Another Beginning

Spring

Herb Montgomery | April 29, 2022

To listen to this week’s eSight as a podcast episode click here.


This third weekend after Easter in our western Christian calendar, how is the Jesus of this story calling you to renew how you follow him. In our world deeply in need of love, compassion, justice, and action, what does following Jesus in your context look like? This is a good time of year to reconsider all of these questions.”


Our reading this week is from the gospel of John:

Afterward Jesus appeared again to his disciples, by the Sea of Galilee. It happened this way: Simon Peter, Thomas (also known as Didymus), Nathanael from Cana in Galilee, the sons of Zebedee, and two other disciples were together. Im going out to fish,” Simon Peter told them, and they said, Well go with you.” So they went out and got into the boat, but that night they caught nothing.

Early in the morning, Jesus stood on the shore, but the disciples did not realize that it was Jesus. He called out to them, Friends, havent you any fish?” “No,” they answered. He said, Throw your net on the right side of the boat and you will find some.” When they did, they were unable to haul the net in because of the large number of fish.

Then the disciple whom Jesus loved said to Peter, It is the Messiah!” As soon as Simon Peter heard him say, It is the Messiah,” he wrapped his outer garment around him (for he had taken it off) and jumped into the water. The other disciples followed in the boat, towing the net full of fish, for they were not far from shore, about a hundred yards. When they landed, they saw a fire of burning coals there with fish on it, and some bread. Jesus said to them, Bring some of the fish you have just caught.” So Simon Peter climbed back into the boat and dragged the net ashore.

It was full of large fish, 153, but even with so many the net was not torn. Jesus said to them, Come and have breakfast.” None of the disciples dared ask him, Who are you?” They knew it was the Lord. Jesus came, took the bread and gave it to them, and did the same with the fish.

This was now the third time Jesus appeared to his disciples after he was raised from the dead.

When they had finished eating, Jesus said to Simon Peter, Simon son of John, do you love me more than these?” “Yes, Lord,” he said, you know that I love you.” Jesus said, Feed my lambs.” Again Jesus said, Simon son of John, do you love me?” He answered, Yes, Lord, you know that I love you.” Jesus said, Take care of my sheep.” The third time he said to him, Simon son of John, do you love me?” Peter was hurt because Jesus asked him the third time, Do you love me?” He said, Lord, you know all things; you know that I love you.” Jesus said, Feed my sheep.

“Very truly I tell you, when you were younger you dressed yourself and went where you wanted; but when you are old you will stretch out your hands, and someone else will dress you and lead you where you do not want to go.” Jesus said this to indicate the kind of death by which Peter would glorify God. Then he said to him, Follow me!” (John 21:1-19)

This week’s story begins with the disciples who were fishermen returning to their occupation after Jesus’ crucifixion, back to where Jesus initially found them. John 21 functions as an appendix to John’s gospel. Most scholars understand this version of the Jesus story to have ended in chapter 20, while they understand Chapter 21 to have been written by a different author. Chapter 21 also adds another post-resurrection appearance of Jesus, and carefully re-establishes Peter’s authority in the early Jesus movement since the other gospel versions paint Peter as denying Jesus during Jesus’ arrest.

The passage states that this is Jesus’ third post resurrection appearance in John. The author has counted wrong or is purposely leaving out one of Jesus’ appearances earlier in John’s gospel. As I shared a couple weeks ago, in these post-resurrection appearances in John’s gospel, three of the early Jesus communities are competing for authority: the community that recognized the leadership of Mary, the community that recognized the authority of Peter (highlighted this week), and the Johannine community in which the rest of the gospel of John was written.

Again, this chapter has more in common with the synoptic gospels than it does with the rest of John. I wrote at length about the imagery of fishing in the synoptic gospels last February in Decolonizing Fishing for People. I want to reference again how the Hebrew prophetic justice tradition interprets fishing, as a metaphor for removing unjust political rulers from power. It is not like the Christian colonialist metaphor of evangelism.

There is perhaps no expression more traditionally misunderstood than Jesus’ invitation to these workers to become fishers of men.’ This metaphor, despite the grand old tradition of missionary interpretation, does not refer to the saving of souls,’ as if Jesus were conferring on these men instant evangelist status. Rather the image is carefully chosen from Jeremiah 16:16, where it is used as a symbol of Yahwehs censure of Israel. Elsewhere the hooking of fish’ is a euphemism for judgment upon the rich (Amos 4:2) and powerful (Ezekiel 29:4). Taking this mandate for his own, Jesus is inviting common folk to join him in the struggle to overturn the existing order of power and privilege.” (Ched Myers, Binding the Strong Man: A Political Reading of Marks Story of Jesus, p. 132)

Speaking of those who do harm within their positions of power, Jeremiah reads:

But now I will send for many fishermen,” declares the LORD, “and they will catch them. After that I will send for many hunters, and they will hunt them down on every mountain and hill and from the crevices of the rocks.” (Jeremiah 16:16)

Speaking of those who oppress the poor and crush the needy,” Amos reads:

The Sovereign LORD has sworn by his holiness: “The time will surely come when you will be taken away with hooks, the last of you with fishhooks.” (Amos 4:2)

Speaking of the abusive Pharaoh, king of Egypt, Ezekiel reads:

In the tenth year, in the tenth month on the twelfth day, the word of the LORD came to me: “Son of man, set your face against Pharaoh king of Egypt and prophesy against him and against all Egypt. Speak to him and say, ‘This is what the Sovereign LORD says:

“I am against you, Pharaoh king of Egypt,

you great monster lying among your streams.

