’s descriptions of Jesus’s entry into Jerusalem and Pilate’s decision to grant the demand of the crowd and sentence Jesus to death, along with a portion of Paul’s letter to the Philippians.  The traditional view of both the Jerusalem procession and Philippians 2:9-11 is that this is the imperial Christ triumphant.  “Therefore God 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 confess that Jesus Christ is Lord” (NRSV).

Marcus J. Borg and John Dominic Crossan suggest that Jesus’s “entrance into Jerusalem” on a donkey during the festival of Passover is a parody of Pilate’s procession into the city at the same time.  Jesus’s “peasant procession” came from the east, down the Mount of Olives.  Pilate’s “military procession” came from the west, in a show of force for law and order.  (See The Last Week, Harper SanFrancisco, 2006).  While they base their study on the Gospel of Mark, Luke’s Gospel uses Mark, but adds details.  A very telling detail – never read if the RCL is followed – is Jesus weeping over the consequences that will arise because of the inability of the people to recognize their visitation from God and the “things that make for peace” (Luke 19:41-44).  The Palm Sunday parade is a political protest.  If Borg and Crossan are also correct in their theory that Luke’s birth story was meant as a counter to the birth stories told about Cesar Augustus (see The First Christmas, Harper SanFrancisco, 2007), then Luke’s gospel appears to be threaded (albeit subtly) by subversive imagery.

In addition, as these commentaries have suggested, based on Jesus Seminar scholarship, Paul’s theology is not one of domination, but of transformation; not of violence and political victory, but of non-violent justice-compassion.  Despite the use to which these verses in Philippians 2:9-11 have been put throughout Christian history, the Apostle Paul was not establishing Jesus as the new commander-in-chief of the military might of the known and unknown universe.  The hymn was probably not written by Paul.  Instead it is probably one of the earliest used by followers of Jesus’s Way, and quoted by Paul.

The portion of the hymn to the Christ that Paul quotes may be seen to fulfill Isaiah’s expectation of deliverance from injustice.  It is an ecstatic, mystical declaration that the Emperors of Rome, living and dead, who declared themselves and their ancestors to be “god” and “son of god” and even “very god of very gods” would have to acknowledge that Jesus’ name was above even theirs.  Jesus was the one chosen by God to be the one to restore God’s distributive justice-compassion, in place of the Emperor’s retributive justice.  In place of law, the Christ establishes radical fairness.  The servant of God gives up the power associated with the usual systems of imperial civilization  (See Luke 4:1-13)  The servant of God is not interested in pay-back or retribution, nor in reward and glorification.  The servant of God works with God to establish God’s distributive justice-compassion.  The servant does the work for the glory of God, and is vindicated, delivered from injustice and death.

Luke’s scene where Pilate condemns Jesus to torture and death, along with Philippians 2:7-8 (Jesus “humbled himself and became obedient to the point of death – even death on a cross” – NRSV) has been interpreted to mean that Jesus agreed to submit to the orders of a violently vengeful god and to accept the death penalty on behalf of sinful humanity.  Without that payment, humanity cannot be saved from hell.  This is the “ransom theory of the atonement.”  It is the earliest of the atonement theories, probably beginning with the writer of Mark’s gospel in the 60s to 70s C.E.  Since the 12th Century, St. Anselm’s substitutionary atonement has defined the death of Jesus at the hands of the Roman Empire.  Mel Gibson’s 2004 film, The Passion of the Christ, is perhaps the penultimate illustration of that theology.  God required that Jesus not only die in our place, but should suffer in order to pay for the sin humanity inherited from Adam and Eve.  The greater the sin, the greater the vicarious suffering, the greater Jesus’s love for us.

But the first part of the hymn to the Christ is about neither ransom nor substitution.  It is about personal kenosis – the act of disregarding petty human desires, and defeating the temptation to revel in being the equal of God.  “[A]lthough he was born in the image of God, did not regard ‘being like God’ as something to use for his own advantage, but rid himself of such vain pretension and accepted a servant’s lot” (Scholar’s Version, forthcoming October 2010.  For more information contact the Westar Institute).

