Monday, May 27, 2019

We’re Living It, Whether We Know It Or Not

The farther we get from Easter Day, the less likely we are to hear words from Scripture as being messages about resurrection. Why is that?

The main reason, I think, is that most of us think that the resurrection was something that happened once upon a time to Jesus. A fair number of folk take it to be the happy ending to an otherwise tragic story about the suffering and death of a righteous man, indeed a man who was not only human but divine.  As such, it doesn’t occur to us that resurrection of the body has anything to do with us, certainly not here and now. We have successfully swapped the notion of resurrection for the belief in immortality of the soul. The two are not necessarily incompatible, but immortality leaves some important issues aside.

I invite you to consider some of those issues [this morning]. They are raised in one, two, or all three of the scriptures. So let’s take them one at a time.

The river near Philippi, supposed place of
Lydia's baptism, the first in Europe    
The story from the Book of Acts is the lovely account of a Sabbath morning when a delightful woman by the name of Lydia became a Christian convert. Luke tells us in one of the passages in which he recounts his accompanying Paul that they headed outside of  Philippi to the river that they supposed was a gathering place for prayer. Sure enough some women were there including a businesswoman, Lydia. Incidentally, she was apparently very prosperous as she dealt in purple cloth, a precious commodity. Luke tells us that Lydia was a believer in God.  How she had come to be one we don’t know. After hearing Paul’s message about Jesus she and her household were baptized, the river no doubt being convenient for that. We don’t have to speculate much about what Paul said that morning. His was always the message of the transformation brought about through relationship with Christ Jesus. He couldn’t have proclaimed the gospel without mentioning the death and resurrection of Christ. And no doubt he unpacked his understanding of baptism that a few years later he would write in his elegant letter to the Romans:

Do you not know that all of us who have been baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death? Therefore we have been buried with him by baptism into death, so that, just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, so we too might walk in newness of life. For if we have been united with him in a death like his, we will certainly be united with him in a resurrection like his. We know that our old self was crucified with him so that the body of sin might be destroyed, and we might no longer be enslaved to sin. For whoever has died is freed from sin. But if we have died with Christ, we believe that we will also live with him. We know that Christ, being raised from the dead, will never die again; death no longer has dominion over him. The death he died, he died to sin, once for all; but the life he lives, he lives to God. So you also must consider yourselves dead to sin and alive to God in Christ Jesus.[1]

St. Lydia of Philippi
In effect, Paul gave to Lydia and the others a framework for their lives if he discussed resurrection in this way.  He might have said as I often do, “When you forget everything else about baptism, remember that it is “down under and back up again.” Baptism, as graphically demonstrated by immersion in water, is a ritual enacting the death-and-resurrection principle.  Indeed it is a way of identifying with what we call “the Paschal (Easter) mystery of Christ’s death and resurrection.” But it spills over into all of life. It was already present in Lydia’s experience as she went through the inevitable ups and downs in her business. Take apart any moment or extended moment in her life, such as dealing with one of the problems of a member of her household, and she could see in that slice of life the dynamic of death and resurrection. Something begins in the ideal state of perfect equilibrium, at least theoretically. Then something goes wrong and we descend into the quagmire of problems, perhaps confusion, even despair, or, on the simplest level, the ideal is exposed to be imperfect. It deteriorates, as does everything in life. We reach bottom. Metaphorically speaking, our notion of the ideal is dead. Then arrives the moment of truth and we see, if but dimly, how there is literally no way forward but up. Hope comes alive. And we take its wings and begin the ascent out of the depths. 

That is a bit dramatic a description of ordinary moments, but maybe you see the point. That is quite literally the way life is. All of life, not just human life, and certainly not just conscious life, and most definitely not just Christian life is a matter of what some have called “traveling the U: down, down, down until we reach the bottom, and then back up again.”[2] Death and resurrection are woven into the fabric of the universe. 

