Practice Resurrection


Doubt is pain too lonely to know that faith is his twin brother. — Kahlil Gibran

To understand the doubt among Jesus disciples, when confronted by accounts of his resurrection, we need to enter into the pain they had experienced. Theirs was not a feel good faith. According to the Gospel of Luke, one evening as they gathered for dinner they were talking about the persistent rumors when Jesus suddenly appeared in their midst and gave his familiar greeting, “Peace be with you.” They were terrified! (24:36-49).

The disciples thought it was a ghost. Being visited by a ghost was not a happy event in the ancient world. “No, no,” Jesus said, “Why are you afraid?” Look at the marks on my hands and feet. It’s me. Their imaginations had to be working overtime. They were trauma victims struggling to put their lives back together after going through a horrific week of state sponsored torture. The last thing they needed was to be visited by that ghost.

Jesus gently coaxed them to a still incomprehensible conclusion. He didn’t explain resurrection, but encouraged them to discover it for themselves. Luke’s tells us that the disciples “in their joy . . . were still disbelieving and still wondering.” They wanted to hope but there were too many unanswered questions. They were so afraid of getting it wrong again. I can empathize because I have my own questions. Such things don’t happen in my world either.

When you’re dead, you’re dead. We all know that. The more sophisticated the arguments explaining the resurrection are the more questions they raise. So I won’t do that. But, like those first disciples, I feel hope burning inside me. Death cannot have the last word. If it did the militarists and capitalists would be right and I will never submit to such a world.

So Jesus turned to the scriptures to help his disciples see what God’s up to. He talked about Gods’ plan for creation, about the covenant with Abraham and Sarah, about the exodus from Egypt, about Ezekiel’s vision of a valley of dry bones coming back to life, and about Isaiah’s depiction of a suffering servant. Slowly, their minds began to unlock. Perhaps the rejection and humiliation of the crucifixion wasn’t a dead-end after all. Could it be part of God’s plan–the final steps into the plight of broken humanity? The wheels begin to turn. What would it mean to believe, to practice resurrection?

How would it reorient our lives, our families, and our communities? Jesus challenges his followers to be witnesses to such a brave new world bubbling up in the midst of our cruel and tired old world. We’re witnesses to the fact that we can live as free people. No matter what happens to us–death will not have the final word.

Like those first disciples, we have not arrived and are far from perfect. Still, I see signs of resurrection in our love and care for each other. I see them in our resistance to the powers of death, greed, and violence. We resist being egocentric and self-consumed to the hurt of other people. We strive for healthy, life-giving sexual relationships. We’re deeply committed to our spouses, our children, our families.

I see resurrection in our care for the broken parts and hurting places in our lives. I see resurrection in the tough love that sometimes says this is all we can give right now. There’s wisdom in recognizing that only God can fill some of our deepest needs. I see resurrection when we don’t give in to the compulsion of thinking we need to fix everything.

I see the victory of God when we resist consumerism. We all draw those boundaries at slightly different places but draw them we must. We can’t develop an appropriate relationship to things when we consume indiscriminately simply because we can. Kristen Grant says we’re witnesses to the resurrection when we can invite someone to look into our homes, our families, our friendships, our work, our checkbook, our daytimes—and find Jesus there (Christian Century, April 19, 2003: 19).

Palm Sunday as Street Theatre


Was Jesus’ triumphal entry into Jerusalem on Palm Sunday a form of street theatre? Some biblical scholars think so. After his phenomenally successful campaign in Galilee, Jesus made the fateful but calculated decision to travel to Jerusalem to confront the religious and political elites in that ancient temple city. Luke’s Gospel reports that Jesus “set his face to go to Jerusalem” (9:51). The crowds kept growing as he got closer and closer. And the governing elites hatched draconian plots to stop him, even if it meant killing him. The tension was palpable.