Because Isaiah 50:4-9a is part of the Palm Sunday liturgy, the words of that hymn might be seen as a kind of midrash – a retelling or reframing of that portion of sacred story.  As the hymn restates the nature of the ultimate servant of God, the suffering servant described by Isaiah becomes the suffering messiah, who “emptied himself, taking the form of a slave” (NRSV).  The servant is obedient to God’s law of justice-compassion to the point of death on a cross – the ultimate symbol of imperial law and order.  “That is why God raised him higher than anyone and awarded him the title that is above all others . . .” (Scholars Version).

Isaiah 50 is not some kind of foretelling of the fate of the future Jesus.  It is a model for those who would teach the nature of God.  “Morning by morning [God] wakens my ear to listen as those who are taught” sings Isaiah.  When we let go of self-interest – ego survival – we “think in the same way that the Anointed, Jesus, did . . .” (SV).  We think and act kenotically in a constant, evolving struggle of spirit for justice-compassion against the normalcy of civilization.  The “suffering servant” trusts God’s vindication, that God will prove the servant to be right in the end:  “The Lord God has given me the tongue of a teacher, that I may know how to sustain the weary with a word . . . God has opened my ear, and I was not rebellious. . . .  I did not hide my face from insult and spitting. . . . Who will declare me guilty?  All of them will wear out like a garment.”

The cherry–picking of Paul’s writings, which are scattered throughout all three years of the Revised Common Lectionary, means that the Palm Sunday verses from Philippians are separated from the context in which Paul wrote them.  When that happens, Christians can easily ignore or dismiss the action that is called for in 2:1-5, just before the hymn to the Christ.  Paul urges the community in Philippi to have this same kenotic mind that Jesus had: “regard others as better than yourselves. . . . look not to your own interests, but to the interests of others” (NRSV)  With those words, Paul invites the 1st Century Philippians (and anyone in the 21st Century) to a radical abandonment of self-interest.  Paul is talking about creating the realm of God on earth.  In such a realm, greed has no place, and debt has no power. Creating such a realm requires the kind of obedience that comes from total commitment to distributive justice-compassion, which can (and often does) lead to death at the hands of imperial systems.

Later in the letter (3:8-9) Paul writes “Indeed, I now regard everything as worthless in light of the incomparable value of realizing that the Anointed, Jesus, is my lord.  Because of him I wrote off all of those assets and now regard them as worth no more than rubbish so that I can gain the incomparable asset of the Anointed and be found in solidarity with him, no longer having an integrity of my own making based on performing the requirements of religious law, but now having the integrity endorsed by God, the integrity of an absolute confidence in and reliance upon God like that of the Anointed, Jesus.  This integrity is endorsed by God and is based on such unconditional trust in God” (SV).  Here is the basis for kenosis at all levels:

•    a kenotic foreign policy – in which crushing debt carried by nations such as Haiti is summarily dismissed;
•    kenotic business practice – in which profits are secondary to safety, reliability, and sustainability; where debt is not leveraged in order to amass fortunes that seduce others into debt they cannot afford;
•    kenotic management – in which suggestions for improvement, or whistle-blowing corruption are valued;
•    kenotic relationships – in which the well-being of the other is foremost.

In the 21st Century CE, some are calling for punishment of the speculators and managers who seem to be responsible for the global financial melt-down of 2008-10.  Others are holding individual people responsible for making poor choices, or for not having the good sense to avoid the deal that seemed too good to be true.  But this is pious revenge.  If justice is distributive, there is no need for punishment beyond the consequences already befalling all of us who are caught in the system.

