Monday, May 5, 2014

Detoxifying the Good News

Scripture for the 2nd Sunday of Easter includes Acts 2:14a, 22-32; I Peter 1:3-9; John 20:19-31

At the back of the Book of Common Prayer is a section of questions and answers known as the Catechism. Here is one pair:

Q: What is the mission of the Church?
A: The mission of the Church is to restore all people to unity with God and each other in Christ.

So how good a job of restoring unity does our Gospel do, today?

I mean that in two ways. First, our Gospel portion heard today, specifically that first sentence: “and the doors of the house where the disciples had met were locked for fear of the Jews.” I said just “for fear” when I read it, but you who are students of the Bible—or readers of the insert—will have noticed what the text says.

Is this not a bucket of ice water in the face, the adversarial stance of this narrative? For heaven’s sake, every one of those disciples was a Jew, through and through. Who are these “other Jews” that our eleven apostolic ancestors were trying to lock out?

Since this was Jerusalem and those fellows were mostly from rural Galilee, the Jews to be locked out were city folks, perhaps educated, perhaps well-off and not dirt poor like most of the eleven, perhaps authorities in their own right (scribes, temple officials, members of the ruling council, the Sanhedrin—and therefore powerful, perhaps surrounded by hired security). I know, I’ve introduced enough perhapses there to make my point that any number of othernesses might help explain those locked doors.

And if you’ll tolerate one more: Perhaps this story told by our patron, St. John the Evangelist, is less the story of adversarial relations between disciples and fellow countrymen in the year 33 in the common era than it is the story of worsened—and worsening—adversarial relations several decades later between the early Church and the Jewish community at the time when John set his quill to the scroll of his Gospel. When reading the Bible, context is everything. For sure, the context of the first Easter was fraught with threat and terror; but the context of the actual text fast forwards us to a time of deepened and settled alienation between church and synagogue.

On the evening of that first Easter, there were no Christians on the inside of those locked doors. Those disciples inside were Jews: the Jesus movement begins as something new God is doing in Judaism. We’re told in the Book of Acts that it was in the Greek-cultured Syrian city of Antioch that followers of Jesus were first called Christians. The Book of Acts, written about the year 80, reports on events around the year 60, so for another three decades after Easter, the Jesus movement is still mostly a Jewish happening. Between then and the end of the 1st century, when we think John’s Gospel emerges, relations between church and synagogue have soured, and John’s narrative gets toxic on this subject. It’s not just that Jesus’s followers lock out the Jews: Jesus-followers are no longer welcomed in the synagogue, and the context is not one of interfaith dialogue, but of injury, hurt, animosity. Their relationship is in full rigor mortis. Worse than that, this alienation will become deadly, will eventually justify centuries of ethnic cleansing, once the Church’s official place in the Roman Empire carries with it the power of the sword, the power to persecute.

Thank God, this is not our context today. When I returned to my inbox on Easter Tuesday, after a day off raking the yard, I discovered a sweet Easter morning message from Rabbi Rachel Barenblat, wishing Diana and me, “ A blessed Easter. I find myself thinking again today of the two times I've been fortunate enough to attend St. John's on Easter morning. I know that your services will be beautiful. I hope that you and all who serve derive sustenance and blessing from your work today.”

And I replied, saying that I had thought of her on Easter Eve as we heard Vestry members read Elie Wiesel’s retelling of the Exodus story. It takes Wiesel, a Holocaust survivor, to tell how Moses led the vast company of freed Hebrew slaves right to the lapping shore of the Red Sea, then forebade them to enter it as slaves meeting their death, but called them to enter those waves as free men and women and children claiming life. That they must choose the spirit in which they faced and jumped into that sea, whose waters would either carry them or drown them: that while they could not control the elements before them as their paths cross the water, they could choose their attitude.
And so I thought of her again as one of Rachel’s poems about the Exodus came to me from Barbara, with its lines:

“It’s time to forget our anxieties
and leap off the precipice.
This is a story about change.
Even God is all about change—
I Am Becoming Who I Am Becoming.
It’s happening now. Open your eyes.”

“I Am Becoming Who I Am Becoming…” One way to translate YHWH, the sacred name of God.

So who are we becoming by the Gospel we proclaim? Agents of reconciliation, or perpetuators of animosity? We choose the first, and find freedom to wade into the language of the early Church, not as slaves of correctness but as people freed to commit to our own detoxification.

Along with Thomas, we open our eyes to recognize what God has done—and is doing—in the resurrection of Jesus Christ: commingling our fear with joy and creating of that conversion, that alchemy, that transformation reverence for God, for our fellow human beings, and for ourselves.

Fear teaches us to define ourselves over-against some other person, some other group of people, whom we are not. Fear locks the door and keeps it locked, to preserve our sense of who we are. Fear rolls in place the stone at the mouth of the tomb so we can tell we are the live ones. Fear builds higher the border fences and tightens the loopholes in immigration law so we know we are the citizens.

Joy unlocks the door, rolls away the stone, applies honesty and mercy to the measures of exclusion by which we protect ourselves from change that is already happening and yet will.

Moses urged his pilgrim people to choose their attitude as they stood at the edge of death and life. Jesus calls us to choose our attitude as we bear his name and mission, representing his good news in our friendships, workplaces, entries, and unexpected encounters in a world urgently in need of what God makes of our fear and our joy at Easter: reverence for all.