Sunday, December 22, 2013

Congratulations! You Get It! (12/22/13)

Congratulations!  You Get It!
John Shuck

First Presbyterian Church
Elizabethton, Tennessee

December 22, 2013
Fourth Sunday of Advent

18. The disciples said to Jesus, "Tell us, how will our end come?"

    Jesus said, "Have you found the beginning, then, that you are looking for the end? You see, the end will be where the beginning is.

    Congratulations to the one who stands at the beginning: that one will know the end and will not taste death."

19. Jesus said, "Congratulations to the one who came into being before coming into being.

    If you become my disciples and pay attention to my sayings, these stones will serve you.

    For there are five trees in Paradise for you; they do not change, summer or winter, and their leaves do not fall. Whoever knows them will not taste death."
  49. Jesus said, "Congratulations to those who are alone and chosen, for you will find the kingdom. For you have come from it, and you will return there again."

    54. Jesus said, "Congratulations to the poor, for to you belongs Heaven's kingdom."
  58. Jesus said, "Congratulations to the person who has toiled and has found life."

    68. Jesus said, "Congratulations to you when you are hated and persecuted; and no place will be found, wherever you have been persecuted."

    69. Jesus said, "Congratulations to those who have been persecuted in their hearts: they are the ones who have truly come to know the Father.

    Congratulations to those who go hungry, so the stomach of the one in want may be filled."

    103. Jesus said, "Congratulations to those who know where the rebels are going to attack. [They] can get going, collect their imperial resources, and be prepared before the rebels arrive."

First, a word about translation.    When the Jesus Seminar translated all the material about Jesus both within and without the canon of the New Testament, to make it more readable in modern English, they decided not to use pious or churchy sounding words.   

In the Sermon on the Mount in Matthew and the corresponding Sermon on the Plain in Luke, Jesus is purported to have said,
“Blessed are you poor,”
“Blessed are those who persecute you,”
“Blessed are the peacemakers,”
and so forth.    

The word “blessed” isn’t something people say today.   It has become a churchy word.  The word in Greek is makarios.  How do you translate that?    It can mean and is translated in other places within the New Testament as fortunate or happy.    
Happy are you. 
Fortunate are you. 
Good for you.  

What Jesus is doing here is a performance.  He is making a pronouncement.  At a wedding the minister says, “I pronounce you married.”  There is something new being accomplished.    The announcement makes it so.  It is performance language.  It is in that spirit that Jesus makes these pronouncements. 

This is from Luke 6:

“Congratulations, you poor!  God’s empire belongs to you.”
Congratulations, you hungry!  You will have a feast.”
Congratulations, you who weep now!  You will laugh.
Congratulations, to you when people hate you, and when they ostracize you and spread malicious gossip about you and scorn your name as evil, because of the Human One!  Rejoice on that day and jump for joy!  Because look; your reward is great in heaven.  Bear in mind that their ancestors treated the prophets the same way."

Jesus is announcing.  He pronouncing.  He is declaring a new order.    

Those who are watching from the outside know what he is doing.  The authorities know he is dangerous.  He is a gathering a movement.  

Don’t think of your poverty as putting you outside of God’s kingdom or favor.   That is what those in power want you to think.   Think that way no longer.   Jesus is announcing a new state of affairs.   Poor now?  Hungry now?  Persecuted now? That is a badge of honor.  You are on the right team.   It is time to rock the house. 

This same act of performance is used in Thomas, Matthew, and Luke.   Each gospel writer shapes it, but even so, you can still hear that revolutionary spirit of Jesus.   The historical Jesus was certainly a revolutionary prophet who announced a new world order and a reversal of fortunes in this life.     To do that you have to convince the people that they are not who those in authority have said they are.  

The first act of revolution is to claim dignity for oneself.   I am a human being.  I am somebody!   I am not a sinner.  I am not of lesser value.  I am good as you, priest. I am good as you, landowner.  I am good as you, Roman soldier.  I am good as you, emperor.  I deserve the fruits of this world as much as you. 

Revolutionary movements catch fire as people come to the realization that the status quo is not permanent or fixed by the gods or whatever.   That is why this language is so important in the New Testament.  The kingdom of God is for you. God favors you.    That is revolutionary language.   It has been stripped of meaning over the course of the centuries, but that is subversive speech.

The Jesus movements arose in a matrix of Roman imperial violence.   This violence was upheld by Roman Imperial theology.   The gods favor, in fact are incarnate in the emperor.   The sign of divine favor was the emperor’s ability to make peace.  Peace is made through war and victory.   Peace means quiet. People are still hungry, mistreated, oppressed, and beaten, but those in power have enough to eat.    As long as the poor are quiet, there is peace.    The slogan was peace for Rome and quiet in the provinces.   

Jesus comes from a long tradition of resistance.  The Jews rejected Roman Imperial theology.  They had their own theology that was not easily subsumed under Roman order.   Jesus was one of many who was executed in a public and humiliating way by Rome.   It was tragic for the Jewish people.  The Jewish War of 66-70 was desolation.  Jerusalem burned.  The temple was destroyed.  Then again in the 130s the Bar Kochba revolt ended any remaining Jewish resistance.  

