Monday, September 22, 2008

Just the Facts, Ma'am

Many of us in the Diocese of Fort Worth who intend to remain in the Episcopal Church have been asked to speak to various groups around the diocese who are trying to sort fact from fiction as our November diocesan convention approaches. At that convention, we will be voting on the second reading of canonical changes that our leadership claim will remove the entire diocese from the Episcopal Church and realign it with the Southern Cone.

Of course, they can't legally do that. The only way an entire diocese can leave the Episcopal Church is by action of General Convention.

So one big fact we've been telling everyone is that the Episcopal Diocese of Fort Worth will continue as a constituent part of the Episcopal Church after Nov. 16. Bishop Iker may choose to leave TEC, and many priests and lay people may choose to leave, but the diocese will continue.
We will reorganize, eventually elect a new bishop, and get on with God's work in this part of Texas. There will almost certainly be lawsuits, but eventually, all will be well.

The second fact we've had to tell people is that no, the presiding bishop has never denied the divinity of Jesus. Never.

Let me say that again. Presiding Bishop Katharine Jefferts Schori has never denied the divinity of Christ.

That's the short answer. Here's a longer one, written by the Rev. Bruce Coggin, priest of this diocese.

One Way

I am the way; I am the truth and I am life; no one comes to the Father except by me.
John 14:6 NEB

For God has no favourites: those who have sinned outside the pale of the Law of Moses will perish outside its pale, and all who have sinned under that law will be judged by the law. It is not by hearing the law, but by doing it, that men will be justified before God. When Gentiles who do not possess the law carry out its precepts by the light of nature, then, although they have no law, they are their own law, for they display the effect of the law inscribed on their hearts. Their conscience is called as witness, and their own thoughts argue the case on either side, against them or even for them, on the day when God judges the secrets of human hearts through Christ Jesus. So my gospel declares.
Romans 2:11-16 NEB

In July 2006, a TIME magazine interviewer asked Presiding Bishop Jefferts Schori if belief in Jesus is the only way to get to Heaven. Recalling, perhaps, phrases made popular in Church of England Bible scholar and translator J.B. Phillip’s 1961 Your God Is Too Small, she replied, “We who practice the Christian tradition understand him as our vehicle to the divine. But for us to assume that God could not act in other ways is, I think, to put God in an awfully small box.”

A notorious brouhaha followed that honest and unassuming response. She may as well have denied the right of a bishop unhappy with the beliefs and behavior of a another bishop to go into the offender’s diocese and preach, teach, baptize, confirm, ordain, and otherwise rummage around and cause trouble! The very idea. All across the Anglican extremist blogosphere, there erupted such a tsunami of bile and vitriol as has rarely been known since the twenty-eighth chapter of Deuteronomy, that flows to this day from every pore of the thin hides of those among The Enraged whose vilification of the Presiding Bishop is their version of the bloody shirt, especially since an ad feminam attack on her is easier than thinking things out. One can abide all that; but far more critical, the matter comes up continuously among Episcopalians with no intention of leaving the church who either would like some reassurance themselves about just what the Presiding Bishop meant or—and here’s the critical point—need something to say to their brothers and sisters in Christ who regularly uncoil that lash and lay it on the good lady’s back. (Recently the Rev’d Frederick Barber, Rector of Trinity Episcopal Church, Fort Worth, wrote a superb comment on the matter for his parish bulletin, published on the parish website and in other places such as the web site of the Steering Committee North Texas Episcopalians. This essay expands some of his ideas and takes up others.)

Before trying to think this all through, let’s take time to note that the question put to the bishop is if not crassly self-centered then at least indicative of a fairly utilitarian perception of what Jesus is all about. Yes, people want to “go to Heaven”—whatever that means, and you can bet there are as many versions of Heaven as there are God’s chillen who want to go there—and there’s nothing wrong with that. But is that all there is to it? Jesus was born, lived, died, rose from the dead, and ascended to the Father just to keep us out of the roasting fires of Hell? Or, laying that aside, Jesus did all he did just to assure believers eternal bliss? Either outcome is, of course, entirely desirable; but if that’s all Jesus is about, why fiddle with all that other stuff—the sermon on the mount, the parables, the two dominical commandments, all that stuff about how we should behave now, in this life? Jesus does say that unless we pay attention to all that stuff we likely will not measure up to the Inasmuch as you did it to the least of these standard at Peter’s Gate, which makes it quite clear that something more than what we—and likely the bishop’s interviewer—ordinarily mean by belief is at stake; and that leads us down the faith without works road which is not the road we’re on here. Suffice it to say that the question put to the Presiding Bishop was pretty shallow. Had she—as she certainly could have done—gone into a disquisition on the work of the second person of the Holy Trinity, the interviewer would have cut her right off. Her answer was appropriate to the occasion. The people raising Cain about it know that. Or should.