You say, ‘The Nile belongs to me;

I made it for myself.’

“But I will put hooks in your jaws

and make the fish of your streams stick to your scales.

I will pull you out from among your streams,

with all the fish sticking to your scales.

I will leave you in the desert,

you and all the fish of your streams.

You will fall on the open field

and not be gathered or picked up.

I will give you as food

to the beasts of the earth and the birds of the sky.

Then all who live in Egypt will know that I am the LORD.” (Ezekiel 29:1-6)

In this last chapter, John imbues this imagery with fresh direction and purpose for the post-resurrection Jesus followers. (Read more in “Decolonizing fishing for people.”)

As noted, we also see the authors taking great pains to reestablish Peter’s authority as a trustworthy shepherd in the early Jesus movement through three confessions that parallel his three, previous denials (John 18:15-27). The end of this appendix, written after Peter’s death, has Jesus foreshadowing the manner of Peter’s death.

Later in this chapter, outside of our reading this week, we see the tension between the communities that recognized the leadership of John and the communities that recognized the authority of Peter (cf. verses 20-23). The early movement recognizes both John and Peter, and makes room for both communities to co-exist side by side.

Jesus ends this scene by renewing his original call to Peter when he found him fishing in the beginning. We have now come full circle, and Jesus once again calls Peter saying, “Follow me.”

This third weekend after Easter in our western Christian calendar, how is the Jesus of this story calling you to renew how you follow him. In our world deeply in need of love, compassion, justice, and action, what does following Jesus in your context look like? This is a good time of year to reconsider all of these questions: the resurrection marks the beginning of a new year in the Christian calendar. How will your Jesus-following help you participate in shaping our world into a safe, compassionate just home for everyone this next cycle?

May each of us who endeavor to follow Jesus’ moral philosophy and teachings in the coming year do so in life-giving ways. May our presence in each of the communities we live in bless those around us. This spring, may tulips and daffodils not be the only ones waking up from winter, but may the rays of the sun also usher us toward choices that lead to more just world.

HeartGroup Application

1. Share something that spoke to you from this week’s eSight/Podcast episode with your HeartGroup.

2. How will your Jesus-following help you participate in shaping our world into a safe, compassionate just home for everyone this next cycle? Discuss with your group

3.  What can you do this week, big or small, to continue setting in motion the work of shaping our world into a safe, compassionate, just home for everyone?

Thanks for checking in with us, today.

Right where you are, keep living in love, choosing compassion, taking action, and working toward justice.

I love each of you dearly,

I’ll see you next week



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Breathing In Spirit, Exhaling Love and Justice

Herb Montgomery | April 22, 2022

To listen to this week’s eSight as a podcast episode click here.


“In the stories, Jesus doesn’t come back from the dead just to live another 30 or so years doing the same thing he’d done before he was executed. The attempted silencing of Jesus and his saving work is only an interruption, not an end. Each resurrection story defines Jesus’ resurrection as causing his life work to continue in the lives of his followers. Jesus commissioned his disciples to continue his life work in the same spirit that inspired him.”


Our reading this week is from the gospel of John:

On the evening of that first day of the week, when the disciples were together, with the doors locked for fear of the Jewish leaders, Jesus came and stood among them and said, Peace be with you!” After he said this, he showed them his hands and side. The disciples were overjoyed when they saw the Messiah. Again Jesus said, Peace be with you! As the Father has sent me, I am sending you.” And with that he breathed on them and said, Receive the Holy Spirit. If you forgive anyones sins, their sins are forgiven; if you do not forgive them, they are not forgiven.”

Now Thomas (also known as Didymus), one of the Twelve, was not with the disciples when Jesus came. So the other disciples told him, We have seen the Messiah!” But he said to them, Unless I see the nail marks in his hands and put my finger where the nails were, and put my hand into his side, I will not believe.”

A week later his disciples were in the house again, and Thomas was with them. Though the doors were locked, Jesus came and stood among them and said, Peace be with you!” Then he said to Thomas, Put your finger here; see my hands. Reach out your hand and put it into my side. Stop doubting and believe.” Thomas said to him, My Savior and my God!” Then Jesus told him, Because you have seen me, you have believed; blessed are those who have not seen and yet have believed.” 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 20:19-31)

This first weekend after Western Christianity’s Easter each year, we begin reading the stories of the early believers after the resurrection. In each post resurrection story, the good news or gospel is not that Jesus died or even died for you, but that this Jesus that was brutally murdered by the state and those who controlled the status quo is risen. He’s alive! The crucifixion and all that Jesus’ death accomplished has been undone, reversed, and overcome!

This week’s story from John is similar to yet still very different from those found in Luke 24:36-49, Mark 16:14-18, Matthew 28:18-20, and Acts 1:8.

In John, Jesus cryptically breathes the Holy Spirit onto his disciples. He then attaches to this gift of the spirit the authority of “loosing and binding,” forgiving, bringing comfort and liberation, and setting people free (cf. Matthew 16:19; Matthew 18:18).

It’s vital that the power of forgiving or not forgiving is connected to the disciples receiving the spirit of Jesus. Forgiveness divorced from that spirit serves to only perpetuate oppression and harm. I’ll explain.

Jesus uses this language in the gospel of Luke:

The Spirit of the Most High is on me,

because the Most High has anointed me

to proclaim good news to the poor.

