Not that Kind of Baptist

Welcoming the Child of God

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The Bible passage I'd like to explore can be summed up like this:  Jesus reacts to the disciples' narcissism by welcoming a child in their midst.  Now, what can this mean?  

My passage is drawn from last Sunday's lectionary reading, Mark 9:30-37.  In the passage, Jesus tells the disciples yet again that he will die.  They were incredulous the first time (Mark 8:31-33), and the second time they seem to ignore him.  

After leaving a child exorcism that left the 12 disciples frustrated at their lack of success, they are feeling threatened.  Their power has seemed to ebb.  What they thought was an inexhaustible supply of miracles had run dry.  This kind only comes out with prayer, Jesus explains to the disciples when they ask why they could not cast out the spirit.  

But rather than retreat to their quiet place to pray, they gather together to argue.  That should resonate with us in this cultural moment.  Their argument is about who is the greatest.  And it prompts this exchange in the Gospel of Mark.

Then they came to Capernaum; and when he was in the house he asked them, “What were you arguing about on the way?”  But they were silent, for on the way they had argued with one another who was the greatest.  He sat down, called the twelve, and said to them, “Whoever wants to be first must be last of all and servant of all.” Then he took a little child and put it among them; and taking it in his arms, he said to them, “Whoever welcomes one such child in my name welcomes me, and whoever welcomes me welcomes not me but the one who sent me.”

It has long puzzled me why Jesus reacted in this way to their bickering.  But upon closer examination, I believe it is because Jesus had to display for them a tangible example of how those who are last in the society show us something powerful about God.  Or put more exactly, when we welcome the least powerful, we welcome God.

I preached about that a week ago.  You can watch it here.  

One of the main reasons it is a puzzling text is we don't "get" the child reference like the disciples would have.  Children were not elevated in first century culture.  They did not have legal rights and were not exactly held up as paragons of wisdom.  Think about all the laws governing children, their care and protection, enhanced penalties for crimes against children, and the like.  Think about the vast amounts of books and media culture which focus our cultural and parental anxieties on children, their rearing, progress, and education.  We are a child-focused culture.  

Read one way, the Bible is child focused, almost with a laser like lens at least in the first few chapters of Genesis.  Having children, fertility problems, God's promises relating to them...all loom large.  But they are not viewed the same way in the Bible as they are in our culture. 

A child could be a slave in ancient Roman society.  And in fact, there were thousands of child slaves.  

So, one possibility for the preacher--the one I took in preaching--is to see Jesus as elevating the lowly.  To the extent that children were viewed as without any special dignity or power, then his welcoming of a child is a way of turning the disciples' pretensions to power upside down. I believe this interpretation is buttressed by other passages where Jesus gives a special status to children.  A prominent example that will happen in the very next chapter is Mark 10:13-16, where the disciples again showing their stubbornness in learning, try to prevent children from seeing Jesus.  Let the little children come to me...he tells them.  Weren't they listening?  Apparently not...and apparently we aren't either.  

While they were busy arguing about who was the greatest, Jesus had just finished casting out a spirit from a child (Mark 9:14-29).  While they were busy denying that they had been pathologically obsessing about their own greatness, Jesus embraced a child.  

We might ask, who are the especially marginalized and oppressed people in our society?  And we might ask, once we begin truth telling about that, what are we doing to welcome them?  

I think of the 12,800 children separated from their families in U.S. detention facilities as the New York Times recently reported.  I think of LGBTQ persons who are routinely shut out of churches, membership and baptism and communion denied.  I think of homeless persons suffering from a lack of shelter, mental health care, and substance abuse facilities.  I think of, I think you think of a child of God and fill in the blanks.  Who are you thinking of now?  Go and welcome that person.  

For, as Jesus tells us, to welcome such a child in Jesus' name is to welcome Jesus...and therefore to welcome God.  

Image attribution:
Carl Bloch [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons



Posted by Rev. Daniel Headrick with
Tags: welcoming

What does this mean?

