On Good Authority

X-Rays streaming from the sun

Luke 7:1-10 | Second Sunday after Pentecost

On Good Authority

For a Roman centurion to take an interest in local religious observances was not strange. Rome worshiped many gods, a pantheon, and Roman soldiers came from all over the empire. We don’t know this man’s place of origin. It is possible that he was already familiar with the Jews before he ever became a soldier.

Whatever gods Roman had given him, he also recognized the God of the Jews, either instead of the gods of Rome or in addition to them. Luke’s Gospel does not make the claim that the centurion was Jewish. More likely he fit the category of ‘God-fearer’, a gentile who acknowledged the Jewish God and followed some manner of observance of Jewish custom. He was an outsider looking into the faith community.

Stars - Hubble image
Stars – Hubble image

The story has echoes of another one, an older one from 2 Kings 5:1-19, of Naaman, the Syrian, who came to Elisha, the Jewish prophet, to be healed. In a reversal of roles from Luke’s story, Naaman, who is also a military commander, is the one who is sick and a slave urges him to trust the power of the prophet Elisha in Israel. In another reversal, Naaman, himself a man with authority, does not recognize the power in the prophet’s instruction but expects a more magical approach.

There is also an echo of the story of Jacob and Esau in Genesis 32-33. As Jacob’s powerful brother drew near, Jacob sent servants and gifts ahead of him to smooth the way. As Jesus is approaching this centurion’s home, the man sends groups of friends to do the same. Jacob meets his brother and receives a blessing, but the centurion (like his servant) receives a blessing before even meeting Jesus.

Any fool can come to obey authority. It takes wisdom to recognize true power.

Of course, authority has often been the trouble with religion. Jesus welcomed everyone at his table. He healed outsiders, touched people who were despised, preached forgiveness and inclusion. We who claim to follow Jesus often condemn and exclude, despise those who leave blemishes on our clean pews, and send the outsiders away. Of the few we invite to our table, many feel uncomfortable, unwelcome, and judged. Not that Christians are alone. Followers of every religion in the world have given outsiders plenty of reason not to come in, and given plenty of insiders reasons to leave.

We should beg forgiveness. All of that is only the imposition of authority, and it has nothing at all to do with true power. Most authority is exercised by those who fear losing it, while real power comes from love.

Spiral Galaxy - Hubble image
Spiral Galaxy – Hubble image

When he sees that his slave is sick, the centurion sends a message to Jesus, who happens to be in town. (The plainest reading of the second chapter of Mark’s Gospel, the earliest one written, tells us that Jesus had a home in Capernaum.) Perhaps this Roman had heard stories about Jesus, or perhaps he had witnessed a miracle himself. We do not know. It is possible that they had met, though Luke does not tell us so. We are told that this centurion had servants and means. He is credited with having built the local synagogue and with having grateful friends among the Jewish elders.

Like any good soldier, he has a plan. He does three things that taken separately are straightforward but that taken together are remarkable. He recognizes his opportunity — Jesus entering the town at his moment of need — and he seizes it. Second, he bases his action on his faith, whereas most of us use faith like toppings on ice cream — something sprinkled on top at the end. Third, he shows that he understands the difference between magic and true power — that the authority Jesus possesses comes from who he is, not from any ritual that needs to be performed, and that true power has a long reach.

A Roman soldier would have appreciated the long reach of power. In other gospel stories, people beg Jesus to come to them, to touch them, to perform some manner of ritual to cure them. Nearness and touch are part of their religious understanding — it is a faith of small distances, a near field understanding of power. The centurion suggests that true power is more like gravity — pervasive, continuous, unseen, but always touching everything.

We are often touched by things that come from far away: light from the sun, the words of a poet who died centuries before we were born, the gravity of memory. Open a drawer to find an object belonging to a loved one long gone — his glasses, her locket — and we are touched once again by the ones we have loved. Modern science posits the possibility that quantum particles may be connected over vast distances. Poets and theologians have known something of the same sort for thousands of years.

After all, what is distance to God?