But back to the main topic. Jesus’ statement to his bewildered disciples in John 14 responds to Thomas’ (and Peter’s before him, Philip’s after him) insistent, “Lord, we haven’t got a clue where you’re going!” That’s not surprising. The entire Upper Room passage in John has had simple believers and learnèd scholars shaking their heads ever since the evangelist got it on parchment. It ill becomes disingenuous preachers to point to a statement like Nobody comes to the Father except by me and say, “What part of that simple statement do you not understand? Jesus is intolerant!” Come now. Let’s give Jesus a little more credit than that. Consider the setting: John puts Jesus and his perpetually befuddled disciples together at a moment when they expect him to preside at the seder. Instead he throws them entirely off balance: washes their feet, says one of them is about to betray him and identifies the traitor, then says he’s leaving them, that they won’t know where he is, that they should love each other, that they can’t go with him, and that not only Judas but also Main Man Peter will betray him before the sun came up. No wonder they are confused.

Remember this about John’s gospel: it portrays the disciples as a fairly dimwitted lot, not always benign, not always charitable, and almost invariably confused. Sound like us? Does to me. The familiar confused babble that follows Jesus’ opening gambit is pure John, and Jesus’ response is at first just as familiar. He treads water, tries to reassure them, calm them down before he takes them out into the deep end. He most certainly does not start closing doors and cutting off escape routes.

The notion that somehow Jesus’ affirmation that nobody comes to the Father except by me is a warning, Jesus jabbing his right index into his left palm, his voice hard and unforgiving . . . intolerant? . . . says more about who holds that notion than it does about Jesus. It turns Jesus into a menacing judge threatening to withhold protection from those who can’t quite work themselves up to accept him as the perfect incarnation of God’s love, a claim lots of good people have had trouble with, a claim nobody before Jesus had a chance even to consider. Is that the way the Jesus you know would treat his best friends, especially when he was about to leave them? Doesn’t ring true at all.

Instead try to imagine Jesus almost laughing at his disciples, chuckling, not to mock them but because he finds them so helpless, so skittish, so panicky—like sheep without a shepherd. Far from scowling and haranguing them, the Jesus you know would far more likely have tried to settle them down, get them back on track, go back to something very basic about himself. To paraphrase: “Guys! Peter! Thomas! Philip! Get a grip. Haven’t I taught you anything? What do you mean you don’t know the way? I am the way. I am the truth and the light. Everybody who comes to the Father comes through me.” Of course, John puts that last sentence in a negative frame—nobody comes but by me—but it works as well positively—anybody who comes to the Father comes by me. No, that’s not playing fast and loose, re-writing scripture. Rather it’s a suggestion derived from similar moments elsewhere in the New Testament. Matthew, Mark, and Luke have Jesus saying both Who is not against me is with me and Who is not with me is against me. Turns out both sayings are engraved on either side of the same coin: I exclude nobody; don’t exclude yourselves. Similarly Jesus’ claim to being the only way to the Father can run both ways. And does. Anybody who comes to the Father comes by me. Once the threat disappears, we can approach the question more ways that one, none of them exclusory.

At this point the pericope from Romans in the epilogue above is helpful. Since one of the first questions that jumps up from such a claim as Jesus’ is, What about all the folks who never heard of Jesus of Nazareth, which includes everybody who ever lived before him? Abraham, Moses, David, Ruth to name four—plus everybody else who ever lived up to then. None of them believed in Jesus. Are they in Hell? St. Paul says no, says no roundly, thumpingly, unequivocally. No. The derivative of Paul’s thinking is that good men at all times and in all places have sought God—and have found God. Some of them, despite not having God’s law, managed to “carry out its precepts”—which is Paul’s way of saying they found God—“by the light of nature,” and their conscience is their witness before God who alone judges the secrets of our hearts—“through Jesus Christ.” They found God without Jesus? Yet God judges them through Jesus? To get at those apparently oxymoronic questions, we have to take a step back and look again at who we believe Jesus is.

