Touching Fire

Prometheus Bound by Peter Paul Rubens, c.1611-1618, Philadelphia Museum

Thirteenth Sunday after Pentecost | Luke 12:49-56

If the path before you is clear, you’re probably on someone else’s. — Joseph Campbell

The Greeks told the story of the Titan Prometheus stealing fire from the gods and giving it to men. He knew that the gift of fire would raise humanity to a new plane, and he knew that he would be condemned to eternal torment for his gift. To put it another way, Prometheus sacrificed himself for the good of humanity. It is a hero tale that in many ways foreshadows the story of Jesus.

Fire is such a strange thing. It seems to have all of the qualities of a living being—it grows, consumes, even reproduces itself. Fire seems to move of its own will, dancing, even speaking to us with the crackling voice of heat. Fire is sometimes a result, sometimes a cause. Either way, it changes things.

Fire may define what it means to be human. We once said that our use of tools separated us from other animals, but then we began watching apes more closely. And otters. And crows. We talked about our problem-solving abilities, but there were still the apes, the otters, and the crows, not to mention octopi escaping from aquariums and opening jars with their sucker lined arms. We went on and on about our opposable thumbs, as though we had produced them ourselves from sheer will and determination, but then we noticed raccoons calmly opening our trash cans, and we gave up talking about thumbs so much. A few souls pointed out that we farm and keep livestock and train animals to work for us, but even ants tend aphids, milking them for whatever one milks from an aphid. Then we noticed the cats, watching us with amusement as we performed the duties they had trained us to do.

Not even cats have learned to use fire.

One of my grandmothers had a fiery disposition. If she loved you, all was warm and well in your world. If she disapproved, or worse, if she thought a thing truly wrong—taking advantage of the weak was one of the worst sins—then she would flare up, hot with anger. She was a remarkable woman, and she changed things. She refined the people around her.

Folio 14v of the Rabula Gospels (Florence, Biblioteca Mediceo Laurenziana, cod. Plut. I, 560), Pentecost
Pentecost, from the Rabula Gospels, 6th century

Scripture often describes God in terms of fire, but never as ice, not that I have ever found. It cannot be simply that ancient Judeo-Christian writers were men and women who lived in warm climates. Ice has more to do with death than with life; no one ever tried to gather ice in order to stay alive, unless one counts the igloos of the far north, but even there it is the warmth inside that keeps people alive.

The same fire that burns chaff will bake bread. Fire gives warmth, gives light, consumes. It creates and destroys.

When Jesus says he has come to bring fire, he likely means something of both—creation and destruction. Perhaps it is impossible to do the one without the other. Some things need tearing down, refining. The heat of a forge destroys the old nature of metals even as it creates new qualities.

Sometimes we just need to bring a little light into a dark corner. Sometimes we need to bake our bread or forge a new life. Sometimes we need to burn the whole house down.

The Jesus story is about freeing and forging, burning down barriers and lies and the walls of our own self-deception. It is the story of burning coals and the catharsis of fire, but it is also the story of a smaller fire within us, the lamp lighting our path. Reaching out to God is like touching fire. The fire of the Spirit may refine us or consume us or light our path, all depending on our response.

Prometheus Bound by Peter Paul Rubens, c.1611-1618, Philadelphia Museum
Prometheus Bound by Peter Paul Rubens, c.1611-1618

The Stones That Weigh Us Down

Stones in river

Eighteenth Sunday after Pentecost | Mark 9:38-50

The Stones That Weigh Us Down

Lectionary Project—Part of an ongoing three year project of weekly posts based on the Gospel reading from the Revised Common Lectionary. A study in practical theology.

John said to him, “Teacher, we saw someone throwing out demons in your name, someone who does not follow us, and we forbade him because he does not follow us.”

Mark gives us such odd things. Why have John say this to Jesus? Why not just ascribe it to the disciples in general—they came and said this to Jesus?

Perhaps, if early church tradition is correct and Mark was Peter’s disciple, it is simply because Peter remembered it that way, and Mark recorded what Peter had told him. Perhaps we are meant to see that John, later famous for preaching love, was once not so keen on love himself. Perhaps we’ve got it wrong, and John was not complaining about the rogue exorcist; maybe John came tattle tale to Jesus and threw the other disciples under the bus for rebuking the fellow.

We see that the unnamed exorcist is managing what the disciples have just failed at doing. Perhaps they did not rebuke him for being an outsider, but for succeeding where they themselves had failed.

You have to love the disciples. They are so much like us, so prone to selfishness and to failure.

Jesus throws them some encouragement, telling them that just giving someone a cup of water to drink can be an act of faith. They may not have cast out demons, but surely they could manage a cup of water or a crust of bread.

Then Jesus goes off in a different direction. In Mark’s Gospel, he is always the Jesus they know and the one they do not.

cropped-Surf11.jpgIt is better to tie a great stone around your neck and be thrown into the sea, he says, than to lead a child astray. It is better to cut off your foot or your hand, he says, or to tear out your own eye, if they cause you to go astray—better your body be maimed than your spirit. It is hyperbole, we hope, throwing out images that are over the mark, clear exaggerations, and such astounding word-pictures that we cannot forget them.