Jerusalem was an occupied city with a long history of revolt. A priestly Jewish family, known as the Maccabees, had successfully rebelled against the Persians and ruled for a hundred years before losing power to the Romans about thirty years before Jesus’ birth. There had been several unsuccessful attempts to throw off the Roman yoke in the following decades. A garrison of Roman soldiers now overlooked the temple area. Bible scholar Marcus Borg says that, in order to make a show of force during Passover, the Roman governor Pilate led a procession of troops into the city from the West, accompanied by all the trappings of imperial power (Jesus a New Vision, 174).

The staging area for Jesus’ procession, according to the Gospel of Mark, was to the East of the city near the Mount of Olives. The symbolism of this location is striking. Listen to Zechariah 14: 2-4. “I will gather all the nations against Jerusalem to battle, and the city shall be taken and the houses plundered. . . . Then will Yahweh go forth and fight against those nations as when he fights on a day of battle. On that day his feet shall stand on the Mount of Olives.”

Furthermore, palm branches where a nationalist Maccabean symbol. New Testament scholar Ched Myers notes that Jesus’ procession recalls the earlier military entry of the triumphant rebel leader Simon Maccabaeus into Jerusalem with people waving palm branches and singing victory songs (Binding the Strong Man, 294). What’s going on here? Was Jesus a violent revolutionary? Remember, Pilate had him crucified between two criminals on the charge of sedition. Roman authorities used the word “criminal” as a demeaning caricature of a “freedom fighter.”

Jesus was a revolutionary but not a violent one. He was a peace revolutionary. Ched Myers notes that over half of the episode in Mark’s Gospel is devoted to instructions to securing a donkey and preparing for the procession. This indicates that it was deliberately planned and choreographed as “street theatre” (Binding the Strong Man, 295). Jesus and his followers were making a bold statement about an alternative world coming. They were also celebrating and having fun with a purpose.

Ched thinks the procession may have been intended as a satire on Jewish military liberators. And if we consider Marcus Borg’s historical observation that Pilate was leading Roman soldiers from the other side of the city with their imperial insignia flying, it may also have been a satire on such an imperial show of force. While Jesus’ procession into Jerusalem certainly included elements of satire, it also conveyed a positive peace message. Luke’s Gospel says that Jesus wept as he came near the city and proclaimed, “If you, even you, had only recognized the things that make for peace!” (19: 42). An opportunity had been missed and Jesus saw war clouds hanging over the city.

The national symbolism of the procession is especially evident in John’s Gospel, which is the only Gospel that mentions the palm branches. The crowds shout “Hosanna” meaning “God save us” and proclaim Jesus to be the “King of Israel!” But what kind of king is being portrayed? Jesus is riding on a lowly donkey rather than on a war-horse. This is specifically emphasized by the reference to the book of Zechariah, “Look your king is coming, sitting on a donkey’s colt.”

Marcus Borg says that Jesus’ entry was a “planned political demonstration, an appeal to Jerusalem to follow the path of peace, even as it proclaimed that his movement was the peace party in a generation headed for war. It also implied that the alternative of peace was still open” (Jesus a New Vision, 174). Jesus “street theatre” portrayed a radical upside-down kingdom that was immensely appealing to common people but alarming to the custodians of the social and religious status-quo.

Born Again

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Would you introduce yourself to your neighbors as a “born again” Christian? Why or why not? Many associate “born again” Christians with an intolerant, fundamentalist religious-political agenda. The millennial generation—young people born after 1980—are especially turned off. Consequently many of us we find it increasingly awkward to admit we’re Christians and, when we do, we emphatically say that we’re not that kind of Christian.

Another problem with the phrase “born again” is that it’s usually linked with a severe theology that emphasizes human sinfulness and God’s anger with sin. Consequently, all of us are condemned to hell. The answer to this predicament is that God offered Jesus to die on the cross in our place. We’re saved by believing in Jesus who is the perfect sacrifice for our sin. Again, young millennials are especially turned off.

