Sunday, April 6, 2014

The Path (4/6/14)

The Path
John Shuck

First Presbyterian Church
Elizabethton, Tennessee

April 6, 2014
Fifth Sunday of Lent

The Dhammapada
The best of paths is the Eightfold Path;
The best of truths, the Four Noble Truths.
The best of qualities is dispassion;
And the best among gods and humans
Is the one with eyes to see.

The Four Noble Truths and the Eightfold Path
There is suffering.
Suffering has an origin.
Suffering can cease.
There is a path out of suffering.

Right Understanding;
Right Intention;
Right Speech;
Right Action;
Right Livelihood;
Right Effort;
Right Mindfulness; and
Right Concentration.

Matthew 5:17-26
Don’t imagine that I have come to annul the Law or the Prophets.  I have come not to annul but to fulfill.  Let me tell you, before earth and sky pass away, not one iota, not one serif, will disappear from the Law, until it all happens.  Whoever ignores one of the least important of these commandments, and teaches others to do so, will be called least important in the empire of Heaven.  But whoever acts on these commandments and teaches others to do so will be called great in the empire of Heaven.  Let me tell you, unless you live your religion more fully than the scholars and the Pharisees, you won’t set foot in the empire of Heaven.

As you know, our ancestors were told, “You shall not kill” and “Whoever kills will be subject to judgment.”  But I tell you, those who are angry with a companion will be brought before a tribunal.  And those who say to a companion, “you moron,” will be subject to the sentence of the court.  And whoever says, “You idiot,” deserves the fires of Gehenna.  So, even if you happen to be offering your gift on the altar and recall that your friend has some claim against you, leave your gift there on the altar.  First go and be reconciled with your friend, and only then return and offer your gift.  You should settle quickly with your accuser while you re both on the way to court, or else your accuser will turn you over to the judge, and the judge to the bailiff, and you are thrown in jail.  Let me tell you, you’ll never get out of there until you’ve paid the last dime.

Not long after Jesus was crucified and then was believed by his early followers to have been exalted to heaven did questions arise about identity and practice.   You can imagine these questions along these lines:  Are we still Jews?   If so, to what extent did Jesus change our relationship to the law?   And what about non-Jews?  Can they be part of the Jesus movement and not follow Jewish law? 

These questions arose fairly early.   Jesus died around 30.  The book of Acts speaks of events directly following Jesus's crucifixion that address these issues, but Acts is not reliable as history.    Scholars are now putting Acts in the second century nearly 100 years after Jesus.  It is writing an idealized history from that standpoint. 

But Paul is more reliable on this.  He wrote his letters between 50 and 60.   His letters recount events that happened before his letters including his conflicts with other leaders such as Jesus’s own brother, James.   James is most certainly Jewish.   Paul considers himself to be an apostle or an ambassador to non-Jews.    Paul struggles mightily, and it is confusing actually, to understand how he regards the relationship between Jews, non-Jews, and this new “in Christ” movement.

This is an issue that had to be worked out over many decades.   The Jewish War of 66-70 sits between Jesus and the Gospels.    This war leveled Jerusalem and destroyed the temple, the centerpiece of Jewish identity and practice.     It was this event that likely precipitated the writing of the gospels, in particular, Mark’s gospel, around the year 70.   

Mark is our first Jesus story.  If you go to the letters of Paul and try to reconstruct the life of Jesus you won’t find much.    Matthew and Luke write their story based on Mark.    Scholars do think that stories of Jesus circulated prior to Mark and independent of Mark.   "Q" is a reconstruction  based on material common to Luke and Matthew but not in Mark.  This is believed to come from an earlier source that preserved sayings and deeds of Jesus.  "Q," which stands for Quelle, which is the German word for source.  At some point I will do a sermon series on Q.   

Many scholars are interested in reconstructing and dating Q.   It is likely that Q, or the first layers of Q (that is how complicated it is) date around 50.    You have remembered sayings and deeds of Jesus floating about, finally written down by Q twenty years after Jesus.   This document is lost to us.  But Matthew and Luke knew of it and they used it along with Mark and their own special style to tell their story of Jesus. 

None of these authors had any qualms, perhaps any self-consciousness about putting their ideas and values on the lips of Jesus.   Jesus becomes a mouthpiece for these later views.   It is easy to see this in other gospels about Jesus that are not in the New Testament.   It is also true for texts within the New Testament itself.  

So contemporary scholars like John Dominic Crossan and Bart Ehrman try to separate out the historical Jesus from the gospel portraits.   I name in particular Crossan and Ehrman because they are major figures in historical Jesus studies and they have different views as to what goes back to the historical Jesus and what doesn’t.     I say all of that to say that it isn’t easy to know what Jesus really said even if it seems to be written in black and white, or red and white if you happen to have a red letter edition of the Bible in which everything Jesus says is written in red.

