21st Century Cosmology and the Gospel of John: Part II – Nicodemus

John 3

The Gospel of John is a narrative, theological proof that Jesus was the Messiah, the One Anointed – consecrated, selected – by God to establish God’s rule – God’s Kingdom – on earth.  The Pharisee Nicodemus illustrates the process by which even leaders in the Jewish communities who rejected the whole notion of Jesus as the Messiah might still come to believe.  He visits Jesus during the metaphorical night of conventional thought in chapter 3.  He reappears in chapter 7 among the temple authorities who threaten to arrest Jesus (John 7:37-8:20).  In that scene, Nicodemus challenges his colleagues to abide by the Law and not pass judgment on someone without first allowing him to speak for himself and establish the facts.  The chief priests and pharisees are not happy with Nicodemus, but they allow Jesus to make his argument.  He says, “I am the light of the world,” which further enfuriates the pharisees, but they do not arrest him because “his time had not yet come.”  Nicodemus’ final appearance is with Joseph of Arimathea, who takes Jesus’ body for burial (John 19:38-42).  John writes that Joseph of Arimathea was a secret disciple of Jesus because he was afraid of the other members of the community.  Nicodemus, “the one who had first gone to him at night,” brings an inordinate amount of “myrrh and aloes weighing about seventy-five pounds” with which to wrap the body.

An uncritical Christian reading might imply that Nicodemus may still have been holding some doubt about who Jesus was.  While he did speak up for him on behalf of the Law, the contribution of all those burial spices may have signalled a sense of guilt for not “believing” Jesus was the Messiah.  Perhaps Nicodemus did it because he had a literal understanding of Jesus’ resurrection.  If Jesus is going to literally come back from the dead (like Lazarus), it might be wise to do all he can to preserve the body!  Twentieth century Scholar Raymond E. Brown argues that the “brave action of the hitherto timid Joseph and Nicodemus seems to indicate that Jesus, raised up, has begun drawing people unto himself” (The Gospel and Epistles of John, Liturgical Press, 1988).

But suppose Nicodemus’ gesture is part of John’s continuing proof.  Jesus was seriously dead. He was truly executed by the Romans as a terrorist, buried, and as orthodox creed puts it, “descended into Hell.”  Then in an act that defied all religious logic and secular expectation, God raised a crucified enemy of the state from the dead into God’s realm.  Even more subversive, and missed by most commentaries, the action the two pharisees took with Jesus’ body was an outrageous demonstration that Jesus was indeed the Anointed One.  They treated the body of an executed criminal with extravagently greater respect and care than normally due a righteous follower of the Law.

The Gospel of John is fraught with 2,000 years of Christian interpretation that insists “belief” in Jesus’ story means a free ticket to heaven after death, and “non-belief” means an instantaneous condemnation to hell.  It has been the raison d’être for the worst excesses of anti-Semitism, and the destruction of aboriginal and non-Christian societies world-wide.  It has had a greater influence on Western thought than possibly any other biblical narrative.  Reinterpreting the Gospel from the point of view of late 20th and early 21st century Biblcal scholarship requires a willingness to ignore traditional meaning – and of course begs the question: Why bother?

In a recent op-ed published by the Martinsburg (West Virginia) Journal, Sean O’Leary writes about NBA all-American Jerry West.  West came from an abusive, dysfunctional family.  He used basketball as a way to dissociate himself from the terror at home, and became “the ninth greatest professional player of all time.”  O’Leary says that while West was one of the lucky ones, most people caught in abusive situations are unable to get out.  Instead they retreat into booze, gambling, junk food, cigarettes, pain killers, and assorted drugs; and it happens more often in West Virginia than anywhere else.  “The National Institutes of Health and Centers for Disease control rank West Virginia among the leading states for the prevalence of depression, anxiety-related disorders, and . . . suicide.  We’re nearly five tmes more likely to kill ourselves than we are to be killed by someone else.  And suicide combined with accidental drug overdoses (usually prescription pain killers) kills more of us than even traffic accidents.”