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How do we interpret what we experience?  The Lectionary reading for Pentecost Sunday takes up this question in a powerful way (Acts 1:1-21).  

When the day of Pentecost had come, they were all together in one place. And suddenly from heaven there came a sound like the rush of a violent wind, and it filled the entire house where they were sitting. Divided tongues, as of fire, appeared among them, and a tongue rested on each of them. All of them were filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak in other languages, as the Spirit gave them ability. Now there were devout Jews from every nation under heaven living in Jerusalem. And at this sound the crowd gathered and was bewildered, because each one heard them speaking in the native language of each. Amazed and astonished, they asked, “Are not all these who are speaking Galileans? And how is it that we hear, each of us, in our own native language? Parthians, Medes, Elamites, and residents of Mesopotamia, Judea and Cappadocia, Pontus and Asia, Phrygia and Pamphylia, Egypt and the parts of Libya belonging to Cyrene, and visitors from Rome, both Jews and proselytes, Cretans and Arabs—in our own languages we hear them speaking about God’s deeds of power.” All were amazed and perplexed, saying to one another, “What does this mean?” But others sneered and said, “They are filled with new wine.” Acts 2:1-13

What does this mean?  That is a fundamental question, posed more than once in the Book of Acts, and posed countless times by Christians over the centuries.  It is one thing to have an experience, it is quite another to determine what the experience meant.  In the Acts passage, we are not told the content of what the Holy Spirit spoke, although there is a tantalizing reference to "God's deeds of power."  This much is clear: the people hearing the Holy Spirit were from  diverse ethnic and linguistic backgrounds.  They heard the speech in their own language, but they did not know the meaning of what they heard. 

This is not surprising; it happens all the time.  We hear a sermon and a room full of people come away with a diverse set of impressions and interpretations.  What was the sermon about? folks wonder.  Ask as many as you like, and you'll get slightly different answers.  

Stanley Fish's famous anecdote contained in his book Is There a Text in this Class?  illustrates the point nicely:

 On the first day of the new semester, a colleague at Johns Hopkins University was approached by a student who, as it turned out, had just taken a course from me. She put to him what I think you would agree is a perfectly straightforward question: "Is there a text in this class?" Responding with a confidence so perfect that he was unaware of it (although in telling the story, he refers to this moment as "walking into the trap"), my colleague said, "Yes; it's the Norton Anthology of Literature," whereupon the trap (set not by the student but by the infinite capacity of language for being appropriated) was sprung: "No, no," she said, "I mean in this class do we believe in poems and things, or is it just us?"

 As you can see from Fish's anecdote, the interpretation of a sentence is slippery.   Even what we call the literal interpretation is subject to several reasonable options.  Was the student asking what the textbook would be for the class?  Thinking so would be perfectly reasonable, and indeed, the most likely interpretation it would seem.  But she meant something entirely different. 

Fish used this story not to show us that there are an infinite variety of interpretations, but that the range of meanings are actually quite narrow.  We could exhaust the meaning fairly quickly based on the interpretative community to which the student belonged.  So, rather than throw our hands up in despair when approaching the meaning of the text, we can be assured that  the range of reasonable meanings are not truly infinite.    

In the Acts lesson, the quoted passage ends with the amazement of the diverse audience's reaction: "what does this mean?"  But notice that others are instantly given to interpretation; they sneer and suppose that all the participants are "filled with new wine."  Those used to the domesticated and orderly silence of tradition may think that the explosion of the Holy Spirit is simply the drunken ramblings of fools.  Peter, however, understood the meaning quite differently.  