The Most High has sent me to proclaim freedom for the prisoners

and recovery of sight for the blind,

to set the oppressed free,

to proclaim the year of the Most High’s favor.” (Luke 4:18-19)

Here the work of the Spirit is to announce good news to the poor, proclaim freedom for prisoners, set the oppressed free, and announce the year of the Most High’s favor, the year when all debts would be forgiven, regardless of creditors’ wishes. In that year, debtors were released!

Those who are forgiven in the Jesus story are those on the margins, those pushed to the underside and edges of Jesus’ society by those benefiting from the status quo. What about those whose social location was more at the center or upper class? Did Jesus extend forgiveness to them, too?

Remember the story of Zacchaeus? (see Luke 19:1-9) Jesus forgave and loosed him, too. Yet Zacchaeus was not loosed or forgiven from the consequences from his actions. Jesus instead called him to stop participating in oppression. Only then did salvation come to Zacchaeus’ house, because salvation looks like justice for the oppressed. This reminds me of Gandhi critiquing Christianity: he said he didn’t want to be saved from the consequences of his actions but from those actions themselves.

How many times have we seen those who harm others or benefit from that harm being forgiven or assured of no condemnation without being called to make restitution or reparations?

Being loosed is not conditional on acts of restoration like a quid pro quo, tit for tat, or an exchange. Rather, for oppressors, being loosed actually is these acts of restoring that which has been taken from others.

This is why I believe the disciples were given authority not to forgive, too. Reserving “forgiveness” is a way to remind them that their freedom is intrinsically tied to their choice to stop participating in the harm being done to others. Anything less than that is what Dietrich Bonhoeffer described as “cheap grace.” During the 1930s, Bonhoeffer watched Christians giving assurance to the Nazis. Assuring oppressors that everything is okay while they continuing to do harm is akin to expecting victims or survivors to reconcile with those who have harmed them but done no work of restitution. Neither of these are life-giving interpretations of the forgiveness ethic in the Jesus stories.

These stories don’t help us recover so much of the historical Jesus as much as they establish the authority of his disciples. In this week’s reading, the focus is Thomas and the story about him serves a double purpose for the fledgling Jesus movement.

First, it establishes Thomas as an early movement leader. Multiple documents in Christian history would later be attributed to this disciple. Thomas is supposed to have taken the gospel to the Parthians and then on to India. He is credited with establishing the Mar Thoma Church and was martyred there as well. Thomas is also a central figure in Syrian Christianity: his bones are claimed by that faith tradition to have been removed from India and brought to Edessa close to the end of the fourth century.

Second, this story challenges people to believe in the Jesus story even though they haven’t seen Jesus for themselves.

What speaks to me most about these stories is that Jesus didn’t come back from the dead just to live another 30 or so years doing the same thing he’d done before he was executed. The attempted silencing of Jesus and his saving work is only an interruption, not an end. Each resurrection story defines Jesus’ resurrection as causing his life work to continue in the lives of his followers. Jesus commissioned his disciples to continue his life work in the same spirit that inspired him.

I consider again how Jesus’ life work was summarized in passages like Luke 4:18-19: as good news for the poor, release for the prisoners, setting free the oppressed, and proclaiming the most High’s favor or forgiving debts. There are similar teachings in both Luke’s sermon on the plain (Luke 6) and Matthew’s sermon on the mount (beginning in Matthew 5). These are the ethics and values in the Jesus story: Jesus both comforted and challenged individuals and also, in his overturning of the tables, challenged unjust systems, demanding a different order of things in the here and now.

So I ask myself, am I breathing in this same spirit that we read of in this week’s passage? And how closely is my story aligning with the Jesus story?

In what areas does my life harmonize with the Jesus story? Where is there dissonance?

Each of us looses and binds things every day. Are the things I bind and loose similar to or vastly different from the liberation work, the love, compassion, safety and justice in the Jesus story?

This first weekend after Easter, I want to foster more harmony between my life story and this story of Jesus that I hold dear.

I’m sure you do, too.

Here’s to breathing in that spirit, together, and exhaling love and justice with those our lives touch each and every day.

HeartGroup Application

1. Share something that spoke to you from this week’s eSight/Podcast episode with your HeartGroup.

2. In what ways are you inspired to breath in spirit and exhale love and justice in your own spheres of influence this new year? Discuss with your group

3.  What can you do this week, big or small, to continue setting in motion the work of shaping our world into a safe, compassionate, just home for everyone?

Thanks for checking in with us, today.

Right where you are, keep living in love, choosing compassion, taking action, and working toward justice.

I love each of you dearly,

I’ll see you next week

Easter and the Myth of Redemptive Suffering

empty tomb and easter

Herb Montgomery | April 15, 2021

To listen to this week’s eSight as a podcast episode click here.


These are valid questions. How can we reconcile seeing the cross event as a salvific divine act without unintentionally inferring that God’s power to save is rooted in willingness to humiliate, physically denigrate, and violate someone’ body to save others?”


Our reading this week is from the gospel of John:

Now it was the first day of the week, Mary Magdalene came, early on while it was still dark, to the tomb and saw the stone removed from the tomb. So she ran and went to Simon Peter and to the other disciple, the one whom Jesus loved, and said to them, “They have taken the Messiah out of the tomb, and we do not know where they have laid him.” Then Peter and the other disciple came and went to the tomb. The two were running together, but the other disciple ran ahead of Peter and reached the tomb first. And bending down to see, saw the linen wrappings lying there, but he did not enter. Then Simon Peter came, following him, and went into the tomb, and he saw the linen wrapping lying there. And the facecloth that had been on Jesus’s head, not lying with the linens wrappings but rolled up separately in another place. Then the other disciple, who reached the tomb first, went in and saw and believed. Indeed they did not understand the scripture that it was necessary for Jesus to rise from the dead. Then the disciples returned once more to their homes.

