Saturday, May 7, 2011

Open Eyes

When he was at the table with them, he took bread, gave thanks, broke it and began to give it to them. Then their eyes were opened and they recognized him, and he disappeared from their sight. (Luke 24.30-31)

A Fleeting Figure

Unlike the mortal Jesus, attentive Companion and Leader of His followers, the glorified Christ exhibits notably different behavior in the interim between the Resurrection and Ascension. The Gospels portray the Risen Christ as a fleeting Figure Who comes and goes at will, visiting briefly with the disciples before vanishing into thin air. We don’t know if our impression is reliable, however, since Christ’s activities during this period go oddly undocumented. Excluding personal visions after the Ascension, the number of post-graveside sightings total six or seven—depending on whether one counts Paul’s mention of 500 who see the Risen Christ (1 Corinthians 15.6) as a singular event or reference to the Galilee reunion reported in Matthew and later editions of Mark.

Only John seems to acknowledge spotty information about where Christ is, what Christ says and does, and with whom, may strike readers as curiously unsettling. In a lunge at covering the bases, he includes a disclaimer: “Jesus performed many other signs in the presence of his disciples, which are not recorded in this book. But these are written that you may believe that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God, and that by believing you may have life in his name.” (John 20.30-31) If we take John at his word, Christ’s earthly sojourn prior to Ascension is a busy time spent with the disciples, performing “many other signs.” Yet the admission he’s left out most of this final chapter merely heightens our sense that the mortal Jesus and glorified Christ are decidedly different in nature, as well as in how each relates to the disciples.


That New Testament writers don’t elaborate further on distinctions between the human Jesus and Risen Christ would unnerve us no end—were it not for John’s statement. The most detail-obsessed Gospel writer informs us more detail and examples of Christ’s pre-Ascension activity aren’t useful. He explains, “I’m telling you enough to believe [“to continue to believe” is a better translation] Jesus’s resurrection confirms He is The Living Christ. Faith in this alone, without scads of corroborating evidence, is how you receive life in His name.” By design, John and the other writers under-report what transpires from Easter to Ascension and emphasize Christ’s elusive behavior. The blanks are put there on purpose to facilitate faith in the absence of extensive testimony and evidentiary proof. We’re supposed to live with unanswered questions, because that’s how faith works.

When we closely observe the disciples’ interactions with the Risen Christ, however, we’re stunned by how often they don’t realize Whom they’re seeing. At the tomb, Mary Magdalene first mistakes Christ for a gardener. For the longest time, two disciples traveling from Jerusalem to Emmaus after the Resurrection have no idea their fellow Traveler is Christ. Thomas looks at Christ face-to-face, yet neither recognizes the Risen Lord nor trusts what he sees without tangible experience. Seven disciples who go fishing initially are unaware a Stranger they spot on the beach is Christ. How is it possible so many see Christ and draw blanks? The disciples’ inability to identify Christ becomes the Gospels’ closing theme. And when we put that together with John’s explanation, the theme becomes obvious. Sight doesn’t enable belief; belief enables sight. That’s the difference the writers want to stress. In the end, every moment Jesus lives—from manger to tomb—points toward Christ’s power to heal our dependency on visual perception. After Easter, the story shifts from what’s different about Christ to what’s different about us because of Christ.

Profoundly Intimate

The mistaken-identity stories turn on the same pivot: Christ is ultimately revealed in profoundly intimate words or gestures. When Mary hears Christ speak her name, she believes and sees. When Thomas is invited to touch Christ’s wounds, he believes and sees. When the fishing disciples take Christ’s advice, move to the opposite side of the boat, and haul in more fish than their nets can hold, they believe and see. Yet the most vivid example of these moments occurs with two previously unknown disciples—Cleopas and his companion. In the wake of an all-too-real crucifixion and rumored resurrection, they return home to Emmaus. When Christ catches up to them, they’re sorting through recent events and pretty much resigned that following Jesus was good while it lasted, but there’s no future in hanging around now that He’s gone. Christ answers their misgivings by reviewing prophecies of the Messiah’s crucifixion and resurrection.

