Search This Blog

Sunday, May 21, 2017

Second Thoughts: Rising from the Dead 3

3. The Emmaus Tapes 
"Emmaus," by Filipino artist Emanuel Garibay (2000).


My spirit loves that there is a special gospel for Easter when mass is said in the late afternoon or evening, and the gospel for those masses is the story of the road to Emmaus. Even in Year A, however, the narrative makes its way into regular Sunday hearing on the third Sunday of Easter, with the second Sunday always reserved for John "Pentecost" on the third day, and the "eighth day" story of Thomas.

As if there weren't enough to endear me to the story of Emmaus, which, in the day, we so often used for a missioning service for folks who came to our initiation workshops for the North American Forum on the Catechumemate, the wonderful James Alison yokes the Emmaus story with its eucharistic allusion with the opening verses of the Letter to the Hebrews as he begins his "introduction to Christianity for adults" in book and video, entitled Jesus the Forgiving Victim: Listening for the Unheard Voice. In Alison's hands, what was incomprehensible in the Letter to the Hebrews becomes more inviting, and the story of Emmaus becomes more compelling than ever, a parable of wrenching conversion that turns chaos into a passion for life ("fire burning within us") and a change of direction that helped to birth the church out of the devastation wrought among the disciples of Jesus by his crucifixion.

A brief introduction to Alison's thoughts on the 
"forgiving victim" of Emmaus.

I could not do justice to Alison's exegesis on the Emmaus story here, but do want to remark before proceeding that he helps us to hear, through the Greek in the text, the extent of the roiling doubt and confusion left in the community in the wake of Jesus's execution. (One of my favorites, by way of example, is his pointing out of the verb antiballete in Greek, often translated as "discussing," might be heard differently:)
So, this third person draws up, unrecognized, and says to them: “What is this conversation which you are holding with each other (οὓς ἀντιβάλλετε πρὸς ἀλλήλους) as you walk?” Well, lest you think that this third party has lighted upon a quiet afternoon chat between two English vicars, who are strolling gently along by a river bank and saying things like “Awfully interesting things seem to have happened to Jesus.” “Yes, really, quite fascinating. Wonder what they’ll make of this in Tübingen!”, I’ve included the Greek word antiballete, from which we get our word “antiballistic”, and it means to toss back and forth in a somewhat violent manner. So rather than a quiet discussion, what is going on here is a row: you know the old joke, “two Jews, five opinions” — a considerably charged exchange of multiple viewpoints.
Alison, James (2013-11-11). Jesus the Forgiving Victim: Listening for the Unheard Voice - An Introduction to Christianity for Adults (p. 54). DOERS Publishing LLC. Kindle Edition. 
He gets around to trying help us understand, both in this chapter and later when he's talking about the disorientation and reorientation of our lives (like the early witnesses) when we realize that God is the protagonist of our story, not us, that this turmoil is completely natural, as deep as our bones and our dreams, because we're literally pulled out of the orbit of our consciousness and drawn into the gravity of  I AM. What we thought was reality, our interacting with the world, our receiving our identity from people who may not know who they are, learning the patterns of desire and behavior of a world that has only subscribed to and learned from "civilizing" violence, turns out to be a lie, a poisonous vapor, and that all the while the Forgiving Victim has come back from the gallows and the grave with another path, another civilization formed by love, patterned after the love of God that "makes the sun shine and rain fall on good and bad alike," and who is made visible once and for all in Jesus.

What struck me about this this year, as I listened to the readings week after week from Acts of the Apostles and then from First Peter, and harkened back to the Matthew and John passion narratives, was the number of references through the season to "Moses and the prophets" in the kerygmatic speeches of Peter and others. It brought me back time after time to that line in the Emmaus story, when Jesus says to his companions, “'O foolish men, and slow of heart to believe all that the prophets have spoken! Was it not necessary that the Christ should suffer these things and enter into his glory?' And beginning with Moses and all the prophets, he interpreted to them (διερμἠνευσεν αὐτοι̑ς) in all the scriptures the things concerning himself." Jesus, on the road to Emmaus, became their hermeneutic principle. He retold to them their chaotic story, the same story that made no sense to them, with a new thread that they had been unaware of, however steeped in the scripture, history, faith, and ethos of the Jewish people they may have been. And, Alison is quick to add, this was not merely a religion class: he was interpreting their understanding of their existence to them. There was no Jewish faith without a Jewish nation, every meal, every relationship, history, festival, and crime was related to the story. He told them, in their own vocabulary and through stories they knew and their experience of the life and death of Jesus, what their own lives meant.