In the language of Chalcedon, we say we believe in a triune God—one being in three “persons” we name father, son, and holy spirit. People sensitive to gender-specific language prefer creator, redeemer, and sanctifier, but that’s another matter Christians may disagree on without crying havoc. To get past the potential semantic potholes, let’s use the name for the second person St. John gave us: logos, koinè Greek for the English word. From logos we get several English words starting with logic and going from there, all connected to understanding, making sense of, having sense, meaning, coherence. The first chapter of John’s gospel says the logos—let’s switch to Word, which we’ll capitalize to keep from confusing it with the ordinary meaning—says the Word was present at the beginning of creation, existed before it all started in fact, is cotemporaneous, coexistent with God the creator/father and was in on the creation. “Through him all things came to be; no single thing was created without him [NEB}.” The second person of the Trinity, the Word, makes the first person’s gift of life present, real, tangible, understandable, graspable—incarnate. The Word gives God’s life flesh, a body. No words in scripture are more central to the doctrine of the Holy Trinity. God the father/creator did nothing without the son/redeemer and the holy spirit/sanctifier—oh, let’s just get over it and use the most traditional terms: Father, Son, Holy Spirit. The Father did, does nothing without the other two: all of God is there all the time. Genesis testifies to the Spirit’s presence at creation; John affirms the Son’s. From those and other perceptions, early Christian theologians articulated God’s nature the way we still believe and affirm in the creeds. The Father creates, the Son incarnates, the Spirit makes holy. All three persons, all the time, always, forever.

Now, a complication arises from the name Christ—mashiach, christos, the anointed one. Stemming from Samuel’s anointing of Saul, then David, it refers precisely to the anointed figure the Jews expected to overthrow their oppressors and restore to them the earthly kingdom gone with the many winds that blew through the Holy Land, their messiah. Jesus did not nearly fit that job description, so they crucified him. The church immediately appropriated the term for the risen Jesus, in part to ram it down the Jews’ throat but also in part because, seen through the prism of the resurrection, Jesus is in fact the messiah of a new Israel. He becomes Jesus Christ and even more often just Christ. That ironic ambiguity is actually helpful in this case, because we can now shed logos and Word and just say Christ. And when we say Christ we mean the second person of the Holy Trinity—but that doesn’t mean Jesus. Exactly.

Consider. One night in Bethlehem a couple millennia ago, a boy they named Jesus was born. That night something happened in time, in history. That boy Jesus grew up to be the fellow we call Lord, and the history he entered, he changed forever. But—pay attention—nothing happened in the godhead that night. The Word, busy incarnating God’s gift of life since the very beginning, gave it a baby’s flesh, and this time the giving was absolute. Complete. That boy Jesus was and is the miraculous incarnation of all God’s life, wonder, splendor, and love, and for that reason we give him a second name, Jesus the Christ, Jesus Christ. Jesus—really a man, really born, really historical—is one with Christ, the second person of the Holy Trinity—eternal, beyond time beyond history. For the first time, God’s incarnation in creation is complete—but that’s not to say that Jesus is the beginning of incarnation.

Do we suppose that once creation showed its clay feet and God ran Adam and Eve out of Eden that the Father told the Son to take a break and get some Zs while he knocked some sense into people’s heads? The Old Testament accounts often make it look that way, don’t they? But how likely is that? If Christ was God’s coadjutor in creation, Christ is God’s coadjutor all the time, no? Among the challenges the Old Testament presents is finding Christ in a narrative in which the rowdy, whimsical Father gets most of the good lines, all the big soliloquies and arias, and generally dominates the stage. Christ is there nevertheless, and that means Christ in all the sweetness and tenderness, all the forgiving tolerance, we discover in Jesus. Christ has from the beginning incarnated God’s love in creation.

All of creation, that is, not just the Holy Land, not just among the Hebrews who became Israelites who became Jews. Said in the simplest possible terms, ever since the world has been, any time love happens, God is there. Ubi amor, ibi deus. We don’t know if the primordial amoebae loved each other, but by the time we get to people we know that love happens among us; and every time it does, God is there, from the simplest yearning of an infant for its mother to the complex sacrificial love of Mother Theresa. And how does God’s love come among us, live in us? Through Christ, of course. There’s no other way—as Jesus pointed out. When Abram felt the movement of God’s love for a people not yet born, Christ was there. When Moses went right on loving and shepherding his ungrateful, unruly followers, Christ was there. Paul says he was the cloud by day and the fire by night. When Jeremiah envisioned God’s saving love lavished on all mankind, Christ was there. Right? But also when Buddha went searching for God’s love in the world’s entrails, Christ was there. When Akhenaten perceived that God is one, Christ was there. When Plato envisioned a wondrous world beyond the one we see, Christ was there. And now that Christ and Jesus are one, people who do not call Jesus Lord still seek God and find God. Is Mahatma Gandhi in Hell? Will the Dalai Lama go to Hell? Will the AIDS orphans in Africa, children who raise their younger siblings on virtually nothing and sacrifice everything right down to their own bodies to save their brothers and sisters, yet may not live long enough to hear Jesus’ name, go to Hell?

