Thursday, September 27, 2012

Jesus' Wife?

The discovery of a piece of papyrus which quotes Jesus as referring to his wife is causing some interesting discussion. (Click here for more info from the New York Times and Harvard Magazine.)  The humorists are probably having the most fun, from editorial cartoonists to bloggers offering Top Ten Reasons Not To Be Jesus Wife.  Other discussion, especially in the Roman Catholic Church, center around ordination. 

As Dan Brown's readers know, this is not a new idea, but when we find something ancient mentioning something heretical, we tend to re-evaluate our suppositions.  In this case, however, we needn't run to check the divine wedding registry at Bed, Bath and Beyond.

First, the fragment of text found is quite small, approximately the size of a business card, with a small amount of text.  We don't know what the entire document was, or would have said.  We don't know who wrote it or why, even if the dating is authenticated as suitably ancient.  Second, people in ancient times were about as likely to write bizarre things as modern authors.  Just because a long time ago someone wrote that Jesus said he was married doesn't mean it's true.  One early writing that stirred up a similar storm of controversy in recent years was the appearance of the Gospel of Mary Magdalene.  Some wrote about how its exclusion from the canon suppressed women's voices by only allowing male evangelists.  However, having read it, I know I wouldn't want it as part of my Bible, and neither would the vast majority of feminists I know.  It's gnostic theology seems more akin to Scientology than a liberal Catholicism.  Any direct connection to Mary Magdalene herself seems a huge stretch, as well.

The more interesting question is why so many people seem invested in finding a married Jesus.  For many, it make allow them to feel closer to a Messiah who understands their day-to-day struggles.  The larger segment of published reactions, however, seems to come from those wishing to change Roman Catholicisms ordination requirements.  As long as a celibate Jesus is held up as the priestly model, then if Jesus could be proven to be married, so should priests (who could also then probably be women, too)?  But this argument flounders in its premise.  We know Peter and other apostles were married, and the Roman church recognizes married clergy, it just doesn't currently allow it for the majority of its priests.  The change in their ordination requirements, as difficult as it will be, is probably easier than proving someone was married 2000 years ago, anyway.

But what might be at stake theologically if Jesus were to have been married?  Nothing really.  The Son of God is still the Son of God who brought near the Kingdom of God, reconciled us to God through his death and resurrection, has ascended into heaven and is seated at the right hand of God the Father.  If he was married, he still did all those things.  A number of factors are highlighted by Jesus' presumed celibacy, however, and they are worth noting.

First, a celibate Jesus with no children is a powerful witness against an understanding of salvation or election that can only come through blood ties.  When many looked to ancestry for standing and identity, Jesus said my family is anyone who does the will of God. Christ's Church as the Household of God open to every race, tribe and tongue is absolutely central to orthodox Christianity.  Dan Brown's fictional search for Jesus descendants as a special people is a good argument of why Jesus wouldn't have had a family, lest people believe that somehow being a blood relative of Jesus is more important than sharing in his body and blood in the Eucharist.

Second, we can only imagine that Jesus' understanding of his own mission would have been such that he might not have wanted to bring a wife along.  We get glimpses in scripture of the pain his mother experienced during the way of the cross.  I doubt Jesus would have married someone if had a sense of the pain he would put them through.  Jesus concern from the cross for John and Mary to take care of each other, with no mention of a wife or children, is a good scriptural argument for his celibacy.

Finally, Jesus celibacy speaks to a world that doesn't understand the gift of singleness.  Certain people are gifted to live without family responsibilities for the sake of serving the Kingdom of God.  Everyone is not required to do this, but some are able and we need their witness and their service.  They are equipped to serve in ways that others aren't.  Especially in a culture that sees sexual gratification as one of the goals in life, a life of celibacy devoted to using all one's energies for a higher purpose is an important example.  It is not the only way to live a godly life, but those who are called to such a countercultural lifestyle can use all the positive examples they can get.

In the end, whether Jesus was married or not isn't all that important, but I don't find any credible evidence that he was married.  The credible evidence says that he died, that his disciples found the tomb empty, and that the resurrected Jesus and his Holy Spirit have been transforming lives ever since.

Wednesday, September 26, 2012

To the Holy Land for a Bookmark

God is always up to something, and occasionally we're blessed enough to find out what.

On the bus as we approached some tourist stop or other during our Holy Land trip, our guide said that the guy selling things out front had a good deal on bookmarks, and that he was a "good cousin."  (This meant he was basically respectful and honest and worth supporting.)   The bookmarks did turn out to be a good deal, as well as an easy thing to carry home as souvenirs.

A couple weeks later, I gave the bookmarks out to a group of pastors that I regularly pray with.  Today, one of the pastors told me what happened afterwards.

When I gave it to him, he thought that he didn't need a bookmark, but that he would pass it on to someone who did.  Later that day, he visited someone and saw a book lying on the table.  He mentioned the book and noted that he had a bookmark.  The woman said that the book was her daughter's, but got excited about the bookmark.  She works at GM and gathers regularly with a handful of other employees for prayer and Bible study.  The previous day, one of her co-workers told her that he was going to begin to read the Bible and asked her to find him a bookmark.  She took the bookmark with a picture of Jerusalem to him for his Bible.  He told the story to his wife, who started to cry.  Asking for a bookmark and receiving one from the Holy Land was a sign to them of God's love.

