Tuesday, May 30, 2017

Ascension Sunday 2017: The Awakening of the Soul

Acts 1:1-11  
Ephesians 1:15-23
Luke 24:44-53

"If you bring forth what is within you, what you bring forth will save you.  If you do not bring forth what is within you, what you do not bring forth will destroy you."  Jesus, “Gospel of Thomas”

The “Gospel of Thomas” is among a collection of books from what is known as the “Nag Hammadi Library”, named for the Egyptian town near a cave in which this collection was discovered in 1945.  The story goes that these Gnostic books were hidden for the sake of preservation during a time in the late 3rd, early 4th-century during which St. Athanasius had declared war on any writings not found in the established and authorized scriptural canon. 

I have read some of the “Gospel of Thomas”, and the only objection I have is it is only a collection of sayings of Jesus, many of which can be found in the Gospel accounts we are more familiar with.  What is lacking in these “sayings” is context.  We do not know the whole story. 

This is one of the many challenges the Church faces; quoting the Scriptures without understanding, or at least acknowledging, the context from which a particular verse came.  Lacking appropriate context is how we can quote the Bible and completely change the meaning of a text to fit whatever narrative we are comfortable with.  Such a practice does not challenge us to climb.  To the contrary, it convinces us to settle.

There is also another saying.  “Once the soul awakens, the search begins and [we] can never go back.  From then on, [we] are inflamed with a special longing that will never again let [us] linger in the lowlands of complacency and partial [or subjective] fulfillment.  The Eternal makes [us] urgent.  [We] are loath to let compromise or [even] the threat of danger hold [us] back from striving toward the summit of fulfillment” ~ John O'Donohue, Anam Cara: A Book of Celtic Wisdom 

As we shared last week, it is the Eternal, the Everlasting we seek and which will only be found in The Eternal Word.  We’ve had more than enough of the doctrinal cotton candy which has made us fat with knowledge and lazy in false comfort but very weak in faith; and I say “weak in faith” not because we do not claim to believe something but because perhaps we have learned to believe the wrong things, the things which may satisfy our “itching ears” (2 Timothy 4:3) but will do nothing for our troubled souls.  It is the very thing St. Athanasius believed he was guarding against in the early days of the Church.

The problem with Gnosticism, as the early Church Fathers saw it, is that too much emphasis is placed on knowledge and not enough attention given to faith.  The difference is that knowledge is something we can acquire by our own efforts, but faith is a Divine Gift given from Above.  Some may suggest the measure of faith is in coming to know something for which we lack any tangible evidence, but that may be putting inappropriate weight on the passage in the Letter to the Hebrews in which it is written, “Faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen” (Hebrews 11:1).

That is, we do not know what is “hoped for” and we do not know of “things not seen”, yet we trust that what has been revealed to us so far is only an indication of even greater things to come.  So it is often said that within us all is an unspoken yearning for something we innately desire; to be in fellowship with our Creator.  So it stands to reason that if this much is true, then there is something within us that seeks to be set free.  As it is written, “You will know the Truth, and the Truth will set you free” (John 8:32).  The Truth we will come to know … only if we choose to strive for it, to reach up for the “summit of fulfillment”.

Sometimes we think we know a little too much to the point that this sense of absolutes in knowledge tends to make us a little too arrogant for the humility sufficient to keep our souls burning with desire.  This is because once we think we possess absolute knowledge, we become less dependent on our Creator, the very Source of our being, and more dependent on our own minds, our own knowledge, acquired by our own means.  We no longer hope for what we think we have already attained.  The search, such as it may have been, ends prematurely because what we ultimately hope for – our own Ascension – is still beyond our grasp ... because we chose to settle for “good enough”.

Yet our Ascension will be the only point at which we will finally be completely freed from all worldly encumbrances, all chains and shackles of cultural norms and inappropriate temptations which bind us and prevent us from living fully into the Life to which we are called and for which we are created. 

So it cannot be enough for us to know Jesus has ascended into Heaven, and it is not enough to know Jesus “will come in the same way you saw Him go into Heaven” (Acts 1:11).  There must be room for faith.  There must be room for wonder, for mystery … for awe; for whatever it is that is within us already can only be awakened by a sense of astonishment that is never settled, never quite comfortable, and always thirsty for that which does not pass with each popular fad but is consistently upward and always assures us we are on the right path. 