So what does baptism do to merit our calling it the means by which we experience true resurrection? Baptism brings us into a community whose very life is conscious, intentional fellowship with the Risen Lord. Living with him is not fundamentally anticipating a future in another world but living in eternity. All the scriptures point to the unity of creation with the Creator. The entire Bible can be summed up in the words, “They shall be my people and I shall be their God, and I myself will be with them.” And that is the core message of the gospel lesson from John 14. Dwelling in this community of the baptized is the explicit context in which the incarnation of God extends from Jesus to everyone through nothing else but love. “Those who love me will keep my word, and my Father will love them and we will come to them and make our home with them.”[3]

All of this is quite simple and straightforward, or so it would seem until we get to the existential reality that we are faced with every day. That reality is our being situated in what John’s gospel calls “the world” and what Paul rather confusingly calls “the flesh.” They both mean the day-to-day cauldron of human activity largely driven by anything but love. It is the world where even the most well-intentioned systems get twisted from their best potential and turn into engines that corrupt and destroy the creatures of God. It is the world where gratuitous violence destroys life and is even praised. It is the world where money rules and where greed is a breeding ground for corruption that now has extended to the point where the entire ecosystem is but a few years away from being thoroughly wrecked so that our own species and a number of others will not survive. Add to that the willful ignorance that denies the enormity, the evil of it all.  

At precisely that moment—the Now of this very day—comes the hope revealed in that beautiful but dreadfully misused Book of Revelation. Its message is nothing less than resurrection on a cosmic scale. If we surrender the temptation to read Revelation as a book essentially about the damnation of all but an in-group of like-minded conservative Christians, it is about the body of God, another name for which is the universe. You’ve heard from ours and many other traditions that the temple of God is the body. So it is. That body of yours is like every other material thing in the universe. The energy to which it is convertible is the Love that powers all things in the cosmos, and one of the thousand names of that Love is “the Lord God the Almighty.” And the one through whom we know that Love and its origin best is Jesus, who is called “the Lamb.” When we who share his life and live it in our own bodies catch on that what he is by nature we become by grace, then we begin to be what C. S. Lewis referred to as “Little Christs.” We usher in the age when “the nations will walk by the light [of God’s glory]. It is totally incompatible with such Love that we would ever settle for a life of lies and falsehoods, whether on a personal or corporate, national or global scale.  Why?  Because the deepest truth of the universe is indeed Truth. And it is made concrete and present when we attune ourselves to the Divine and live for no motive other than to be like God, not by how knowledgeable or sophisticated we can be, but by how loving we can be. That’s what it is to be “written in the Lamb’s book of life.”[4]

Revelation moves towards its end with an image of the last things that marvelously mirror the first things that ever were and presage the first things in a transformed world.  Far from being a corrupt and perverse world hell-bent on destroying itself by the hand of one species that’s out of control, the world empowered by resurrection and saturated with love is a world nourished by water from the river of life, bright as crystal, flowing right out of the heart of God and the Lamb down
through the middle of civilization. Instead of a population on the defensive, fearing even children fleeing from oppression, poverty, and violence, its cities will be abundantly fruitful and its people known as healers for people of all nations and tribes and languages. The dwelling of God and of the Lamb will be in pitched in the heart of everyone, and we will worship him.  We will see his face in the face of every creature. His identity will be visible on ours and their foreheads.  There will be no more night.  We will not need any light—of lamp or sun, for the Lord God will be our light, and everyone who manifests the life of God will reign forever and ever.[5]

What a surpassingly powerful vision! And yet we will never get there by doubling down and working harder at it making come to pass. Paradoxically it is by letting go and letting God, as the old slogan has it, that the heavenly city is born and the heavenly community realized. Our old ways, including all the old stories we tell about ourselves including the story of how terribly sinful we are, must die. Only in traveling the way of death do we ever reach the point where there is no way to go but back up again, rising full of the power and peace of the resurrected and ascended Christ.

Edward Knippers, The Ascension of Christ, 2014

A sermon for the Sixth Sunday of Easter, Year C in the Revised Common Lectionary, based on Acts 16:9-15; Revelation to John 21:10, 22-22:5; John 14:23-29

© Frank Gasque Dunn, 2019

[1] Romans 6:3-11.  This an all other biblical quotations are from the New Revised Standard Version (New York: Oxford,  1991).
[2] Peter Senge et al, Presence: An Exploration of Profound Change in People, Organizations and Society (New York: Doubleday, 2004).
[3] John 14:23.
[4] Revelation 21: 10, 22-27.
[5] Revelation 22:1-5.

