Living Out the Covenant Part I: 8th Sunday in Epiphany

Matthew 8:14-9:38; 1 Thessalonians 4:13-5: 11; 1 Corinthians 7:29-30; 15

In this interval between the Sermon on the Mount and the discourse on what the followers of Jesus are supposed to do on the road, Matthew continues to show Jesus healing the sick, restoring sight to the blind, and exorcising demons.

Mark and Luke both refer to the Gadarenes demon as “Legion” – which may be a clear reference to the demonic circumstances the people experienced at the hands of the Roman occupiers.  But Matthew does not refer to the “Legion.”  He removes the anti-Roman bias in Mark and Luke, and reduces the story from liberation to exorcism.   He has two possessed men hanging out in the tombs, preventing passers-by from using the road.  Are Mark and Luke better story tellers, or is Matthew more interested in promoting Jesus as the new Moses and reinventing Torah than in subverting Roman authority?

Jesus probably said at some point,“foxes have dens, and birds of the sky have nests, but the son of Adam has nowhere to rest his head.”  Scholars assume this saying refers to the probability that Jesus was an itinerant sage, wandering around Galilee with his band of disenfranchised fishermen and farmers.  Some early Christian communities – perhaps the ones that produced the sayings gospel of Thomas and the Q collection – took Jesus at his word, and attempted to live the same kind of itinerant life.

But 50 or more years after Jesus’ death, Matthew’s Jesus hints at apocalyptic themes.  “Follow me, and leave it to the dead to bury their own dead,” he says.  “After all, I did not come to enlist religious folks but sinners! . . . The days will come when the groom is taken away from them, and then they will fast. . . .” and finally, “Although the crop is good, still there are few to harvest it.  So beg the harvest boss to dispatch workers to the fields.”

In Matthew’s time, Jerusalem had been destroyed, and Temple Judaism replaced with rabbi-led local synagogues.  The legend of Daniel and the idea of a “Son of Man” that would be taken up with God, in order to later descend to earth and bring God’s Kingdom had been part of the tradition for nearly 100 years.  Jesus was thought to have been that “Son of Man” – the Messiah, who would return soon to restore God’s justice.  Matthew ends Chapter 9 with the thought that if the “son of Adam”did indeed return, the world at the time was hardly ready to receive him.

Whether or not Jesus himself agreed with the apocalyptic legend in the Book of Daniel, or thought that he was living at the end of the age, the Apostle Paul definitely did.  See, e.g., 1 Cor. 7:29-30 (The Authentic Letters of Paul (SV):  “. . . [T]his period of opportunity [for our mission] is coming to an end.  In what is left of it those who have wives should live as if they did not have them. . . and those who deal with the world as if they have no use for it; because this world in its present form is passing away” p. 89.

And 1 Corinthians 15:50-52 (SV):

What I am saying, my friends, is this: flesh and blood is not capable of inheriting the coming Empire of God, no more than the corruptible can inherit the incorruptible.  Listen, now, I am going to tell you a wondrous secret: We are not all going to die, rather we are all going to be transformed, in an instant, in the blink of an eye at the sound of the last trumpet signal.  The trumpet will sound and the dead will be raised incorruptible and we [too] will be transformed.

Paul was not talking about “corruption” as meaning what happens to corpses once the life force leaves them.  Paul was talking about the “corruption” of systems of law that humanity develops in order to live successfully with one another.  No corrupt system can inherit justice (incorruption).  Nor can human bodies once they are dead inherit (or become) whole in form as before death.  But, Paul is saying, from his 1st century, premodern mind, when the time comes, everyone will be transformed – both the living and the dead.  But because God raised Jesus, the seductive power of systemic corruption has been overturned, and we are now raised and able to live incorruptible lives.

Scholarship is transforming the theology and the christology of 2,000 years.  Once Christians accept the scholarship that explains what Paul and Jesus probably actually said and did, then we might be able to talk about what it all means.  At the moment, the transformation of 3rd Millennium Christianity may be founded on three legs – and as Buckminster Fuller insisted, the triangle – the power of three – is the most stable form in the Universe.

