Paul’s Logic

If you thought yesterday’s Proper Math was challenging, then you must not have read the New Testament lesson appointed for Epiphany 6C.  Anyone who has done any reading of Paul’s letters can attest to the fact that he could really spin a yarn.  A former Pharisee and a Greek citizen trained in rhetoric, Paul loved to dive into the weeds of logic, and only occasionally came out the other side with something that made any sense.  I even saw recently that someone on Facebook had nominated him at the Patron Saint of dependent clauses.

Paul’s penchant for circular arguments is made all the more difficult when the situation which he is addressing is a complicated one, and boy howdy was the church in Corinth a complicated situation.  Having dealt with arguments over class and privilege, over apostleship and gift, now Paul finds himself face-to-face with a group of Jesus followers who came from a tradition that didn’t believe in the resurrection from the dead.  It is likely that among them were some former Sadducees, a sect within Judaism that didn’t believe in the resurrection of the dead.

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What makes Paul’s argument so convoluted is the problem that occurs in most religious arguments – they always begin at a point of presumed certainty, which then requires some kind of mental acrobatics to fit within the logic structure of the other.  The gospel that Paul proclaims is based on the resurrection of Jesus from the dead.  The basic premise of his interlocutors is that there is no resurrection of the dead.  In the world of Venn Diagrams, these are mutually exclusive sets.  How then can Paul prove that Jesus’ resurrection is a real thing to someone who doesn’t believe that resurrection is possible?  Well, you can read Paul’s attempt and see that it ain’t easy.

What I learn from Paul’s mind experiment is that religious discussion must always begin from a place of vulnerability and humility.  Logic is not the way to win a conversation with someone who believes differently than you do.  Winning shouldn’t even be the goal.  Rather, the goal of any encounter with an “other” is to learn and grow yourself.  Conversion is not our main end, that’s God’s work.  Ours is only to tell the story of the Gospel as we have experienced it.

Paul may never convince these former Sadducees that the resurrection is real, but he can certainly share with them the power of his own experience of the resurrected Jesus, from the road to Damascus all the way to imprisonment in Rome.  That’s the crux of evangelism.  Not well crafted apologetics, but a true accounting of the hope in which we, as followers of Jesus Christ, live our lives.

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I was hungry, and you fed me

As is the case most mornings, as I got ready for work today, I turned the TV to SportsCenter on ESPN.  Amidst the coverage of the MLB trade deadline and the Mets getting totally blown out by the Nats (baseball has a serious problem) was the story of Lebron James, through is foundation, opening a new public school in Akron, OH.  In the interview with Rachel Nichols, who is one of the best in the game, she noted that one of things that caught her attention was the ways in which this new school was working to change the lives of kids.

RN: As I look around here, one thing that caught my eye just beyond all the academic stuff is that kids will go here for a longer school year and also longer school days. They’re here until 5 o’clock, partly just so they’re in this supported system and not out in the world as much. The other thing was food. That if a kid is hungry, it’s hard to learn, so you guys are giving these kids breakfast, lunch and a snack. How important is that?

LJ: I think first of all, fueling the body keeps the mind sharp. I remember when I was a kid, my attention span — I mean, you can have me for a little bit, but you have to keep me engaged. I think obviously fueling these kids and giving them food and breakfast and lunch and a snack — but just keeping them here under our support, keeping them here under our guidance, giving them objectives and criteria that they can match and not feel stressed and feel like they’re family. That’s what we want to create. We want to create an environment of family and not like a workplace. Sometimes you can get tired. If you look at it like work, you kind of get tired of it. We want to create an environment of family, where you want to always be around your family no matter the good and the bad, you always want to be around that support system. So that’s what we’re creating here.

As I listened to Lebron talk and thought about my own experiences at Foley Elementary and now Dishman McGinnis Elementary, the words of Jesus to the crowd that he had fed with five loaves and two fish came to life.  In Sunday’s Gospel lesson, we hear Jesus speak frankly about the human condition. “Very truly, I tell you, you are looking for me, not because you saw signs, but because you ate your fill of the loaves. Do not work for the food that perishes, but for the food that endures for eternal life, which the Son of Man will give you.”

First and foremost, people came to Jesus because they were hungry or hurting or in need of something they thought he could give, but the reason they stayed wasn’t because of a few pieces of bread and salted cod, but because of what else he had to offer.  Lebron James is making sure hungry kids are fed, not simply because feeding them is the right thing to do, but because it is the right thing to do, but because by filling their stomachs, the possibilities for learning open up.  In the same way, we reach out into the community not simply to make ourselves feel good or to have photo opps with our homeless neighbors, but because through sharing the love of God in action, we have the opportunity to share the love of God in word as well.