Resurrection Resurrected

oday is in Christian tradition the Sixth Sunday of Easter. I can't get enough of Easter because it's about the resurrection of the body. Years ago I read Norman O. Brown's Life Against Death, in which his last chapter is entitled "The Resurrection of the Body."[1] Brown, a rather orthodox Freudian, opened my eyes to see that the thrust of resurrection is the affirmation of the mortal body. He argued that the real dynamic going on in humanity's struggle to become conscious (and free of neurosis) was that between life and death. He further asserted that the only way humanity would ever get out of the trap of its own neuroses was to stop sublimating sexual drive and negating, limiting, and repressing pleasure. And that he said was the treasure that lay buried in Christianity in the form of the resurrection of the body.

I have literally been unpacking that for almost 50 years. Today was one of many occasions when I have preached on the theme of resurrection, hoping to edge people out of the notion that it was an event that happened to one man ages ago having nothing to do with the way we live our lives today, and saying for the thousandth time that resurrection of the body is not about the immortality of the soul nor essentially about an afterlife. I don't deny the immortality of the soul for a number of reasons, and I certainly don't assume a know-it-all stance about an afterlife. Yet I do know that what both notions miss is the radical affirmation of the body--and specifically the body's mortality. Until we embrace the body and stop repressing its instinctual and sensual life, not only are we plagued by our own neuroses but we continue on personal, social, cultural, and global levels to surrender to the death instinct. When Brown was writing in mid-twentieth century, it was clear that civilization had finally evolved to the point that it was capable of incinerating itself through unleashing hydrogen bombs. Now it is clear that the death instinct, masquerading in the garb of dominating "nature," has humans raping the ecosystem on a scale that is hurtling towards the brink of annihilation of ours and other species.

What to do? In a word, the only way out of the dilemma is to reconcile both the death and life impulses in the body. Because as long as we act as if we can deny death through "security," "power," accumulation, domination, fame or whatever, we will never get around to the one and only thing that can save us: profligate love, Eros rooted in the body, not confined to the sex organs but energizing the entire human organism, spilling over into erotic embrace of the entire universe.

So many voices are saying similar things today that finally it seems possible that Brown's vision might finally be realized: the hope that ultimately Eros would find itself prized and practiced by a humanity reveling in bodily life. This is not a matter of being "religious" or "secular." Nor does it mean abrogating morality, though it certainly moves the needle of the latter away from a prurient fixation with sexual manners and modalities.

Edward Knippers, Second Coming 
All those voices are echoes of what mystics of many traditions have been telling us for ages. Brown suggests that the principle gift of psychoanalysis is offering an objective critique of the inner life much as the natural sciences attempt to offer an objective account of the external world. Whether or not that can be done is a debatable question. But one thing is certain. The human mind's own debate about whether to follow its death instinct or its life impulse will never be settled through rationality, which is one form of sublimation and thus of repression. Poets, artists, shamans, musicians, and others who engage the imagination can lead us in embracing the world of paradox in all its dialectical complexity. And the way we'll discover it is through the very mortal bodies that hold our memories, our dreams, our desires, and the exhilarating power of pleasure.

That, I think, is the life of resurrection. And it's closer to us than the air we breathe.

© Frank Gasque Dunn, 2019

[1] Norman O. Brown, Life Against Death: The Psychoanalytical Meaning of History (Middletown, CT: Wesleyan University Press, 1959).

Sunday, May 05, 2019

Rider Off His Horse

wo years ago Joe and I hiked a fair distance across the city of Rome to get to the Church of Santa Maria del Popolo to see two paintings by the famous Caravaggio. The hike was well worth every step. For hanging in a chapel so dark that one has to pay a coin to turn on a flood light just for a little while to see them, the paintings depict the crucifixion of St. Peter and the conversion of St. Paul. Peter is shown head down, the position in which tradition says he was crucified having refused to be affixed to his cross upright like Jesus. In the companion painting, Paul has fallen off his horse onto the ground. The viewer sees him too as head down.