Often, we think that we have an important ministry pastoring churches, saving souls, preaching the word, and building the kingdom.  We think we travel to the Holy Land to understand the Bible better, to experience God more powerfully, and to bring something back to share with our churches.  But maybe God just needed somebody to go get a bookmark.

Monday, September 24, 2012

The Servants in Sharon, PA

So often, Jesus more difficult statements are relegated to the category of "good idea for the pious, but not very relevant in the real world."  As I prepared to preach Sunday's gospel, however, I was struck by how much one of Jesus statements was embodied in the real world earlier in the week.

After the disciples are arguing about who is the greatest, Jesus says: "Whoever wants to be first must be the last of all and servant of all" (Mark 9:35).  What Jesus told his followers two thousand years ago still makes good advice for leaders today.

Last week, a number of officials from the Pennsylvania Department of Community and Economic Development came to Sharon and other Northwestern Pennsylvania towns to see what was going on in our corner of the commonwealth.  Over three days, numerous business, community, municipal and civic leaders gave of their time and energy to share the progress Sharon and the Shenango Valley are making.  The highlight, however, was the public event on Tuesday afternoon when the Deputy Secretary Champ Holman made a stop during his whistle tour of the area.

Now I don't think anyone would take offense if I noted that fewer people are probably interested in coming out on a rainy afternoon to see a state government official speak than to see a member of the Pittsburgh Steelers.  No one probably would have faulted the city for rounding up a few interested parties to hear about potential changes in DCED funding priorities, share some area pitchbooks and have lunch at Quaker Steak and Lube.  But Sharon didn't.  Instead, many of our true public servants (from a wide variety of sectors) came together for one of the best civic events I have had the honor to attend.

Starting with an ad hoc planning committee that gave their time to plan an event that would both showcase the community and be a worthwhile celebration for everyone who attended, numerous people offered their gifts.  Sharon's band played outside the James E. Winner, Jr. Arts and Cultural Center, while the Tiger Kittens and Men of Note opened with the National Anthem.  Daffins provided tiger paw chocolates, the Lube provided twizzlers and the city provided bottles of water.  The Dempseytown Ramblers played some bluegrass as people gathered and after the event, and Rosewood Vintage Guitars helped with sound.  People came from the Sharon School District (including a number of students who were a great help), Sharon Regional, PennState Shenango, numerous local businesses and manufacturers, elected officials and municipal representatives, Visit Mercer PA, non-profit and religious leaders, and a few regular people who would claim nothing more than to be good citizens.  The energy was electric, largely because we could all look around the room and see people from different walks of life for the good of the larger community.

In addition, however, a number of other projects were mentioned that day that could only happen because many of the people in the room had already come together to serve our community with their time, their skills and their wallets.  A number of manufacturers are expanding in the area, including Sharon Fence which just broke ground on a new Dock Street site.  The creation of these new jobs in the community is a result of community efforts to make this area a great place to live and work.  Making our workforce even more attractive to new businesses would be the establishment of a Manchester Bidwell site in Sharon.  Begun in Pittsburgh, Manchester Bidwell provides high quality arts instruction to youth while offering job training focused on the jobs available in local communities.  Manchester Bidwell has someone preparing an expansion proposal for Sharon.  We also heard about Waterfire Sharon, an exciting initiative to create a artistic and cultural celebration along the Shenango River offering significant opportunities to our downtown economy.  These and other positive local developments were highlighted during inspiring remarks that Karen Winner Sed directed to our high school students. 

Sharon and the Shenango Valley, like many communities in this part of the country, face significant challenges.  In too many places, people are fighting to be the biggest fish in a shrinking pond.  As we come together from all facets of the community as servants of each other, not only do we find that we increase, we find that our entire region grows as well.  Whether everyone is aware of it or not, this sense of serving is alive and well in Sharon, PA today.  People are striving to be first the way Jesus' says to be first, and those people are benefiting us all.

Wednesday, September 12, 2012

The Blood of the Martyrs...

Acts 8 has proven a fertile launching pad for blessed dreamings of where God may be leading the church.  If we look at the beginning of Acts 8, as much of the church is scattering, the Apostles stay in Jerusalem.  Stephen has just been stoned and more stonings are threatened.  Apparently, the Apostles are ready to be die for their faith in Jesus and, if we can trust tradition, all but one eventually did (and John seemed spared to write Revelation while in exile).

In thinking about church restructure and the role of bishops (and other church leaders), Acts 8 might be a very important text to consider.  Perhaps our bishops need to have the expectation that they will be martyred for their faith.

If Tertullian was correct, and "the blood of the martyrs is the seed of the church," perhaps our harvest is so meager because we have planted so few seeds.  In some area of the world, Christianity is growing by huge numbers, and many of those churches are being led into eternal life by the witness of their martyred leaders.  