One leg is the “emerging church” movement, which recently held a “big tent Christianity” conference in Phoenix, Arizona.  The theology seems to be theistic, and the Christology evangelical, if not orthodox.  The difference seems to be that contemporary Biblical scholarship is acceptable, and people are asking how Jesus’ teachings can transform their lives, not whether belief in a dogma will keep them from hell in the next life.  A second leg is represented by John Dominic Crossan, John Shelby Spong, and the Westar Institute (Jesus Seminar), among others.  This interpretation is making its way into what has in the past been described as the “liberal” or “mainline” churches, and is especially welcome among the “exiles” from the tradition.  This path is non-theist, and is comfortable with “God language” as myth and metaphor.  The assumption – from the teachings of the historical Jesus and the Apostle Paul – is that the realm of God is here and now for those who choose to participate in it.

The third approach to transforming Christianity, which does not get much attention in the mainstream media, is Rev. Dr. Matthew Fox’s Creation Spirituality. In 1988, Dr. Fox was silenced by Cardinal Ratzinger (now Pope Benedict XVI), and ultimately thrown out of his beloved Dominican order for his radical idea that God created a universe whose fundamental characteristic is original blessing, not original sin.  Creation Spirituality often gets confused with so-called fundamentalist “creationism,” or “intelligent design.”  But Dr. Fox did his Catholic homework, and held the church accountable to its own tradition.  The theology of Creation Spirituality is based on the insights of Catholic mystics of the 12th through 14th centuries: Hildegard of Bingen, Meister Eckhart, Thomas Aquinas, and Julian of Norwich.  Using those “Rhineland Mystics” as inspiration, Creation Spirituality seeks to create a mythology and a cosmology that brings spiritual meaning to the universe in the light of post-modern, post-enlightenment, scientific knowledge.

These three approaches to post-modern Christianity do not need to be in competition.  Indeed, the combination has the potential to make a huge difference on the planet in terms of distributive justice:  environmentally, socially, politically, economically.

John Dominic Crossan, in his very important work with Jonathan L. Reed (In Search of Paul: How Jesus’s Apostle Opposed Rome’s Empire with God’s Kingdom) suggests that Paul’s theology as spelled out in 1 Thessalonians 4:13-5:11 and 1 Corinthians 15 was a profoundly creative change in Pharisaic Judaism:

There are, in any faith or religion, state or empire, moments of powerful swerve, moments of change, alteration, transmutation, metamorphosis . . . that seem inevitable in retrospect. . . . There was the transmutation of Temple Judaism into Pharisaic and then rabbinic Judaism.  There was the metamorphosis of general messianic expectation into a single coming of two messiahs in Essene Judaism and a double coming of one messiah in Christian Judaism.  But the great and unnerving transmutation of Pharisaic Judaism into Christian Judaism was the proclamation that the general resurrection had already begun when God raised Jesus of Nazareth from the dead. . . . To claim that God has already begun to transform this earth into a place of divine justice and peace demands that you can show something of that transformative activity here and now.  To which Paul would have replied unabashedly: To see God’s transformation in process, come and see how we live. [pp. 173-174, emphasis in original].

Matthew’s gospel is an attempt on the part of the earliest communities of Christian Jews to figure out how to live.  That they and Paul believed they were living in the “end times” is not surprising.  Humans seem to find eschatological thinking normal.  We are very much aware of the probable length of our lives.  Even though some of us may “believe in” some kind of eternal life for the soul, such as reincarnation, or a “heavenly” existence after death, we still know that this life on this planet for each of us has a beginning, a middle, and an end.  Every historical era has had its upheavals that led to apocalyptic warnings, and the first part of the 21st century is no different.  Economists warn about economic collapse in a global business environment that focuses on immediate profit instead of long-term sustainability; we see the end of the era of oil as the primary source of energy; the 20th century brought us the possibility of nuclear holocaust; two of the major world religions are in competition and confrontation; political systems are falling like dominoes; environmentalists warn of impending doom of the entire planetary biosphere.

The attempts on the part of early Jewish Christians (from Paul to the writers of the synoptic gospels and John) to figure out how to actualize the promise they saw in Jesus’ resurrection are not to be taken literally, nor definitively.  They are examples of pre-modern people to get their minds around the mystery Jesus represented.  That mystery is not about death and an afterlife.  It is about the present moment and the manifestation of a covenant relationship between humanity and the rest of the cosmos.

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