Christians believe that Jesus is the incarnation and the revelation of all of God. When we look at Jesus we see the Father, we see the Holy Spirit, we see God. Others who seek God urged by the work of the second person of the Holy Trinity, by Christ that is, find God, they have “by the light of nature” found God’s law of love and written it in their hearts. Who are we to condemn that? Their conscience is their witness, against them or “even for them, on the day when God judges the secrets of human hearts.” They may not yet share the vision of God in Christ that is the glory of Christian faith—that’s why we send missionaries, to join Christ in leading people to see God more wholly in Jesus—but whatever truth about God they have found they found through Christ. He is, after all, the only way to see God. In Jesus, Christ shows us God completely; those who know Jesus have seen the Father. Those who do not yet know Jesus or do not yet know Jesus is the Christ nevertheless are led by Christ to see the Father’s love. Christ is the only agent we know of making God’s love incarnate. Of course Christ is the only way! But Jesus’ reminder to his nervous disciples is no exclusionary clause on the promise of God’s love and eternal life in it. Jesus only reminded Thomas of the obvious. Since there is but one God (as Akhenaten knew) and since God has from the beginning made himself real in our flesh (as any parent who loves a child knows), then surely you know, Thomas, that since God is in me and I in God, I am the way everybody comes to the Father. Just don’t get it into your head that you’re the only sheep I have to herd.

Such an expansive reading of John’s gospel is, of course, profoundly upsetting to folks who see God’s love in terms of reward for good behavior, a rather upsy-downsy way to read Jesus’ message of universal forgiveness, even before repentance. The Prodigal did not regret his misbehavior, only his situation, and his father forgave him before the scamp got home. The passion narratives do not record the soldiers who nailed Jesus to the cross saying, “Sorry about this, Dude,” but Jesus forgave them. Repentance is the product of God’s forgiveness, not a prerequisite. Forgiveness does not depend on the sinner but on the forgiver. By the same token, belief in Jesus is the result of Christ’s leading, not a prerequisite. Christ doesn’t need to be told where to go. Christ—and the Holy Spirit—go like the wind, where they will, and they’ve been busy far longer than we usually give them credit for and in fields whose impropriety shocks beady-eyed and persnickety bean counters who conceive religion in juridical terms—just as the company Jesus kept shocked the Pharisees.

Bishop Katharine’s response to the question is no scandal, no denial of Jesus’ divinity, not for a minute worth all the hand-wringing and anathema-crying. She answered a pop question with a pop answer, the god-in-a-box language that’s been around half a century now, used by scads of preachers and counselors. What she didn’t say was, “Of course, we see God in Jesus. He’s where we find God. But surely you don’t suggest that God isn’t working just as hard to reveal himself, to incarnate himself in people who never heard of Jesus, who have found Jesus’ ambassadors sometimes less than loving, who want to, but can’t quite yet, put their faith in Jesus? Let’s not try to set God’s limits for him.” The lady’s just a lot smarter than her critics give her credit for, and Episcopalians can be grateful she has a sense of what to say and when to say it. The people who have blown her comment into a cause célèbre give new pungency to the smell of red herring. Bless their hearts. And give them better minds.

And what does all that say to ordinary Jesus loving, Jesus worshiping, Jesus believing Christians? Couple of things. First, let’s be sure that our lives—“the only Bible your neighbor may ever read”—reflect Jesus’ love for everybody the Father creates, regardless. Full stop. Second, let’s open our hands and our pocketbooks and our prayers for Christian work in the world—no matter the agency, oh, ye who abominate the MDGs—the kind of work that feeds and clothes and heals and shelters. That’s what the Jesus who is the Christ who is God who has been and is working in ways we can neither know nor comprehend in all the creation he holds in his wonderful hands told us to do.

And remember this: not only do we have neither the ability, the energy, nor the time to get everything sorted out for God about who loves him and who doesn’t, who’s in and who’s out, who gets to go to Heaven and who doesn’t, all that, but also God hasn’t asked our help in that matter. As someone has said, we’re not on the selection committee. We’re on the welcome committee.

The Episcopal Church welcomes you.

1 comment:

Connie R said...

Thank you for a calm and loving discussion of matters that are divisive. I've been looking to find what it was that Schori actually said, and you're the only site I could find that quoted her in context. I'm from a diocese that has voted to separate from the American church, and while I can understand and support the decision, I am deeply appreciative of an honest and charitable consideration of every person's views.