O’Leary calls this crisis “West Virginia’s disease of othe soul.”  It is a disease of the soul because the underlying cause of these problems is never addressed: that is, mental illness, depression, and addiction are seen as character flaws: a lack of self-discipline, a failure of resolve, or even a dearth of religious faith, “traits for which they believe people should be admonished or punished rather than treated.”  That “dearth of religious faith” goes right back to the misinterpretation of John 3:16-21.  Traditional, conservative, and fundamentalist Christians quote John 3:16 as the defining Christian statement of faith:

        For God so loved the world, that he gave his only begotten Son, that whosoever believeth in him should not perish, but have everlasting life.  For God sent not his Son into the world to condemn the world; but that the world through him might be saved.  He that believeth on him is not condemned: but he that believeth not is condemned already, because he hath not believed in the name of the only begotten Son of God. And this is the condemnation, that light is come into the world, and men loved darkness rather than light, because their deeds were evil. For every one that doeth evil hateth the light, neither cometh to the light, lest his deeds shouldbe reproved.  But he that doeth truth cometh to the light, that his deeds may be made manifest, that they are wrought in God.  John 3:16-21 (KJV).

The standard interpretation is if you don’t believe Jesus came back from the dead, you can’t be saved.  Even with the latest translation, the same meaning seems inevitable.  Jesus explains to Nicodemus how it came about that God designated Jesus as his Anointed One:  “In the desert, Moses elevated the snake; in the same way, the Human One is destined to be elevated, so everyone who believes in him can have unending life . . . All those who do evil things hate the light and don’t come into the light – otherwise their deeds would be exposed.  But those who do what is true come into the light so the nature of their deeds will become evident: their deeds belong to God” (The Complete Gospels p. 214).

In order to reclaim this metaphor of the religious leader who came out of the darkness, in secret, to meet Jesus and ask him what he was all about, a few points about the nature of God, and what belongs to God must be understood.  Jesus tries to remind this learned pharisee of what he is supposed to know: that what comes from the spiritual realms is spirit, and what comes from human realms is human.  In order to be part of God’s realm, everyone must be reborn by God’s spirit.  Nicodemus takes this literally, and so has just about everyone else for the past 2,000 years.

In order to be “reborn from above,” God’s spirit must be understood as distributive justice-compassion.  Throughout the Bible, God acts to establish, restore, and keep God’s law: for the widow, the orphan, the slave, and even the animals that reside with God’s people.  Everyone participates in God’s demand for justice.  Whenever the people stray from justice – whether it’s refusing to annilhate the Amalekites, or tricking Uriah so the king can take his wife, or worshiping the idols of the conquerors, God withdraws his support and the people suffer famine, war, and exile.  Whenever anyone follows God’s rule of distributive justice-compassion – whether or not they belong to the original 12 tribes of Israel – God works for them: they win the battles, reap the harvests, abide in their own profitable, peaceful land.  It’s never about belief.  It is always about action: radical, outside-the-box, unconventional, anti-imperial action.

Catholic scholar Sandra Schneiders writes:

        [T]he textual Nicodemus is actually a type of the true Israelite, who progresses in faith from seeing the signs to doing the truth according to the scriptures, to finally confessing Jesus openly as the one in whom the Old Testament finds its fulfillment. . . . Nicodemus is the very type of the truly religious person, who is, on the one hand, utterly sincere and, on the other, complacent about his or her knowledge of God and God’s will.  Such people are basically closed to divine revelation . . . it is only after they have been reduced to the futility of their own ignorance that they can begin the process of coming to the Light not by argument or reasoning but by doing the truth, a process that gradually opens them to the true meaning of the scriptures.  Written That You May Believe p. 119.

So when the people of West Virginia or any state, and their governors and officials and social service agencies, refuse to deal with the underlying disease of the soul, and instead throw desperate people into jail for breaches of law, in John’s language, they are “those who refuse the son [and] will not see life; no, they remain the object of God’s wrath”:  God’s justified displeasure with and active judgment against those who do not obey God’s law.  The strength of sin, writes the apostle Paul is the law (1 Corinthians 15:56) – that is, the conventional law of social organization.  That law does not protect and support the widow, the orphan, or the stranger needing hospitality.  It supports the rich, the bully, and the political patron.