Every Wednesday at 11am, Christ Episcopal Church in Bowling Green opens its doors to feed 80-100 folks a free lunch.  Our volunteers don’t stand safely on one side of a service counter, however.  Instead, they are sitting at tables, hearing stories, learning about our neighbors, and, generally, just treating the stranger as a human being.  Our ministry at Dishman McGinnis, in which we might do as little as simply have lunch with a kid, means that for those 30 minutes, an adult who would otherwise have nothing to do with them, cares, and that act of caring can make all the difference in the world.  It isn’t an either/or proposition.  We don’t just feed someone’s body without also feeding their soul with the bread of eternal life, and in return, we too are fed.

Jesus Prays for Evangelists

I’ll spare you a long rant about the RCL and its oddball usage of John’s Gospel, and simply note that on Sunday, like every Seventh Sunday After Easter (see A and C) we will hear a portion of Jesus’ final prayer for his disciples, ripped from its context and nonsensically placed on the final Sunday of Eastertide.  As such, we hear Jesus using pronouns for which there is no direct antecedent.  As the preacher, I’m privy to the larger story, as I should be, but since we, like many Episcopal congregations, have no Bibles in the pews, those who show up on Sunday, will only get a small glimpse into Jesus’ prayer, and will likely be left wondering what Jesus is talking about when he says:

“I am asking on their behalf; I am not asking on behalf of the world, but on behalf of those whom you gave me, because they are yours.”

Asking what, exactly?  The pericope appointed for Year B skips what Jesus is asking for.  As we look back to the opening verses of John 17, we note that despite the section heading that has been inserted into the text, “Jesus prays for his disciples,” what Jesus is really praying for in this moment is that the Father might “glorify the son, so that the Son my glorify you.”  In John, this language of glorification is a clear reference to the crucifixion.  In being lifted up on the cross, Jesus is raised upon his throng as king.  Paradoxically, through his brutal and embarrassing death, Jesus is glorified as the Savior of the World and the King of the Jews.

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With that context in mind, we return to the appointed lesson for Sunday.  When Jesus says that he is asking for his glorification, it isn’t so that world, which in John’s Gospel is synonymous with sin, will see it and be changed, but rather, that those who already believe might be further empowered.  As the disciples will soon look upon the glorification of Jesus, it is his hope that they might be encouraged, rather than dejected.  In verse 18, Jesus makes hope this overt, when he prays to the Father, “As you have sent me into the world, so I have them them into the world.”

If those words sound familiar, it is because they appear almost verbatim in the much more popular John 20:21, which we hear every Easter 2 and on the Day of Pentecost in Year A.  There, the now resurrected Jesus enters a locked room where his disciples were gathered, clearly dejected and afraid, having failed to live into his prayer from a few days before.  He breathes upon them, and essentially answers this prayer for them in saying, “As the Father has sent me, so I send you.”

In praying for his glorification, on behalf of his disciples and not the world, Jesus prays that the Father might encourage future evangelists.  His prayer is that those who have experienced relationship with God through Christ might have the ability and desire to share that Good News with a world that is evil and fallen.  In praying for the disciples to be empowered through his death, he prays for us as well, that we too might be sent, as the Father sent his only Son, into the world, empowered by the Spirit, to tell the story of God’s saving love.

Spiritual Work

As many of you know, I am part of a group of disciples who are working to proclaim resurrection in the Episcopal Church.  Our mission, as articulated in the founding blog posts of the movement, finds is roots in the eighth chapter of Acts.  This is a turning point in the life of the fledgling Church.  Stephen has just been martyred, while Saul looked on approvingly, and the first significant persecution is underway.  Because of the faithfulness of those early Christians, who fled Jerusalem but not their faith in Christ, the Christian faith is still around today.  It is a story of hope, of evangelism, and of perseverance.  It is a story that has motivated the Acts 8 Movement to continue to call Episcopalians to share the good news of God in Christ with a world that desperately needs it.

As one who has spent a lot of time immersed in Acts 8, it is always exciting to me when it rolls around in the lectionary cycle.  This is especially true on Easter 5B, as we hear the story of Philip and the Ethiopian Eunuch.  I could probably write a book on this passage, but blogs are supposed to be short form, so I’ll spare you the long diatribe and jump right in to the word that leaped off the screen at me this morning.  Philip, having been brought to the wilderness road by the Holy Spirit, overhears the Eunuch reading from Isaiah.  In a manner that is quite forward, Philip approaches the Eunuch and asks, “Do you understand what you are reading?”  He responded, “How can I, unless someone guides me?”

