One for All

St. Tim's stained glass window

Jesus of Nazareth is a puzzlement. A paradoxical figure who does not become clearer to us the farther we are from lst century Palestine. The farther we get from the first more approximate witnesses to his life. But Jesus’ importance lies precisely in this strange, often off-putting man whose family thought he was crazy, posed a threat to the religious and political establishment, and was a devout Jew who worked on the Sabbath and went around with a ban of fishermen, and with any and everyone who came to his table, and even kept company with women! He not only upset the tables outside the Temple but upset everyone’s apple cart. We shy away from this Jesus. A man who stood everything his fellow Jews believed on its head. If we pay attention to his whole story, not just the parts we are comfortable with, that carry more sentimentality than truth or have been emphasized to the exclusion of others, we are faced with a person whose image cannot be sprayed with fixative or content ourselves with neat or systematic pictures of this man. And by wanting to assert his divinity – his extraordinary closeness to God – much of him and his reason for living and dying have been eclipsed.

One thing we can say with some certainty. He provoked change. He invited transformation. He stood at a moment in time between the faith of his fathers, the patriarchs of Israel, and a faith that would follow him and gather together, take up faith in the God of Life, Yahweh, and transform how we would now see, know and experience God, because now God has a human face. As the echoes of Isaiah gather about him, he brought once more the good news, now in his person, where God’s cause became his. Where God’s promise might yet come about.

He took up the cause of the marginal and dispossessed, of outcasts and of sinners, of lepers and prostitutes, the disfigured and the demented. Because of this he would be betrayed, betrayed so that he could become the one through whom (like Joseph) the betrayed and outcasts, the slaves and the homeless, could be numbered among the elect.

The history of the world collapsed on Calvary, as Jesus secured a place in the kingdom of God for those who were believed to be set outside this kingdom. On that hill he held the history of the Jews in himself, their suffering and their cries to their Lord, their beliefs and hopes, their sense of forsakenness and the deafening silence of false gods. All of history that would follow culminated there as well, in him who would stand for, live and die for all who would come after and follow in the footfall of his people through the vast wilderness of plenty and loss, suffering and chaos, hardship and the endless renewal of life which would rise out of the collapse of the world as he breathed his last. In him Israel would rise. In him all that have come after would rise as well. Rise to the possibility and promise of life saved, redeemed and whole.

He came for many. For many he lived. To many he taught. And for many he healed. But in the end he died for all. He died, not for sins, but for all, so that we might become healed and whole, and experience in him the reign of the Holy One of Israel in our lives. For he too could say, echoing the words of Joseph, you meant it for evil, but God – my Father – meant it for good. And Jesus was and is that good.





Written on the Heart

  last rose of summer  It’s taken some time to look at the ways of transformation Paul saw in those who would live in Christ. Who would put on the garment of the Christ-life, as followers of his risen Lord? It was an all-encompassing change that he believed possible to experience. He begins at the beginning, with Adam. Christ is now the first fruit of creation, a renewal of one’s entire life, for all who belong to him. As that belonging becomes longing we come alive, from merely being flesh driven people to being alive to the freedom of the Spirit of Christ. The old code is a by-gone cryptogram written on stone but one that was to be held in the hearts of the people. The sacred Torah, the Law, become the law of love.

Paul speaks in different ways about the Law/law throughout his letters. He uses it as a reference point, always to his own advantage, to the particular point and to a particular people at any given moment. There is no single understanding of what Paul means when he says law. It is always nuanced. But one thing is evident. The law, whether that of the prescriptions of how to live a just life, or whether he means the Torah, whether he uses it as a symbol for the Israel that he now sees as past, or the new Israel that he is advancing, in Christ the law is transformed into a Person, into Love.

The transformation from law to love, from letter to spirit, is the centrality of Paul’s message. How to live one’s life is not something written in stone, but a person, the life of a Person who is now the standard, the guide, the norm and the entire content of how life is to be lived.

Libraries have been written about the Law and Love in Judaism, Paul’s letters and in the gospels. I’m sure I have nothing new to add to the discourse. (Other than the fact that I am an ordinary lay person, like Jesus, Paul and the evangelists, many of whom had day jobs.)