In Acts 10, the section read on Easter, Peter talks about what he and the other disciples have witnessed in Jesus, in front of a mixed group of Gentiles (God-fearers) converts and Jews, about the meaning of the death of Jesus and his need to witness to the meaning of that death as it unfolded in the (unhappily, untold) story of the centurion Cornelius and his family. Like the mission to Samaria and the council of Jerusalem, this is a foundational moment in the self-awareness of Christianity, or "universal Judaism." 1 Peter 2 -3 has references in the Sundays after Easter to Psalm 16, Isaiah 28, Psalm 118, Isaiah 8, Exodus 19, and that's just the times Peter/Luke directly quote those scriptures. I've been attending daily mass through Easter (I'll give you a little time to get up off the floor and let that sink in) and the pattern continues throughout Acts. In Acts 7, alluded to during the 3rd week of Easter only with the end of Stephen's discourse and his death, Stephen tells his Jewish accusers their own story leading to Jesus by quoting from or referencing parts of Exodus, Deuteronomy, Numbers, Amos, Jeremiah, Josue, Isaiah, 1 Kings, 1 Chronicles, and Psalms, and that's just what I can remember from the footnotes! Philip and the Ethiopian eunuch in Acts 8 discuss Isaiah 53 in interpreting the meaning of Jesus. Paul's address in Pisidian Antioch to the gathered Jews and God-fearers refers to Exodus, Deuteronomy, Josue, Judges, 1 Samuel, Isaiah, and Psalms.

OK, I think you're getting the idea. So why did I call this blog post, and this wash of insight over these Easter weeks, "The Emmaus Tapes"?

It seems to me that there are a lot of "lost years" between the death of Jesus and the arrival of Paul on the scene as the apostle to the Gentiles. One possible dating of the Council of Jerusalem, recounted in Acts 15, puts it around 50 CE, so maybe a period of twenty years after the events surrounding the death of Jesus. During that time, in addition to continuing to pray in the "synagogues" and temple and thus hearing again and again their own scripture read to them and discussed and prayed over with Jesus in their hearts, they also met at table, went about doing good works, and told their own stories and developed their own traditions about what Jesus said and did.
"Emmaus," by Janet Brooks Gerloff

This was all "post-Easter catechesis," wasn't it? It dawned on me that one way of seeing the Emmaus narrative is as a parable of that process. Or, conversely, we might see the apostolic narrative, the speeches of Peter, and especially the first letter of Peter, as an "unveiling" of the Emmaus tapes. If you have wondered, with me, what Jesus said on the road the made the hearts of Clopas and his unnamed companion (me? you?), maybe these stories in Acts and 1 Peter, the apostolic kerygma, is the answer, or was the answer for the Jewish hearers and their gentile God-fearer peers of the day.

For us, see, the interpretative key for our story, which includes the stories of the Jewish scriptures, the Christian scriptures, the songs and stories we learned in school and from our mothers and grandmothers, sisters and priests, along with the sturm und drang, the clang and chaos of political doublespeak, broken promises, class war, the ephemeral comforts of retail therapy, overeating, obsessing over health and beauty, worship of youth and success, all of that, everything which has us hurling antiballistic epithets at each other and crawling to church, booze, entertainment, and drugs in order to make the pain go away: the interpretative key for our story is Jesus Christ, dead and risen. He is the image of the invisible God, power that serves, utterly alive, who offers unconditional love and forgiveness that precedes our asking for it, like Grandma's, only better. Jesus taught Grandma. All the grandmas. Or the God of whom Jesus is the image did.