Now Mary stood outside, facing the tomb, weeping. As she wept, she bent down to see in the tomb. Then she saw two angels in white sitting, one at thread and the other at the feet, where the body of Jesus had been lying. They said to her, “Woman, why do you weep?” She said to them, “Because they have taken my Savior, and I do not know where they have laid him.” Having said this, she turned around and saw Jesus standing, but she did not know that it was Jesus. Jesus said to her, “Woman, why do you weep? For whom do you look?” Thinking that he was the gardener, she said to him, “Sir, if you have carried him away, tell me where you have laid him, and I will take him away.” Jesus said to her, “Mary.” She turned and said to him in Aramaic, “Rabboni!” (Which means Teacher.) Jesus said to her, “Do not hold me, because I have not yet ascend to the Father. Rather go to my brothers and say to them, ‘I and ascending to my Abba and you Abba, to my God and your God.” Mary Magdalene went and announced to the disciples, “I have seen the Savior”; and she told them that he had said these things to her. (John 20:1-18, translation by Rev. Dr. Wilda Gafney; A Women’s Lectionary for the Whole Church: Year W)

This week, we are reading the resurrection narrative found in the gospel of John. This is a combined resurrection narrative developed after the early Jesus movement, and I believe there is something we can glean from this version.

One thing that is common to all the gospel narratives is the presence of women at the tomb of Jesus. In John’s version, notice that Mary uses the word “we.” Women who had the courage to go to the tomb as soon as there was daylight after the Sabbath led to the first proclamation of the resurrection. Those who showed up first got to be the first ones to share the good news. John’s version of this story encourages me to speak out when men and institutions say women can’t posses equal authority or credentials to proclaim the gospel.

Each resurrection narrative also begins in sorrow, and as John tells the story, I can imagine Jesus saying Mary’s name tenderly. I love that she mistook Jesus for a gardener: the detail grounds this version of the story in the interconnectedness with our natural world that gardeners know firsthand. I also love how Mary had to be told to let go. Wouldn’t you have held on as she did if you had just witnessed the brutal murder of someone you cared so deeply for, and now saw him alive again, standing right in front of you?

This version of the story also tells us something about how diverse the early Jesus followers were. Some patriarchal groups eventually won the power struggle and they came to shape the Christian religion. But early on, there were more egalitarian communities of Jesus followers, some who valued Mary Magdalene as others would later value the Apostle John, the Apostle Peter, and the Apostle Paul.

John’s gospel represents the community that valued John, yet even here we can see signs of three early Jesus communities vying for credibility as the Christian church forms. Mary is first to proclaim the risen Jesus, but this version also adds Peter and John racing to the tomb. Peter is first to enter the tomb, but John is the first to arrive and believe. So all three of these early church figures and their communities are competing in this version, and we still have power struggles in the church today.

Every canonical version of the resurrection narrative drives home the importance of believing women when they speak. We can apply this practice in every area of our society today, both within our faith communities and in our larger society.

This coming weekend, most of Western Christianity will celebrate Easter. Perhaps we could deepen our practice of listening to women when they speak by listening to a few perspectives on the crucifixion-resurrection narrative at the heart of so contemporary Christianity.

The perspectives I’m about to share challenge traditional, familiar interpretations of this narrative and many of the atonement theories that have been born from them.

I’ll begin with a short, challenging example from feminist theologian Dr. Elizabeth Bettenhausen and her preface for the classic book, Christianity, Patriarchy, and Abuse.

I want to offer a content warning here: this excerpt contains sexual violence in reimagining the cross event.

“Several years ago I asked a group of seminarians to choose New Testament stories about Jesus and rewrite them imagining that Jesus had been female. The following recreation of the passion story of Luke 22.54-65 was one womans knowing by heart.

They arrested the Christ woman and led her away to the Council for questioning. Some of her followers straggled along to find out what was to become of her. There were seven women and two men followers. (The men followers were there mainly to keep watch over their sisters.) Someone from among the crowd asked a question of a man follower, Havent I seen you with this woman? Who is she, and what is your relationship with her?He replied defensively, She is a prostitute, she has had many men. I have seen her with many!The men who were guarding the Christ [woman] slapped her around and made fun of her. They told her to use magic powers to stop them. They blindfolded her and each them in turn raped her and afterward jeered, Now, prophetess, who was in you? Which one of us? Tell us that!Thy continued to insult her. (Kandice Joyce)

After this story was read aloud, a silence surrounded the class and made us shiver. Ever since, I have wondered would women ever imagine forming a religion around the rape of a woman? Would we ever conjure gang-rape as a salvific event for other women? What sort of god would such an event reveal? (p. xi)

These are valid questions. How can we reconcile seeing the cross event as a salvific divine act without unintentionally inferring that God’s power to save is rooted in willingness to humiliate, physically denigrate, and violate someone’ body to save others?

This is just one reason I believe we must interpret the Jesus story and the crucifixion-resurrection event not in terms of how someone died, died for us, or was executed. It is a story about how the One who was murdered for social, political, and economic reasons by the state, was brought back to life. This is a story of how life conquers death, love conquers hate, sharing conquers greed, and life giving power conquers death dealing.