Caravaggio, Conversion of St. Paul, 1601

Caravaggio, Crucifixion of St. Peter

That is the first of many clues that the artist has seized the core truth of Paul’s conversion. This is his moment of crucifixion—the earth-shattering experience of the Holy that amounts to nothing less than the death of Saul as he has been known by all including himself up to then. He later writes, “I have been crucified with Christ; and it is no longer I who live, but it is Christ who lives in me.”[1] What Paul is talking about there is not just the incident of his conversion, though it is clear that that experience never left him. He is speaking of the way his whole life, his mind, his commitment radically shifted as a result. And that shift, we know from Paul’s own account, did not happen overnight. He tells the Galatians that though he once put his confidence in the Law those days are over as he sees that the only way one is made whole (“justified,” he calls it) is through a relationship (that’s what “faith” is) to and in Christ Jesus.

Quite frankly all of that sounds like so much religious talk, so divorced from everyday life, until I begin thinking of it in the terms and conditions of my own life. I invite you to consider, for example, what it is that you hinge your everyday life on. I’m not talking about your religious practices, which I don’t doubt you take seriously. But look at the things that keep the average person going. Any such general sketch would certainly be a dismissive caricature of the truth, but still I think we could probably say that for many of us it would be our need of basic survival. Will I have enough to eat? Do I have enough income to live on, and maybe even a bit more so I can do some things I want to? Am I secure? Will there be someone to help me should I need help?

We can go on from there. I can tell you that for most men I know the questions at the center of life are whether we can prove ourselves through our work, how well can we provide what we are expected to provide, how much we’ll be able to protect those who look to us for protection, and how well we’ll be able to perform in the various arenas in which men are expected to perform. Those questions dominate the way we live and the way we feel about ourselves, at least until we undergo a dramatic shift in the way we configure our lives.

And what about women? I can’t speak for women, but I can tell you what I observe. I observe that women value self-expression and find it devastatingly difficult to live in a world run by many men who both as individuals and as those who control systems consistently undervalue women, and sometimes devalue them outright. I observe women deeply devoted to home and children and friends in lifegiving ways. Women on the whole seem to me to value relationships not for what relationships can do for them but because they perceive themselves profoundly connected to others in ways that we men often do not.

I’m not arguing that these things apply to everyone, or that there is no interchangeability among those of different genders and sexual identities. But if you recognize anything that hints of your own life, then you can see what it is that your basic life structure is, and that is what I’m getting at. That is what the “Law” was for Paul. It framed his entire existence. It gave him his self-understanding. It provided for him a connection to what was the ultimate truth about his life. So when that was blasted open by this unexpected intrusion from the Risen Jesus, the old Saul breathed his last.

Interestingly, Caravaggio picks up on another piece of the story of Paul’s conversion. There are three accounts in the Book of Acts of this story, arguably the most significant event outside of the life of Jesus of Nazareth in the whole of Christian history. In this first one we learn that Paul lost his sight and was in darkness for three days. Who else was in darkness for three days? We can think of two. Most obviously Jesus: in the tomb until “the third day.” But don’t forget Jonah, the Old Testament man who spent three days in the belly of the fish, traditionally spoken of as the “whale.” Recall that Jesus is quoted as having once said that his generation would be given no sign but the sign of Jonah. Whatever else that might have meant or have come to mean, it is a definite reference to death and rebirth. So Paul undergoes what his baptism subsequently acted out and which he himself explained the symbolism of baptism to be: a union with Christ in his death. A whole new Paul is born, raised from the old life of obedience to the Law to a new life in union with the Risen Lord.

In the hand of Caravaggio, this truth is painted in light and darkness. The blinding light that strikes Paul has knocked him off his high horse. We see him lying on the ground in the foreground, his face in full light. Almost nothing else is visible, only the horse and one lone figure partly in the shadows, obviously a groom who is apparently oblivious to this moment and all that it means as he goes about quietly caring for the horse. The horse is gigantic compared to the grounded Paul, helpless, defenseless, utterly dethroned from his previous perch. Paul’s helmet has bounced off his head and lies in the dirt, his arms are raised forming an upside down triangle with his light-blinded face the nadir. Caravaggio invites us into this strange episode in a human life, struck by the light that enlightens every man including this unlikely fellow who so recently was denying the Light of Christ and working to douse its spread. Paul will come to embody that old promise of the Light to enlighten the Gentiles and thus will he turn the Way of Jesus into a path of transformation for all into a kingdom where there is no distinction between Jew and Gentile, slave and free, male and female but where all are one in Christ Jesus.