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This word, “guide,” caught my attention this morning.  Digging into it a bit, I found that the Greek word, hodegeo, is used only four other places in the New Testament.  Twice, in Luke and Matthew, it is used in variations of the idiom “the blind leading the blind.”  In Revelation, it is used to describe what the lamb at the center of throne will do for the rest of us sheep, “guiding us to the springs of the water of life.”  Of most interest, however, is how it gets used by John in the Gospel.  Late in Jesus’ ministry, as part of his farewell discourse, Jesus promises his disciples another advocate, the Spirit, who will guide (hodegeo) them into all truth.

Of further interest, is the etymology of hodegeo, which, according to Robertson, comes from hodos meaning way and hegeomai meaning to lead.  Beyond simply guiding, what the Spirit is sent to do, and what the Spirit does through Philip for the Eunuch, is to lead him in the Way.  The Spiritual work, then, for all of us who claim to be disciples of Jesus, is to lead others in the Way of Jesus.  This assumes that we will, ourselves, be disciples, having been lead in the Way by others.  It assumes that we will all be growing in our faith and in our understanding of the Gospel and of God, in order to teach others.  It assumes, more than anything else, that we will be in tune with the Spirit, who will guide us, as was the case for Philip, into all truth and into opportunities to guide others.

All Things

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My brain is currently engaged in a seminary cliche.  I am “living in tension” between the scriptures and the realities of life.  This past weekend, I was with the Bishop and Trustees and Council of the Diocese of Kentucky on a retreat.  That word was used in the corporate sense of getting away from everyday life in order to accomplish work, rather than the religious sense of quiet and contemplation.  As such, we did all the things one would expect on a working retreat.  We watched a video, we had small group discussions, and we gave large group feedback.  We ate snacks.  I consumed large amounts of mediocre camp coffee.  Like all good Episcopalians, the group drank plenty of LaCroix.

During one of our breakout sessions, we were discussing the image of the church as hired hand in the Parable of the Sower.  As we talked about what stones needed to be removed from the garden, and how we might offer shade to tender plants threatened by the heat, someone said, “We can’t be all things to all people, even though we have been called to serve all people.”  My ears perked up at that comment.  My gut reaction was to hearken to Paul, who, told the Church in Corinth that, in fact, he had tried to be all things to all people, so that, by all means, he might save some.  “No, I thought to myself, we are called to be all things to all people.”  Then, my brain responded with one of my usual sayings, “We can’t out Baptist the Baptists.”

Like so many working retreats, I didn’t really expect to spend much time thinking about these things once I had reentered real life.  These are, so often, just thought exercises that are not intended to produce any fruit beyond being an excuse to spend more time away from home.  Imagine my surprise, then, when I opened the lessons for Sunday, and read those very words from Paul to the Christians in Corinth.

It is easy to read Paul’s words as hyperbole.  We know, from his other writings, that he did waffle a bit on eating meat, on food sacrificed to idols, and on circumcision.  He did attempt to make room in the reign of Christ for as many people as possible, but even Paul had his limits.  He could never really be all things for all people.  He could, and did, cast a wide net.  One of the gifts that the Episcopal Church has to offer is an ongoing understanding of casting a wide net.  We are willing to allow people the time and the space to work out their salvation in fear and trembling, but even here, there are limits.  Or, at least, there should be.  As has been said, God will accept you right where you are, but loves you to much to let you stay there.

We’ll never be able to, as the meme says, “do all the things,” but we can work to make the Kingdom of God as accessible as possible so that by all means we might save some.  In the end, that’s the goal, isn’t it?  To share the Gospel, to make disciples, and to send out Apostle?  In the interim, the details are only a part of the process of formation.

Fame

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“At once his fame began to spread throughout the surrounding region of Galilee.” – Mark 1:28

In our celebrity obsessed culture, it seems odd to me to think of Jesus as being famous.  Surely, he was well known and well respected, but famous?  Famous seems somehow unflattering or lacking the dignity and respect that it seems Jesus would deserve.  If Kim Kardashian and Kanye West are famous, then I’m not sure I want Jesus to be.  Yet, this is how he is described very early in Mark’s Gospel narrative.