Last week I shared a little bit from womanist theologian Dr. Delores Williams last week. This week I’ll add Dr. Kelly Brown Douglas’s book Stand your ground: Black Bodies and the Justice of God. She offers some absolute gems about the cross beginning on page 178. As she quotes from Williams, “The cross . . . represents historical evil trying to defeat good.”

She then explains how life overcame death in the Jesus story:

Jesus takes on evil. He takes on and defeats . . . not granting the power of death any authority over him . . . he does not respond in kind, by adopting the methods of this power. The final triumph over the death of the cross is the resurrection of Jesus.

The resurrection is God’s definitive victory over the crucifying powers of evil.

The cross represents the power that denigrates human bodies, destroys life, and preys on the most vulnerable in society. As the cross is defeated, so too is that power.

The impressive factor is how it is defeated. It is defeated by life-giving rather than a life-negating force . . . That is, it is not the power that diminishes the life of another so that others might live. God’s power respects the integrity of all human bodies and the sanctity of all life. This is a resurrecting power.

God’s power never expresses itself through humiliation or denigration of another. It does not triumph over life. It conquers death by resurrecting life.

The force of God is a death-negating, life-affirming force.

Next, Dr. Douglas quotes Audre Lorde: “The masters tools will never dismantle the master’s house. They may allow us to temporarily beat him at his own game, but they will never enable us to bring about genuine change.” (Sister Outsider, p. 112)

Then she continues, “God does not fight death with death. God does not utilize the violence exhibited in the cross to defeat deadly violence itself.”

If indeed the power of life that God stands for is greater than the power of death, this must be manifest in the way God triumphs over death-dealing powers. The freedom of God that is life requires a liberation from the very weapons utilized by a culture of death. In other words, these weapons cannot become divine weapons . . . The culmination of this liberation is Jesus’ resurrection.

This exegesis resonates with me so deeply. Every fiber of my heart says amen! The Jesus story isn’t about a God who overcomes death by adding one more death, i.e. Jesus’ death. It’s the story of a God who overcame, reversed, and undid death by resurrecting the one the state sought to execute.

For me, this is powerful. This is a story that moves us to believe in love’s ability to win, even in the face of death, and to work toward that end.

We can work more effectively for a better iteration of our world when we believe that that better iteration is actually possible. Ultimately, I believe this was a 1st Century story told in 1st Century language that was intended to inspire early Jesus followers to do just that.

This story can still inspire Jesus followers today.

HeartGroup Application

1. Share something that spoke to you from this week’s eSight/Podcast episode with your HeartGroup.

2. What does interpreting the Jesus story as a story where life overcomes death and love overcomes hate change for you? Share with your group

3.  What can you do this week, big or small, to continue setting in motion the work of shaping our world into a safe, compassionate, just home for everyone?

Thanks for checking in with us, today.

Right where you are, keep living in love, choosing compassion, taking action, and working toward justice.

I love each of you dearly,

I’ll see you next week


Understanding and Sharing a Theology of the Cross with Children: Beyond Substitutionary Atonement

Here’s a conversation on talking to children about the violence of the cross during this holiday weekend that was recorded this spring. Grateful to my friends author and pastor Traci Smith of Elmhurst Presbyterian Church and author Daneen Akers of Holy Troublemakers & Unconventional Saints for this conversation.

Listen at:

Understanding and Sharing a Theology of the Cross with Children: Beyond Substitutionary Atonement

A Different Vision for Memorializing the Last Supper

last supper

Herb Montgomery | April 8, 2022

 

To listen to this week’s eSight as a podcast episode click here.

 


“Next week is Holy Week leading up to Easter for many in Western Christianity. This time of year always amplifies several passages from the passion liturgy that are important for Jesus followers who care about justice to interpret in life-giving ways.”


 

Our reading this week is from the gospel of Luke:

When the hour came, Jesus and his apostles reclined at the table. And he said to them, I have eagerly desired to eat this Passover with you before I suffer. For I tell you, I will not eat it again until it finds fulfillment in the kingdom of God.” After taking the cup, he gave thanks and said, Take this and divide it among you. For I tell you I will not drink again from the fruit of the vine until the kingdom of God comes.” And he took bread, gave thanks and broke it, and gave it to them, saying, This is my body given for you; do this in remembrance of me.” In the same way, after the supper he took the cup, saying, This cup is the new covenant in my blood, which is poured out for you. (Luke 22:14-20)

Next week is Holy Week leading up to Easter for many in Western Christianity. This time of year always amplifies several passages from the passion liturgy that are important for Jesus followers who care about justice to interpret in life-giving ways. So it was difficult for me to settle on which passage to write on this week.

I love the story of Jesus’ protest and demonstration in the temple courtyard against the economic exploitation that was taking place there. I believe both his protest and his burden for those being harmed by systemic injustice have much to teach us. I love the story of Jesus humbly washing his disciples’ feet, which Christians now celebrate each year on Maundy Thursday. I also believe it’s important to interpret the holy week narrative beyond death and dying, even though at the end of the week Jesus is the victim of state violence in response to his protest, calls for change, and growing popularity with the exploited masses in his society. It’s more life-giving to interpret Holy Week as a story of how life overturns death and death-dealing, how everything accomplished through the execution/death of Jesus was undone, reversed, and overcome through the resurrection. The cross was not Jesus’ saving act, but the state’s attempted interruption and halting of Jesus’ saving life-ministry. The resurrection reversed and undid the state’s violence, and Jesus’ life-saving ministry lived on in the actions of his followers.

