The Spooky Jesus

This past week, I was invited to teach a Sunday School class that has been making their way through Luke’s gospel. I was asked to cover the “Rejection of Nazareth” narrative in Luke 4. Although I was familiar with the passage, I wanted to take extra time to observe something about the text that I hadn’t captured in prior readings.

Comparing Luke’s use of the parable to the other synoptic writers proved to be important. Luke places this scene earlier in the gospel than Matthew and Mark. Unfortunately, we cannot interview Luke to discover why he does this, but can play with some thoughts why. If you’d like to hear mine, let’s get coffee sometime.

What preaches or “spooks” in this story is the sheer irony of it all. Jesus is least welcome in his hometown. Perhaps the local crowd is a bit put out by Jesus’ great claim: that God’s wonderful season of Jubliee, that great celebration awaiting ahead in their future is at last bursting into their present. I’m sure some of the local folks were skeptical, the local village didn’t even have a bath, after all, and there seemed to be a gnawing embarrassment to be a Galilean in general and a citizen of Nazareth, in particular. Just ask Nathaniel (see John 1).

Perhaps the reason for the rejection was that Jesus didn’t seem to be interested in showing his miracle signs in his hometown as he did in neighboring villages. That’s at the heart of Jesus’ counter-critique to the crowd. A critique so strong that they were inches away of throwing Jesus of a nearby cliff.

As someone familiar with his setting, Jesus was able to diagnose a hidden cynicism within his culture. His diagnosis was powerful, it seemed to hit the nervous system.

Jesus’ reference to Isaiah should have been good news: God’s delightful mercy would be extended to all, especially the vulnerable. The folks from Nazareth, however, wanted it all for themselves.

Here is how Biblical Scholar George Caird summarized the sad encounter in Jesus’ hometown:

 “The people of Nazareth felt that, if the son of Joseph had anything to offer, his own home town should have had the first benefit of it. But those who stand upon their rights and insist on preferential treatment are not likely to appreciate one who offers the chance to spend and be spent in the service of others and a gospel which leaves no room for privilege. The stories of Elijah and Elisha should, indeed, have taught them that with God charity begins wherever there is found human need to call it forth and faith to receive it, irrespective of class or race.”

Jesus spooked his home crowd, exposing the ghosts that they had hidden among them. It’s a ghost that we must wrestle with, too, as people seeking faithfulness to Jesus. If the gospel is going to be good news, it needs to be good for others, not just for us. And we have to do the extra work of examining whether or not even our best intentions are power plays or are shaped with elitism that refrains from looking across the room towards those still sitting in shadows.

Do we have the guts to face those ghosts like the early Church did, over and over again? Or, would we rather “throw the prophet” down a ditch so we don’t hear his voice?

May we call the Good News that which is both “good” and “news” to all.

Exposure to the Unconditional

For me religion means living in constant exposure to the unconditional, open to something excessive, exceptional, unforeseeable, unprogramable, something slightly mad relative to the rationality of means-and-end thinking. 

To lack the religion of which I speak is to allow the series of conditions to surround and submerge us. We would see no further than our noses, have a nose only for good investment, for making a profit, so that our lives would be consumed by consuming, swallowed up by winning, where everything has a price… 

There are times when we try to measure and foresee, seeking some assurance about outcomes, and then there are things whose immeasurable mystery and obscurity bring us up short and give us pause. These are not actually different things, but different ways of living with things.
– Jack Caputo, Hoping Against Hope, 37

Icon or Idol

“An icon is an image for contemplating a reality that transcends the specific image; the image leads the mind, through the senses, to direct communion with the intelligibles. An idol is an image to which we are attached for the sake of the image per se. Obviously one and the same object can be an idol or an icon – our approach to it is what makes the difference.”

– Dante, Vita Nuova

Marriage 

“Your partner is not a god or goddess, but rather, as Tolkein says, a companion in shipwreck. If you think that falling in love will bring you ultimate fulfillment, you will be disappointed, and end up hurting more than just yourself. And the fault for that will be your own.”
– Rod Dreher, How Dante Can Save Your Life, 84.

Sin and Gravity

“The Bible calls Lucifer the ‘morning star’ and tells of his rebellion against God, his fall from heaven, and exile into hell. Think of pride as a spiritual form of gravity. With Lucifer, the first rebel – that is, the first created being to choose his own will over God’s – his immense pride collapsed on itself and formed a black hole we call hell. All the souls in hell are small versions of black holes: they were so given over to gratifying themselves that love – symbolized by light – could barely escape the gravity of their egos.”

– Rod Dreher, How Dante Can Save Your Life, 68.

Jean Vanier Healing in Community Quotation

There was a great quotation from Common Prayer on 7/21 that I wanted to capture, here.

“My experience has shown that when we welcome people from this world of anguish, brokenness and depression, and when they gradually discover that they are wanted and loved as they are and that they have a place, then we witness a real transformation – I would even say ‘resurrection.’ Their tense, angry, fearful, depressed body gradually becomes relaxed, peaceful and trusting. This show through the expression of the face and through all their flesh. As they discover a sense of belonging, that they are part of a ‘family,’ then the will to live begins to emerge. I do not believe it is of any value to push people into doing things unless this desire to live and to grow has begun to emerge.”