This is how Easter is ever new. It's the annual, eternal "Follow me" from Jesus that assures us that it will be OK to go to the place of the victim, to stand with the rejected, to risk forgiving and reconciliation, because God has already gone into that place and remains there, hallowing it. The tornadic clatter and roar of modern life is stilled by the voice of the Messiah, whose word approaches with a thread that binds all of life into a song for the pilgrim's road. The Emmaus tapes, playing still in the words of the apostles, ring down the ages to our grumpy, mistrusting, suspicious, fearful hearts, offering yet a walk into a new world, this world, transformed by a different gravity, known by the fire in our hearts, bellies, and laughter when we remember the music of his voice.

Summary: Rising from the dead drops us into the unknown, and for a while it's like waking up in a different house when its still dark. But the new house has been prepared with loving hands, and we discover that it is a commune. A new narrative replaces what we had thought was our story. We are finally ourselves, finally home.

Wednesday, May 17, 2017

Second Thoughts: Rising from the Dead 2

2. "You will never wash my feet."

I guess I've spilled a lot of ink, as have others, on John's version of just what "Do this in memory of me" means. What caught me ear this year though was Peter's line, repeated in our song during the foot washing, and, strangely, addressed in a throwaway line between the rite and the intercessions by our pastor, a line that could have been an entire homily. (I don't remember the line, I only remember that the way I received it stuck with me.) The idea was this: Peter was appalled by Jesus's action, but not so much by the fact that Jesus washed his feet, but that, as a disciple, he was going to have to do so as well. He saw that in the action, before Jesus had said anything to them.

We had just finished working through some of the ideas in Crossan's book How to Read the Bible and Still Be a Christian: Is God Violent? An Exploration from Genesis to Revelation, and I had cross referenced some of the ideas there with two other books. One was Derek Flood's Disarming Scripture: Cherry-Picking Liberals, Violence-Loving Conservatives, and Why We All Need to Learn to Read the Bible Like Jesus Did (are these titles too much, or what?) and books by Bernard Brandon Scott and Borg/Crossan on St. Paul and his metamorphosis-though-literary-assimilation from a radical disciple of Jesus to an apologist for accommodation to the Roman empire. The book about Paul, in short, make the case for Paul the Jewish Christian, and for distinguishing between the actual letters and letters edited or written under his name by others. They note the sharp distinctions between the radical Christian equality in Paul's texts that proclaim that in Christ there is "no Jew or Greek, slave nor free, male nor female, (Gal. 3:28)" and then in other (assumedly not Pauline) places make clear distinctions in all cases. That's all by way of background, because I want to focus on "neither slave nor free," and bring in the Letter to Philemon here, along with the words of Galatians quoted above.

So in the Last Supper story in the gospel of St. John, "Jesus took a towel," stripped, and washed the disciples' feet. We say this over and over again. We act in out in our Holy Thursday liturgy, and pick liturgical nits about who is qualified to get their feet washed by the slave. But we don't really deal with the reality being expressed here. The master, the one who has led the trek from Galilee to Jerusalem over the months and years of his ministry, the healer, the spell-binding story teller and teacher, the paterfamilias at the table of the disciples, does something so radical that, in our much more egalitarian society, we cannot imagine. The one at the top of the honor system among their peers, the one whom every apostle and disciple, apparently, right up to his death and even afterward, thought to be the promised Messiah who would deliver Judea and Galilee from Roman occupation, literally takes the social position of a slave, removes his outer garments, and washes the feet of (at least) the twelve. This stomach-churning reversal must have blind-sided them. The unfiltered Peter, in John's account, can only blurt out, "You will never wash my feet."


This event is not mentioned in any of the synoptics, nor is it mentioned in any of the Pauline or universal letters. However, Bruce Chilton in Authenticating the Activities of Jesus (Brill Academic, Boston, Leiden 2002) cites a "criterion of coherence" with several strains of "greatest/least" and "servant/master" sayings in the synoptics, and with Pauline themes like the hymn in Philippians 2 about the kenosis of Christ. Chilton (and others) see Jesus, and later, the church, as symbolically taking on and ultimately subverting the class distinction that is slavery. Jews were allowed to have slaves, but recall that their foundational experience, whether you start from the captivity and work backward or Egypt and work forward, is one of slavery, and so within the ethical memory of the nation there is an antipathy to slavery, the same one from which the sabbath proscription on work arose.