So as we begin this holy week, I’ve chosen to address Luke’s version of Jesus’ last shared meal with his disciples. I’ll begin with an important point from Delores Williams’ womanist theology classic book, Sisters in the Wilderness.

On page 131, Williams reminds us that “The cross is a reminder of how humans have tried throughout history to destroy visions of righting relationships that involve the transformation of tradition and transformation of social relations and arrangements sanctioned by the status quo.” She goes on to point her readers to the resurrection and the kingdom of God theme in Jesus’ life ministry as the salvific conduit that teaches humankind how to “live peacefully, productively and abundantly in relationship.” She lists Jesus’ beatitudes, parables, moral directions, and reprimands. She reminds us of Jesus’ healing ministry of “touch and being touched,” and how Jesus ministry was militant, too, expelling evil forces that harm people including during his temple protest.

This is how she characterizes Jesus’ saving life: a life grounded in the power of faith “in the work of healing,” compassion and love. She demonstrates with multiple examples how Jesus conquered sin in life, not in death. Considering the persistence of evil and oppression (and sin) still centuries after the life of Jesus in our world, she wonders whether or not most people can believe that Jesus’ death on the cross overcame evil and sin. I agree with her assessment that it seems “more intelligent and more scriptural to understand that redemption had to do with God, through Jesus, giving humankind new vision to see the resources for positive, abundant relational life” (p. 131).

A major theme in William’ work is the surrogacy of black women and how various atonement theories and ways of interpreting the cross substitutionally have historically supported that surrogacy rather than subverted it.

She concludes:

Humankind is, then, redeemed through Jesusministerial vision of life and not through his death. There is nothing divine in the blood of the cross. God does not intend black women’s surrogacy experience. Neither can Christian faith affirm such an idea. Jesus did not come to be a surrogate. Jesus came for life, to show humans a perfect vision of ministerial relation that humans had very little knowledge of. As Christians, black women cannot forget the cross, but neither can they glorify it. To do so is to glorify suffering and to render their exploitation sacred. To do so is to glorify the sin of defilement. (Sisters in the Wilderness: The Challenge of Womanist GodTalk, p. 132)

And this leads me to the tension in this week’s passage. Jesus’ last meal in the gospels seems to lead Jesus followers to glorify the cross through the rite of the Eucharist and by glorifying the suffering of the exploited, render their suffering and exploitation sacred.

But as with everything in our sacred text, it all depends on how we choose to interpret the story.

The early Jesus community was not monolithic in how they remembered and interpreted Jesus’ last meal with his disciples. Paul transformed the last supper into a ritual reenactment of Jesus’ broken body and shed blood (see 1 Corinthians 11:23-26), but there were many Jesus followers who didn’t connect the last supper with the passion of Jesus at all, so much so that the first Christian document to explicitly instruct Jesus followers in celebrating the last supper doesn’t mention the passion of Jesus. This document is the Didache. To the best of our knowledge it was composed at the end of the 1st Century or the beginning of the 2nd Century. In it we read:

“Concerning eucharist, this is how you are to conduct it:

First, concerning the cup, ‘We thank you, our Father, for the sacred vine of David, your child, whom you made know to us through Jesus, your child. To you be glory forever.’

Then concerting the fragments of bread: ‘We thank you, our Father, for the life and knowledge that you made known to us through Jesus, your child. To you be glory forever. Just as this loaf was scattered upon the mountains but was gathered into unity, so your church should be gathered from the ends of the earth into your domain. Yours is the glory and the power through Jesus Christ forever.’

No one is to eat or drink from your eucharist except those baptized in the name of the Lord. Recall what the Lord said about this: ‘Don’t throw what is sacred to dogs.” (Didache 9:1-5)

This tradition has led quite a few modern Christians to reinterpret how they memorialize Jesus’ last supper, especially at this time of year when our attention is drawn to it once again. Many Christians today, given what we just read in the Didache, see Jesus’ last supper as the same kind of meal he frequently ate with his disciples and with anyone else who desired to eat with them. Jesus’ open table practice in a culture where whom one ate with had social and political meaning was another example of the inclusiveness he practiced every day. Most scholars today believe that the earliest rituals around Jesus’ last supper took the form we see described in the Didache. The supper was later attached to Jesus’ death as we read in Paul (1 Corinthians 11:23-26), a connection that is then picked up by Mark, Matthew, and in our passage in Luke. In John’s gospel, however, Jesus’ last supper is not associated with the imagery of his death (the passion) but rather with images of his life.

Whereas Mark and Matthew follow Paul’s eucharist order (bread then cup), in our passage this week from Luke, we see signs of early Jesus followers memorializing his last supper both ways: we see both the form found in the Didache and the form found in Paul blended together. This would make sense as Luke’s gospel repeatedly attempts to tell the Jesus story in a way that provides a big tent view of following Jesus. Luke is telling a narrative so that it can be valued by the largest number of Jesus followers. Regardless of which Jesus community readers belonged to, they could nonetheless find what they believed to be meaningful and sacred in Luke’s version of Jesus story.

So let’s take a look at our passage once again.

First, the form found in the Didache:

“’For I tell you, I will not eat it again until it finds fulfillment in the kingdom of God.’ After taking the cup, he gave thanks and said, ‘Take this and divide it among you. For I tell you I will not drink again from the fruit of the vine until the kingdom of God comes.’ And he took bread, gave thanks and broke it, and gave it to them’”

Then the form found in Paul:

“And he took bread, gave thanks and broke it, and gave it to them, saying, ‘This is my body given for you; do this in remembrance of me.’ In the same way, after the supper he took the cup, saying, ‘This cup is the new covenant in my blood, which is poured out for you.’”

