What is Necessary? Part 4, Sin

What is Necessary? Part 4, Sin

John 15.1-4 (NIV)
“I am the true vine, and my Father is the gardener. He cuts off every branch in me that bears no fruit, while every branch that does bear fruit he prunes so that it will be even more fruitful. You are already clean because of the word I have spoken to you. Remain in me, as I also remain in you. No branch can bear fruit by itself; it must remain in the vine. Neither can you bear fruit unless you remain in me.”

We’ve been discussing what we think are the necessary components of 21st Century Christianity, both personal and communal. Through our previous discussions about Jesus, the gospels, and the Bible, we’ve helped each other better appreciate the rich conversational heritage of Jesus’s followers.

My hope is that by remembering Jesus’ tradition was to teach us to think for ourselves, we’ll give ourselves permission to question some “traditional” Christian thought. Jesus challenged the accepted thinking of his day. If we’re his students, we should follow his example.

Today, we’re going to examine the concept of sin. Jesus might be the cornerstone of Christian faith, but sin is the foundation. Some of us in the progressive, emerging Christian movement don’t like to talk about sin. I think that’s in part because we immediately think of original sin, which progressives reject.

The Anchor Yale Bible Dictionary defines sin as “human deviation from the expressed will and desire of God—as it is developed and presented in the OT and NT.” The ancient Jewish people’s “prophets, priests, wisdom teachers (like Jesus) and lawmakers reflected on sin in a variety of ways.” In the early days of Christianity, this conversation also began to reflect their thoughts about God’s activity in Jesus.

So, let’s consider what it means to “[deviate] from the expressed will and desire of God.”

I like this definition of sin because it reminds me of the name of our church: The Current. We chose that name because we liked the imagery of God as a river, gently moving the universe toward ultimate love. As free-willed (perhaps), sentient beings in God, we can choose to swim with, or against, the current. Swimming against the current is deviating from “the will of God.”

According to the New Interpreter’s Bible, in the First Testament, sin and other labels are applied to any “harmful or rejected behavior that impairs relationship to the divine.” This gave the ancient Jewish people a fair amount of objectivity about sin and how to deal with it. Their original concept of sin was as a sort of “miasma” that had to be cleansed from both people and places.

The priests offered cultic ritual cleansings, but the prophets warned people to be skeptical about relying on rituals to reconnect them with God. They instead encouraged people to individually repent and confess (topics we’ll discuss next time) thereby being reformed—re-formed back into the loving image of God.

For many of us, our first exposure to the idea of sin is the story of Adam and Eve. We’re told that because they ate the apple, we all get old and die. While that interpretation acknowledges the corporate, structural nature of the story (Adam and Eve represent all humankind), it also presumes expulsion from the Garden rather than something more deeply mystical and metaphysical: that leaving the Garden was required, that learning about good and evil was necessary, for God to be fully human.

Unfortunately, the concept that Adam and Eve left the garden with God’s blessing was lost by the time Christianity became an Imperial religion.

In the 4th Century, Augustine of Hippo cemented the idea that Adam and Eve exiting the Garden was humanity’s original sin. Consequently, we’re all born sinners and there’s nothing we can do about it. Mortality is the cost of being human. Why that’s a sin still escapes me.

At any rate, Augustine, not satisfied to merely condemn the entirety of humanity to hell, then mangled the Second Testament stories about Jesus, twisting their meaning so drastically as to make them unrecognizable to their original audience. I suspect the original meanings of Bible stories would shock most Christians today.

Augustine’s Confessions was published not long after Rome made Christianity the state religion. Massively influenced by Augustine, politically motivated, and somewhat unable and unwilling to give up their Pantheistic roots, the new Roman Catholic church transformed Jesus from a humble, itinerant, enlightened Jewish buddha, to the savior and king of the universe, humankind’s only hope for salvation from Adam and Eve’s mortal curse.

For the Romans, Jesus became about the quest for immortality after death, whereas for the Jews, Jesus’ intended audience, he represented hope that God was bringing about a new world here and now, by transforming everyone into a Christ-like being.

While Augustine’s idea about original sin eventually became doctrine for both Catholics and Protestants, sin as described in the Bible is much more nuanced than merely the condemnation of humanity to mortality.