Along with the Galatians assertion of "in Christ, there is neither slave nor free," we have the happy little letter to Philemon to which to look for insight as well. In that letter, Paul exhorts a friend, one of his own, to manumit the slave Onesimus, and perhaps to let him (Paul) keep him as an assistant. The whole story is only understood, we don't have all the details. But Onesimus apparently did something legal, i.e. go to his master's friend, Paul, to plea with his master for his freedom. While with Paul, Onesimus was converted to Christianity, which put everybody in a bind. So Paul is attempting to persuade (not bully or guilt-trip) his friend into freeing Onesimus as a brother in Christ, thus being able to keep an assistant and save the former slave from punishment, even death.

This is all to say that slaves were a very low form of humanity in these times, lower than servants (The Greek word doulos translates both "slave" and "servant" as well as other meanings in a complicated, often subjective, process.) Servants were trusted household employees, in some cases, almost members of the family; slaves, not so. No Jewish slave would be allowed to wash feet (see footnote to John 13:5 in NABRE.) And in the household narrative of the Last Supper, there were tasks servants would do as part of the meal preparation and service as well as guest hospitality, but the work of washing feet was solely the work of slaves. Paul's famous use of a pre-existing Christian hymn in Philippians uses the word doulos to describe Jesus taking "the form of a slave." Indeed, John sees the humiliation of Jesus in the washing of the feet as a sign pointing both to his humiliating death and to his "descent" from divinity to "pitch his tent among us." Thus there is that "criterion of coherence" that resonates with us who try to imitate the master, and who hear his word from other gospel accounts that "whoever wants to be first among you must be the slave of all," and "the greatest among you must be your servant."

So imagine Peter, getting his feet washed, but having grown up in a world with slaves, and servants, and masters, and probably having some commerce with all. Imagine Peter, in Jesus's inner circle, having given up his fishing business in Galilee and putting his hopes on this itinerant rabbi, who might be the Messiah who would overthrow Rome: what might be in it for him? I'm sure there was danger in the air: maybe Jesus arranged with Judas for the meeting with the Sanhedrin, willing to lay down his life rather than risk a riot during the holiday, who knows? Certainly the parabolic entry into Jerusalem amid the crowd ahead of Passover, and the little dust-up in the Temple would have put the disciples on edge; the secret arrangements for the upper room read like a Cold War setup for an encounter among spies. And now, in that context, at a meal on or near passover, Jesus the master washes their feet, acting for all the world like a slave. Peter has signed on as a disciple, and if the stories are to be believed, had blustered his faithfulness with the best of them. Now the master is acting like a slave. He doesn't even have to verbalize the conclusion, which they all would have seen as he did it:
So when he had washed their feet [and] put his garments back on and reclined at table again, he said to them, “Do you realize what I have done for you?
You call me ‘teacher’ and ‘master,’ and rightly so, for indeed I am.
If I, therefore, the master and teacher, have washed your feet, you ought to wash one another’s feet.
I have given you a model to follow, so that as I have done for you, you should also do.i
Amen, amen, I say to you, no slave is greater than his master nor any messenger greater than the one who sent him.
If the Master does it, the disciple does it. Peter's horror isn't about the humiliation of Jesus: it's about the humiliation of Peter, who has a few more lessons to learn before the end of the narrative. The difficulty of Peter's conversion will be attested throughout Acts of the Apostles, especially when he waffles on the question of circumcision in the inclusion of Gentiles at the Council of Jerusalem. But these lessons serve him well, as he learns to serve at the feet of the master, the Lord who serves as a slave.

Summary: Resurrection is the transformation of our past, a "new song," because God is creating, "doing something new." The risen world in Christ is utterly egalitarian, no male nor female, Jew nor Greek, slave nor free.