In hell the worm never dies, he tells them. In hell the fire is never quenched. It is not at all clear that the hell Jesus describes is a future thing, a one day place. He invited people to join him presently in the kingdom of God. If the kingdom of God is at hand, why should hell have to wait? We may walk, maimed or whole, in either.

Looking at a person’s face, can we see the landscape of his soul? Sometimes we might. Sometimes joy or pain is so etched in faces we see that we know where the souls behind them are walking. Hell is where our doubts gnaw at us. Hell is where our regrets burn us. We cannot say what is within another person, and who knows how many souls try to walk a narrow valley between water and fire?

We are lost ourselves. How can we help but lead others astray?

Candle in SaltHave salt within you, Jesus says. Be seasoned, be preserved, be kept whole.

There is so much symbolism in salt: purity, preservation, consecration, friendship. But do not forget the great salt sea, deep and ever moving and as treacherous as the people lost beneath its waves, held there by the weight of regrets like millstones.

We might start cutting things off, like the notion that we are smarter than we are, or better than our neighbor, or more deserving than the strangers at our doors. We might throw away eyes that only see faults. We might throw away feet that step on hope.

We might let go of the stones we throw. In the end, they only weigh us down.

Stones in river

Better Unseen

Day of Pentecost  |  John 15:26-27; 16:4b-15

Lectionary Project—Part of an ongoing three year project of weekly posts related to the Sunday reading from the Revised Common Lectionary. A study in practical theology.

Sparkler HandsOn this Sunday, the Church celebrates the Day of Pentecost. The Christian remembrance of this day depends upon accounts left by the early followers of Jesus, leaderless after his crucifixion. They told of experiencing the presence of the Spirit of God in ways that make little sense to modern readers. To make the matter more mysterious, the accounts do not even agree with one another.

According to the book of Acts, something “like tongues of fire” appeared to these earliest Christians, or happened to them, or by some other difficult to describe experience changed them. Afterward they left off their new practice of withdrawing from society, as they had done partly in fear of persecution and partly for lack of a clear idea of what else to do, and went out among the streets and people of Jerusalem, telling everyone that Jesus had been resurrected.

That makes a string of odd experiences.

John recalls the events differently. In the verses outlined by the lectionary, Jesus tells these same followers that he is leaving them, and that only when he has left them will they come to know another aspect of God, the Advocate, the Spirit of truth. In this Gospel, after the crucifixion a resurrected Jesus and some of his followers are gathered in a room when he breathes on them—another peculiar detail—and tells them to receive the Holy Spirit.Candle in Salt

The New Testament accounts are not clear, and they do not tell quite the same story. We might agree that something happened to change the way these earliest Christians understood the presence of God. We might agree precisely because of the lack of agreement in the texts—if these folks were making it all up, surely they would have done a better job of getting the details down, but their focus appears to have been on the result, not the method.

Whether some of these people had a visual or physical experience of fire, or were merely expressing their experience in such language, or were more apt to describe some quieter occurrence as in the Gospel of John, all of them claimed that something happened. More to the point, these early Christians began to behave in a different way—something changed in them and something changed in the way they related to the people and the world around them—and as a result our own civilization changed with them. Whatever they experienced was powerful enough to change history.

Oddly, in this passage of John’s Gospel, Jesus tells his followers that “…it is helpful to you that I go away.” The word translated as helpful, or as to your advantage, literally means bring together. (Even today, to ‘get it together’ means something a little different than what the words convey.) We find a version of the same term in Acts 19:19 — “…those who had practiced magic arts brought together their books and burned them….” The greater oddness of that passage aside, it is interesting to think that the words of Jesus have a double meaning: it is to your advantage and it will bring you together.

SparksAt a stretch, then, we might translate the verse this way: But I tell you the truth, you will be brought together if I go….

Whatever the meaning, that was the effect.

Watching a teacher is a good way to learn, but we don’t really know something for ourselves until we do it for ourselves. Hearing the gospel taught, listening to the words, is not the same as living and sharing the gospel. Hearing that God draws near to us, whether we recognize the moment or not, is not the same as internalizing it, having faith that it is so. Hearing that our failures can be redeemed, that there is always an opportunity for grace, is not the same as accepting it, walking with it.

The followers of Jesus got it together when he left them. When we hope to experience love and grace and God in our lives, sometimes the best thing we can do is to get out of the way.

Holding Sparklers

Breathe

Second Sunday of Easter  |  John 20:19-31

Lectionary Project—Part of an ongoing three year project of weekly posts related to the Sunday reading from the Revised Common Lectionary.

There are stories of fire that fell from the sky onto the heads of the faithful. It was not a fire that burned them, not as one would think of it, not as some of the onlookers might have hoped. (Religious differences bring out the worst in people.) This fire was the Spirit of God, or so it is claimed in the book of Acts—but that will be the lectionary passage for the observance of Pentecost, May 24 of this year.

Fire that only burned within and did not scorch the skin—it sounds like a metaphor.