Luke’s Jesus weeps over the inability of the people to recognize the coming of the kingdom, and the consequences that will result from that inability.  Christians today are too busy getting ready for the Easter Bunny.  We don’t want to hear how our failure to keep the promises we made during Lent to give up chocolate or stop smoking somehow make us personally responsible for the death of the Son of God two thousand years ago.  Somewhere deep in our post–modern brains, we know that just isn’t true.  But what is true is that as soon as we abandon justice-compassion, or ignore the consequences of our actions that lead to unjust systems, we are caught in the powerful currents that propel civilizations into empires.  This is not an indictment of human nature, as John Dominic Crossan is careful to make clear.  Empire can happen when people begin to organize themselves into societies, but the good news is that Empire is not necessarily inevitable.  If we truly turn from our destructive, unjust habits, the old patterns will not be repeated.  Sign onto the Covenant.  Pick up your Blackberry and start making sustainable deals that ensure that no part of the interdependent web of life on this Planet is compromised.  That is the promise and the hope of Palm Sunday.  Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord.

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Introduction to Holy Week – An Exploration of the Meaning of Kenosis

copyright 2010 by Sea Raven, D.Min.

Throughout Holy Week, the Revised Common Lectionary readings for all three years focus on the Gospel of John, and the Servant Songs of Isaiah.  The readings are carefully selected to show that Jesus is God’s Son, the Anointed One, known and ordained by God from the beginning of time to suffer and die for the sins of humanity, as foretold by the Prophet Isaiah.  The writer of John’s Gospel intensifies his proof that Jesus is the Christ, the Anointed One, the eternal Logos, the Word of God known from the beginning of time, and the light of the world.

Over the next two weeks, this Holy Week series assumes particular answers to the four questions for the apocalypse, which have defined Liberal Christian Commentary for the past 4 years.

1) What is the nature of God?  Violent or non-violent?
2) What is the nature of Jesus’ message?  Inclusive or exclusive?
3) What is faith?  Literal belief, or trust and commitment to the great work of distributive justice-compassion?
4) What is deliverance?  Salvation from hell, or liberation from injustice?

“God” here is non-theistic, and “kenotic.”  Kenosis classically means “emptiness.”  As a Christian term it has been defined as in Philippians 2:6-7: “. . . although [the Anointed] was born in the image of God, [he] did not regard “being like God” as something to use for his own advantage, but rid himself of such vain pretension and accepted a servant’s lot. . . . [H]e was born like all human beings  . . .” (Scholars Version, forthcoming from Polebridge Press [October 2010])  In John Dominic Crossan’s words, a kenotic god is “the beating heart of the Universe, whose presence is justice and life, and whose absence is injustice and death” (John Dominic Crossan and Jonathan L. Reed, In Search of Paul: How Jesus’s Apostle Opposed Rome’s Empire with God’s Kingdom, Harper SanFrancisco, 2004, pp. 288-291).  In these commentaries, that “god” is the creative force that both contains and is contained by the Universe.

In answer to the questions, the nature of that force is nonviolent; Jesus’s message is inclusive.  Faith is trust in an inclusive, non-violent universe.  The context for human personal, social, and political life then becomes a Covenant with justice and life, and commitment to the ongoing struggle for liberation from injustice.

Civilization defines justice as retribution – payback; an eye for an eye.  But the deeper meaning of justice is fair distribution.  “Distributive justice” usually is narrowly defined as the fair distribution of wealth.  But here the meaning is both wider and deeper to include the fair distribution of justice.  Far beyond economics, as the rain falls on the good, the bad, and the ugly without partiality, distributive justice shows no partiality for any particular human condition. Human civilizations have not used that definition except in cases where there is clearly injustice if partiality enters the picture.  The classic example in the United States is that if you are rich, white, and male your chances of serving jail time for possessing cocaine is an order of magnitude less than if you are poor, black, and female, charged with possessing marijuana.  Occasionally there is a reversal of this pattern, as when an over-zealous North Carolina prosecutor trumped up a case of gang rape of a black stripper against a championship team of white LaCrosse players.  In either case, distributive justice is at work – although in a negative sense.

The positive understanding of distributive justice is contained in the term distributive justice-compassion.  The normal development of civilizations has historically led to systems for assuring safety and security of citizens.  But as any reader of Charles Dickens must be aware, those systems often exclude the poor, the uneducated, those who are presumed to have no economic or social power (women, minorities).  Members of societies who are denied access to those powers often become ensnared in activities deemed anti-social or criminal in order to survive.  Distributive justice-compassion would not demand payback or retribution for such activities, but would provide solutions: reeducation, rehabilitation, redress of grievances.