Our reaction to this kind of Christianity pushes us toward the equally problematic persuasion that it doesn’t matter what we believe as long as we find happiness and try to be nice. This week a Facebook friend posted a phrase from H. Richard Niebuhr, a twentieth century American theologian, “A God without wrath brought men (sic) without sin into a kingdom without judgment through the ministrations of a Christ without a cross.”

Following the quote, he wrote, “This analysis of certain trends within American Christianity remains spot-on.” I wrote back that it’s a terrible quote but others agreed that it was “spot-on” and we got into a big Facebook argument. A theology professor liked it because his said, “It aptly describes the theology of many of his first-year college students who think Jesus is Barney and that we should all be happy and try to be nice to each other.”

If we reverse that Niebuhr quote we get something like this, “An angry God condemns sinful people to hell but then offered up his only Son to die in our place.” It may be a perverse kind of good news but it’s seriously deficient. It cannot inspire and undergird a community of faith that seeks to live in Jesus’ way of peace and reconciliation. I fired back that if I had to choose between such theology and the Barney version of being happy and nice, I’d go with Barney.

Thankfully, we have more life-giving options. To paraphrase Norman Kraus, one of my favorite theologians, God sending Jesus was an act of love. To enter into the qualitatively new life which God offers in Jesus, one must put complete confidence in Jesus who is the paradigm of God’s love” (Jesus Christ Our Lord, 142).

When Jesus used “born again” language in his conversation with Nicodemus he was attempting to pierce through Nicodemus’ spiritual obliviousness (John 3-21). Nicodemus didn’t get it and took Jesus literally. Jesus explained that it’s like the blowing wind; it has a hidden, mysterious quality.

Jesus further explains in what may be the best known verses in the Bible, “For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life” (John 3:16). The core premise is God’s love. God loves me, God loves you, God loves my town, and God loves the neighbor I despise. Jesus’ life and ministry demonstrated the nature of God as suffering love.

Furthermore, there’s a great mystery of evil in our world. By giving himself on the cross, Jesus won a decisive victory over those forces of evil that seek to hold our world captive to their designs. Ironically, they include the God and country, socially intolerant, religious-political agendas that many so-called “born again” Christians support. When we give our hearts and minds to Jesus, we share in his victory over these forces.

Norman Kraus says it like this, “Christ did not come to condemn but to give eternal life. He did not disassociate himself from us and point an accusing finger, but he identified with us and saved us from perishing. His only judgment was that like the entrance of light he exposed the true nature of human evil and forced a decision” (Jesus Christ Our Lord, 226).

A common belief is that it’s about spending eternity with God after we die. Of course it is but we need to reel that back a bit. When we make a decision for Jesus we join in his victory over the forces of evil right here, right now. It can still be a long and difficult road but we have entered into a new and different world. We’re empowered to live lives that reflect God’s love and the healing power of God’s Spirit working in and through us. In other words, we’re “born again.”

The Way of Jesus


Last week I recognized a parallel between the twenty-two students who received Student Peace Awards of Fairfax County and the way of Jesus. I need to be circumspect. The students are from various religious backgrounds and many were likely not involved in peacebuilding as part of a commitment to following the way of Jesus. What I’m saying is much more modest. I see a parallel between the student peacebuilding efforts and Jesus’ response to the social and spiritual needs of ordinary people.

Those of us engaged in peacebuilding soon learn how excruciatingly difficult it can be. That difficulty encompasses our personal spiritual journey. We need to be able to see the vision of just and peaceable communities then, in our effort to live into that vision, we run headlong into our fears, desires, and ambitions that easily trip us up. We experience the resistance of significant others, often including peers and family members.

We can see this struggle being played out in Jesus’ temptation in the wilderness (Matthew 4: 1-11). His powerful spiritual vision of being a much-loved child of God was immediately followed by an excruciatingly difficult time of testing in the desert similar to the vision quest of other spiritual-social pioneers in human history. It was most likely an actual fast but the biblical language is a metaphorical account of being tested alone in the desert beyond the ordinary reality provided by culture and human interchange.

