Thursday, April 26, 2012

Ghost stories (Sunday Reflections for April 22, 2012)

36b Jesus said, "Peace be with you."  37They were startled and terrified, and thought that they were seeing a ghost.  38He said to them, "Why are you frightened, and why do doubts arise in your hearts?  39Look at my hands and my feet; see that it is I myself. Touch me and see; for a ghost does not have flesh and bones as you see that I have."  40And when he had said this, he showed them his hands and his feet.  41While in their joy they were disbelieving and still wondering, he said to them, "Have you anything here to eat?"  42They gave him a piece of broiled fish, 43and he took it and ate in their presence.

The Reflections columns the past few weeks have dealt with the problem of reading the gospels’ Holy Week and Easter stories as historical events. This excerpt from today’s Gospel reading is yet another dimension of that problem: the risen Jesus as a resuscitated corpse.

The earliest New Testament writings are by Paul and, as I wrote earlier, his understanding of the “Easter experience” is that that the resurrected Jesus “appeared” to his disciples at various times, and ultimately to Paul himself. The use of the word “appear” here and elsewhere is the experience of a vision or a dream. For ancients, such experiences were very real but were also considered to be different than normal everyday living.

In Mark, the earliest gospel, there is no Easter appearance of Jesus. Instead, the women at the tomb are met by a “man dressed in white” who tells them Jesus has been raised, and that he can be seen by the disciples if they go back to Galilee. The women run from the tomb in fright.

In the Easter stories of Matthew, Luke, and John, Jesus does appear in tangible form. These later gospels were written at least 50-70 years after the events they are recounting. We are all familiar with the notion that a story grows in its telling and that seems to be the case with the gospels. But rather than thinking of this as exaggeration or even lying, it’s more helpful to see each of them trying to address questions and problems in their various church communities.

In our story today from Luke, the resurrected Jesus has skin and bones which he invites the disciples to touch and feel. He even eats a snack. Taken literally this story raises almost comical problems and impossibilities. From a modern perspective it is absurd.

But Luke is not a modern person and is not writing for a modern audience. Luke tells us his concern: the risen Jesus was not a ghost. The appearance of ghosts, the spirits of dead people, was a commonly accepted phenomenon in the ancient world. Apparently this is how some were interpreting, and probably dismissing, the stories of Jesus’ resurrection appearances. Jesus was seen after he died? No big deal; people see ghosts all the time. 

Luke feels the need to refute this interpretation and does so in the only way he can, by making the risen Jesus a physical reality. He was not just a ghost; he has been raised. For modern people, however, and I suspect even some people in his own day, Luke only digs the hole deeper. Now that Jesus has a body, what will happen to it? Where is it now? Our minds spin with new questions and problems.

Unless, of course, we understand this text for what it actually was: a story, very likely created by Luke himself. The problem for us is that we separate fact and fiction into hard categories without overlap: fact=true and fiction=untrue. In practice, however, the division has never been so clean, even today. 

Before modern times, history was almost always told through what we would now call “historical fiction.” Detailed factual history was simply impossible to write because the information was unavailable. The interest in telling about people or events of the past was how they could help living in the present. From the courtroom and the laboratory we have developed a laudable appreciation for demonstrable facts and data. Our modern world would be impossible without them. We make a mistake, however, in assuming ancients had those same standards or judging them by them. 

In today’s gospel, Luke is interpreting one story (the empty tomb) by telling another story (of a resuscitated corpse). What’s essential for us to appreciate them is realizing they are both stories. It is entirely possible that Mark created the first account of an empty tomb. Paul never mentions it and it’s hard to imagine that he wouldn’t have known it if it existed, and that he wouldn’t have talked about it if he did know it. 

Having told the story of Jesus’ life and death, Mark wanted to conclude his gospel in a way that pointed to the future. The women, representing Jesus’ followers, are turned away from adoration of Jesus’ corpse and told instead to go to Galilee, which for Mark is the center of the new church’s life. “There you will see him.”

In the ancient world, stories took on a reality all their own. The gospel writers that followed Mark each interpreted his work in their own unique way. One result is that their subsequent Easter accounts differ significantly from each other in nearly all their details. This is a problem if we imagine them as accounts of historical events. It’s not a problem with we understand them as theological stories built on the foundation of earlier stories, guiding and inspiring faith.

So today we can hear a story of the risen Jesus eating a piece of fish, or cooking fish on the beach as in John, and smile. I suspect at least some ancient people did as well. The essential message of all these stories is that the Spirit of the crucified Jesus yet lives. The question is whether we have our own stories to tell of that Spirit alive today in our world, and in our lives.