When we read the gospels, we are not reading the life of the historical Jesus.   We are reading interpretations, idealized reconstructions, parables, and fictions of Jesus, based in part on selective remembrance.    There are methods that historians use to tell if a saying or event is more or less likely to go back to Jesus.  

If a saying or deed is multiply attested, that is, found in more than one independent source, that is good evidence for an early saying or deed.   

If saying or deed is embarrassing to the early church or dissimilar to a view of Jesus that later emerged, that is evidence that it might go back to Jesus.    For instance, scholars think Jesus really was baptized by John the Baptist because it is multiply attested and it is embarrassing.    Why would Jesus need to be forgiven for sins if he is the son of God?    So the gospels go to great pains to explain this away.  The Gospel of John doesn’t even mention that Jesus is baptized even though he devotes a lot of space to John the Baptist.   

If a saying or deed is anachronistic or does not fit the historical reality of first century Palestine then it is not likely a Jesus saying or deed.   For example to have “the Jews” as a people be a distinct group from Jesus is anachronistic.    To have Jesus speak about things that hadn’t happened yet such as the church or the destruction of the temple, is anachronistic.   To have Jesus sound like other great philosophers or to have miracle stories attached to him that are also attributed to other figures of that time period would be evidence that those stories are fictional.   The birth of Jesus in Matthew follows a pattern like the birth of Moses in Exodus.   Many of the stories about Jesus are what we might call Midrash, or a retelling of ancient hero stories, now applied to Jesus.

What about the Sermon on the Mount?   Does this go back to the historical Jesus or not?  The answer is yes and no.    Some of it likely does and some of it likely doesn’t and scholars might even have differing opinions on some of those decisions.    This isn’t easy.  Not being easy is not a bad thing.

I am going to pause here and try to be pastoral.   During seminary, when I first was confronted with these questions in a serious way, I had a crisis of faith.   I didn’t have just one crisis of faith, I had many.   I am not sure if it is one long crisis of faith with ebbs and flows or a number of different crises of faith, but they didn’t end in seminary.    They continue with me to this very day.    I can safely say that one may experience crises of faith until one is 52.    Maybe after 52 it is all settled.    For me personally, I will have to live on and see.   

In some religious traditions, a crisis of faith is seen as something to avoid or as a sin.  It is not something one wants to admit or celebrate.   Churches think of themselves as faith communities, not crisis of faith communities or communities of doubt.   Wouldn’t that be funny, to drive along and see a church signboard, “Welcome to the First Church of Doubt.”   I might attend.

I offer that a crisis of faith is part of life.  It is the via negativa, the path of doubt and challenge.  It is the path of risk.  It is a path of letting go of what you thought you knew.   It is a stripping away of certainties.  It is a path of facing the darkness and admitting to one’s life as life.   It is experienced as a crisis.  It feels hard.  It is unsettling.  The true crisis is to be bold enough to ask the questions for which there may not be answers.    I do not think that a crisis of faith is the only path.   Nor do I think it is a path that one can stay on for an extended time.   I do think that it opens a way for other paths, such as creativity and transformation.   

One of the reasons the church has created its seasons is to create space for crises of faith.  The season of Lent, for instance, is an opportunity to go deeper.   It is a safe space in that it is bracketed by Easter, in fact, it is interspersed with little Easter Sundays all along.   Lent is a managed theological crisis.   The seasons are ways to liturgically frame life experience.   The four paths or vias articulated by Matthew Fox are the same thing.  

My crisis of faith regarding Jesus in seminary had to do with “which Jesus?”   When I was confronted with all of these views of Jesus, Mark’s Jesus, Q’s Jesus, Matthew’s Jesus, Luke’s Jesus, John’s Jesus, Thomas’s Jesus (who was a new one altogether), Paul's Christ Jesus, as well as the Jesus of the Apostle’s Creed, the crisis became for me, who is my Jesus?    Who is the Jesus of my heart, which was the whole point of this, I thought.   Who is the Jesus of salvation, wholeness, meaning, the Jesus I was being called as a minister to follow, to preach about, to minister in his name?   Which Jesus do I pray to when I tuck my children in bed at night?    Who was this Jesus for whom I drug my family across the country to attend seminary and to devote a life career?    I am not really sure and I already paid the deposit. 

I talked to my New Testament professor after class one day and I told him about my anxieties regarding this.  I have an image in my mind of talking to him; I can see him, but I can’t remember what he said.   I remember him saying nothing.  I am sure that isn’t what happened, that he just stood there and said nothing.    He was approachable.  He was a student-friendly person.   He liked me.   As I reconstruct that memory now, I imagine that his “silence” was to bring the question back to me.   It is as if he was saying, “That is what you are here to do.   Live in the crisis.”   