This trial is aptly expressed in the American folksong “Lonesome Valley:”

Jesus walked this lonesome valley,
he had to walk it by himself.
Oh, nobody else can walk it for him,
he had to walk it by himself.

The version sung by Woody Guthrie includes this verse, which ties the experience of Jesus to our spiritual journey:

There’s a road that’ll take you to glory,
through a valley not far away.
Nobody here can go there for you;
they can only point the way.

The story of Jesus being tempted by Satan can trip us up. The biblical meaning of Satan is “adversary.” Medieval images of a gruesome devil with a forked tail and a pitchfork are misleading. The way we’re temped is through our personal desires, fears, and ambitions.

Biblical scholar Laurel Cobb writes, “Satan appears in the role of adversary, forcing Jesus to face terribly tough questions and make life-and-death decisions. Jesus could be asking himself what God is asking of him, as God’s beloved son. In the face of Roman terror and oppression, what will it mean to follow in the footsteps of Isaiah [the ancient Hebrew prophet of peace]? (Mark & Empire, 45-46).

These same temptations would reappear at different times during Jesus’ public ministry. The temptation to turn stones into bread goes beyond Jesus’ own hunger. It’s about being a messiah who feeds the hungry masses who then crown him as king. This is exactly what the people tried to do after he fed the multitudes (John 6:15).

The temptation to throw himself from the temple is more ambiguous. It most likely is that of being a religious miracle worker to prove that he is the son of God. Again, Jesus was often asked to prove he was the messiah through giving a miraculous sign. He always refused (Mark 8:11-13).

Finally, Satan promised Jesus all the kingdoms of the world if he would only bow down and worship him. This is clearly a sociopolitical temptation, “Be a warrior king like all the other great kings in history and lead an armed rebellion against the hated Roman occupiers.” This temptation followed Jesus right to the cross. It was at the heart of his struggle in the Garden of Gethsemane (Mark 14:32-42).

By overcoming these tests Jesus blazed a new way of being a child of God. There are clear precedents of this way in Israel’s history be we see it most clearly in the life and ministry of Jesus. This is the “way” if we would trust God, live as children of God, and follow Jesus. It may seem so heroic and beyond our reach but it’s not. It’s actually easier for ordinary people.

Jesus’ first disciples called themselves “followers of the way.” The saw the vision of Jesus, they trusted God, and they began to put this way into practice in their personal lives and in their communities of faith springing up in the Mediterranean world. What an adventure!

The Superior Power of Love


Today we celebrate the life and legacy of civil right leader Martin Luther King. One of my favorite quotes on the memorial wall at the King Memorial in Washington DC states, “I believe that unarmed truth and unconditional love will have the final word in reality. This is why right, temporarily defeated, is stronger than evil triumphant.” A related quote on the wall states, “We shall overcome because the arc of the moral universe is long but it bends toward justice.” We will want to reflect on these remarkable quotes here in the heart of our national capital right in the midst of the many war memorials glorifying our nation’s wars.

How do these quotes relate to the language of sacrificial love in the Bible? Even as a child I had feelings of revulsion about the sacrificial imagery of Jesus as the slain Lamb of God. And it isn’t that I was that squeamish or over-sensitive kid. I was a farm boy who saw lots of the raw stuff of life, including butchering animals. My doubts are more intellectual. There are ancient traditions of human cultures sacrificing animals and even other humans to placate the anger of their gods. There’s often a magical quality to belief in such sacrifices.

How does such stuff fit into the religious sensibilities of a caring faith community? Does God really demand blood to free us from our sins? What kind of God is that? Many find such images and words repulsive and unbelievable. The idea that God demanded the death of Jesus, the innocent Son of God, as a payment for sin is to believe in divine child abuse.