Nicodemus is the model for moving from uncritical belief to doing what God requires and ultimately arriving at the truth.  But as Jesus points out, and as Sean O’Leary laments, that spirit of truth “blows every which way like the wind; you hear the sound it makes but you can’t tell where it’s coming from or where it’s headed.”  Transformation can’t be spoon-fed; it has to come “from above.”  Until it does, O’Leary writes, “the statue of [Jerry] West that stands outside the WVU Coliseum will be as much a monument to West’s and West Virginia’s disease of the soul as it is to the athletic achievements it’s meant to celebrate.”

The Gospel of John is far more relevant to sustainable 21st century life than the 19th century anachronisms of Ayn Rand, or the demonstrably failed economic theories offered by neo-conservative presidential politicians, or fundamentalist literalist theologies – Christian or non-Christian.   “God’s rule” does not mean salvation from hell in the next life, but radical fairness on earth in this life.  Radical fairness means distributive justice-compassion in ecological, economic, environmental and social policy; it requires a radical abandonment of self-interest, even to the seemingly impossible point of loving one’s enemies.  Living under God’s rule means subverting the laws governing all aspects of society, and embracing God’s imperial rule, not Cesar’s.  Jesus’ teaching about God’s rule means not only the overthrow of the occupying Roman government of the first century, but the fulfillment or actualization of the law of Moses, and the transformation of what John Dominic Crossan calls “the normalcy of civilization” itself.

Nicodemus came out of the shadows, out of the darkness of conventional religious and political social expecation.  He later uses the law against those who wanted to discredit Jesus and arrest him.  He finally throws the law in its conventional face by treating the violated body of an executed criminal like a king.

It’s the Least We Can Do: End of Year A Commentary

Matthew 25:31-46

Two of the great discourses Matthew attributed to Jesus have defined Christianity: the first is the Sermon on the Mount, which is generally thought to go back to the historical Jesus and to reflect his authentic teachings.  The second is the portion of the Last Judgment from 25:34-40:

        Then the king will say to those at his right, “Come, you who have the blessing of my Father, inherit the domain prepared for you from the foundation of the world.  You may remember, I was hungry and you gave me something to eat; I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink; I was a foreigner and you showed me hospitality; I was naked and you clothed me; I was ill and you visited me; I was in prison and you came to see me. . . . I swear to you, whatever you did for the most inconspicuous members of my family [KJV: one of the least of these my brethren] you did for me as well.”

Matthew crafted this out of his own genius.  Jesus never said any such thing.  If read to the end, this speech is an admonition that contains a threat of damnation.  The “goats” know very well who was hungry, thirsty, naked, and in prison, and refused to do anything about it.  Therefore, they are headed for everlasting hellfire.  What is seldom noticed by traditional Christians is that consignment to hell is not the payback for “sin”; it is the consequence of not believing that Jesus was the one Anointed by God to return the world to God’s covenantal rule.  If you don’t believe Jesus was the one – according to Matthew – you won’t follow Jesus’ teachings, and when the transformation comes, you will be found in the company of the goats.

Two thousand years of Western history and thought have testified to the power of this belief in musical compositions, artists’ renderings, and cautionary tales:  Dies Irae from the Verdi Requiem; The Last Judgment, by Hieronymous Bosch; and James Whitcomb Riley’s Little Orphant Annie.  Anyone who declines to do good works and celebrate with the returning master will be cast into the outer darkness, beyond the mountains that hold up the sky, into the abyss at the end of the flat earth.  It’s a satisfying thought.  Revenge is sweet – or a dish best served cold.  If “God” won’t get you, “karma” will.  But – so far as scholars can tell – Jesus was not warning about a violent judgment after death, but was declaring a non-violent feast on God’s holy mountain available to all here and now.