This is Theology 101 for any disciple—basic curriculum Jesus covers in depth numerous times. It starts coming back, even though they’re still oblivious that Christ is helping them. As they near Emmaus, they entreat their new Friend to stay with them and continue their conversation. Christ does something they recall Jesus doing many times, most recently at His final dinner with the disciples: “He took bread, gave thanks, broke it and began to give it to them. Then their eyes were opened and they recognized him.” (Luke 24.30-31) The gesture arouses faith that sees what rumors and theology can’t reveal. Once their Friend’s true identity is known, Christ vanishes. The two disciples’ faith is restored and they immediately rejoin the others.

If our faith is contingent on visibly recognizing Christ’s presence in our world and lives—having answers to all the questions and filling in all the blanks—we’ll never find wherewithal to believe. Visual perception can’t detect Christ for one reason: to dispel misplaced confidence in what we naturally see. We perceive Christ in word and gesture—the whisper of our names, invitation to touch an extended hand, counsel to abandon fruitless efforts and alter our ways, and the offer of food for our souls. Responding to what Christ says and does enables us to recognize Who Christ is. In every believer’s life there are times when what we observe hobbles our ability to identify Christ. That’s why we closely attend to profoundly intimate words and gestures that come only from Christ. Then belief happens. Then we see with open eyes.

Recognizing the Risen Christ happens when faith happens. Sight doesn’t enable belief. Belief enables sight.

Thursday, May 5, 2011

Born in Zion

Indeed, of Zion it will be said, “This one and that one were born in her, and the Most High will establish her.” The LORD will write in the register of the peoples, “This one was born in Zion.” (Psalm 87.5-6)

Too Far

One can’t help wondering how the congregation reacts when the Sons of Korah—a musical brood David tasks with composing new hymns—trot out Psalm 87. The first stanza is terrific, an anthem to Jerusalem, which is at its zenith as Zion, the city of God crowned with Solomon’s breathtaking temple. But one imagines tilted heads, startled glances, and flat-out consternation as the song progresses. Are they hearing the lyrics correctly?

Dead-center of the psalm, the Korah Boys run down a short list of the Jews’ perennial adversaries: Rahab (a poetic allusion to Egypt), Babylon, Phlistia, Tyre, and Cush. With that, their hymn takes a surprising turn. Instead of proclaiming Jerusalem’s God-given superiority over her enemies, the song predicts she will claim them as her own: “Indeed, of Zion it will be said, ‘This one and that one were born in her, and the Most High will establish her.’” (v5)

Who are they kidding? Sure, Jerusalem’s rapid ascent as a glittering capitol increases the odds the Jews will finally win their neighbors’ respect. And it's entirely possible that people whose ancestors sought to destroy the city will one day peaceably conduct business and secure friendships with its citizens. But the Sons of Korah go too far by envisioning a time will ever come when Jews regard former foes as family. Other than big-city culture and (recently acquired) sophistication, they have nothing in common with these outsiders. They worship different gods. They eat different food. They subscribe to different values. They dress differently, act differently, think differently, talk differently, and hold different political views.

An Act of God

Accepting outsidersformer adversaries, no lessexpects the Jews to disavow their hatred of lifestyles that contradict everything they believe is holy. It ain’t gonna happen. Rejecting any variance from their way of life is baked into the national character. Besides, too much blood has been shed to protect Jewish traditions to back down now. The Sons of Korah apparently anticipate outraged response to their anthem, because they end its main chorus with a sobering fact. Acceptance is not an option Jerusalem has. It’s an act of God: “The LORD will write in the register of the peoples: ‘This one was born in Zion.’” (v6)

No one understands the transformative power of acceptance better than the Korah Boys. By all rights they have no business being near the Temple, let alone leading its worship. Their patriarch launched a revolt against Moses that ended in horrible death for him and his supporters; the earth split open and swallowed them alive. (Numbers 16) What’s more, the uprising is especially notorious for being a congregational coup: Korah tried to seize political power by forcing his way into the priesthood. Yet God’s grace becomes evident in the musical talents God invests in his survivors. They possess gifts that God’s people need. The unthinkable happens. David puts the Sons of Korah in charge of sacred songs, ordaining them as ministers in God’s house. They’re chief among the instruments God employs to reshape Israel’s liturgical customs and mindset to reflect its new era of spiritual maturity.