How do we begin to unravel this tangled ball of yarn? There certainly is sacrificial language in the Bible. In the beginning of John’s Gospel, Jesus is identified as “the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world!” (John 1:29). This title for Jesus appears to be directly related to the Jewish religious practice of sacrificing a spotless lamb during Passover. Jesus becomes that spotless lamb.

However, the notion that Jesus’ death on the cross placated God’s anger or need for justice because of our sins came centuries later. The so-called “substitutionary atonement theory” was developed by the theologian Anselm in 1097. He claimed that God’s retributive justice requires that the penalty for our sins must be paid from the human side. However, it required a perfect human to make that sacrifice. That’s why Jesus became human to pay the price for our sins.

But we don’t read that in the Bible. Biblical scholar Marcos Borg states, “Implying that Jesus had to die because of our sins and that this was part of God’s plan to ‘save’ us, completely obscures and obliterates the historical meaning of his death. . . Jesus didn’t just die—he was killed. And not killed by a criminal or assassin, but executed by established authority” (Speaking Christian, 99). He was killed by the powers that ruled this world because they saw him as a threat.

Furthermore, Borg explains, “Substitution seriously misunderstands the purpose and meaning of sacrifices in the Bible. They were never about substitution—as if those offering the sacrifice deserved to die, but God was willing to accept an animal as a substitute. More basically, sacrifice means to make something sacred by offering it up to God . . . An animal is offered up to God and becomes sacred in the process”(102). In this religious ritual, participants commune with God and each other through eating the “made sacred” animal, vegetable, or fruit around a common table.

The biblical and early Christian understanding was that Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection revealed the power of God’s love and achieved a victory over the forces of evil. It demonstrated that sacrificial love is more powerful than anything the imperial power of Rome or any other destructive power could do to stop Jesus.

In John’s Gospel, according to biblical scholar Robert Kysar, “The Lamb of God is the liberating revealer of God. His freeing function occurs not strictly through his suffering and death but through his very person. To know him is to be freed.” (John: The Maverick Gospel, 37). It’s the victory of the Lamb who reveals God’s powerful, unconditional love. It was this superior power of love that King used so effectively in the civil rights struggle.

Jesus’ Birth as God’s Liberating Presence

Jesus’ birth, seen through his father Joseph’s experience in the Gospel of Matthew, focuses on the activity of the Spirit of God in the drama of the child born to a poor Palestinian couple during the bleak years of Roman occupation. An angel tells Joseph that God is at work through Mary’s unexpected pregnancy. Such activity of the Spirit of God is expressed through the name Emmanuel, which means “God is with us.” El is the ancient Hebrew word for God and immanu means “with us” (Matt. 1:18-24). As a seasoned gardener, I envision the Spirit moving in a way similar to the barely observable stirring of life underground in my garden in the dead of winter.

The angel told Joseph to name the baby Jesus “because he will save his people from their sins.” This opens up a huge theological discussion. How do we understand sin? What does it mean to be saved from our sins? How is Jesus our savior?

As in Mary’s song, the hope of ordinary first-century Jews was that God would bring salvation through “taking down the powerful from their thrones and lifting up the lowly” (Luke 1:46-55). Many dreamed of a coming messiah who would fight to drive the hated Roman occupiers from their land and then rule as a righteous and faithful king. But Jesus didn’t neatly fit into this box. The Gospels reveal Jesus as a universal messiah who brings salvation to all people.

In later church history, male theologians identified “sin” with the problem of pride. Salvation involved being released from our ambitions to make room for God and become other-centered. Recent feminist theologians have come to recognize that “sin” for women (and most of us for that matter) is actually the opposite. We have an underdeveloped sense of self and are overly dependent on others. Diana Butler says that we have “lost any real sense of self in a world of broken memories, entertainment technologies, and frenzied materialism” (Christianity after Religion, 181).