But Peter, standing with the eleven, raised his voice and addressed them, “Men of Judea and all who live in Jerusalem, let this be known to you, and listen to what I say. Indeed, these are not drunk, as you suppose, for it is only nine o’clock in the morning. No, this is what was spoken through the prophet Joel: ‘In the last days it will be, God declares, that I will pour out my Spirit upon all flesh, and your sons and your daughters shall prophesy, and your young men shall see visions, and your old men shall dream dreams. Even upon my slaves, both men and women, in those days I will pour out my Spirit; and they shall prophesy. And I will show portents in the heaven above and signs on the earth below, blood, and fire, and smoky mist. The sun shall be turned to darkness and the moon to blood, before the coming of the Lord’s great and glorious day. Then everyone who calls on the name of the Lord shall be saved.’ Acts 2:14-21

What a remarkable interpretation!  What richness of meaning!  Of all the meanings that could be drawn from the multiplicity of languages, Peter thinks of the Prophet Joel.  It is a rather subversive passage, not one to be taken literally by the those opposed to letting women preach, for example.  Joel says that men and women, slaves and free will see visions and prophesy.  Those who oppose women preaching somehow read this passage right out of the Bible.  But why did Peter think that Joel contained the hermeneutical key to  the meaning of Pentecost?

I suspect he looked out at the crowd of Gentiles and Jews, an ecumenical lot standing together, and saw for the first time that God speaks to all of God's children.  The Holy Spirit cannot be contained.  She descends and ascends, inflames and inspires where she likes.  (The Hebrew word for spirit is ruach, and it is feminine).   Of the range of meanings available to Peter, this one was the most beautiful and hopeful.  It was also true.  A happy coincidence.  Peter would dream his own dream and prophesy in due course (Acts chapter 10), but he had to be open to the Holy Spirit first.  May we be so open.  

By His Wounds...

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Painting above, Michelangelo Merisi da Caravaggio, The Incredulity of Saint Thomas (1602), Sanssouci Picture Gallery in Potsdam, Germany.

The lectionary passage for Sunday, April 8 was John 20: 19-31

When it was evening on that day, the first day of the week, and the doors of the house where the disciples had met were locked for fear of the Jews, Jesus came and stood among them and said, “Peace be with you.” After he said this, he showed them his hands and his side. Then the disciples rejoiced when they saw the Lord. Jesus said to them again, “Peace be with you. As the Father has sent me, so I send you.” When he had said this, he breathed on them and said to them, “Receive the Holy Spirit. If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven them; if you retain the sins of any, they are retained.” But Thomas (who was called the Twin), one of the twelve, was not with them when Jesus came. So the other disciples told him, “We have seen the Lord.” But he said to them, “Unless I see the mark of the nails in his hands, and put my finger in the mark of the nails and my hand in his side, I will not believe.” A week later his disciples were again in the house, and Thomas was with them. Although the doors were shut, Jesus came and stood among them and said, “Peace be with you.” Then he said to Thomas, “Put your finger here and see my hands. Reach out your hand and put it in my side. Do not doubt but believe.” Thomas answered him, “My Lord and my God!” Jesus said to him, “Have you believed because you have seen me? Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have come to believe.”

There are hundreds of sermons waiting to be preached in these rich verses.   There is the little Pentecost of John, who is more interested in kairos time than chronos.  He places the outpouring of the Holy Spirit well before the day of Pentecost as described in Acts.  Luke had two volumes with which to tell his story (Luke, then Acts), and perhaps John had less papyrus on which to tell his tale.  

There is the remarkably high Christology of John's confession: My Lord and My God!  There is the general phenomenon of doubt, skepticism, and hard questions.

Of great interest to me, as I read the passage anew this year, is the theologically rich image of the wounded Jesus.  The painting by Caravaggio, probably dating from 1602, captures the prosaic and holy moment imagined in John.  Jesus appears as a human being, without a halo or a company of angels.  He is human, all too human.  The older disciples peer over Thomas' shoulder, with furrowed brow, deep in concentration.  Thomas has a look of utter astonishment.

And yet, John never narrated this moment.  There is always the possibility that what the text suggests is merely one of several multiverses.  Perhaps when Jesus said Put your finger here...Thomas did in fact reach out.  Caravaggio imagines Thomas actually poking his finger inside the wound.  So much for hygiene, one of many anachronisms we could import into the text.  