Seminary is about creating the opportunity for crises of faith.   It isn’t to artificially build up faith and turn people into robotic apologists for doctrine.  It is to present information and ideas that are hard and that in themselves create crises.    The experience of seminary is the experience of crisis.   I found myself angry on occasion at seminary.   It shouldn’t be like this.   I wasn’t sure with whom to be angry, the professors, the seminary, other students, the church, God.  

We students went there thinking it was to learn skills and Bible stories and to bask in theological transcendence but it was really about being stripped bare and facing the void.   To put it in Christian theological terms, it is the crisis of the cross.    The meaning of seminary was that you won’t be able to minister to anyone and walk with anyone if you yourself are unwilling to walk that lonesome valley. 

A crisis of faith is similar to psychological anxiety.   If you have experienced anxiety you know the bodily feelings, the tightening, the feeling of being trapped, the feeling of hopelessness, even of panic.    Excuse my language but anxiety is a bitch.    A crisis of faith is spiritual anxiety.   You think there is no way to the other side.    With both the path is not to hide, or to run, or to ignore, but to step into it and to face it.   

While it is like a lonesome valley, it is nonetheless a shared journey.   You walk it alone but you know that others walk it as well and have walked it before you and will walk it after you.    No one can walk it for you, the crisis is a gift for you, but you get through it by sharing the experience with others.     That is the role of the community we call the church.  

The crisis of faith is not something only ordained clergy experience.   It is if you will allow me to reframe it this way, a gift for the whole church.    As I look back on it, I am grateful that my professors didn’t make it easy.   I am glad they didn’t shield me from the skeptics or only show me the stuff that would supposedly strengthen my faith.  I am glad they made me challenge my views about the Bible, Jesus, and God.   At the time, it felt like the ground was shifting under me.    But I found a way to live through it.    Now I am not threatened by the various Jesuses but I move back and forth between them and find them to be unique facets of a larger mystery.   

A crisis of faith today for me and possibly for you and likely for Western Culture and for Christianity in general relates to the symbol, God.   What does faith in God mean in a scientific age, in a pluralistic age, in an age beset with anxiety about our future as a species, in a world in which God has become an excuse for exceptionalism and even violence.     There are many responses to this crisis.   Letting go of the term is one response.  Reframing it is another.  Holding fast to what is comfortable is another. 

I realize that as I name that crisis that that can create anxiety or a crisis of faith for others.    I understand that.     My hope is that we can name it.   Name any anxiety that comes with naming it.   And I would hope to name the possibility.   As a minister, I am available and willing to talk individually with anyone or as a group to walk through this with you.    If it is a crisis of faith, I want to reframe it as a gift, an opportunity, a possibility.

Well, now, where are we?

My sermon is nearly complete and I have not talked about the passage.   My preaching professors would roll their eyes.   This passage, in my opinion, is Matthew’s Jesus.   Scholars date Matthew around 85.    That is 55 years after Jesus.  25 years after Paul.  30 years after Q.   15 years after the Jewish War.     Who are we?  Who are we in relation to our ancestry?  What is our practice?   It was a crisis of faith.

Matthew’s community evidently felt that in order to be a follower of Jesus you needed to follow the Jewish law.  Not only follow it, but to follow it better than your Jewish brothers and sisters who did not follow Jesus.    Not only should you not kill, but you shouldn’t act in anger toward a companion.   Don’t call people names.  Be reconciled with others.   If you have disagreements, settle out of court.  The Jesus Seminar thought that section regarding court did sound like the historical Jesus.   

Now of course Jesus being a Jew would have regarded following Jewish law as a given.   What was happening in Matthew’s time were groups (like Paul) who were saying that the law was no longer binding.   Matthew has Jesus lift up the law.

What I take from this section and why I am glad it is in the scriptures, is that it reminds me that faith is not easy.  Reconciling with others and talking it out with others, even when it is uncomfortable, and not resorting to dismissing others, is the path.

Faith is not about believing the supposed right stuff and then calling it a day.  It is a path, a life path that sometimes calls us to reexamine everything we thought we knew, to take seriously the spirit behind the law, to open our minds and our hearts to what is there even if it takes us to uncomfortable places.    Buddha called it the eightfold path.  Jesus called it the law and the prophets.

I am not saying their paths are the same as if any of ours are the same.   But they are authentic paths.  They are paths that cut through the brush of crisis.   They are paths that know the sufferings and anxieties of life.   Because they know the suffering and grief of life, they are worth hearing.


1 comment:

  1. I'll comment of this...because it deserves a comment. I appreciate the honesty and the clear-eyed view of the requisites of spiritual growth. Faith without crisis can be as untempered steel -- hard and brittle. Thanks for this John. It's a keeper.