The two books about the radical (i.e. "original, real") St. Paul:

The Real Paul: Recovering His Radical Challenge by Bernard Brandon Scott

The First Paul: Reclaiming the Radical Visionary Behind the Church's Conservative Icon, by Marcus Borg and John Dominic Crossan

Monday, May 15, 2017

Second Thoughts: Rising from the Dead 1 (Palm Sunday and Triduum, Year A)

(T)hey did not yet understand the Scripture that he had to rise from the dead. (Jn. 20:9)

Well, they're not the only ones, are they? 


These are a few of things that were swirling around my head this year through Holy Week and the beginning of the Easter season. As usual, they're not necessarily original thoughts with me at all, just things that struck me with renewed vigor from previous years, or new ways of seeing old things. Some of them come from articles, or conversations, or even homilies. Because we spent eight weeks this year studying the problem of God's (apparent) violence in the Bible with Dominic Crossan in a video series made available through Living the Questions, some of the issues that Crossan perennially surfaces in his work were especially vivid for me. And of course, the importance of the Emmaus story and other stories of the passion and resurrection of Christ have renewed spiritual power for me because of James Alison's course Jesus, The Forgiving Victim, which we also completed recently with a couple of dozen people in the parish after engaging with it for two years.


But those are just lenses through with these stories are filtered again, new ways of seeing old truths, and my sharing my own insights will necessarily be affected by them like they are about everything else I've learned through the years. So here we go:


1. Why have you abandoned me? In an internet essay for HuffPost called "The Communal Crucifixion of Jesus," John Dominic Crossan explores the connections between the gospel accounts' use of Jewish psalm and prophetic texts and the way they were heard and preached in the early church. What he has done is turned the jewel of hermeneutics on the passion narrative a little bit, and rather than seeing the sayings as fulfillment of prophecies about the specific death of Jesus of Nazareth, he posits that the use of the quotations was to clarify and expand the meaning of the death of Jesus by associating it with the fate of the people of Israel. From their earliest communal memories of slavery in Egypt and Babylonian captivity through their more recent experience of the violence and cruelties suffered under the Greek, Hasmonean, and Roman occupations, the authors of the gospels united their narratives by reference to texts like the servant canticles of Isaiah and the psalms of lament, especially Psalm 22 and Psalm 31. More about this later, when I discuss some thoughts about the Emmaus narrative and the "law and the prophets" role in the apostolic kerygma before and after the fall of Jerusalem in 70 CE.

Crucifixion, condemnation of the innocent, torture, and random violence were the daily bread of the Jews, especially in the years from 4 BCE (around the time Jesus was born) until the destruction of Jerusalem in 70. Given the thousands of crucifixions of "enemies of Caesar" who were part of various uprisings during that period, I imagine most Jews of Judea and Galilee must have had first hand experience of the brutality of Rome. Their situation was desperate. And yet, the "good news" that the apostles and evangelists were risking their own lives to preach was that Jesus, victim of Rome's iron-fisted "justice" system and the collaboration of conflicting interests within Judaism, was not dead but alive, rescued from death by God as some had begun to believe since the time of the Wisdom literature, a couple of centuries. Out of an unswerving faith in God's justice, a new strand of hope for a resurrection of the dead, in this world, arose. If God is just, how could the young martyrs who had stood against Antiochus Epiphanes and other tyrants who desecrated the temple be lost forever in their youth? Surely a just God would not abandon them to death! From such faith rose the apocalypse of Daniel, in which God would clean up the violent mess of the world. Such passages like this in chapter 12, for instance:

Many of those who sleep in the dust of the earth shall awake;
Some to everlasting life, others to reproach and everlasting disgrace.
But those with insight shall shine brightly like the splendor of the firmament,
And those who lead the many to justice shall be like the stars forever...
...as well as passages like the familiar text from Wisdom (chapter 3), read so often at funerals, 
The souls of the righteous are in the hand of God,
and no torment shall touch them.
They seemed, in the view of the foolish, to be dead;
and their passing away was thought an affliction
and their going forth from us, utter destruction.
But they are in peace.
For if to others, indeed, they seem punished,
yet is their hope full of immortality;
Chastised a little, they shall be greatly blessed,
because God tried them and found them worthy of himself.
As gold in the furnace, he proved them,
and as sacrificial offerings he took them to himself.
In the time of their judgment they shall shine
and dart about as sparks through stubble;
They shall judge nations and rule over peoples,
and the LORD shall be their King forever.