This is very different from traditional Christian insistence on belief that Jesus died to save us from our sins, and rose again to prove that there is eternal life after death.  Whether the last judgment is celebrated as revenge against enemies, or claimed as pious reward, Matthew’s apocalyptic vision has been reduced to smug band-aids for the horrors of systemic injustice:  soup kitchens, homeless shelters, free clinics, prison visitation – the least possible for the least possible.  The same thing happened with the legacy of Dr. Martin Luther King.  Commemorations of his birthday and celebrations of “black history month” have become opportunities for school children and guilt-ridden adults to do “community service” – read to kids at the local school; deliver meals-on-wheels; clean up the local park; donate money to the Red Cross.  This is not to imply that all those good works are in vain, but the dangers of cheap grace have been made clear over the centuries by the Apostle Paul, Martin Luther, and Dietrich Bonhoeffer – among other lesser saints.  Donations of blood were liberally collected most recently in Birmingham, Selma, Memphis, and Kent State.  More are being accepted today in Bahrain, Yemen, Syria, Libya, Somalia, North Carolina, Texas, and Beijing . . . just to name a few.

Matthew (and Jesus and all the other martyrs to justice) was aiming for a transformation that goes much deeper than volunteering with the Girl Scouts or donating unwanted furniture to Purple Heart.  Jesus gave his life in the service of distributive justice-compassion.  He actively overturned conventional responses to the petty worries and imperial oppressions of normal civilized life.  The Parable of the Talants (Matthew 25:14-30) may have been the first in the genre of passive resistance stories in which the help spits in the soup pot.  The slave who buried his master’s money in the kitchen garden threw the master’s gross unfairness right back in his face. The peasant who carried the centurion’s cloak for more than a mile forced the emperor’s warrior to break the emperor’s law; the merchant who turned the other side of his face to the tax collector transformed a gross insult into an encounter between equals.  But the slave’s subtle act of defiance became an allegory of reward and punishment in Matthew’s hands. “Going the second mile” now means driving the neighbor’s kids to soccer practice again; “turning the other cheek” means putting up with abuse.

Matthew was writing at least 60 years after the death of Jesus.  His point of view is Jewish.  He bases his stories of Jesus on prophecies from Isaiah, Jeremiah, and Daniel.  In his mind, the story of Jesus would replace the story of Moses for the new age.  Jesus was the one Anointed by God to set to rights the entire universe.  Matthew’s is an apocalyptic voice for an apocalyptic time that is coming soon, “like a thief in the night.”  Anyone who rejected the message was rejecting God’s own promise of deliverance from imperial injustice.  So at the end of his gospel, he has Jesus claim that “all authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me.  Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything that I have commanded you.  And remember, I am with you always, to the end of the age” (NRSV).  The Scholars’ Version is more clear: “I’ll be with you day in and day out as you’ll see, so long as this world continues its course.”

In order for the world to stop its course of systemic injustice and create a world where distributive justice-compassion is the rule, those who would claim the name of Jesus have a responsibility to not only teach others Jesus’ way, but must follow it ourselves.  Matthew’s challenge remains a rebuke to a so-called Christian church that makes common cause with the rich against the poor, the elderly, the sick, and the disabled; that blames victims for their plight; that seeks to punish collectively all those who qualify for social benefits, or who work for government agencies, with drug tests, literacy tests, and prerequisites for voting rights. Somehow they never think that if they deny fair and equal treatment to those who lack economic power, they deny fair and equal treatment to the very Lord they claim as their savior.

Perhaps those “Christians” so quick to impose the death penalty and deny clemency, no longer believe the second half of Matthew’s warning: “The second group [the goats] will then head for everlasting punishment, but the virtuous for everlasting life.”  Maybe they think that because “Jesus died for their sins” they have nothing to worry about.  But they have forgotten the parable of Lazarus and the rich man (Luke 16:20-31).  The rich man begs Father Abraham to send word to his still living five brothers and warn them that if they do not share their good fortune equitably, they will end up in a “place of torture” for eternity.  But Abraham said, “If they won’t listen to Moses and the prophets, they won’t be convinced even if someone were to rise from the dead.”