It is that which cannot be taken from us, cannot rust or rot, and whose meaning is not determined by a popular vote, a strong opinion, a cultural norm, or a US Supreme Court ruling.  It is that which always ascends upward and never settles for parallel and certainly never descends.  Adam was created to ascend upward but when he became distracted by even the created order perverted by a sense of personal gain and personal pleasure or just wanting to “go along to get along”, so began his descent.  As he could have been sustained by The Word, he had been judged by The Word for seeking knowledge instead of living in faith.  He was judged by the very Word which had yet to become flesh but was, as it is written, “in the beginning with God”.

A Catholic writer (Douglas Farrow) pointed out that “the Ascension is a political statement: Jesus is the True Ruler, enthroned as King above the earth. ‘Let the rulers of this world, together with those who are ruled, be placed on notice.  And let the people of The Lord take heart and rejoice!’ (Wisdom of Solomon).  He who reigns on high has told us we are his Body on earth.” 

So Jesus’s Ascension isn’t even a religious event with a spiritual significance, though it must be regarded as a Holy Day of Obligation.  Rather, the Ascension fulfills the human vocation to become The Father’s Prince ruling The Father’s universe - and we as “co-heirs” to that very Throne (Romans 8:17) … if we follow Him faithfully upward.

All of this becomes more and more clear for the soul which finally awakens to the Truth and acknowledges that what is within us is the hunger and the thirst for righteousness, for salvation, for some measure of knowledge that there is more but with the assurance of faith that our seemingly never-ending quest will never be in vain and will always be satisfied.  “Seek, and you will find.  Ask, and it will be answered.  Knock, and the door will be opened for you.” 

From this moment, let us never again “settle”.  Let us never again allow our friends and families and neighbors to “settle”.  Let us strive to awaken what is already within us so we may awaken the entire neighborhood, the entire town, the entire world!  Because even though there is something to know, we must have the faith enough to realize there is even more and there will always be more than what is before us. 

It is within us not to merely exist but to really live well and faithfully.  No preacher can awaken the Church; he or she can only sound the alarm.  Only the Church can choose to awaken to what is already within.  And when the Church is fully awake, so will the community it serves awaken.  Only then will we continue to ascend to the “summit of fulfillment”.  Only then will we really live in Christ the Eternal Word.  For now and forever.  Amen.

Monday, May 08, 2017

For and Against: the deception of Unity

7 May 2017 – 4th Sunday of Easter   

Acts 2:42-47     
1 Peter 2:18-25
John 10:1-10                                                                                                                                  

“If a house is divided against itself, that house cannot stand.”  Mark 3:25

So says our Lord also taught, “Whoever is not against us is for us” (Mark 9:40), indicating perhaps that as allegiance to Christ goes, there can be no middle ground, no kinda/sorta; we are for Him or against Him. 

To proclaim full allegiance to Christ, however, must go beyond a baptismal or confirmation vow; and this allegiance far exceeds what is expressed in any written creed.  The reason is simple: allegiance to Christ involves much more than only an expressed common belief in the Person of Jesus or the concept of a strictly “personal” relationship with Christ that involves no other.

After all the dancing around and making hay of the latest UM Judicial Council ruling which no one seems completely satisfied with, it occurred to me the underlying issue is not at all about a particular social topic.  Social topics are more often distractions, incidental to the whole of who we really are. No, the issue we are confronted with is fidelity.  But fidelity to what?  Or to Whom? 

One “side” says faithfulness to the UM Book of Discipline (BOD) is of the utmost importance since it is what defines us as United Methodist Christians; the BOD is our common covenant of accountability, heritage, and doctrine.  The BOD is not scriptural, however, but is an expression of what we believe to be true and righteous according to scriptural principles.

The other “side” claims the BOD should evolve as humanity evolves.  Ironically, both “sides” claim the authority of the Bible and allegiance to Christ.  The problem we seem to be having is that few of us possess the sufficient humility to admit that when it comes to Truth, we are probably more aligned with Pontius Pilate who, in the very face of Truth, still asked the troubling question, “What is truth?”