Furthermore, “sin” is commonly associated with vices like illicit sex, drinking and smoking. Jesus is considered to be our savior who died to save us from such sins. Much of the focus has been on sexual ethics—contraception, abortion, and homosexuality—which has made Christianity appear reactionary, puritanical, and out-of-touch. Again, it’s a tight box that cannot contain Jesus. The recently elected Pope Francis says we need to change the conversation to other things like serving those in need, economic justice, and compassion.

The Pope is demonstrating this change by insisting on carrying his own bags and by not moving into the elaborate papal palace at the Vatican. When asked about his attitude toward gays he responded, “If a person is gay and seeks God and has good will, who am I to judge?” People responded with immediate enthusiasm and delight. Time Magazine named him person of the year. Well not everyone’s delighted. Rush Limbaugh worries that Francis may be a closet communist. Yet, from another perspective, there’s nothing remarkable about the Pope’s words and example. As one pundit said, “It sounds an awful lot like this guy named Jesus.” All this indicates how far organized Christianity has strayed from the life and vision of Jesus.

God’s Spirit is inviting us to step outside of these boxes and experience the joy and the promise of the baby born in Bethlehem. As Diana Butler Bass writes, “Salvation is not being saved from ourselves, escaping some dreadful fate of judgment, damnation, and hellfire at the hands of a wrathful God; rather it is being saved to ourselves, finding what was lost and the joy of discovery in the hands of a loving Creator” (Christianity after Religion, 182).

This is the liberating good news we celebrate at Christmas.

The Ethic of Jubilee

Jesus’ proclamation of Jubilee did not mean he was seeking to redistribute property in Israel according to the ancient Law of Moses. Even if he would have had the necessary political clout to do it, many centuries had gone by and it would have been impossible to identify the rightful heirs of the original owners. What it did mean was that trust in God and the spirit of freedom, equality, and economic sharing that shaped the original tenets of Jubilee would thoroughly permeate the kingdom of God movement he was starting. We see inspiring examples of that throughout Jesus’ ministry.

Including everyone is at the heart of the ethic of Jubilee. In the economy of God, communities are not divided between privileged elites and everyone else. Jesus created waves at the very beginning of his ministry by fellowshipping with those considered to be outsiders and sinners (Mark 2:16). Such radical inclusivity was the hallmark of Jesus and his followers. Inclusive faith communities are built from the bottom up on the conviction that God shows absolutely no partiality (Act 10:34).

Such inclusive community has radical economic expressions. This is vividly seen in Jesus’ encounter with the rich ruler (Mark 10:17-22) and with Zacchaeus, the tax collector (Luke 19:1-10). In the spirit of Jubilee, Jesus challenged the devout rich ruler to give all his possessions to the poor and join Jesus’ ragtag band of disciples if he wanted to be set free. The shocked man went way grieving because he was very rich. Zacchaeus, on the other hand, grasped the ethic of Jubilee by announcing that he was giving a half his possessions to the poor and would repay four times as much to anyone he had defrauded.

What does the ethic of Jubilee look like in our world where the divide between the rich and the poor continues to grow alarmingly wider with each passing decade? One encouraging example is the Jubilee USA Network, which has pressured rich countries and the International Monetary Fund to forgive part of the debt of impoverished countries. To find out more about this effort visit their website at .

A pressing question is what the spirit of Jubilee looks like in the life of local congregations. Certainly the many churches that run food pantries and homeless shelters are examples. But how might church members be more transparent with each other about our personal finances? I’m not talking about a rigid moralism but about the freedom to confide in each other and support each other. Money is a taboo topic that we find very hard to talk about. For the sake of our own health, we need to break its hold on us.

I was recently talking with a member of our congregation about the high cost of housing in Fairfax County, where our church is located. Could our church find a way to support each other in these costs? What would that look like? Might it involve a rotating sharing fund, modeled after the micro-finance practices used by development organizations in poor countries? The fund could be used for rent deposits or even down payments to buy a house. We’re only beginning to live into the spirit of Jubilee.