John tells a different story. In this Gospel a small group of believers gathered in a house, behind closed doors. Jesus, the same one who was crucified, comes to them somehow and breathes on them, telling them to receive the Holy Spirit of God. He points out the marks of his torture to remove any doubts of his identity, such as the doubts of Thomas who had the good sense to want to see this living Jesus for himself.

Jesus breathed on them, as only the living can. Air from his lungs, the Spirit of God—it sounds like another metaphor.

There is a greeting in parts of the world where two people press their foreheads and noses together to share a breath. It may have nothing to do with this Jesus story. It does tell us something about the centrality of breathing. The beating of our hearts, the air we breathe, nothing about us continues without these things.

Like the bumper sticker says, just keep breathing.

Whichever version we read, John’s tale of Jesus breathing on his followers or the story in Acts with tongues of fire falling from the sky, the result is the same. Afterward something was different. These earliest Christians went out and began talking about what they knew of God, of this Jesus, of everything they had seen and heard and touched, to everyone they met, everywhere they went, so long as they drew breath.

Something had changed in them. Something drove them out of their rooms, their homes, their comforts, their habits.

Something.A galaxy on the edge

The scripture writers claim that it was the Spirit of God. Radically differing in appearance and path, by breath or by fire or by touch of hand or sight, the New Testament people spoke of experiencing and witnessing what they described as the Spirit of God entering into themselves and into the people around them. What they described was not possession by a greater power. It was not acquisition of some greater power. It was transcendence.

Their existence changed.

They became different. The power that they believed resurrected Jesus had also resurrected their lives, lifting them from the mundane into the extraordinary. The resurrection stories of Jesus often mention that it was difficult to recognize him, though there is little explanation as to why. Perhaps that is because little or no explanation was needed for people living such transformed lives that they no longer even recognized themselves.

The breath of God. Many would dismiss such a concept as delusional. Perhaps Jesus was a good man, they say, but leave God out of it. There is no proof of God, they say, nothing to demonstrate that we did not create the idea of God out of our own need. There is no argument that can totally refute such thinking, no logic that can overwhelm such rational doubt.

Scientists tell us that when we breathe we take in elements that have come, as everything within us has, from the stars. The oxygen that sustains us may contain atoms that sustained Marilyn Monroe or George Washington or Jesus or the Buddha. In every breath we touch on something eternal.

We are miraculous. We are ordinary. We are living stardust. We are imbued with the breath of God.

At the end of the lectionary passage for this week’s reading, there is a confession, a reason given as to why this Gospel of John was written down at all: these things are written that you may come to believe that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God, and that through believing you may have life in his name.

That we might believe, that we may have life, is the whole purpose of the Gospel. You might say we were already alive without hearing it.

Tennyson wrote, As though to breathe were life! There is more to living than existence. That, too, is the message of John’s Gospel. Feel the wind and know it for more than weather—for you it is the breath of God. See the stars and know them for more than engines of the expanding universe—for you they are the sparks of life.

Do more than remember to breathe. Remember to live.

ExplodingStar_GKPerseiNova_NASAimage

Kingdom of the Least

Fifth Sunday After Epiphany  |  Matthew 5:13-20

There is no privacy around God.

God is in our houses and in our Salt Fireyards, on the sidewalk, at our offices and workplaces. Worst of all, God is in our minds, the little corners and dark boxes of our hearts where we thought we had hidden the things that would make other people think less of us. Or point at us. Or at the very least pretend that they are better than us and would never do, never think, never feel the terrible and the petty things that we have done and thought and felt.

God has known them all, and that may be the most terrifying aspect of God.

If Jesus is to be believed, God knows these things and loves us, without reservation. Knowing all of it, God loves us.

For some, that is great and well received news, the gospel itself. For the rest of us, not so sure about receiving unabashed love from an unseen God, it takes some getting used to.

Salt. Light. Cities on hills. These are tasted, seen, entered into, or they are of no purpose. Jesus says that if we are not seen,  if our lives cannot be touched and tasted, if we are not open to other people, then we are of little use.

There is so little privacy around people anyway, we say. Our lives are open, we are seen, and more than we care to know is known about us. Most of us may be read as plainly as these words may be read, if a person has learned the skill of reading.

The law was clear. Leviticus and Deuteronomy. (That should be an exclamation—“Leviticus and Deuteronomy! — along the lines of “Jumpin’ Jehoshaphat!”)

We read all of those rules the ancient people lived by — what to eat, what to wear, most of all how to act toward other people, toward God — and we hear Jesus saying that if we have broken the least rule, then we are the least soul in God’s kingdom, at the bottom of the great heap of souls.

We are all on the bottom of the heap. This heap has no top, not even a middle, just flat bottom all the way.

Yet the law itself was not meant as a burden. The law was a way of life, the way of life, the way to live in this life. It was not a means to an end, not a key that fits the gate of the next life.

How then could this man Jesus be the fulfillment of the way to live? What does it mean to fulfill the way of life?

Life was never about the rules. It is always about the love.

Do not murder, since it is against the rules, we say? Love one another, and we will not cause harm.

They will not hurt or destroy on all my holy mountain; for the earth will be full of the knowledge of the LORD as the waters cover the sea. — Isaiah 11:9