Monday, May 4, 2015

Radical Equality, Radical Reverence

Scripture for the 5th Sunday of Easter includes Acts 8:26-40; I John 4:7-21; John 15:1-8

Read the New Testament and it won’t take you long to notice how often the Hebrew Bible is quoted in the Christian writings of the early Church. The Jesus Movement happened within first-century Judaism. What by mid-century came to be called Christian was first Jewish, for the pioneer and perfecter of our faith is a Jew, Jesus of Nazareth.

And the Book of the Prophet Isaiah is, along with the Book of Psalms, a frequent source of these quotations. A quick scan reveals 22 locations where Matthew, Mark, Luke, John, and Paul, the top rock band of the New Testament, sing to a new tune the old yet ever-new lyrics of Isaiah and actually credit him as their source. Who knows how many, many, more times Isaiah’s thought is paraphrased, working its way into the Good News organically because these troubadors of Christ had heard the prophet since their childhood?

And it’s not as if these liftings are minor footnotes to the Christian story. Here are five examples.

“ Jesus left Nazareth and made his home in Capernaum by the sea, in the territory of Zebulun and Naphtali, so that what had been spoken through the prophet Isaiah might be fulfilled: ‘Land of Zebulun, land of Naphtali, on the road by the sea, across the Jordan, Galilee of the Gentiles--the people who sat in darkness have seen a great light, and for those who sat in the region and shadow of death light has dawned.’” (Matthew 4:13-16)

“(And he) cured all who were sick. This was to fulfill what had been spoken through the prophet Isaiah, ‘He took our infirmities and bore our diseases.’” (Matthew 8:16-17)

“Many crowds followed Jesus… and he ordered them not to make him known. This was to fulfill what had been spoken through the prophet Isaiah: ‘Here is my servant, whom I have chosen, my beloved, with whom my soul is well pleased. I will put my Spirit upon him, and he will proclaim justice to the Gentiles. He will not wrangle or cry aloud, nor will anyone hear his voice in the streets. He will not break a bruised reed or quench a smoldering wick until he brings justice to victory.” (Matthew 12:15b-20)

“As it is written in the book of the words of the prophet Isaiah, ‘The voice of one crying out in the wilderness: “Prepare the way of the Lord, make his paths straight. Every valley shall be filled, and every mountain and hill shall be made low, and the crooked shall be made straight, and the rough ways made smooth, and all flesh shall see the salvation of God.”’” (Luke 3:4-6)

“When Jesus came to Nazareth, where he had been brought up, he went to the synagogue on the sabbath day, as was his custom. He stood up to read, and the scroll of the prophet Isaiah was given to him. He unrolled the scroll and found the place where it was written, ‘The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to bring good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim release of the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.’ And he rolled up the scroll, gave it back to the attendant, and sat down. The eyes of all… were fixed on him. Then he began to say to them, ‘Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.’” (Luke 4:16-21)

These are not minor brush strokes: These are solid background and lustrous foreground on the canvas of the Good News of God in Jesus Christ. And what do our New Testament authors’ use of Isaiah illuminate? They show who the Christ is, what he comes for, and what our mission is within the new life he opens to us.

This is big stuff. And there’s no more exciting example of this transformative messaging than today’s story of the Ethiopian royal treasurer. You notice how I introduce this man, who is without a name. I mean, who ever would introduce such an important person by calling attention to a missing body part? The long shelf life of that disadvantage he suffered, the institutionalized violence he would bear for a lifetime, makes sense only if this is understood to be a story of what God wants us to do about human discrimination, about the injustice of keeping marginalized people under control.

What is he reading? He has borrowed from the royal library—or perhaps is well-off enough that he can afford his own—a scroll of the prophet Isaiah. “Like a sheep he was led to the slaughter, and like a lamb silent before its shearer, so he does not open his mouth. In his humiliation justice was denied him. Who can describe his generation? For his life is taken away from the earth.”

“About whom does the prophet speak?” he asks the apostle Philip, who has popped up on this wilderness road, despatched by the Holy Spirit, and has accepted the Ethiopian’s invitation to step up into his chariot and help him understand what the scripture means. “Does the prophet say this about himself, or about someone else?”