If there ever were an Easter story that is cut out for you and me, this is it. The others, like the story of the Risen Lord fixing breakfast for a band of disciples returned to their old work of fishing, tell us that this mysterious figure who at first we do not recognize is both one who knows us intimately and one whom we intuitively know because he is our Food far truer than the fish we catch and cook.[2]

That in a real sense is what Resurrection is. Not the far-off event of some heaven in the sky, but the Presence of the Holy One who shakes our lives like thunder. Many Christians have imagined through the years that faith in Jesus by necessity begins with a conversion experience that can be described, deciphered, and dated much like the one that happened to Paul. Sometimes that is true. But far more ordinary is the truth that conversion is an ongoing resurrection that continues throughout life. Paul’s own account of his conversion, most graphically detailed in his Second Letter to the Corinthians, indicates that it literally took him years to work through the implications of his conversion experience to the point that he became the first major interpreter of the Christ event, especially to the Gentiles. He tell us that he immediately went to what we today call Jordan, a land of Gentiles in the desert he calls Arabia. After a stint of three years he returned to Damascus. After one fortnight in Jerusalem visiting Peter and a few of the other leaders, he returned to Damascus. After fourteen years had passed he had a revelation that prompted him to return to Jerusalem with Barnabas and Titus, ultimately launching the full-scale mission to the Gentiles with the blessing of the Early Church’s leaders.

Fortunately we have this autobiographical account that dispels any fantasy that resurrection to a New Life in Christ is a breeze. Paul’s life, like that of Peter and the other apostles, was anything but a breeze. He bore in his body the marks of Jesus’ crucifixion. He hardly wore the cross as a piece of jewelry or a cool tattoo but on his soul as the inspiration for and seal of a changed life. At one point he describes himself and his fellow workers in these words:

We have commended ourselves in every way through great endurance in afflictions, hardships, calamities, beatings, imprisonments, riots, labors sleepless nights, hunger;… We are treated as imposters and yet are true; as unknown, and yet are well known; as dying, and see—we are alive; as punished, and yet not killed; as sorrowful, yet always rejoicing; as poor, yet making many rich; as having nothing, and yet possessing everything.[3]

Life in Jesus is not all sweetness and light, but it surely contains sweetness and light. And it contains both, neither ignoring nor exaggerating all the sufferings that Paul enumerates and more.

Most of us are content with looking on the bright side of things despite the gloom we go through. Sometimes in truth that is the best we can do. But there’s more. Not more that we must do or somehow more that God expects of us. But more because it actually can be a noble and brave act to let go rather than to double down on being cheerful or positive or whatever we might try by way of dealing with trouble. It is the letting go that we see in Jesus when he is in the midst of the agony in the garden. “Father, if it be possible, let this cup pass from me. Nevertheless, not what I will but what you will.”[4] It is the letting go that we hear Paul expressing to the Philippians:

Whatever gains I had, these I have come to regard as loss because of Christ. More than that, I regard everything as loss because of the surpassing value of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord. For his sake I have suffered the loss of all things, and I regard them as rubbish, in order that I may gain Christ and be found in him… I want to know Christ and the power of his resurrection and the sharing of his sufferings by becoming like him in his death….”[5]

Paul sees that that is the way of living the resurrection, a resurrection that he lived from that day of his crucifixion when the heavenly vision and blinding light left him lying in the dirt of the Damascus road. He has learned to be abased and to abound, and to be content in whatever state he finds himself.[6] He has in himself and commends to us the mind of Christ Jesus who humbled himself to face and own his mortality, even though it meant death of a cross.[7] He knows and proclaims that there are only three things that abide after all else is done: faith, hope, and love. He knows that the greatest thing in all the world is love.[8] That is all the gospel we know, and all we need to know.

 A sermon  for the Third Sunday of Easter, Year C in the Revised Common Lectionary, on the text of Acts 9:1-20

© Frank Gasque Dunn, 2019

[1] Galatians 2:19-20a, NRSV.
[2] John 21:9-14.
[3] 2 Corinithians 6:4-10 passim, NRSV.
[4] Matthew 20:22; Mark 10:38; Luke 22:42.
[5] Philippians 3:7-10, NRSV.
[6] Philippians 4:12ff.
[7] Philippians 2:5-11.
[8] 1 Corinthians 13:13.