Our Lord did not claim to be telling the truth or representing the truth; He said, “I AM the … Truth”.  Our sense of being in any semblance of unity must be found first in this simple yet profound declaration.  Our commonality, however, cannot be found in our agreement that Jesus actually said this.  Rather we can only be truly united in seeking to understand what Jesus actually meant. 

Our opinions do not wield the same power.  That we all “believe” Jesus, even as far apart as we may be on any given issue, still does not quite reach the level of wisdom we all lack, desperately need, but fail to seek.  As “doctrinally” or even as “politically” correct as we may smugly claim or think ourselves to be, it is possible – perhaps even likely – that we are further from the Truth than we would admit, further from the Truth than we are actually aware. 

In John’s Gospel, Jesus draws us into a conversation that requires some real thought in faithful engagement (John 10:1-10).  First we must realize our Lord is speaking to an entire people – NOT to any particular person.  When Jesus refers to calling out His sheep “by name”, He is not speaking of “Billy” or “Betty”; He is referring to Israel, the entire congregation. 

And what is most important, I think, in looking more deeply into what is being expressed, is to know our God’s anointed One is The Standard.  At this point of discovery, He has not granted to any individual the right to decide for himself or herself what is most important.  The call is still, “Follow Me”.  To my knowledge, and as far as the Scriptures go, that call has yet to change.

“I am the sheepfold”.  “I am the gate”.  “I am the shepherd”, our Lord says.  So what is most important in all this is the simple Truth: I am taking you somewhere and I am the only One who can get you there.  But it is still not to a place where we are free to decide for ourselves what is most important, not to a place where we get to decide who can or who cannot be a part of the larger body, certainly not to a place where we get to decide what is good and what is evil.  Our Lord spells these things out for us not just in the Gospels but throughout the entire biblical narrative.  He decides.

Yet these are not arbitrary decisions our Lord makes on a case-by-case basis.  What is right or wrong, what is good or evil, who is in and who is out has long been declared.  Unity in Truth is found in the Word; the Word spoken, the Word declared, the Word Made Flesh.  NOT in our individual opinions.

In all this, we are called together not “personally” but corporately; not as persons but as a people called by a common Name and subject only to One.  Early 20th-century preacher and author A.W. Tozer once wrote, “Has it ever occurred to you that one hundred pianos all tuned to the same fork are automatically tuned to each other? They are of one accord by being tuned, not to each other, but to another standard to which each one must individually bow. So one hundred worshipers met together, each one looking away to Christ, are in heart nearer to each other than they could possibly be, were they to become 'unity' conscious and turn their eyes away from God to strive for closer fellowship.”  The Pursuit of God

In our most profound disagreements, the reason schism is a very real and constant threat to the Church is that we pick issues and then pick Jesus – not to determine whether we are still near Him but, rather, to use Him to back up our opinions.  And it fails when, as we think ourselves to be united to those who share our beliefs, we lose our sense of unity in Truth because we are not in tune with Him first.

We must all admit we are in need of a serious tuning, even the most righteous and pious among us.  The piano is a good analogy because even an inanimate piano must be tuned annually.  We, however, may need a retuning a little more often because of how easily we can be distracted without even realizing it. 

We may attend worship regularly and we may even attend a Bible study class, but often those things can become for us mere habits rather than earnest and purposeful practices of discipleship because of our lack of proper focus.  When was the last time we actually and actively sought The Truth instead of defending our own concept of Truth?

Our Father knows us well, certainly better than we think we know ourselves.  It is He who has made reconciliation to Him possible through Christ our Lord, the Living Word.  It is He who had sent the Shepherd to show us the Way, and it is He who is present among us even today by His Blessed Spirit. 

And when we focus FIRST on Him – just as Jesus teaches us to “seek FIRST the Kingdom of God and His righteousness” – and when our neighbors and friends and fellow disciples seek to focus FIRST on Him rather than on one another, then and only then may we find the unity we claim to seek and desperately need.

By worldly standards, it is an impossible task.  With our God and Father, however, “nothing is impossible”.  Let us stand first in that Truth.  Only then will the “Truth set us free”.  Free from the tyranny of social cliques, free from the tyranny of popular opinion.  Our Lord set us free so we may follow Him and only Him.  Let it be as He wills.  Amen.