Imagine what walk-abouts would be like for episcopal elections if people really expected that their next bishop might not survive the term, and not merely because of a sugar-induced coma after too many visitation receptions.  Instead of trying to figure out whether deanery-wide confirmations will be required or exactly how "inclusive" a new administration will be toward left-handed acolytes, a whole different set of questions might be asked of both sides.  Imagine a candidate asking a diocese, "Who are the people you are ministering to that you love so much that we would give our lives so that they might hear the good news of Jesus Christ?"   Or, "Who have you been praying and fasting for, and how much, that they would have their lives transformed by the Holy Spirit in preparation for the mission we will begin together?"  Imagine a diocese that would rather answer those questions than prepare a chamber-of-commerce-esque profile listing the area's golf clubs and major league sports franchises.  Such a diocese would most certainly be growing, whoever they elected.

Our own difficulty in even conceiving of how a 21st century leader in the Episcopal Church could die for the faith is one of the most significant issues we face in re-imagining our church.  The fact that so few of our current leaders would seem particularly prepared for the few ways we might think someone could be martyred is even more troubling.  (By dying, I mean dying, not feeling badly that recalcitrant parishioners in a failing congregation where insufferably rude when told they had no one under 60 because they refused to welcome in, minister to, or pray and fast for visitors, new members, or their surrounding community.)    If the convention wisdom is right that says that churches get the preaching they deserve, then we need to look squarely in the mirror and think about where we are and where we want our leaders to take us.

I think many people want the kind of church where we really learn how to lose our lives for the sake of the gospel so we can find them. But we are scared out of our minds and don't know how to do it.  However, the more we demand those kind of leaders in our prayers to God and our church councils with each other, the more we will begin to find them.  In such a Church, we will be less concerned with how things were for people way back when, and more concerned with how they need to be for those we are about to welcome to the household of God.  We will be less concerned with details of health care and pension funds (what do martyrs need with a pension fund?), and more concerned with the discernment of exactly where the lost are in our community.  And we will be less concerned with what we can build for our churches and more concerned with what we can give away for the sake of Jesus and the good news, including our very lives.

Monday, September 10, 2012

Scriptural Parfait

This Sunday's gospel reading included Jesus' interaction with the Syrophoenician woman.  The passage is somewhat difficult, primarily because Jesus comes across as somewhere between rude and racist.  Over the centuries, preachers and teachers have interpreted this very strong passage in very strong, but very different ways.  A traditional approach has been to understand Jesus as testing the woman's faith, usually because it was necessary for some reason known primarily to him.  The other most prevalent approach in the modern era has been to see this incident as a turning point in Jesus' own ministry, where a plucky woman bests the religious teacher and he realizes he has to minister to Gentiles, as well.  Various other expositors take their own interpretive canals from these two main streams, sometimes deciding that Jesus is setting up the dialogue to teach us about Salvation History.  Much ink has been spilled in parsing differing ideas, mostly to the benefit of their readers.  Not surprisingly, however, most of the decisions made say as much about the exegete as about the scriptural passage itself.  My own remarks below will no doubt do the same.

I think if we take serious the inspiration of the scriptures, we also need to take seriously that the Holy Spirit is speaking through it to the entire church.  What the church needs and is able to hear is radically different depending on its circumstances.  We shouldn't be surprised that some texts would be interpreted differently by different people at different times and in different cultures.  For good or ill, the Bible offers revelation of who God is and offers us a way to live into an eternal relationship with him.  But the details aren't clear in every case (and in some of the cases where things are pretty clear, like Old Testament dietary laws and circumcision, we've come to realize they may not be so important to be clearly followed).  Instead of looking for "the answer" or "the right interpretation", we probably need to look for God in the text, and see what he would tell us.  Part of that search is listening to the wide array of Christian voices about the text through the history of interpretation and in the diverse worldwide Christian churches today.  Some voices will resonate more with our own circumstances and needs, but all will add something, even it if only a cautionary tale on the dangers of overly-speculative exegesis.

Beyond differences in understanding at the basic level of the text, we may also find a wide variety of scriptural meaning for different aspects of our Christian life.  In the middle ages, most interpreters believed all texts to have a variety of meanings, including a literal meaning, an ethical meaning, a spiritual/mystical meaning, and an eschatological meaning.  Some of the spiritual and eschataological meanings dealt with the church.  This understanding provided an inexhaustible richness in every scripture passage that was worth a lifetime of prayer and study.

I would much rather see every Biblical passage as a parfait, offering a wide variety of satisfying meaning and interpretation that touches every aspect of life and is worthy of deep appreciation.  Just like we can enjoy the crunch of nuts, the sweetness of sauces, the tang of fruit and the creaminess of ice cream each on its own, any particularly understanding may benefit us at a given time.  But savoring the richness of the whole, enjoying it slowly, savoring every delight and blend of flavors, leads to a fuller enjoyment and draws us ever closer to the maker of such a miraculous gift.  If we are to glorify God and enjoy him forever, a good start might be truly enjoying the divine parfait provided in every scriptural passage, allowing us a foretaste of the joy found in God's own inexhaustible goodness and love.

For those interested, my own sermon on the scriptural parfait found in Mark 7:24-30 can be found on the sermon page on St. John's Website.