Because Luke’s trying to include both forms, Luke’s version of the last supper is the only version to include two cups. In the Didache’s order, you have cup then bread. In Paul’s order, you have bread then cup. And in Luke, which blends both ways of memorializing Jesus last supper, we have a cup (Didache), then bread (Didache and Paul), then a cup again (Paul). Mark and Matthew repeat the form found in Paul, and thus only have one cup.

Why all this “nerding out” over the story detail differences in the gospels, Paul, and the Didache? What’s the point?

The the point is that there is no one right way to celebrate or memorialize Jesus last supper. If you, like me, have come to find more life in a story that isn’t about someone dying, but about how life and love overcame and reversed everything the state attempted by executing Jesus, how love and life overcome death, fear, bigotry and hate, then you also have options in how you remember Jesus’ last supper. We don’t have to remember Jesus’ last supper in a way that glorifies death, even if it’s Jesus’ death. We don’t have to perpetuate the harms pointed out by Williams above and others.

Jesus most certainly broke bread and shared cups with people from all social and economic locations, those at the center and those on the margins. The egalitarian inclusivity he demonstrated with his meal practice of sharing resources, specifically food, was at the heart of the vision Jesus had for human community. And it also can become a ritual for us, when we interpret it as such, that transforms and shapes us into people who share resources with one another in our own ways and contexts today. How we celebrate rituals determines the kind of humans those rituals shape us into being. I like the shared table way of remembering a Jesus who, realizing what was coming, chose to share an open table with his disciples one last time.

Ritualizing this reminds me of the kind of world I want to be creating every day.

It’s a world where our bread and wine are not hoarded but shared. A world where we are all connected. A world where no one is fully thriving till we are all thriving.

 

 

HeartGroup Application

1. Share something that spoke to you from this week’s eSight/Podcast episode with your HeartGroup.

2. Does this way of interpreting Jesus’ last supper change the way you engage the Eucharist? If so how? Share with your group.

3.  What can you do this week, big or small, to continue setting in motion the work of shaping our world into a safe, compassionate, just home for everyone?

Thanks for checking in with us, today.

Right where you are, keep living in love, choosing compassion, taking action, and working toward justice.

I love each of you dearly,

I’ll see you next week

Mary’s Perfume and No More Poverty 

feet

Herb Montgomery | April 1, 2022

To listen to this week’s eSight as a podcast episode click here.


“I want to offer an alternative interpretation. Poverty is a human-made reality, and therefore poverty can be eradicated through our choices in how we structure our societies . . . I don’t believe Jesus’ words in John about poor people should be interpreted as establishing as an existential reality that poverty is an eternal, unchangeable given for our world.”


Our reading this week is from the gospel of John:

“Six days before the Passover, Jesus came to Bethany, where Lazarus lived, whom Jesus had raised from the dead. Here a dinner was given in Jesushonor. Martha served, while Lazarus was among those reclining at the table with him. Then Mary took about a pint of pure nard, an expensive perfume; she poured it on Jesusfeet and wiped his feet with her hair. And the house was filled with the fragrance of the perfume. But one of his disciples, Judas Iscariot, who was later to betray him, objected, Why wasnt this perfume sold and the money given to the poor? It was worth a years wages.” He did not say this because he cared about the poor but because he was a thief; as keeper of the money bag, he used to help himself to what was put into it. Leave her alone,” Jesus replied. It was intended that she should save this perfume for the day of my burial. You will always have the poor among you, but you will not always have me.” (John 12:1-8)

John creatively resets this story from previous versions of the Jesus story by including the characters Mary, Martha, and Lazarus. There are both significant differences and consistent story elements. What is common in each version is a meal, a woman interrupting the meal, a container of perfume, objections from some of those present at the meal, and Jesus’ defense of the woman’s actions. Oral storytelling traditions commonly alter story details for the storyteller’s purposes or the needs of their audience. John’s storytelling does that too.

In John’s version of this story, we are in Mary, Martha, and Lazarus’ home, not the home of Simon the Pharisee (Luke) or Simon the Leper (Mark and Matthew). The woman who interacts with Jesus is Mary of Bethany (Martha and Lazarus’ sister), not the woman of ill repute as in Luke, nor an unnamed woman as in Mark and Matthew, and most definitely not Mary Magdalene (contrary to the 6th Century Pope Gregory, Mary of Magdalene is a completely different character in John’s gospel). Mary also anoints Jesus’ feet (not his head as in Mark and Matthew). Foot-washing was a customary hospitality practiced at dinners in a culture where people ate together seated in a reclining position on the floor, not at a table that hid guests’ feet.

In this story, Mary’s act is one of gratitude, specifically for the events of the previous chapter. In that chapter, Lazarus, Mary’s brother, had gotten sick and died, and Jesus brought him back from the dead to live again. This is a repeated theme in the gospels: life and life-giving overturning, undoing, and reversing death and death-dealing. It is one of the strongest, most life-giving interpretations of the Jesus story. The story is not primarily that someone died, but that that the state’s murder of someone who was calling for social change was overturned, undone, and reversed. The life-giving teachings of this Jewish prophet of the poor from Galilee lived on in the life of his followers. In Acts 13:32-33, the early believers say: We tell you the good news: What God promised our ancestors he has fulfilled for us, their children, by raising up Jesus” (italics added).