I had a terrific theology professor back in the day. I was going over my old class notes to prep for this article, and thought I’d just share these notes I took about Serene Jones, who has since become one of my favorite theologians. She describes sin in much more contemporary terms. She writes that:

  • we sin when we consider ourselves God and burden ourselves with too many tasks. Thinking we can do it all is hubris.
  • we sin when we divide people by race, gender, ability, sexual orientation and decide some people are more, or less, beloved by God. Obviously, we’re all created differently, so differences must be okay.
  • sin is structural (endemic to the entire population) as much as personal. We support sinful structures even when we don’t intend to. Owning an iPhone supports a lot of systemic sin.
  • sin is living against the good God has set out for us and all creation

Theologian Clark Williamson once wrote that human beings—all human beings—are good because we are treasured by God. He said that sin comes not from being human, but from the way humans act, especially in groups. Williamson wrote, “The crimes of the poor in the Ghetto are crimes, but so is the Ghetto.”

Question:Is your concept of sin more personal or corporate (as in the entire body of human beings)? What does the metaphor of sin mean today?

 

What is Necessary? Part 3, The Bible

What is Necessary? Part 3, The Bible

2 Timothy 3.15-17 (CEB)
Since childhood you have known the holy scriptures that help you to be wise in a way that leads to salvation through faith that is in Christ Jesus. Every scripture is inspired by God and is useful for teaching, for showing mistakes, for correcting, and for training character, so that the person who belongs to God can be equipped to do everything that is good.Romans 10.17 (NIV)
Consequently, faith comes from hearing the message, and the message is heard through the word about Christ.

During part two of our What is Necessary? series last week we discussed “the gospel.” We looked at the history of the word “gospel,” from the Greek Evangelion, which loosely means “good news.” We learned that “good news” was the Roman Empire’s term for the information its orators, called evangelists, distributed throughout the Empire. The term “gospel” was usurped by early followers of Jesus to both protest the Empire and proclaim the real good news of Jesus Christ: that God and human are inseparable.

From there we discussed several interpretations of the good news written about Jesus in the gospels of Mark, Matthew, Luke, and John, and the gospel Jesus teaches and lives, which reveals God’s all-inclusive, vision-changing, soul-awakening love, infinitely and intimately bound together in the flesh of the universe.

We can discuss our ideas about “the gospel of Jesus Christ” because stories about him and the history of his Jewish people have been preserved for thousands of years, first orally, then later in written documents. Many of these are collected in the Bible. Others are preserved in extra-biblical texts. Hundreds of fragments from ancient versions of scripture are still being discovered around the world today.

The Bible is a collaborative work. For thousands of years, every story in The Bible was written and rewritten by many hands and retold by many voices. The diverse documents in the Bible are recollections of a people’s heritage and their faithful perseverance as they develop a social identity. In the Bible, we read the ancient Jewish people’s questions and answers about community, the nature of God, God’s interaction with humans, the origins of the universe, and other existential questions we still ponder today.

The Bible we use today is a collection of these ancient musings. It contains letters to and from people asking timeless questions that profoundly affect the way we view ourselves, each other, and our planet. The Bible includes short morality tales akin to Aesop’s Fables, commonly called parables; letters to and from people and faith communities; and epics like Genesis and Revelation. 

The people in the Bible wrestle with the consequences of their actions, just like us. They wonder why bad things happen to good people. They struggle with civil justice and imagine a God of ultimate righteousness, upon whose idealized, perfect actions they base their own civic ordinances.

The Bible reveals our struggle to understand the chaos in our lives and our hope that there is some benevolent force providing comfort in the darkest days of our souls. The Bible also reveals the need for the answers to our quests to remain fluid. From Genesis to Revelation, we see a transition in human thinking from a God and society of retributive justice to a God of forgiveness, and a world of peace, an ideal literally embodied in the parables of and about Jesus Christ.

The original Hebrew Bible upon which our Bible is based was a living document. The Rabbis in charge resisted writing anything down because they were afraid that once written, the open dialogue about God, the meaning of life, and the Jewish people’s place in the cosmos, would be forgotten. Ancient people gave writing intense authority. The ability to read and write beyond the basics was rare, so written documents carried tremendous weight.

Initially, these stories so many people now call “The Word of God,” were not holy, untouchable, infallible, God-scribed magical tomes, but were, instead, understood as words about God. A conversation. Scripture is a breathtaking example of human creativity full of our musings, ramblings, contradictions, hopes, dreams, disappointments, and jubilations. These stories were intended to inspire, not to be sanctified.

The Bible is an incredible collection of ancient thought, and we are fortunate to have the compilation available today. We should remember, though, that it was assembled in a highly charged political environment in the 4thCentury, by a bunch of Western Europeans who woefully misunderstood the Middle Eastern context of The Bible and did precisely what the Rabbis warned against: they glorified the texts.