Distributive justice-compassion holds sway in the Covenant relationship with the non-violent, inclusive, kenotic realm or Kingdom of God.  Justice as retribution/pay-back holds sway in the normal march of humanity into civilization.  The short-hand term for the seemingly inevitable systems of injustice that are the result of that march is “Empire.”

See especially the work of Jesus Seminar scholars John Dominic Crossan and Marcus J. Borg for a thorough discussion of these concepts.

The context for the above four questions of the apocalypse is the post-modern era of the late 20th and early 21st Centuries.  Generally, historians speak about time in terms of premodern, modern, and post-modern.  Pre-modern refers to the time before the Enlightenment and Descartes.  The Modern era (post-Enlightenment) lasted for about 350 years.  During that time, God was a separate being or entity, who created the universe, and proclaimed humanity to be the fulfillment of God’s creativity.  The “post-modern” era might be argued to have actually begun with Charles Darwin.  But regardless of the timing, “post-modern” means the time in which humanity began and continues to deal with the nature of the Universe as science has defined it.  “God” as a separate being who intervenes in human life from “heaven” somewhere beyond Antares no longer makes intellectual sense.

This leads to another term that has migrated from post-modern science into post-modern spiritual and religious language.  Cosmology means the science or theory of the universe.  But the term as used by Rev. Dr. Matthew Fox in his ground-breaking theology of original blessing goes beyond the scientific. Cosmology for Fox means humanity’s intellectual understanding of the nature of the universe.  “Cosmology” as Fox (and this writer, among others) uses the term can describe the mind-set of pre-modern, modern, and post-modern people, as each of these evolutions of human thought has understood our place in and our relationship to the universe, and God.

If, as John Shelby Spong argues, Christianity is to have any relevance at all to post-modern spirituality, changes in focus and metaphor must be made.  This series of essays for Holy Week calls for a change in paradigm, and points toward a beginning.

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Jesus: Magician or Liberator?– The Choice for Progressive Christians

Luke 8:19-9:6; cf Mark 4:35-5:42

The writer of Luke/Acts had a very different agenda from the writer of the gospel of Mark.  Mark’s Gospel is a progression – a journey – from Galilee to Jerusalem.  Mark was the first to pull together the sayings and stories about Jesus and create a narrative that took listeners from confusion to clarity, from misunderstanding to revelation.  Mark’s Gospel announces the arrival of God’s rule based on radical fairness and inclusion of poor and marginalized people.  For Mark, God’s rule is in direct opposition to Roman law and order.  Luke’s job, in contrast, was to make the new Christian Way acceptable to his Roman patron, Theophilius.  (See The Five Gospels, p. 294.)  He takes Mark’s stories and mixes them up so that Mark’s logic is lost.  The emphasis changes from social and political justice to magic and miracle.

As we continue with Luke’s gospel, the next section begins with Jesus’s mother and brothers coming to see him.  They can’t get to him because of “the crowd,” and he seems to dismiss them: “My mother and my brothers are those who listen to God’s message and do it,” he says.  The question is, what is the message, and what are we to do?  For Luke, the answer seems to come at the end of this series of exorcisms and healings.  “He called the 12 together and gave them power and authority over all demons and to heal diseases.”  The work seems to be to bring “good news and healing everywhere” (9:1-6).  After this, Luke shifts to relating the parables; there is one more exorcism, and one more healing.  Luke seems most concerned with convincing people that Jesus was the messiah, and with the importance of Christian piety.

Luke’s version of Mark’s story about Jesus “rebuking the wind and the waves” so that a “great squall” dies away is most often considered to be another miracle story.  “Who can this fellow be?” the terrified disciples ask each other, “that even the wind and the sea obey him?”  In Mark’s sequence, the story follows the parables of the Sower and the Mustard Seed. The irony in Mark’s story is that Jesus’s clueless followers still don’t get what Jesus is trying to teach them.  Mark’s Jesus could not be more clear: “Why are you so cowardly?” he asks – perhaps with some irritation.  “You still don’t trust, do you?”