Here is where I once heard brilliant teaching by Lutheran preacher and scholar Barbara Lundblad. She surprised an audience of several hundred of us at the Chautauqua Institute, one steamy summer day. We were used to the idea that Isaiah gets quoted a lot in the New Testament in order to strengthen the Christian claim that Jesus Christ fulfills the Jewish law and prophets. Barbara went deeper.

“Dry trees,” she told us. That’s what they called men who had been made eunuchs in order to serve in the royal harem. Barbara invited us to imagine the snickering that went with that put-down. In a culture that equated having many children with having God’s favor, a culture that saw its children ensuring the future of family, tribe, and nation, a dry tree was counted as less than a whole person, no present standing in the eyes of God or the nation, no future claim to live on in his children. The Ethiopian stands in a long time line of people, many people, especially resident aliens, being counted not as whole persons, but as three-fifths of a person, and treated accordingly.

Barbara Lundblad had pretty much climbed up into that chariot by now, and said, “Boys, let me show you something. You’re trying to understand Chapter 53 of Isaiah. If you scroll down to chapter 56, listen to what you find there: “Do not let the foreigner joined to the LORD say, ‘The LORD will surely separate me from his people;’ and do not let the eunuch say, ‘I am just a dry tree.’ For thus says the LORD: To the eunuchs who keep my Sabbaths, who choose the things that please me and hold fast my covenant, I will give, in my house and within my walls, a monument and a name better than sons and daughters; I will give them an everlasting name that shall not be cut off. And the foreigners who join themselves to the LORD, to minister to him, to love the name of the LORD, and to be his servants, all who keep the sabbath, and do not profane it, and hold fast my covenant—these I will bring to my holy mountain, and make them joyful in my house of prayer… for my house shall be called a house of prayer for all peoples…” (Isaiah 56:3-7)

The Ethiopian’s heart resonates perfectly with Isaiah’s portrait of a man suffering humiliation and the denial of justice. “About whom, may I ask you, does the prophet says this, about himself or about… someone else?”

The early Church’s evangelists wanted their hearers to say, “It is about Jesus that Isaiah writes!” Barbara Lundblad sensed that the eunuch was daring to wonder, “Could this be true of me? Can the humiliating power of discrimination be overcome in me?”

Philip’s answer must have persuaded this man of the radical equality of all people in the eyes of God, whose only requirement of us is that we embrace the covenant love that embraces us, and extend that great chain of giving respect and care, freely, generously, and unearned, to all people and to all creatures. The Ethiopian embraces this new vision, this new life: When he sees a pool of water, he cries out, “What is to prevent me from being baptized?”

To that, the answer is only that he stop his chariot, step off the treadmill of his old thinking, recognize in himself and in others the image of God, let God flush away the toxins swallowed over years of ill treatment, prejudice, exclusion, and contempt.

Just don’t miss this, added Barbara: This was a wilderness road, a desert road. One does not expect to find pools of water along a road like this. It is purely by God’s grace that this man goes down into water he could never have expected, and rises new.

Such grace had prompted Philip to be on that road, to be open to whomever he found there, to renounce the safe distance people keep from each other. Such grace had stirred the Ethiopian to hunger and thirst for right understanding of the way of God, and such grace had humbled him to welcome help towards that understanding.

Such grace keeps happening because of the love of God for the whole creation. It keeps happening because Jesus Christ walks our wilderness roads with us. Such grace keeps happening because faith and hope and love are inherently and relentlessly stronger than fear.

Such grace reveals the radical equality of all people, and the power of radical reverence for all life. How we build with these givens, how they free us and bind us must be worked out on city streets, in the chambers of government, in our response to global crises, in sharp debate, in the rainbow of the arts and in the stewardship of science, in the ethics of private wealth and commonwealth, in the power of peacemaking and in the peaceable use of power.

Because given to us also are the responsibility and the opportunity and the desperate need to build the all-embracing community of justice seen and served by Isaiah and the prophets, by Jesus and the apostles, and the countless circle of people over many centuries who have let themselves be embraced by the love of God.