To believe or not to believe (Sunday Reflections for April 15, 2012)

Why do we believe what we believe? One problem with answering that question is that we stretch the word “believe” to mean many different things. Here are a few examples, all dealing with President John F. Kennedy.

  • Do you believe JFK existed? Easy—of course he did. It’s undisputed.
  • Do you believe JFK was a practicing Catholic? A little hesitation—we know he was Catholic. But there’s that word “practicing.” Well, yes, he must have been. There are pictures of him at church.
  • Do you believe JFK was shot by Lee Harvey Oswald acting alone? Okay, this is tougher. There are arguments both ways. He either was or he wasn’t but which is the case is in dispute. Take your pick.
  • Finally, do you believe JFK was a great president? This is obviously a matter of opinion which could be argued endlessly. Again, take your pick.
Notice that in each of these questions, ranging from indisputable fact to debatable opinion we can use the word “believe.” Could each of these questions be resolved by factual evidence? In the first and third, it would seem so, though getting that evidence is much easier for the first than for the third. The fourth question we would probably say “No” because people have different understandings of what it means to be a great president. The second question could also be problematic since there might be some disagreement over what constitutes a “practicing” Catholic.

Questions of fact and opinion often seem to be clearly different at first glance but then get less clear as we look at them longer. You may be aware, for example, that there are some who contend that Shakespeare’s plays were not, in fact, written by William Shakespeare. In their view, the man from Stratford-on-Avon did not have either the talent or the worldly experience to produce works as profound as these. 

Instead, they believe “Shakespeare” was a front or pseudonym for someone wishing to be anonymous, possibly in Elizabeth I’s court. (“Anonymous” is the name of a recent movie based on this possibility.) The majority of Shakespeare scholars—but not all—dismiss such a notion as nonsense. The problem is that four hundred years is enough time for most tangible evidence to have disappeared. Who is right? Can we ever know? Does it matter?

You probably are not aware that there is a similar dispute about Jesus. The question at issue is even more fundamental: Did Jesus exist? Our inclination is to say that, of course, he did. This is like the first JFK question. Yet when we begin to examine it more closely, the question starts to look like one of the more disputable ones.

Again, the problem is lack of evidence. There are no birth records or any documentation of anything that happened to Jesus. We have nothing written by Jesus himself. Scholars today doubt we have eye-witness accounts of anything Jesus said or did. We have nothing reliably from any of his disciples. The earliest biblical writings are by Paul, from about twenty years after Jesus (presumably) died, and he makes it clear he did not know Jesus. The gospels are written at least 40-70 years after Jesus and even their occasional claims to have second-hand information are now widely doubted. 

Yet, of course, the New Testament was written and Christianity did happen. Something must have caused it and the most obvious something is “Jesus.” The “Jesus Myth” advocates (as they’re called) contend that his story and personality were basically cobbled together from a variety of ancient characters and stories, historical and fictional, Jewish and pagan. The vast majority of scholars, even very critical/liberal ones, say there is no reason not to accept the most obvious explanation, which is that someone named Jesus was the origin of the Christian movement. 

One mythic Jesus scholar has put his finger on what may be the real problem. Dr Robert Price writes in a recent book, “There may once have been an historical Jesus, but for us there is one no longer. If he existed, he is forever lost behind the stained glass curtain of holy myth.” In other words, with nearly 2000 years of theology and religious story telling between us and Jesus of Nazareth, as a historical person he has become nearly invisible. And religious scholars say much the same about Abraham and Moses, the Buddha, Mohammed, and all the great religious figures of the ancient past.

What is important to realize, however, is that these are all questions about beliefs, not of faith. We can believe what we want about persons or events of history but those things are all gone. All we have are the stories, the words, or “the Word” in Christian terms, and the faith that they create. 

These words create a “faith reaction” within us, as they interact with our own experiences and our own view of the world. We hear “good news” and then respond by living our lives in a way that is shaped by that gospel. We live with love, compassion, and hope rather than fear, jealousy, and selfishness. 

New evidence and discoveries may change our beliefs. Faith, however, as Paul says, comes by hearing the stories and the Word within those stories. We can never genuinely recover the past. Yet stories from and about the past have the power to move us and change us. They are the Spirit’s tools for our transformation and even salvation.