We rarely, I think, appreciate what a break this kind of tradition was from other strains of Judaism, which continued in the tradition of the Sadducees who "did not believe in the resurrection." But the pharisaic tradition continued to explore resurrection as a necessary correlation to God's justice, and Jesus was part of the tradition. After his death and resurrection, the church struggled with what the resurrection means for those "left behind," what its meaning is for the earth and its people. Is resurrection about another world, an afterlife? Not in this view, at least, not entirely. It certainly appears that the emphasis both in the preaching of Jesus and that of the church is that it is this world that is created and loved by God, and this world which is to be transformed into God's new heavens and new earth. Those who have suffered the fate of Jesus at the hands of powers that rely on cruelty and violence to gather their way, those who are abandoned, humiliated, tortured, whose flesh is pierced, who are spat upon, degraded, and buried among the forgotten, like Jesus, they will rise again, borne up by the power of a God who is full of life and who has nothing to do with death. The gospel message, then, is "Change the world with love. There is nothing to fear."

We goyim—gentiles cannot fully comprehend the tribal unity of Judaism in the time around the life of Jesus. Connections between family, extended family, and nation were tight; people were able to survive because they were not alone. And there was no distinction between tribe, nation, and faith. Jewish self-identity was rooted not in political history but in their sacred stories and scriptures. The authors of the gospels, some possibly Jewish themselves, converts to Judaism, or "God-fearers," Jewish sympathizers who took to preaching of the apostles about Jesus, knew this, and experienced in the betrayal, torture, and death of Jesus the brutality suffered by their nation at the hands of invading powers forever. They reverenced these connections, the suffering of innocent people beloved by God, by framing the passion narratives in with words and phrases borrowed from scripture and loaded with resonance from their own story. They would do the same with the resurrection narrative. The same psalm (118) that is quoted for the entry into Jerusalem ("Hosanna! Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord!") is quoted for the betrayal and death of Jesus (the "stone that the builders rejected") and for his resurrection ("has become the cornerstone. This is God's doing! This is the day the Lord has made!")



Thus for the kerygma of the Apostles and the evangelists, the death and resurrection of Jesus spells the end of a world ruled by violence and despair. God had personally entered into the place of death and shame, and returned a verdict of "Innocent" with the resurrection of Jesus. But the Victim of the crime is the same in life and resurrection: no retribution, no more victimization. The preaching and life of Jesus suggests a new world order of mutual care, healing, and loving resolution of communal problems. The old order would crumble around the tables of Christians who would refuse to participate in the business-as-usual of Caesar's world. God asserts "peace through justice," the world counter-asserts "peace through victory by violence." Now as then, the transformation of earth depends upon the resolve of Christians to believe in life and sharing goods in an economy of divine abundance, or accommodation of an economy of scarcity and fear, driven by an ethic of "might makes right" and survival of the fittest.

The passion narratives, rich with allusions to the suffering of Israel throughout its history, and considered against the rich backdrop of the preaching of the early apostolic community in Acts and the letters of St. Paul, give us a way of hearing this story in our own day. Sanitized from the suffering of most of the world, in many ways ignorant of the depth of human suffering, we may not be able to fathom the humiliation of public execution, the sadistic tearing of flesh, torture devised to prolong the sufferer's agony. But we can still hear the message of the "forgiving victim" who offered a path for transformation of the world in the Sermon on the Mount, in his life of healing and breaking down barriers between people, and in his faith in a God who is head of the household of the world, who wants a loving family, and who desires "mercy and not sacrifice." With his disciples, we can still wonder through this Easter season at the empty tomb, and listen for stories of peoples' encounter with him, risen, conversing about how it might be better to surrender to death than to kill, because "the souls of the just are in the hands of God," and even this:
Because of his affliction
he shall see the light in fullness of days;
through his suffering, my servant shall justify many,
and their guilt he shall bear.
Who'd have thought that even possible?

Summary: Somehow, resurrection is for everyone, it happens in this world, and it happens because God is life and God is just.