X-Rays streaming from the sun
X-Rays Streaming from the Sun

Three Strangers and Other Odd Notions

Trinity Sunday | John 16:12-15

Three Strangers and Other Odd Notions

God is one, and the one are three. Together they walk, in Trinity. –Folk Rhyme

The notion of the Trinity is one of the oddest ideas of Christianity. It’s a strange concept. You may well question the usefulness of it, whether there is any practical application. There is. Just stick with the theology for a minute.

Building on the older Jewish teaching that God is one, which was a contrast to the more common polytheism of the ancient world—Hear, O Israel, the Lord your God is One—Christianity developed the understanding that within this one being are the three persons of God: God the Father, God the Son, and God the Holy Spirit.

The Trinity, by Masaccio c.1427
The Trinity, by Masaccio c.1427

The descriptive references to the Father and Son and Holy Spirit are already present in various New Testament writings, but a fully developed idea of the Trinity took a while longer. For some three centuries, early Christian theologians debated and discussed the idea (modern theologians still do), trying to understand the relationship between each of the three persons of God, and trying to find language to express it.

Words like homoousios (ὁμοούσιος) and perichoresis (περιχώρησις) crept into Christian thought. The persons of God are homoousios—of the same substance or essence. They exist in perichoresis—in and around and interconnected to one another, distinct but inseparable.

Let’s put it this way. Christianity holds that God, in and of God’s self, before and after and outside of time and outside of all that is (if such concepts are imaginable), exists as one God in three persons, one being in three and three beings in one, in eternal relationship.

There is practical theology here. Thinking of God as the Trinity has powerful implications for what it means to be human.

At the center of God, within the irreducible idea of God, one does not find a singularity, a separate and lone being. On the contrary, at the center of God, one finds relationship.

That means, theologically speaking, that the entire basis of our universe is relational. The universe and everything in it is intrinsically relational, because it was all the creative expression of a God who is intrinsically relational.

Because God reveals God’s own self as relational, all of us are relational. To avoid relationship, to ignore the interconnectedness of all of us and of everything around us, is to lose the best part of ourselves, to miss the mark, to fail at being fully human.

Yes, you can reach a similar conclusion through psychology, or sociology, or philosophy, or ethics. All of those approaches tell us that to be intentionally connected to the people and society around us is healthy, beneficial, desirable. The theological approach—that we should practice relationship because we are the expression of a relational God—takes one more step. Being relational doesn’t just make us healthier or more balanced, and it doesn’t just make the world a safer and saner place. Being relational means that we are living in harmony with God, that we are, in fact, an expression of the creative will of God.

You might believe that God created an Adam and an Eve out of clay. You might believe that God used the same clay, the same stardust, over millenia, cell by cell and gene by gene, to form humanity. You might believe God had nothing to do with it. It doesn’t matter. In the end, none of these positions have a tremendous effect on the way you relate to other people and to yourself.

The idea of the Trinity? Far from being the esoteric past-time of religious intellectuals (not an oxymoron, despite the anti-intellectual behavior of some Christians), the theology of the Trinity is powerfully, insistently practical. To the extent that Christians embrace this revelation of God, we must embrace the world—all of the world.

That is to say, God as Trinity would have us embrace those who are not like us, those who do not look or act or sound like us, those who believe in God, those who believe in something other than God, those who believe in nothing at all. God would have us embrace all of these, including the least of these, the criminal, the poor, the broken, and the unlikeable.

It is in looking at our neighbors that we see God, and it is in reaching out to them that we touch God.

Song of a Man Who has Come Through

by D.H.Lawrence

Not I, not I, but the wind that blows through me!
A fine wind is blowing the new direction of Time.
If only I let it bear me, carry me, if only it carry me!
If only I am sensitive, subtle, oh, delicate, a winged gift!
If only, most lovely of all, I yield myself and am borrowed
By the fine, fine wind that takes its course though the chaos of the world
Like a fine, an exquisite chisel, a wedge-blade inserted;
If only I am keen and hard like the sheer tip of a wedge
Driven by invisible blows,

The rock will split, we shall come at the wonder, we shall find the Hesperides.

Oh, for the wonder that bubbles into my soul,
I would be a good fountain, a good well-head,
Would blur no whisper, spoil no expression.

What is the knocking?
What is the knocking at the door in the night?
It is somebody wants to do us harm.