In America, today, glorifying the Bible is still part and parcel of many denominational creeds. In fact, I would say that for many Christians, the Bible is more important than Christ.

For example, in my recent travels, I stumbled upon one of those little Christian cards that drop out of used books or pants pockets. These cards present a version of the gospel that is affirmed by many American Christians, even though many others (myself included) reject this particular Christian brand.

I suspect we’ve all at least heard this language before. Perhaps in the past, some of us have used this language to describe our relationship with God. Try to read the card without emotion and judgment. It is one interpretation of one Biblical theme. In keeping with our rabbinical tradition, let’s enter into conversation with it and see what our souls reveal.


Question: Knowing what you do about the gospel and the Bible, if you could write “The Gospel According to (Your Name),” what would it say?

What is Necessary? Part 2, The Gospel

What is Necessary? Part 2, The Gospel

ACTS 10.34-35 (CEB)
Peter said, “I really am learning that God doesn’t show partiality to one group of people over another. Rather, in every nation, whoever worships God and does what is right is acceptable to God.”

ROMANS 1. 16-17
I’m not ashamed of the gospel: it is God’s own power for salvation to all who have faith in God, to the Jew first and also to the Greek. God’s righteousness is being revealed in the gospel, from faithfulness for faith as it is written, The righteous person will live by faith.

Last week we talked about Jesus, and what we as Christians find necessary to believe about him. This week, we’re going to consider the biblical stories written about Jesus, what Christians refer to as “The Gospel of Jesus Christ.”

To have a conversation about what in the gospel is necessary for us—to believe, to live, to emulate—we must consider two things: What is a gospel, and what is the gospel of Jesus Christ? There is no simple answer, by the way. Some Christians have told me, “there is only one Gospel,” but in fact, there are many pieces of many stories, each a distinctly nuanced interpretation of the life and teachings of Jesus, my enlightened rabbi from a backwater piss-hole named Nazareth.

WHAT IS A GOSPEL?
The word “gospel” derives from the Greek Evangelion,meaning “good news.” It’s important to understand that in the early 1stCentury, the good news was delivered from a single source: Rome. Professional orators pronounced Rome’s heavily filtered good news in public squares throughout the Empire. People would gather to hear the good news about the completion of the latest citywide sanitation project and the end of a skirmish on the Empire’s northern border. Romans commonly gathered to hear the gospel of the emperor, whom they often called the son of god.

When people began writing about Jesus, they confiscated terms like “good news,” and “son of God” to contrast Rome’s fragile, temporal kingdom bound together through violence against Jesus’ vision of a peaceful, loving world united by faith in God’s unconditional love.

For his followers, the gospel began to refer both to Jesus’ teaching and the stories being told about him. Both were Jewish stories, written with metaphorical reference to current events the Jewish people of that particular time and place understood. Paul’s letters, Mark’s reportage, The Book of Revelation, are written in a language the Gentile Romans did not understand. This was intentionalbecause, in the early days of the Jesus movement, the effort to spread the gospel was illegal in the Roman Empire.

There is coded language in the gospel, just as there is coded language in the spirituals of the slaves in the old South or the tomato fields today. When you want to turn the globe upside down, you speak in code or die.

For three hundred years, people exchanged their thoughts and ideas about Jesus in these coded gospels—there were probably hundreds of them at one time. Then, in 313, Emperor Constantine legalized Christianity. In 380 it became the state religion. By then, the Gospel was 100% devoid of Jewish participation—and more importantly, Jewish interpretation.

Because the Romans read the gospels of Jesus through a very different lens than their Jewish authors, Christianity was paganized. The Romans treated Jesus like one of the gods of the pantheon—perhaps thegod of the pantheon. They read the Jewish texts with Roman preconceptions about life, death, the afterlife, and the direct involvement of gods in the lives of humans.

Rome was an empire, so the Catholic Church it created became the primary purveyor of “the gospel,” the one and only, any disagreement voce vel in scripto(voiced or in writing) must be burned out of the collective memory.

In America today, the Roman Gospel of Jesus is the only story many people have ever heard: that Jesus was God in the flesh, who came to earth to reconcile human sin, which was caused by our disobedience to God in Eden. Jesus had to live a life of suffering and ultimately sacrifice his life for the good of all humankind.

Paul later expands on this idea, so Jesus’ sacrifice encompasses all of humanity. A cynic might say this was because he’d already lost his Jewish audience and was preaching mainly to Gentiles, and Paul was nothing if not pragmatic.