Love too is an over-used and misunderstood word. Here too Paul is fearless. In the end, for all the sorting we must do to regather his message, it all comes down to Paul on his knees. To a prayer. A prayer for us. It all comes to being filled with the utter fullness of God. (Ephesians 4:14-19) The fullness which for us is Jesus Christ.

Making our approach to the Christ-self, the ways in which we are changed into the Christ-self, like water into wine, become the life-blood of how we come to be in Christ. We step from shadow into light. Evil is transmuted into the higher good that embraces well-being and healing. All that was weak within us, like Paul, is put to another use, a higher purpose, a strength that is the power of God at work in us through the Spirit of Christ.

Going from Law to Love does not mean we give up the message of Deuteronomy. But now in Christ the law written on our hearts, becomes the Word that takes flesh in our lives. A new way not only of being but of seeing. Through that dark glass of the ancient code we see a clearer vision on the horizon of being that is a person who is the way, the way to himself.

Why Paul?

Why Paul?
At the outset of Galatians Paul issues a warning to the infant community who has apparently strayed from the Good News, going off on a different path, perhaps adapting what Paul taught them when he was there. As the various communities that Paul preached to would have to live out the message Paul gave to them, they would also have to contend with challenges from without and most likely from within their own ranks, to the Christ he preached to them.
Paul is so adamant that they not listen to anyone about faith he preached to them. He would not tolerate anyone leading his converts astray. And he really doesn’t care what anyone says or thinks about him. You can hear his uncompromising determination to warn the community at Galatia to listen only to him. Why? Because he is a servant of Christ.
This is a very important letter. In it Paul begins to shape his theology. It is not systematized nor will it coalesce into full bloom until later. You might say Paul is a process theologian, adapting ways to convey the one faith he is determined to keep to and spread in his mission to the Gentiles. In this letter we come to the crux of the problem that will tie Paul in knots trying to work through. The problems that assail him and the early communities who would have faith in Jesus Christ. What actually to the non-Jewish Gentiles have to conform to in order to actually become a member of this new faith?
Those issues were: did they, like Jesus and Paul, have to become Jewish first before they could become christians? Did they have to adhere to the Mosaic Law and did they have to be circumcised; submit to the ritual of initiation into the Jewish faith.
At the heart of this issue is who Paul is himself. And who Jesus was. Paul and Jesus were very different men. Although we can no longer depict Jesus as meek and mild, from the gospels we see a person who did not travel very far from where he was born, had a great number of people following him about, traveled with at least twelve others, probably more, and taught by sitting on a hill side telling stories. He went among the people and ate with all kinds of people, including sinners. As we will see this became a bone of contention among the first apostles of Jesus after his death. Purity, keeping oneself apart from those unclean (‘sinners’) and the wicked was requisite to being a good Jew.
Paul, on the other hand, as we have seen from his letters so far, was dynamic in a different way. He traveled widely, could be fierce and fiery, would brook no dissention in the ranks, and traveled with only a few companions, sometimes only one assistant who would transcribe the letters he dictated. He was urbane, educated as a Pharisee, and this is the real clincher – he began his life persecuting those who followed Jesus.
So why would God chose Paul to spread faith in Jesus Christ far and wide when there were surely men who were more qualified, who had gone around with Jesus, who may have known him better and could attest to his life and teachings? Surely Paul was an unlikely candidate for this calling. And yet, true to who Paul was, he was absolutely convinced that he had been chosen by God, had an experience of the risen Lord and by God’s grace he was called to promote, teach and spread the Good News of Jesus Christ.
Because who better to convince you of something than someone who was against it in the first place. Who would be more credible? And at the outset of Paul’s career, it was still believed that this was another form, a truer form of the faith of Israel, and he was called by the God of Israel. And that the risen Lord was born, lived and died a Jewish man. Before his followers would be called Christian they were called the People of the Way. Because Jesus had said, I am the Way, the Truth and the Life. And I believe that we cannot understand Christianity until we understand Judaism. We cannot really understand story of Jesus until we understand the story of Israel.
Tomorrow as we proceed through Galatians, we will come to the intersection, the crossroads and the beginning of the parting of Judaism from itself.