Freedom, Equality and Justice

The Exodus is a story of liberation and the subsequent, gradual, and sometimes painful formation of an alternative community built on trust in God, equality and economic justice. It became the foundational story that informed the social practice of the people of Israel throughout the following millennia even though they often fell miserably short of its values. (Not unlike our far-from-perfect American commitment to freedom, equality, and justice for all).

The Exodus story inspired the Hebrew prophets who chastised their people for failing to fully trust God and live as a liberated people. And it is the bedrock for what is best called the “politics of Jesus.” We cannot understand Jesus and his ministry without understanding this vision of freedom, equality, and economic justice as a people of God. Furthermore, without it we cannot grasp what will necessarily be involved as we seek to renew the church as followers of Jesus.

One way to get a better handle on this is to take a closer look and what we might call Jesus’ stump speech on the reign of God that he delivered at the synagogue in his home village of Nazareth (Luke 4:16-30). Jesus’ call for freedom and economic justice is taken directly from the prophet Isaiah and is rooted in the Law of Moses. Central to this agenda are: (1) God’s concern for the poor and dispossessed, (2) liberty for those caught in a web of oppression and debt slavery, and (3) far-reaching economic redistribution.

The “year of the Lord’s favor” that Jesus proclaimed in his home synagogue was the sabbatical year of Jubilee that had been instituted by Moses. On every forty-ninth year all productive land was supposed to be returned to its original owners (Lev. 25:8-22). In essence, Jesus was announcing that the time to implement the sweeping social and economic leveling of the Jubilee year had arrived. This was good news for many struggling, disenfranchised people in Palestine but certainly not for those who had accumulated power and wealth under the oppressive Roman system. It helps explain both the support for Jesus among ordinary people and the opposition to him among the religious and political elites.

André Trocmé, the French biblical scholar, pastor, and peace activist, who spearheaded a nonviolent effort to rescue Jews from Nazi oppression during World War II, is largely recognized for retrieving the implications of Jubilee for understanding Jesus and his ministry. He writes:

“Moses had instituted a genuine social revolution aimed at preventing the accumulation of capital in the hands of the few. This was to recur every seven and every forty-nine years. I use the term ‘revolution’ intentionally because the social readjustments commanded by Moses were far more radical than the efforts of modern revolutionaries. Contemporary revolutions grow primarily out of economic disparities caused by technological developments. Jesus’ revolution, on the contrary, drew its strength from God’s liberating justice. By proclaiming the Jubilee, Jesus wanted to bring about a total social transformation, with an eye to the future, yet based on the vision of justice God had already set forth in the past” (Jesus and the Nonviolent Revolution, 16).

In my next post I will explore the implications of Jubilee for followers of Jesus in our era of ever-widening global and domestic disparity between the rich and the poor.

Jesus’ Spirituality (part 2)

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Water Lily and Dragonfly

The Spirit-filled experience of Jesus begins with his powerful vision of being the much-loved child of God that he received at his baptism (Luke 3:22). This familial intimacy shapes his comprehension of and his relationship with God. Jesus even addresses God as Abba, an Aramaic word used by very young children to address their father (Mark 14:36). The contemporary English equivalent is “Daddy.” In other places and situations, mothering images of God are equally appropriate.

This is radically different from how God has commonly been imagined. The image of God in the ancient world was taken from the function of warrior-kings and emperors, with all the pomp, violence, and inaccessibility this entails. A basic function of an ancient monarch was to protect and reward faithful subjects and punish the wicked. Following this paradigm, God is imagined as a heavenly warrior-king but, unlike earthly kings, God is all-powerful and completely just.

The God of Jesus stands that way of picturing God on its head. Rather than a distant and regal monarch, God is a loving and intimate parent. Rather than rewarding faithful subjects and violently punishing the wicked, God blesses all without partially (Matt. 5:45). Moreover, God’s mercy and compassion are demonstrated through seeking and reaching out to those considered to be outsiders or sinners. The picture of God in Jesus’ parable of the prodigal son is of a father who allows himself to become vulnerable and casts aside his dignity as he runs to greet his returning child (Luke 15:11-32).