What happened to Jesus? (Sunday Reflections for April 8, 2012)

Alone among the gospels, Mark’s account of Easter Sunday has no appearance of Jesus. Instead, women come to the tomb and find it empty, except for an angel who scares the daylights out of them. Where’s Jesus? “He is not here.” But he will appear to his disciples in Galilee, the women are told. And with that they flee in terror.
How can you have Easter without an appearance of the risen Jesus? It seems pretty clear that there was some dissatisfaction in the early church with Mark’s version of Easter. There are multiple alternative endings to Mark in which Jesus does appear but most scholars agree none of them are original to Mark’s gospel. Thus, most recent versions of the Bible now end Mark as we find it in today’s Gospel reading.
Mark’s Easter story carries special weight, however, because New Testament scholarship is nearly unanimous in believing Mark was the first of the Bible’s gospels to be written. It’s also pretty obvious that the authors of both Matthew and Luke used Mark as the basis of their own gospels (the author of John may also have had Mark in front of him but that’s less clear).
Thus they both added appearances of Jesus to the Easter story they found in Mark. In Matthew the insertion is pretty clumsy. At the tomb, the angel tells the women to go and tell the disciples that Jesus will appear to them in Galilee (as in Mark). Just as the women leave to do this, Jesus suddenly appears and then repeats what the angel just said. It seems Jesus and the angels aren’t communicating very well.
So why does Jesus not appear in Mark’s Easter story? It’s hard to imagine Mark’s author left out such a detail if he knew of it. And therefore, as surprising as it might be, it seems likely that he was unaware of traditions or stories about Jesus walking around and talking to people on Easter. Nor was Paul, who wrote perhaps twenty years before Mark and never mentions it in his letters. Thus it was not until the writing of Matthew and Luke, a half-century after Jesus’ death, that there are written accounts of Jesus appearing to his followers on Easter.
How could that be? One clue is in Paul’s letters. Paul insists that, like the other apostles, he too has seen Jesus, and he implies there is no difference between his experience and theirs. The word he uses repeatedly in talking of all the apostles’ experiences of the risen Jesus is “appear” (“last of all…he appeared also to me”). The Greek word translated here is the one used in talking of what happens in a vision or a dream (a relatively common subject in ancient writing). Paul never describes his experience of Jesus, though he does speak of being “caught up” into heaven, again obviously in some kind of visionary experience. Also, the stories in Acts about Paul’s conversion (but not written by him) describe his experience as being a vision of Jesus.
As a consequence, many scholars have concluded that the experiences which launched the church after Jesus’ death were visions of him raised and in heaven. Perhaps the first to have such a vision was Simon Peter, as is said in several places. Interestingly however, there are no New Testament stories describing Jesus’ appearance to Peter. Perhaps the first visions occurred to women among Jesus’ followers, as the Easter gospel stories imply. Other visionary experiences then followed, likely even with groups. The appearance to Paul apparently was one of the last of these. His need to assert it indicates, however, that some in the church may have questioned its authenticity.
So what do we make of the stories in the other gospels of Jesus’ Easter appearances? They are certainly more vivid, dramatic, and, we might say, “tangible”. Yet this is what has made these stories difficult for many people to swallow, especially today. The physicality of the risen Jesus does raise all sorts of questions and problems. This bothers some people and not others. In any case, appreciation of Mark’s Easter story and the experience of Paul show there is more than one way to faithfully understand the resurrection of Jesus.
Personally, I appreciate the Easter stories where Jesus actually shows up (Luke’s “road to Emmaus” is one of my favorites). Historically, however, I do find the idea of visionary experiences of Jesus a more plausible explanation for how the “Jesus movement” got its start. What is important to realize, though, is that Christianity is not based on beliefs about what did or didn’t happen in ancient history. Faith is not based on belief in anyone else’s experience, whether it’s someone we know personally or someone who lived centuries ago. Faith can only be based on our own experience.
Paul, again, is of help here. Never does he use his experience of the risen Jesus as a reason for others to have faith (he does use it to insist on his credentials to be an apostle). Rather, “faith comes by hearing” the words of scripture and the words of preaching and witness. Or as Luther says, faith happens “in our ears” and is itself a miracle and gift of grace. And what faith does is awaken us to the presence of the risen Christ among us, rather than one wandering around a garden in ancient Palestine.
Did God raise Jesus from the dead? Is Christ alive? As Mark implies and as Paul says, this is not a question of history. Rather, it is an existential question of faith that we can only answer for ourselves. Whether Jesus lives here and now—however you understand that—is the only question about him that really matters. “He is not here” in this tomb, the angel says. He’s gone on ahead.