No, no, it is the three strange angels.
Admit them, admit them.

Masaccio, The Trinity (closeup), c.1427
Masaccio, The Trinity (closeup), c.1427

Peace Like a Waterfall


Pentecost | John 14:8-27

Peace Like a Waterfall

We don’t always know what we have inside us. That is true in more ways than we care to imagine.

Science tells us that there are as many nonhuman cells in our bodies as human ones, at least by number if not volume. (Here’s a link to a recent article on Nature.com.) As repelling as the thought of trillions of bacteria roaming our skin and gullet may be, we appear to benefit from their presence. Something we usually don’t realize is there, something we think is alien to our biology, turns out to be essential to our well being.

Nature is astonishing. Icky, revolting, but also beautiful and astonishing.

Toward the end of his ministry, Jesus spoke to his followers about his eminent return to God, though what he said must have been baffling to the disciples. He spoke of sending an Advocate, another different aspect of God to dwell with them, alongside them, within them.

StreamThey must have wondered what he was talking about. There was no developed idea of a Trinitarian form of God. These disciples did not have any thought-out model of God as One in Three, no Father, Son and Spirit. His followers had barely wrapped their minds around the notion that this Jesus was himself, somehow, from God and of God. Now he was talking about sending someone else, the Spirit of God, to them.

They had some notion of the Spirit. The stories of the prophets prepared them a little. Elijah had the Spirit of God upon him, didn’t he? They had heard that much when the scripture was read. And didn’t Elisha, his servant, ask for a double portion of the Spirit to come upon him as Elijah left him? It was not an entirely new idea, but getting from those old stories, even in scripture, to one’s own life? That was a reach.

It is still a reach.

If we spend any time at all in the world of Christianity, then we become used to certain ideas. Sin is easy enough—we all have a pretty good grasp on how to fall short, and other people are generally helpful in pointing out our failings. Repentance, now, is a bit more difficult, especially as we often confuse our regret at being caught with the notion of genuine repentance. We tend to substitute belief for actual faith, preferring to cling to a litany of ideas about God rather than attempting, or expecting, to engage with God, particularly a God we cannot see or hear or touch. That last thought brings us to the problem of Pentecost—the Christian teaching about the Spirit of God falling onto the faithful.

In the book called Acts, we read of the Spirit falling upon the disciples like tongues of fire falling from the sky. Those on whom the fire fell, those imbued with the Spirit of God, are changed, empowered, and they begin acting and feeling and talking differently than before the fire fell. John’s Gospel tells another version, the minority report, if you will. Here, Jesus speaks of the Spirit in quiet conversation. He himself breathes on the disciples, telling them to receive the Spirit of God. There are no flames falling from the sky, no tumult in the marketplace, and the followers remain much as they were: quiet, thoughtful, perhaps wondering whether anything had changed.

We still wonder.

Come, they tell us, become a Christian, be baptized, receive the Spirit of God, and so we respond. And then we wait. Perhaps there is a feeling of euphoria at making a commitment. We may feel moved by the sensations of baptism, the water and the litany of words. Sooner or later, the feelings fail, and we are left wondering. Is there anything in us that is of God? Is the Spirit of God real if we cannot feel it, touch it?

Sitting by a stream, it is difficult to hear the sound it makes. If there is more water, a river instead of a stream, then we begin to perceive the susurrus of the water. The murmur of the water was there in the stream, of course, though we did not hear it.RapidsUnderTree

We become accustomed to sounds, even accustomed to the most astounding conditions, sounds, and sights. Stand by a waterfall long enough, and our minds grow used to the roar and crash of the water. It becomes something that we know is there, but that we no longer notice, like a heartbeat.

Science tells us that our minds have developed to mask the sound of our own heart. (Here’s a link to the short abstract of a recent article.) Otherwise, the sound of the organ that pumps to keep us alive would drive us insane. Perhaps that is something of the way the Spirit of God works—the masking part, not the insanity.

If God is real, if as Christianity claims God is greater than everything we can comprehend, then perhaps a true glimpse of God would leave us staggered, blind, insane. Instead, perhaps this Spirit of God who may sometimes, for a moment, flash like firelight, chooses to fill our lives like the sound of the wind in the leaves, or like the murmur of water flowing past. It may be that at Pentecost, and all the other days, we should not look for God on the mountain tops like Moses. God surely is on the mountains, if God is anywhere, but most of us do not live our lives up there.