– Jean Vanier

Downward

“The Spirit of God leads downward. Downward in humility. Downward in service. Downward in solidarity. Downward in risk and grace. You used to strive to be cool, but the Spirit makes you warm. You used to strive to climb over others, but the Spirit leads you to wash their feet. You used to strive to fit in among the inner circle, but the Spirit dares you to be different on behalf of the outcasts and outsiders. You don’t find God at the top of the ladder. No, you find God through descent. There is a trapdoor at the bottom, and when you fall through it, you fall into God.

“It happened to Jesus. It will happen to you, too, if you follow the Spirit’s lead.”

Brian McLaren, We Make the Road by Walking, 234

Wesley and the Vocation of Ministry

I’m reading a book called The Recovery of a Contagious Methodist Movement by George G. Hunter III, a book that my friend and colleague Len Wilson helped to publish while at Abingdon.

There were a couple of good snapshots from John Wesley’s ministry framework that I wanted to capture.

Wesley told his leaders regularly, “You have nothing to do but save souls,” meaning, “By salvation I mean, not barely, according to the vulgar notion, deliverance from hell, or going to heaven; but a present deliverance from sin, a restoration of the soul to its primitive health, its original purity; a recovery of the divine nature; the renewal of our souls after the image of God, in righteousness and true holiness, in justice, mercy and truth.”

Wesley, reflecting on the book of Acts, said, “Scriptural Christianity, as beginning to exist in individuals; as spreading from one to another; as covering the earth.”

Rohr’s Everything Belongs Coda

I enjoyed Richard Rohr’s Everything Belongs and his Conclusion chapter. He put a few bullet points together to summarize the main points. I’m putting them down, here, so I can keep them handy. Read further if you are interested:

– God is to be found in all things, even and most especially in the painful, tragic, and sinful things, exactly where we do not want to look for God. The crucifixion of the God-Man is at the same moment the worst thing in human history and the best thing in human history.

– Human Existence is neither perfectly consistent (what rational and control-needy people usually demand), nor is it incoherent chaos (what cynics, agnostics, and unaware people expect), but instead human life has a cruciform pattern. It is a “coincidence of opposites,” a collision of cross-purposes; we are all filled with contradictions needing to be reconciled.

– The price that we pay for holding together these opposites is always some form of crucifixion. Jesus himself was crucified between a good their and a bad thief, hanging between heaven and earth, holding on to both his humanity and his divinity, a male body with a feminine soul, expelled as the problem by both religion and state. He rejected none of these, but “reconciled all things in himself.” (Eph. 2:10)

– Christians call this pattern, “the paschal mystery”: true life comes only through death journey wherein we learn who God is for us. Letting go is the nature of all true spirituality and transformation, summed up in the mythic phrase: “Christ is dying. Christ is risen. Christ will ever come again.”

– Do not be surprised or scandalized by the sinful and the tragic. Do what you can to be peace and to do justice, but never expect or demand perfection on this earth. It usually leads to a false moral outrage, a negative identity, intolerance, paranoia, and self-serving crusades against “the contaminating element,” instead of “becoming new creation” ourselves (Gal. 6:15).

– Resist all utopian ideologies and heroic idealisms that are not tempered by patience and taught by all that is broken, flawed, sinful, and poor. Jesus is an utter realist and does not exclude the problem from the solution. Work for win/win situations. Mistrust all win/lose dichotomies.

– The following of Jesus is not as much a “salvation scheme” or a means of creating social order (which appears to be what most folks want religion for), as much as it is a vocation to share the fate of God for the life of the world. Jesus did not come to create a spiritual elite or an exclusionary system for people who “like” religion, but he invited people to “follow” him in bearing the mystery of human death and resurrection (an almost nonreligious task, but one that can be done only “through, with, and in” God).

– Those who agree to carry and love what God loves, which is both the good and the bad of human history, and to pay the price for its reconciliation with themselves – these are the followers of Jesus: the leaven, the salt, the remnant, the mustard seed that God can use to transform the world. The cross is the dramatic image of what it takes to be such a useable one for God.

– These few are enough to keep the world from its path towards greed, violence, and self-destruction. God is calling everyone and everything Home. God just needs some instruments and images who are willing to be “conformed unto the pattern of his death” and transformed into the power of his resurrection (Phil 3:10). They are not “saved” as much as chosen, used, purified, and beloved by God – just like Jesus, who did it first and invited us to “the great parade.”

– Institutional religion is a humanly necessary but also immature manifestation of this “hidden mystery” by which God is saving the world. History seems to make both the necessity and the immaturity glaringly apparent, which upsets both progressives and conservatives. Institutional religion is never an end in itself, but merely a wondrous and “uncertain trumpet” of the message.

– By God’s choice and grace, many seem to be living the mystery of the suffering and joy of God who do not formally belong to any church. And many who have been formally baptized have never chosen to “drink from the cup that I must drink or be baptized with the baptism that I must be baptized with” (Mark 10:38).

– The doctrine, folly, and image of the cross is the great clarifier and truth-speaker for all of human history. We can rightly speak of being “saved” by it. Jesus Crucified and Resurrected is the whole pattern revealed, named, effected, and promised for our own lives. If we can say yes to this “Vulnerable Name for God,” there will be no more surprises for our mind and no more victims for history.

– The contemplative mind is the only mind big enough to see this, and the only seeing that is surrendered enough to trust it. The calculative mind will merely continue to create dualisms, win/lose scenarios, imperial ego, and necessary victims. It cannot get out of its own illogical loop. Einstein put it this way: “No problem can be solved by the same consciousness that caused it.”

– God has given us a new consciousness in what we call “prayer” and an utterly unexpected, maybe even unwanted, explanation in what we call “the cross.”