Jesus’ resurrection did not provide everyone with a free ticket to heaven.  Jesus’ resurrection was the signal that God’s rule had arrived; the normal course of civilization with its inevitable systems of injustice had been overturned.  But this is only true if people decide to live that way.…

End Times – Apocalypse 101: Proper 18-19, Year A

Matthew 24 and 25 (selections)

This commentary will conclude the exploration of the Gospel of Matthew over the next two weeks, dealing with two doctrines that became fundamental to traditional Christianity, and skewed the teachings of Jesus almost beyond recognition:  Apocalyptic eschatology and the Last Judgment.

The process the early followers of Jesus went through that resulted in the Church of Jesus Christ is fairly long, fairly obscure, and full of pitfalls for those who seek to recreate it.  One of the key debates among New Testament scholars is whether or not Jesus believed himself to be the “son of Adam” (KJV: “son of Man”) described in the apocalyptic legend of Daniel.  For example, see The Apocalyptic Jesus: A Debate (Polebridge Press, 2001, Robert J. Miller, ed.).  In the Book of Daniel, written in the 2nd century before the common era, God acts to establish God’s Kingdom (the 5th Kingdom) on earth by designating a savior, who will be “taken up” to God, then returned to earth at a time determined by God to overthrow the wicked empire of Rome.  Specific timing is spelled out.  The dead will be resurrected so that even they can participate in God’s ultimate justice.

Jesus is highly likely to have known about the legend of Daniel.  But he never referred to himself as the hoped-for messiah described there.…

On Resurrection: Proper 16, Year A

Matthew 22:23-33; 1 Corinthians 15; Revelation 21:1-8

Much of the end of the Gospel of Matthew is normally considered during Lent and Easter.  Commentary on those readings that are included in the Revised Common Lectionary may be found in the highlights for Year A.  However, portions of these last chapters are routinely skipped by the Elves either because they are covered more traditionally in Mark and Luke, or because they do not fall into the orthodox belief system promulgated by the RCL.  The discussion on the resurrection in Matthew 22:23-33 is lifted word-for-word from Mark, and repeated in Luke.  Luke’s version is the only one that is read, as the Christian liturgical year winds down to the triumphalism of Christ the King Sunday, and – insistence on an actual season of Advent notwithstanding – the Christmas season begins.

The “Resurrection” of Jesus is the defining story of Christianity.  But what does it mean in a post-modern, post-Enlightenment, even post-Christian world, in which science leaves little room for meaningful metaphor?  Logos has been trumping Mythos since Mark first set down the story:…

Tea Parties and Fig Trees: A Parable for Today – Proper 15, Year A

Mark 11:12-14; 20-25
Matthew 21:14-22

The Fig Tree parable is never read if the Revised Common Lectionary is followed, whether one uses the version in Mark or in Matthew (Luke left it out altogether). The “triumphal entry into Jerusalem” and the famous incident in which “Jesus cleanses the Temple” are the foundations for Christianity’s “Holy Week.”  The accompanying scene in which Jesus curses a fig tree for not having figs out of season is ignored as not important.  After all, Jesus is looking at a very bad week ahead, so perhaps he can be excused for taking it out on a stupid tree.…

Jesus said WHAT? – Proper 12, Year A

Matthew 19; 1 Corinthians 7

For his chapter 19, the writer of Matthew rewrote Mark 10, which is well covered by the Elves in Year B, cobbles together rules for divorce; the admonition not to prevent children to come to Jesus; the plight of the rich young ruler who was reluctant to give up his wealth; and the aphorism about camels squeezing through the eyes of needles. The chapter is a hodge-podge tour de force worthy of the Elves themselves, especially considering Jesus’ observation about “men who castrated themselves because of Heaven’s imperial rule [eunuchs],” which Matthew alone tosses into the mix.