We are more likely to hear the still small voice of God in the everyday things, the sunlight, birdsong, the voice of a stranger. Instead of expecting fire to fall from the sky, we should listen for the steady susurrus of the Spirit, the quiet murmur of God.


What We Were Told

Cave Painting of Lions - Chauvet

Seventh Sunday of Easter | John 17:20-26

What We Were Told

It sounds like a fairy tale, if you listen to it as though for the first time. A hero comes along, we are told, born like anyone else, but we hear that he is sent by God. More, we hear that he is himself God. It is a classic second birth story, like the duckling becoming a swan, or a girl becoming a princess, or a boy learning that he is a wizard. Then, just as our man becomes the hero we know him to be, he is killed by evil rulers, but as in any good fairy tale, he comes back to life—another second birth narrative.

So why should anyone believe that this particular fairy tale is true? Should we believe Jesus was God incarnate because people told us so?

A fair number of people do believe the gospel story simply because they were told to believe it. From the time they were children, their parents or family or friends told them it was true, and so they came to believe the gospel stories the same way they might have embraced Hindu gods or Muslim teachings had they been born into a different family or culture.

The Marriage at Cana by Gerard David
Marriage at Cana by Gerard David

Many people do not accept any religious ideas. Some of them grew up being told a religion was true, but they deconstructed their belief system as they grew older and cast it aside, disillusioned either with crude theology or with the hypocrisy of older so-called believers. Some of them were never taught any religion at all, or were taught that it is all just hocus pocus.

To put it another way, if we only believe in God because someone told us we should, is that faith? Does faith require something more than accepting what we’ve been told as though it is, well, gospel?

Of course, there is the opposite problem, recorded by the apostle Paul: “And how are they to believe in one of whom they have never heard?” (Romans 10:14) The entire history of religions is one of passing knowledge, thoughts, understanding from one person and one generation to another. “For I handed on to you…what I in turn had received….” (1 Cor 15:3)

If no one tells us the story, how can we believe it? And yet, just because someone tells us a story, is that any reason to believe it?

And what does it mean if we say we believe this gospel tale? Does it mean we insist on every detail? Do we argue over how to make the story John tells match up with the different one Mark gives us? Where is the truth in knowing what Jesus did, and where, and when?

Or is the truth that sets men free something different than a factual biography of Jesus? There are plenty of things in a gospel—narratives, quotations, prayers—but the gospels are not biographies any more than Genesis is a science text.

Hands Painted on Cave Wall, Argentina
Cave of the Hands, Argentina

The first miracle Jesus performs in John’s Gospel, the sign that marks the beginning of our hero’s quest, is turning water into wine. (This is not part of the other gospels. Mark and the other two synoptic gospels have different truths to tell.) In the story as told in John, the miracle is a simple thing, an act of grace performed at his mother’s request at the wedding of friends of the family. In John’s symbology, the wine that was water is huge, a theological symbol flowing throughout the Gospel.

Changing belief into faith is like changing water into wine. We start with a story as simple and clear as water, but when we take it in, the story changes. Any great story changes those who hear it, and when they pass it on, something of everyone who has heard it and retold it is passed along as well.

We hear about cave people living thousands of years ago, their animal skin clothing and stone tools, and it is an interesting story. Stand in one of their caves, look at the beautiful simplicity of the art they have left behind, and suddenly the story changes. Hearing about it, we believe the truth of what the archaeologists and anthropologists tell us. Standing in a cave, seeing a painted antelope or human handprint made with colorful clay on the cave wall, our belief changes to something like faith in humanity reaching back through the centuries.

We may believe that lions exist, but it took faith to create paintings like the ones on the walls of Chauvet Cave. Whoever left those images for us, we know with certainty that their lives were changed by the lions they encountered. We may believe that God exists, but we begin to have faith when our lives are changed by our encounters, even if all we see of God is like firelight on the walls of a cave.

Cave Painting of Lions - Chauvet
Painting of Lions, Chauvet Cave, France