But watch out.  Christians traditionally have added or assumed that Jesus is implying the disciples don’t trust him.  But that’s not what he says.  Look at the way Mark originally set the scene (Mark 4:35).  In contrast to Luke, who says “One day Jesus and his disciples happened to get into a boat . . .” Mark’s Jesus is teaching beside the sea, or Lake Galilee.  “Later in the day, when evening had come, he says to them, ‘Let’s go across to the other side.’” Any fisherman worth his salt should have known that even though the Lake was subject to sudden storms, in the evening, there is often (if not always) a calm as the sun sets.  How many recreational sailors on the Chesapeake Bay (or any large body of water) have had to either use their onboard engines, or be towed back to Annapolis once the sun approaches the horizon and the wind dies?  So Jesus falls asleep on some cushions in the stern of the boat, and a sudden squall materializes.  Why should those supposedly seasoned sailors panic?  Surely that squall would have died out as quickly as it came up?  In Mark’s view, Jesus’s followers not only do not understand what Jesus was trying to teach them.  They don’t even trust their own experience of God’s natural world.

The 5th Chapter of Mark contains three stories of deliverance.  The first, which we read in Year C from the Gospel of Luke, is the story of the “man of the city”  possessed by a demon named “Legion.”  When the demons ask Jesus not to send them back to “the abyss,” he sends them into a herd of swine instead.  Now, swine are unclean animals.  So the swineherds must be outcast people – perhaps they are gentiles, even Roman servants.  So when the man says his name is “Legion,” is he saying his life has been taken over by Roman oppressors?  The people of the surrounding country are frightened by Jesus’ action in healing/delivering/liberating the man from the oppression of the Roman demons by releasing them into the pigs, which are then destroyed because they run down the bank into the lake and are drowned.  The people ask Jesus to leave, and he does.  When the liberated man asks to go with him, however, Jesus tells him to go home and let people know “how much God has done for you.”  But instead of proclaiming how much the Hebrew God had done for him, the man claims instead how much Jesus had done for him.

Perhaps if the man had claimed the Hebrew God instead of the man Jesus, the Romans would not have paid so much attention to Jesus as a threat to Roman authority.  Beyond that, however, is the possibility that when Jesus sends the man home, back to his gentile village, he is sending his message of distributive justice-compassion into the heart of Roman-occupied society.

Mark follows the demoniac with two healings, and Luke makes no changes.  The first is the raising from the dead of the daughter of a “synagogue official.”  That story is interrupted by the second story about a woman in a seemingly permanent state of uncleanness because of a “flow of blood” that has lasted 12 years.  After she is healed by surreptitiously touching Jesus’s robe, Jesus goes on to tell the supposedly dead child of a possible collaborator with Rome to get up.  The possibilities for metaphors about 1st Century resistance to unclean Roman rule fairly leap off Mark’s pages.  These are not miracle stories about medical cures, demon possession, and the mis-use of livestock.  They are parables about subverting political and spiritual oppression; they show how trust in God’s reality transforms one’s oppressed life under imperial (Roman) occupation into freedom and justice.  In Luke’s context, these are illustrations of healing and miracle working, which Jesus’s real “mother and brothers” are supposed to be doing

For 21st Century Christianity, the question is, which interpretation makes the most sense?  Magic and miracle, or liberation from injustice?  Scholars and commentators are often accused of reading 21st Century world views back into 1st Century writings.  That is a fair enough criticism; however, two points need to be made.  First, the sayings and stories about Jesus have been re-interpreted from the point of view of whatever century any particular scholar or preacher happened to be in since the day after Jesus’s death.  Second, – and most important – even if the historical Jesus was really about magic and miracle (and contemporary scholarship is divided about that), 21st Century, post-modern, reason-based, would-be followers of Jesus cannot accept that interpretation without suspension of disbelief at a level that threatens our integrity.

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