Thus, the topic of birthright is a vitally important to the Sons of Korah. For God to rewrite Jerusalem’s story to ensure their nemeses’ acceptance transcends religious, social, and political agenda. It attests to God’s grace—grace the Sons know first-hand. Based on their experience, it’s ridiculous to say, “It ain’t gonna happen,” when they know it can and will be done. By reframing inclusion as an act of God secured by divine writ, they change the conversation from piety to obedience. They ask, “Dare we cling to religious prejudices that defy God’s will?”

Embracing Spiritual Maturity

Not only are the Korah Boys confident inclusion can and will happen, they know how it happens. Psalm 87’s coda is their testimony of the impact God’s grace has on all who are welcomed into the faith community: “As they make music they will sing, ‘All my fountains are in you.’” (v7) Inclusion isn’t about embracing people we fear. It’s about embracing spiritual maturity that conquers fear—a new way of life all around. It calls for new songs we’d never dream of singing before we outgrew our childishness, opened our gates—which, according to verse 2, God loves more than all our dwellings—and widened our borders to include everyone.

“All my fountains are in you” is the zinger, since Jerusalem’s water source sits outside the city. When the Sons of Korah introduce this song, inside her walls she’s as a dry as a bone. God desires to fix that by enlarging her family with children she never knew she had—never conceived of having. God intends to force Zion’s expansion by rewriting her story. Her suspicious nature has blinded her to talents God invested in people she needs—people God wants to use to usher in her growth.

What Makes Radical Inclusion “Radical”

The Sons of Korah open their central chorus with, “Glorious things are said of you, city of God.” (v3) Yet by the song’s end, it’s very clear greater glory awaits her if—and it’s a big “if”—she overcomes her phobias and hatred in obedience to God’s will. Her success doesn’t rest on whether or not outsiders join the family. That’s a done deal; God sees to it. Zion’s future is solely predicated on her willingness to honor God’s desires and intentions. As history proves, stubborn refusal to obey repeatedly results in tragic downfall.

When we transpose Psalm 87 to a contemporary setting, Zion becomes the Church and its rivals become marginalized believers who frighten those clinging to heterosexist, patriarchal traditions. Through the centuries, the Church has constructed elaborate dwellings and doctrines—and shed much blood—to defend its insular way of life. But God loves its gates more than all its dwellings and has plans to expand the Church’s reach by rewriting her story, equalizing one and all by divine birthright. It’s time to make new music, sing new songs, and make room for new fountains.

While the inclusion battle rages, both sides fail to acknowledge their conflict is futile. What we do, believe, or prefer is ultimately immaterial. By divine writ, we are all born in Zion. We’re all members of God’s family. We all have divinely endowed gifts God wants to use and God’s people need to mature and grow. No one's shut out. Everyone's in. So the real issue isn’t whether we accept or reject one another, but whether or not we obey God’s will. One side needs to open up and the other needs to show up. Obedience, and only that, is what makes radical inclusion “radical.”

“Here is the church; here is the steeple; open the doors and see all the people” is more than a charming nursery rhyme. According to Psalm 87, it’s an act of God secured by divine writ.

Postscript: "How Many?"

(May 5; 4:30 PM CDT) Just before checking comments this afternoon, I opened an email with a link to the video below. In it, Minnesota State Representative Steve Simon challenges the wisdom and religiosity of his state's opponents to marital equality with moving--and remarkably sensible--conviction. The friend who forwarded the video link to me wrote, "Very eloquently put! Or better yet, just plain friendly!" I contemplated attaching the video here, but hadn't reached a decision, when I opened comments to find Sherry quoting Rep. Simon in her response. So, as the Bible says, "Out of the mouth of two witnesses..." I believe you'll find this well worth sharing.