In the later years of the first century, Matthew was struggling with the reality that Jesus had not yet come again, and the temple was destroyed.  Surely God must have been getting ready to act soon to deliver God’s people from oppression and death.  But meanwhile, did Jesus really expect people to give up sex, mutilate their bodies, and throw away their possessions?  Origen – considered one of the founders of the Christian religion in the late second and early third centuries – is said to have castrated himself because of Matthew 19:12.  While that legend may have been invented by Origen’s detractors, it nevertheless is a cautionary tale for those inclined to take everything in the Bible literally.…

St. Peter’s Fish: Proper 9, Year A

Matthew 17:24-27; Romans 13:1-10

It seems that the temple tax collectors challenged Peter about whether Jesus and his followers paid the tax.  All Judean males were required to pay a tax beginning at age 20 to support the temple in Jerusalem (Exodus 30:11-16).  Peter claims that Jesus does pay the tax, but Jesus seems to be a bit ambiguous.  He asks Peter, “On whom do secular rulers levy taxes and tolls?  Do they levy them on their own people or on aliens?”  Peter says, “On aliens” – which would seem to be an obvious condition for secular occupiers of a land such as Palestine to do.  Jesus says, “Then their own people are exempt.  Still, we don’t want to get in trouble with them, so go down to the sea, cast your line in, and take the first fish that rises.  Open its mouth and you will find a coin.  Take it and pay them for both of us.”

While the Elves disdain to include Matthew’s fable in the lectionary, “St Peter’s Fish” is well known.  Turns out St. Peter’s Fish is Talapia. The tilapia, also known as the musht, is native to the Lake Tiberias.  They are bottom feeders, and “mouth breeders.”  That means, they scoop up plankton and other objects into their mouths.  They also carry their eggs in their mouths until they hatch, and the young are ready to swim on their own.  The temple taxes were collected in the month before Passover, any time from February to March.  During that season in Tiberius, the tilapia were likely to be in shallow, warmer water where there was more plankton than in the deep waters.  They would be moving gravel on the bottom to build spawning pits, or searching for plant material on the bottom.  It is not unusual for these fish to scoop up coins.

Matthew’s magic story reflects the magic of the loaves and fishes, and perhaps anticipates the magic of the colt the disciples borrowed for Jesus to ride in the Palm Sunday parade. But beneath the distracting magic lie some ambiguities. …

Transfiguration – It’s never too late: Proper 8 Year A

Matthew 17:1-23; 2 Corinthians 10-12 (Paul’s Fools Speech), various

Because of the moon-based Easter calendar, Christendom skips Matthew 7 (4th, 5th, and 6th Sundays after Epiphany) and 9 and picks up on 10. Matthew 8 is never read (see 7th and 8th Sundays in Epiphany 2011).  Even though this is an unusual Year A, with the first Sunday after Trinity Sunday plunging everyone else into Matthew 10, it seems once again that – theologically – consideration of the legend of Jesus’ transfiguration is more appropriate now than right before Ash Wednesday.  Combining moon-based with sun-based liturgical and lexionary calendars seems a daunting enough challenge to send anyone to the liquor cabinet, if not the fridge for a cold one.  The Elves are not entirely to blame.…

One in the Spirit: Trinity Sunday

Matthew 16:13-28; Romans 6:5-11

This commentary is going directly through Matthew without regard for the traditional Christian liturgical year, so will not skip to the end of the gospel to Jesus’ “great commission” to “make followers of all peoples . . . ][and] baptize them in the name of the Father and the son and the holy spirit.”  The trinitarian debate began three hundred years later.  Along the way, not a few heretics went up in flames rather than subscribe to a “trinitarian” view of God.  Among them was Michael Servetus, who ran afoul of John Calvin in 1553.  Indeed, it is still to this day anathema to some Protestants to be thought of as “unitarian.” (That some Unitarian Universalists return the favor by declining to acknowledge – let alone claim – their Christian heritage is a blog for another day.)

The rest of Christendom will get back to Matthew 16 at the end of the summer.  But the story of the revelation that Jesus was the Anointed One may be more relevant to post-Pentecost themes for Christian worship than Trinity Sunday. …

Liturgy For A Celebration of Pentecost

Servetus Society
Unitarian Universalist Congregation of Frederick, Maryland
Sunday, June 12, 2011

The Servetus Society at UUCF is a chapter of Unitarian Universalist Christians.  Michael Servetus (1509 or 1511-October 27, 1553), was a Spaniard martyred in the Reformation for his criticism of the doctrine of the trinity and his opposition to infant baptism; he has often been considered an early unitarian.  Widespread aversion to his death signaled the birth in Europe of religious tolerance, a principle now more important to modern Unitarian Universalists than antitrinitarianism.