But on the most literal reading of the passage, Thomas never touched Jesus.  He didn't need to.  Perhaps he felt the pressure of being in front of the other disciples.  They, after all, had already believed in the risen Lord.  Did they too physically touch the wounds, or was seeing enough?  Perhaps Thomas did not want to go all the way through with calling Thomas' bluff.

What do you make of the fact that Jesus appears with his wounds?  On one level, as a Bible study participant pointed out last week, the wounds served the purpose of confirming to the disciples that this really was Jesus who appeared to them.  He could walk through walls, so his body was different than yours and mine. 

And yet, that body bore the marks of the physical suffering from the Crucifixion.  This Jesus really did suffer and die.  His wounds were real, unlike the docetic Christology that would arise in the later years, supposing that Jesus only appeared to suffer and die.  The Apostle's Creed says that Jesus "suffered under Pontius Pilate, was crucified, died, and was buried..." all highlighting the real historicity and corporeal nature of Jesus' suffering and death.

There is another level in which we can see the wounds of Jesus, and this was the way in which I developed the meaning in my sermon.  I asked, rhetorically, if Jesus still retained his wounds.  Does Jesus, as he sits at the right hand of the Father (Hebrews 1:3), carry about on his resurrection body the wounds of the Crucifixion? 

Surely the second person of the Holy Trinity is capable of healing up wounds.  God raised Jesus from the dead; could God not heal Jesus' wounds?  I suggested, poetically, that Jesus retains his wounds so that he may be reminded of what it is like for a human being to suffer.  Jesus is in solidarity with all humanity because Jesus became human in all respects.  This will take some adjusting to for those who are inclined to see God as remote, abstract, unchanging, impassible.  But at the heart of the Christian story is a God who suffers and dies.  

A colleague of mine told me about this saying from the mystic Julian of Norwich: 

With a kindly countenance our good Lord looking into his side, and he gazed with joy, and with his sweet regard he drew his creature’s understanding into his side by the same wound; and there he revealed a fair and delectable place, large enough for all mankind that will be saved and will rest in peace and in love.

I need to take some time to study Julian's writing, so I offer it here--acontextually--because it is a beautiful enough image to contemplate for the moment.  The link between Jesus' wounds the salvation of humanity is not fanciful: it has deep roots in Scripture.  He himself bore our sins in his body on the cross, so that, free from sins, we might live for righteousness; by his wounds you have been healed. 1 Peter 2:24.  This theology is a re-working of Isaiah 53:5,  But he was wounded for our transgressions, crushed for our iniquities; upon him was the punishment that made us whole, and by his bruises we are healed.  

And there it is: salvation comes through the suffering body of Jesus.  Rather than imagine--as many have--that the sacrificial metaphor of this theological narrative is at root a deeply inhumane system, I believe it reveals a God who suffers alongside of humanity.  

Now, back to Thomas.  Perhaps when Thomas saw Jesus' face, that was enough.  He didn't need to go through with the ruse of actually touching the wound.  After all, Jesus said the same thing to Thomas which he had said on Easter Day to the disciples sans Thomas: Peace be with you!  A fitting benediction from Jesus.  Not where were you when I was crucified?  Why did you abandon me?  No, he just said peace be with you.

Our questions are legion.  We are always adding to the list.  Did the Resurrection really happen?  Did it happen just like it was written?  What about the differing accounts of the Resurrection in the Gospel narratives?  How do we square our understanding of science with the proclamation of Resurrection?   These merely touch the tip of the iceberg.

But in the face of the risen Lord, Thomas' questions melt away.  He was not at peace.  He had, after all, missed out on the Easter party.  What he sought more than anything was the one thing he could not ask about: how to get peace in his life.  

And then Jesus showed up with this benediction: peace be with you.   We are left to infer tone, facial expression, and the other various non-verbal gestures that give rise to meaning in human interaction.  But I imagine however that was heard, what Thomas felt in his spirit was peace everlasting.  May that be our response this Easter season.


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