Passion or palms? (Sunday Reflections for April 1, 2012)

Last year, Michael Rinehart, an ELCA bishop from Texas, discussed on his blog how there seemed to be a trend of moving Palm/Passion Sunday back to the earlier practice of focusing exclusively on the gospel accounts of Jesus’ Palm Sunday entrance into Jerusalem. The Passion story then is reserved exclusively for Good Friday.
I don’t know if his perception accurate but he seems to think this is a good idea. I believe he is right in saying that this change occurred after attendance at Good Friday services had declined significantly. Growing up I only remember Palm Sunday but by the time I got to seminary the transition to Passion Sunday was in full swing.
I embraced the change in my first congregation (to the dismay of the senior pastor I worked with) and especially enjoyed the dramatic reading in parts of the full Passion narrative (usually replacing the sermon because of its length). For me, the high point (for lack of a better term) was always the moment when the congregation (taking the role of the crowd) shouted out, “Crucify him!” in response to Pilate’s offer of mercy.
Well, that was then. As the years have passed, my enthusiasm for all that has waned considerably. While I still appreciate the drama, I have found myself asking, “But what’s the point?” not just liturgically, but also what about the point of the story.
Perhaps my attitude began to change when I was serving a congregation in Omaha. We had a lay parish assistant who I respected a lot. She surprised me when she said she wouldn’t be at the Good Friday service (and she attended nearly everything). “The story is just too sad,” she said. This was someone who probably could have explained Luther’s theology of the cross as well as many pastors, but for her the passion story itself was just too much.
As I wrote last week, modern biblical scholarship has challenged the traditional understanding of the events surrounding Jesus’ death. Basically scholars tell us we really just don’t know much about what happened. We do know, however, that a lot of what the gospels’ passion narratives say is unlikely and sometimes preposterous. In many places the gospel accounts contradict each other so obviously they can’t each be right.
We now know that none of the gospels were written by eye witnesses. (Mark, the earliest gospel, was written at least forty years after Jesus’ death.) Did they have eye witnesses as sources? That also seems unlikely. And what’s hard for us to understand is that they probably didn’t care, either. Telling the “good news” about Jesus was their priority rather than historical accuracy, which is our modern concern.
Instead, much of the detail in the gospels’ stories of Jesus’ last week was inspired by the Hebrew Bible, the Christian Old Testament. Thus, rather than biblical prophecy fulfilled by the events of Holy Week, this scripture was the inspiration for the details of the gospel writers’ passion stories. They created a narrative which conveyed the meaning and importance of Jesus’ death rather than its history, which probably no one knew.
The question for us is whether the meaning and importance they saw (and the gospels themselves have differing views on that) is what we would now see or value. To me, there are at least two major problems for us today and both contribute to the overwrought nature of the gospels’ telling of the Passion story.
The first is the anti-Judaism present to some degree in each of the gospels, and especially in the Passion stories. This problem has been recognized for a long time. Especially since the Holocaust, various attempts have been made to remedy it, though none have really been satisfactory.
Biblical scholarship has cast doubt on what role (if any) Jewish religious authorities would have had in Jesus’ death. Even the gospels strain to come up with a plausible connection, primarily because their own accounts of Jesus’ ministry in Galilee give them little to work with. It is much more likely that Jesus was executed by Roman authorities because he did something they considered a threat to public order. The table-turning incident in the temple is one possibility.
So why the hostility to Judaism in the gospels? Because they were written at the time of the split between church and synagogue. Divorces can be angry, messy affairs and this one certainly was. That most Jews did not embrace Jesus as the Christ became an awkward embarrassment for the early church. If Jesus really was the Jewish messiah, then why did most Jews not accept him? Thus began the meme of the messiah’s rejection by his own people, portrayed most dramatically in his Jerusalem trial.
The second problem is the theological interpretation of Jesus’ death. Again, the gospels have somewhat differing views on this (as does Paul). Yet they all agree that Jesus’ death was a sacrifice for humanity’s sin like the animal sacrifices made in the temple. Today I’m not sure this is even understandable. More importantly, it makes God appear as some kind of ancient bloodthirsty ogre. While some fundamentalists still revel in this image, most people find it repulsive and bizarre.
The obvious rebuttal to that portrayal is Jesus himself. This supposed divine need for justice and judgment that sent Jesus to the cross is most noticeably absent in Jesus’ own teaching. Forgiveness and compassion is the heart of his life and ministry. As this has been rediscovered in recent years, Jesus’ death has been reframed as the ultimate act of that compassion and selflessness. Jesus’ death is saving for us by inspiring us to the life of love that is our human calling. God is not “satisfied” by Jesus’ death but heartbroken, as we all should be.
Can the gospels’ Passion narratives be saved? The disinterest in Good Friday and the resistance to imposing the Passion on Palm Sunday are pretty strong indications of how average Christians feel. I think we need to pay attention. The image of the cross is certainly important and powerful, and should not be lost. Ironically, however, the stories that have swirled around it for centuries are now preventing us from seeing it. Somehow the church has to find a way to clear the air.