Pentecost is perhaps the first festival appropriated from an ancient tradition to serve the purposes of the new Christian Way.  We celebrate “the Church’s birthday,” and proclaim“Christ is our Passover,” but what does that really mean?

Pentecost is the Jewish Festival of Weeks, which takes place fifty days after Passover – and Passover, as we know, is the commemoration of an archetypal deliverance from oppression and injustice.  So Pentecost – fifty days after Passover – is really about life after liberation.  In Leviticus, we find that the Hebrew people were directed by the priests (God’s representatives) to make holy offerings of grain, bread, lambs, and incense.  The purposes for the ritual sacrifices were for sin – for which a goat was sacrificed –  and for well-being – for which two male lambs were sacrificed.  This seems to be a very practical acknowledgment of what usually happens in normal human civilization after liberation is accomplished.  Pretty soon, we get back to the usual failures and fights.

But, once the ritual sacrifices are done and all is well again between God and the people, it’s party time, and work is forbidden.  Just in case the people might forget why they were liberated in the first place, the priests made it clear that “when you reap the harvest of your land, you shall not reap to the very edges of your field, or gather the gleanings of your harvest; you shall leave them for the poor and for the alien: I am the Lord your God.

In the midst of a holiday, certain that sins have been forgiven and that future well-being is assured, the people remember that God’s kingdom, God’s reign, God’s imperial rule, means that God’s people live in distributive justice-compassion.

Reading:    John 20:19-23
Liturgist At Pentecost, the Holy Spirit, first given by John’s Jesus, descends in tongues of flames on the Christian community gathered in Jerusalem.  They are empowered to tell the story of Jesus – the new, sacrificial paschal lamb – in every language of the known world.
[Light Chalice]
Liturgist The imagery of fire represents the outpouring of the presence of sacred being and of creative power.  Fire transforms, destroys, purifies, enlightens, inspires, and protects.  But post-modern, “first world” people have no experience or appreciation for that kind of power.  In order to live with and through the Pentecost fires – whether of ancient commitment and sacrifice, or of the certainty of a transformational message – would-be prophets must remember that fire does not care what feeds it.  Fire can be fed by injustice as well as justice-compassion.  Perhaps that is why the ancient Priests were careful to remind the people to leave something for the poor and for the alien seeking hospitality in a hostile world.

Psalm 104:24-35
Hymn     Eli, Eli

Acts 2:1-21
Hechos 2:1-4
Français Actes 2:1-4

MEDITATION: Here’s Some Holy Spirit Sea Raven, D.Min.
1 Corinthians 12:3-13

What is missing from most Christian Pentecost celebrations is a sense of purpose, ownership, liberation, and commitment.  Theologically, Jesus’s death and resurrection supposedly replace any need for a “scape-goat” as a sacrifice for sin, and reconciles humanity with God’s realm of distributive justice-compassion.  But sin, and guilt about sin, continues to plague church-goers, as though Jesus’s death and resurrection didn’t really do the trick.

Jesus’s life and teachings illustrated a profound one-ness with a mysterious, non-interventionist, kenotic god, in a realm of radical fairness, inclusiveness, and distributive justice-compassion.  When we identify with that kind of God, and commit to that kind of covenant, it is possible to experience a sense of integrity, not just within ourselves, but rippling out from ourselves to encompass all of God’s creation.  That is what I would call a transformed life.  When we get in touch with that, we can access the power to address systems of injustice.

In his lengthy letter to his community in Corinth, Paul makes the point that Jesus’ execution was a sacrifice; in the translation from the Scholars Version: “the Anointed died to free us from the seductive power of corruption,” which is the force that seems to impel us toward the unjust systems that seem inevitable in civilized societies. But post-modern Christians are separated from God’s realm, unable to open our eyes and ears and look and listen.  Most of us have no personal stake in the conditions in which we live, or in which we observe others to be living.  We have reduced “sacrifice” to an “offering” of money.  We are unable to act with personal power.