The Gospel lesson appointed for Epiphany 4B follows immediately on the heels of last Sunday’s lesson in which Jesus begins his ministry and calls his first disciples.  This week’s story is about his first miracle in Mark.  It is the Sabbath and Jesus and his presumably less than 12 disciples have made their way to the Synagogue in Capernaum. As Jesus is teaching, an evil spirit speaks up from within a man possessed, and Jesus immediately rebukes the spirit, returning the man to wholeness.  It is the combination of his teaching with authority and his ability to rebuke the unclean spirit that leads Mark to tell us that Jesus’ fame began to spread.

Because of my discomfort with this word, I decided to look at it a little more closely.  I found that here the NRSV follows both the King James Version and Young’s Literal Translation in choosing fame, while more modern translations, perhaps with my concerns in mind, translate it as news.  The Greek word is akoe which is the noun form of hearing.  Idiomatically, it connotes news or word about something.  That is, after this miraculous event, people began to share what they had seen and heard.  Word spread rapidly, and yes, some might even say that Jesus began to become famous.

It is interesting to think about how this happened in a word so flush with information.  At any given moment, we have the opportunity to share within our sphere of influence news about all sorts of things.  Our social media feeds are basically giant evangelism machines.  We share reviews products, both good and bad.  We share posts that betray our political leanings.  We share stories of our kids and grand kids.  Some might even share news of their favorite famous person.  (How else would I know that Kim and Kanye’s second child is named Chicago?)  We share all kinds of things, which leads me to wonder, how might we effectively share the Good News of Jesus Christ through social media?  In the midst of all that is famous in our world today, what does the Gospel of Jesus have to offer?

This is not asking a question into a vacuum.  For the last two years, I have had the pleasure of serving on the General Convention Task Force for Leveraging Social Media for Evangelism.  In our meetings, these were the questions we pondered.  In our work, we tried to offer practical theology and real-world advice on how to continue to facilitate the spread of fame of Christ.  Our Report has been filed, and will be published soon.  I’ll share it as soon as I see it, but in the meantime, will you join me in considering what it means that Jesus was famous and consider how we too might share his story?

Motive, Means, and Opportunity

Like many of you, I have watched my fair share of cop shows, which has made me something of an expert on the topic of criminal investigations.  With my keen eye for detail, I never fail to have no clue who committed the crime du jour.  My wife, on the other hand, seems to know what’s what before the first commercial break.  Anyway, despite my inability to actually piece the clues together, I have learned a lot from these made-for-tv dramas that help me in everyday life.  Or, at least, I tell myself that to convince myself that Law and Order reruns aren’t a total waste of time.

One thing I have learned is that in order to prove beyond a reasonable doubt that the suspect actually committed the crime in question, the police must show motive, means, and opportunity.  Motive is the reason the crime was committed.  As Lieutenant Provenza of the LAPD’s Major Crimes division would say, “It’s always the husband,” because spouses always have the most motivation.

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It’s always the spouse.

A crime always has a reason, even if that reason is random violence.  So finding the motivation for the crime will help determine the suspect.  Next, the police must show that the suspect had the means or the ability to commit the crime.  This means that the 98 pound teenager maybe didn’t strangle his 250 pound neighbor or the woman with no hands couldn’t have shot the sheriff.  Finally, they must determine the opportunity to commit the crime.  Here’s where everyone’s favorite cop show word, alibi, comes into play.  If the suspect can’t be placed at the scene of the crime while it was being committed, they police have failed to answer the challenge of reasonable doubt.

What does this have to do with the Lectionary readings for Sunday?  I’m glad you asked.  For the second week in a row, we have texts that are dealing with evangelism.  Our Collect asks God to give us the grace necessary to answer the call and proclaim the Good News to all people.  If we take this prayer seriously, then means and opportunity are both covered right there.  That is, if we believe in the power of prayer, by praying for this grace, God has already bestowed it upon us.  Those to whom we are to go and the words we are to us are already available to us.  What is missing, in my experience, is the motive.

Paul recognized this very early on, exhorting the Church in Corinth to live as if Christ was coming back tomorrow.  Two thousand years later, it can be hard to muster up the motivation to share the Good News.  If Jesus hasn’t come back yet, what’s the rush?  If I’m not going to die tomorrow, why risk it?  If those to whom I am called to share the Gospel seem long for this world, why hurry?  When it comes to evangelism, what really seems to be lacking is motive, and yet, what better motivation is there than having the Good News of God’s saving love to share?  Why hold back when there are people who are living without the knowledge of that love?  Why tarry when you can invite another to come into the joy of God’s grace?