The good news in this interpretive paradigm is not that Jesus died, but that Jesus overcame death, death-dealing and the state. His story is a story of life overcoming death, or love overcoming in the end—love that overcomes hate, fear, injustice, and bigotry.

In John 11, Jesus conquered, reversed, and undid Lazarus’ death. Jesus had said to Lazarus’ and Mary’s sister, Martha, “I am the resurrection and the life” (see John 11:25).

Again, in John, Mary is anointing Jesus in an act of gratitude for Jesus’ reversal of sickness and death and his channeling that reversal as “the resurrection and the life.” We must not miss that in John’s story, Jesus states that Mary had been saving this perfume for Jesus’ burial. So the fact that Mary instead uses it now hints that she has learned his lesson—life and love will overcome in the end.

Those hearing this story are being prepared for how John’s version of the Jesus story will turn out: Perfume will not be needed to anoint a dead body lying lifeless in a tomb. No, that tomb will be found empty. Mary has embraced Jesus as the resurrection and life, and has chosen, not to save her perfume for a dead body but to use it now in gratitude. Love will win in the end. She won’t need this perfume later, and she is banking on it.

So many social sicknesses are in need of reversal in our society, today: the sickness of White supremacy, the sickness of patriarchy and misogyny, the sickness of classism and greed, the sicknesses of bigotry against LGBTQIA people, and many more sicknesses that lead to death. What does it mean for us to live as people who overcome, who genuinely believe that love wins?

Lastly, I want to address Jesus’ words, “You will always have the poor among you.” This statement, which appears in each gospel, has been used by the wealthy to discourage Jesus’ followers from working toward economic justice and social change. In this interpretation, Jesus’ phrase is a prediction that trying to end poverty is futile, that poverty is an eternal social reality and there is nothing we can really do to prevent it. They would like us to think that all we can do to ease poverty in society is acts of charity and creating a society where poverty doesn’t exist is impossible.

But this interpretation benefits those who are enriched by the status quo and don’t want to see structural change. Charity is not justice, remember. Charity can ease injustice but leaves an unjust system unchanged.

I want to offer an alternative interpretation. Poverty is a human-made reality, and therefore poverty can be eradicated through our choices in how we structure our societies.

Consider this passage from the Torah:

“At the end of every seven years you must cancel debts. This is how it is to be done: Every creditor shall cancel any loan they have made to a fellow Israelite. They shall not require payment from anyone among their own people, because the LORDS time for canceling debts has been proclaimed. You may require payment from a foreigner, but you must cancel any debt your fellow Israelite owes you. However, there need be no poor people among you, for in the land the LORD your God is giving you to possess as your inheritance, he will richly bless you, if only you fully obey the LORD your God and are careful to follow all these commands I am giving you today.” (Deuteronomy 15:1-5)

This passage states that there doesn’t need to be “poor people” among Israelites. They are being given instruction on how to eradicate poverty. Later in the same chapter, we read, “There will always be poor people in the land [i.e. the surrounding societies outside of Israel]. Therefore I command you to be openhanded toward your fellow Israelites who are poor and needy in your land [as opposed to the larger societies in which poverty will always exist because the way those societies are shaped] (italics and capitalization added).

I don’t believe Jesus’ words in John about poor people should be interpreted as establishing as an existential reality that poverty is an eternal, unchangeable given for our world. Even if one does, however, then we can read Jesus as saying that Israelite society has become like the surrounding nations in Deuteronomy where poverty “will always exist” because of their structure. Jesus words here are an indictment of his society’s rejection of the mandate to forgive debts every seven years. Therefore, they were choosing to structure their society by immortalizing poverty as the surrounding nations in Deuteronomy 15 had. These choices can be reversed. We can structure our societies differently. The early Jesus followers in the book of Acts eradicated poverty from their own community in Jesus’ name:

“With great power the apostles continued to testify to the resurrection of the Lord Jesus.”

Remember, it was not that Jesus had died, but that he had been resurrected. His death had been reversed.

“And Gods grace was so powerfully at work in them all that there were no needy persons among them. For from time to time those who owned land or houses sold them, brought the money from the sales.” (Acts 4:33-34, italics added)

Last year, I mentioned these words of Nelson Mandela and Gustavo Gutierrez in Declaring War Against Poverty:

Like slavery and apartheid, poverty is not natural. It is man-made and it can be overcome and eradicated by the action of human beings.” (Nelson Mandela, in a 2005 speech at the Make Poverty History rally in Londons Trafalgar Square)

The poor person does not exist as an inescapable fact of destiny. His or her existence is not politically neutral, and it is not ethically innocent. The poor are a by-product of the system in which we live and for which we are responsible. They are marginalized by our social and cultural world. They are the oppressed, exploited proletariat, robbed of the fruit of their labor and despoiled of their humanity. Hence the poverty of the poor is not a call to generous relief action, but a demand that we go and build a different social order.” (Gustavo Gutierrez, The Power of the Poor in History, p. 44)

There is a lot to consider here.

How are you being called to be a conduit of love, healing, life, and life-giving in your own contexts, this week?

HeartGroup Application

1. Share something that spoke to you from this week’s eSight/Podcast episode with your HeartGroup.

2. How do you perceive poverty as something that could be prevented in our society? What would our society have to incorporate in order to eradicate poverty? Discuss (and imagine) with your group.

3.  What can you do this week, big or small, to continue setting in motion the work of shaping our world into a safe, compassionate, just home for everyone?

Thanks for checking in with us, today.

Right where you are, keep living in love, choosing compassion, taking action, and working toward justice.

I love each of you dearly,

I’ll see you next week