Paul uses two intimate metaphors to show the Corinthians (and us) how to get in touch with that personal power, and continue to live in opposition to that disabling, seductive, corruption.

The first metaphor is the human body.  The second metaphor is food and drink that nourishes that body.

Paul writes in 1 Corinthians 12:3-13, “There are different gifts, but the same power of God, and there are different kinds of service, but the same Lord, and there are different activities, but the same God makes them all effective in everyone.  Some expression of God’s power is given to each of us for the benefit of all. . . . Just as the body has many parts and all of the parts, even though there are many of them, are still parts of one body, so is the body of the Anointed” – the body of Christ – the community.

Paul then says, “For we were all baptized by the same power of God into one body, whether we were Jews or Greeks, slaves or free, and we were all invited to imbibe the same divine power.”  That word the scholars use – imbibe – carries with it a sense of taking in, of allowing that divine power to infuse every aspect of our being.

For Paul, the lord’s supper – the ritual community meal that became the defining action in Christian worship – was a symbol for the transformed life that was filled with the spirit of Christ, and assured the establishment on earth of God’s covenantal rule.

So now we have two images to contemplate as we move into a time of prayer and meditation.  The first is the image of fire – that transforms, destroys, purifies, enlightens, inspires, and protects.  The second is the image of water – that like fire – transforms, destroys, and purifies, but also provides nourishment, comfort, and transportation.

Liturgist: Let’s chant the words from the Taize Community “Come and pray in us, come and visit us, Holy Spirit.” Let’s chant it a few times, and see if you can just close your eyes and remember the words.  Then we will have a time of prayer – you may pray aloud if you wish.

Chant:    Vieni Spirito Creatore

One: The Eucharist is heart food from the cosmos – the “mystical body of Christ” and the Cosmic Christ or Buddha nature found in all beings in the universe – to us.  Christ is the light of the world, which we now know is made only of light. Flesh is light and light is flesh.  We eat, drink, sleep, breathe, and love that light.

All: The Eucharist is also our hearts expanding and responding generously: “Yes we will” We will carry on the heart-work called compassion, the work of the cosmos itself.  (From Matthew Fox Sins of the Spirit, Blessings of the Flesh (Harmony Books, New York, 1999) p. 271.

One: The cup of God’s gracious benefits that we consecrate means that we are involved in the blood of the Anointed. . . . The bread that we break means that we are involved in the body of the Anointed. . . That there is one loaf means that we who are many constitute one body, because we all partake of the one loaf (1 Corinthians 10:16-17, Scholars Version).

One: Lift up your hearts
All: We lift them up to God
One: Let us give thanks for the spirit of wisdom and understanding, which gives us courage in the struggle for justice and peace.
All: Thanks be to the Spirit of Life, and Light.

Institution (1 Corinthians 11:23b-26, Scholars Version)
One: On the night when he was handed over, the lord Jesus took bread and after he gave thanks he broke it and said, “This means my body broken for you.  Do this to remember me.”
[Break Bread]
And in the same way he took the wine cup after the meal and said, “This cup means the new covenant ratified by my blood.  Whenever you drink this, do it to remember me.”
[Pour Wine]
So every time you eat this bread and drink this cup you are proclaiming the death of the lord until the day when he returns. . . . All who eat and drink recognize that the community is the body of the Anointed.

One: The gifts of God for the People of God
All: Thanks be to God.

HYMN: Gather the Spirit

BENEDICTION (Isaiah 55:12-13)

One: For you shall go out in joy, and be led back in peace; the mountains and the hills before you shall burst into song, and all the trees of the field shall clap their hands.
Men: Instead of the thorn shall come up the cypress;
Women: Instead of the brier shall come up the myrtle;
All:        And it shall be to the Lord for a memorial, for an everlasting sign that shall not be cut off.

All: We extinguish the flame, but not the light of truth and justice that lights our way until we meet again.  Peace, Shalom, Amen, Hoh, Blessed be.