That is the time period of what becomes a new movement or series of movements centered around the figure of Jesus.   The key questions of this new movement are these: 

How do we respond to Roman violence?  
Do we resist openly and die?  
Do we go along and get along?  
Do we identify with Jewish traditions? 
Do we distinguish ourselves from them?   

This isn’t about metaphysical speculation.  This is about survival.    The various texts represent movements each with different strategies for dealing with Roman violence.    The challenge for scholarship today is to try to understand these different strategies.   

From Paul, to Mark, Luke, Matthew, John, to the various pretenders to be Paul, to the so-called Gnostics and to all the various documents that have been lost and or are now recently discovered, each represents strategies and movements of resistance.      

All of them are trying to figure out how to get along in this world.   This world is the world of Roman violence that is upheld by Roman Imperial Theology. 

The Gospel of Thomas is one such strategy.  It is a collection of sayings that represent perhaps a century or two or more of tradition.    Some sayings are early, perhaps going back to Jesus, and some are much later.  

I offer that the way to read them as well as all early Christian literature is to see the text as a response to empire’s violence. 

Thomas is a bit confusing.   This is saying 103:

Jesus said, "Congratulations to those who know where the rebels are going to attack. They can get going, collect their imperial resources, and be prepared before the rebels arrive."

Whoa!  Whose side is Jesus on anyway?   That doesn’t sound like Jesus, does it, the guy crucified as a rebel by empire?    But before we say that Thomas is a groveling sycophant of the emperor, here is saying 98, called the parable of the assassin:

Jesus said,  “The Father’s empire is like someone who wanted to kill a strong man.  While still at home he drew his sword and thrust it into the wall to find out whether his hand would be strong enough.  Then he killed the strong man.”

Both of these sayings are unique to Thomas.  Is Thomas being tongue in cheek with one saying or the other?   Is he pro-empire or pro-rebel?   Is he talking out of both sides of his mouth?  That is a strategy as well, right?  Never let them know where your loyalties really lie. 

One way to respond to imperial violence is to be slippery.    “Be sly as snakes,” we heard Jesus say last week. 

What I want to say is that when we read these early Christian texts, filled with language about empire, we need to read them as survival literature.   These are people using a variety of strategies to maintain dignity and to resist empire’s violence, at least violence to them.   

"Congratulations to the one who came into being before coming into being.

We could dismiss that, or embrace that, I suppose, as Platonic dualism.   I am not my body, but a soul inhabiting a body.    Think of that statement as a strategy of resistance.    One could read that as the ultimate saying of human dignity.  You can beat this body, abuse it, persecute it, starve it, but I am not it.   I came into being long before the body came into being, and I will return to that state.   That type of self-understanding or self-awareness could encourage bold acts of resistance.   And it has.    

Jesus is pronouncing congratulations to you who get that your dignity is written in the stars.  You have five trees in paradise, whatever that means, but it is something cool.  It is elevated language that celebrates you.   You are not a lowly, hungry, poor, slave, a cog in Empire’s machine.     You have come from the kingdom and will return there again.

Again, this is not metaphysical speculation.  This is survival language.    This is resistance language.  What is being resisted exactly?   What is being resisted is empire’s control over your very being.   Empire breaks your spirit and makes you docile and obedient.    Congratulations!  You are not that!    

All right you say.  So what does this have to do with Christmas?  It is the Sunday before Christmas, John, and you haven’t said anything about the star, the wise men, the shepherds, the angels, Mother Mary, and the Baby Jesus.   What does this empire stuff have to do with Christmas?

OK.  Here is Christmas.  

Whether you believe in the existence of God or not, it doesn’t matter.    Think of Universe, or Life, or Love, or Mystery, or whatever.  God is a nice shorthand for it all and you can interpret it however you want.  

Christmas is when we finally hear in our ears, in our hearts, in our souls, reverberating through the cells of our bodies, a clear angelic message:

Congratulations!  You are loved.   You are love.   You matter.   

There is so much noise from our past, from those in authority in our lives who have said other things, mean and cruel things, untrue things, that it can be hard to hear the singing of the angels.     But sing they do.  They sing to shepherds, who by the standards of Wall Street are of no account.   The angels sing:

Congratulations!  God loves you.  God embraces you.   You are favored by God.
The darkness of grief, the shadow of violence, the paranoia and ruthlessness of Herod, cannot stop the wisdom and courage of Mary and Joseph and the wise men with their gifts.   The stars themselves that gave birth to us provide the light of hope and dignity.     The promise of peace and possibility is in the face of the Baby Jesus, in the face of every baby.  

Congratulations!  You are born!  You are alive!   

In the cynicism that wears us down, of the politics, the economic forecasts, the wars and rumors of wars, the worries over finances, struggles with health, rocky relationships, people who write stupid things on Facebook…

…the message that sounds at Christmas is,

Congratulations!  You get it!
You are surviving!  
Hold your head up!  
You will find a way.   
You are not defined by this, whatever this is for you.

The revolution has begun and you are part of it.
You are part of the good news of justice and equality…
…of real peace and joy.

You are unique and marvelously made.
In you is the kingdom of God. 
Born in you is a lovely spirit.  

You are making a difference.
You are bringing light and hope.

I hope you can hear the angels this year. 
They are singing for you.

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