Jesus’ portrayal of God as a loving and nurturing father drew on rich sources in the religious traditions of Israel, especially the Hebrew prophets (Jeremiah 31:7-9). Yet he developed and deepened it in response to his personal, Spirit-filled relationship with God.

Marcus Borg says that we easily overlook and have difficulty giving credence to the reality of the Spirit because deeper forms of prayer have disappeared from our experience. We are familiar with brief verbal prayers but that has historically been only the first stage of prayer in the Jewish-Christian tradition. Deeper levels of prayer involve internal silence over an extended period of time. Through such meditation, one enters into a deeper level of consciousness and rests quietly in the presence of God (Jesus: A New Vision, 43-44).

Jesus habitually withdrew to solitary places to pray and occasionally prayed all night (Luke 6:12). His visions, his sense of intimacy with God, his claims of authority, and the impression he made on others grew out of his Spirit-filled internal life.

Each of us can practice this spirituality in ways that feel comfortable and appropriate; I have already referred to some of them in my posts on “being peace.” Each of us will develop such practices in ways that fit who we are. For instance, I discovered that carrying a camera has enhanced me sense of awareness of the other and of the presence of the divine in our world. I also find that my trust in God as a loving and compassionate parent changes my understanding of myself and the kind of world in which we live.

Jesus’ Spirituality (part 1)


Sunset on the Chesapeake Bay

We live in an age that’s increasingly disillusioned by institutions. A Washington Post/ABC News poll taken after the recent government shutdown shows a historically low 12% approval rating for the US Congress. Those dramatic poll numbers come after ugly partisan gridlock but follow a consistent historical trajectory of growing disenchantment with major institutions, including organized religion. A common refrain today is, “I’m spiritual but not religious.”

Even so, our disillusionment doesn’t compare with the widespread frustration with political and religious institutions in Palestine during Jesus’ lifetime. Hostility toward the Roman occupation of Palestine fed a simmering insurrection that eventually erupted into open rebellion. The animosity spilled over onto Jewish religious leaders and organized Temple religion in Jerusalem, which exploited common people and collaborated with the hated Roman imperialists.

According to the gospel narratives, Jesus had running battles with the religious and political elites in Palestine. He challenged organized religious structures related to worship in the Temple, which exploited common people (Luke 19:46). Ordinary people recognized a spiritual authority in him that was different from the authority of institutional religious leaders (Mat. 7:29). What kind of spirituality was it and what can we learn from it?

Comparatively little has been written about the spirituality of Jesus. In contrast, major theological battles have been fought, opponents have been persecuted, churches have split, and interfaith quarrels have erupted over different claims about the humanity and the divinity of Jesus. It’s not my intention to enter into those arguments other than to say that they add little to the question at hand. Likewise, scholars studying the historical Jesus have long debated the extent to which Jesus was (1) a prophet inaugurating the rule of God, (2) a sage or religious teacher, (3) a healer and exorcist, or (4) a savior and liberator (Roger Haight, Jesus Symbol of God, 60-78). These debates have also largely side-stepped the question of Jesus’ spirituality.

Yet all the gospels record that Jesus’ public ministry began with an intense spiritual vision of the Spirit descending on him and a voice from heaven proclaiming that he is God’s beloved son. This was immediately followed by Spirit initiated trial in the wilderness that lasted for forty days (Mark 1:9-15). Biblical scholar Marcus Borg notes that this experience placed Jesus in the Spirit-filled heart of Judaism that included historical figures such as Moses and Elijah (Jesus: A New Vision, 40-46).

This Spirit-filled center of Judaism involves a contemplative and mystical spirituality that has been largely lost in Christianity. In my next post I will explore some aspects of this spirituality and what we can learn from it.