Similarly, in the middle ages St. Augustine claims that hisinterpretation of the gospel reveals original sin. For Augustine, there is no virtue in being born. Humans are sinful and require God’s redemption. This line of thinking—the presumption we are guilty of something as soon as we’re born, continues to turn Jesus’ gospel of our wholeness in God into a gospel of fear and reproach. This is woefully ironic considering that’s the same battle Jesus was fighting. On the other side.

Like everything having to do with faith and religion, there are many ways to interpret the writings we consider holy. Jesus taught in a rabbinical tradition that encouraged creative interpretation of scripture. There was only one rule, and it’s the same rule I use when considering what’s necessary in the gospels of and about Jesus: what does my interpretation say about love? How does it reveal a universe in love with creation? Creation in love with God? What does my interpretation teach me about the love of God in and through each other? And through these questions I not only check myself, but I also kind of understand the people who say “there’s only one gospel” and realize that I think so too, and that it’s the gospel of love.

Question: What is necessary for your Christian belief about the gospels of Jesus: the one he taught and the ones written about him? 

What Is Necessary? Part 1, Jesus

What Is Necessary? Part 1, Jesus

Matthew 3.13-15 (CEB)
At that time Jesus came from Galilee to the Jordan River so that John would baptize him. John tried to stop him and said, “I need to be baptized by you, yet you come to me?” Jesus answered, “Allow me to be baptized now. This is necessary to fulfill all righteousness.”

 Luke 24.25-26
Then Jesus said to them, “You foolish people! Your dull minds keep you from believing all that the prophets talked about. Wasn’t it necessary for the Christ to suffer these things and then enter into his glory?”

Acts 4.12
Salvation can be found in no one else. Throughout the whole world, no other name has been given among humans through which we must be saved.”

We were moving our son into his dorm in New York recently. While we were there, we visited one of our favorite charity thrift shops. The kids are great thrifters. They’ll look at second-hand clothing, shoes, bags, and tchotchkes for hours. I look around the store more quickly, maybe trying on a shirt or two before I find something to read from the used book rack and settle into a comfy chair for the duration. And I do mean settle in. I’ve finished “War and Peace” in one thrifting session.

In this particular, somewhat peculiar shop, I discovered a book called Shantaram. It’s set in modern-day India and describes the country in a way only someone in love and awe writes about things. It’s not blind love. It’s love even through hurt and pain and suffering. It’s unconditional love of every magnificently odorous nook and cranny of India, the good, the bad, and the ugly.

As the book opens, the main character, Lin, has escaped imprisonment for armed robberies in Australia. He’s traveling with a fake New Zealand passport when he arrives in Bombay.

Lin hires a guide, Prabu, and in quick time they become friends. Through Prabu’s contacts, Lin is also befriended by a variety of dreamers, malcontents, government officials of various ranks, and scoundrels who have an uneasy respect for one another. They also have a keen understanding of the intricacies of the corrupt order of things, a stable system of bribes and favors even while the cast of players is ever revolving.

After several adventures, Prabu invites Lin to his home village, a tremendous honor. Prabu is inviting Lin into the family. Honored, Lin accepts.

Chances are that even if one has never been to India, they are familiar with its notoriously overcrowded train system. There is no reserved seating in the general classes and the train cars are filled with many more people than seats. The fight for a seat is a brutal, cacophonous maul of a ritual as passengers kick, scratch, and beat each other for seats like hippos fighting for dominance at the waterhole.

In this scene, Prabu has stretched himself across an entire bench seat, saving a place for Lin even as others attempt to remove him from his position by tearing at his flesh, kicking him in the ribs and beating him over the head.

Prabu withstands the attacks and manages to save the seat for Lin.

Lin, of course, is astounded, riddled with guilt, and heartbroken that his friend would make such a sacrifice for him. Prabu, as Lin’s guide, considers it nothing more than part of his job. As they’re discussing the situation, the train begins to take off. Suddenly, the cacophony of violence stops.

A new protocol takes place once the train is in motion. As if God pressed pause on an iPod, the train falls virtually silent. Everyone sits quietly and politely, wherever they are. There is respect for personal space, as much as possible on an overcrowded train, to the point of people apologizing to one another if one foot even gently taps another in passing. It’s a stark contrast, the vicious boarding process and the serenity of the train ride.

At first, Lin can’t comprehend the dichotomy and is understandably shaken and angered by the experience. Over time, he learns there is an “unavoidable and unspoken question in all of India: What is necessary?” What is necessary in this situation? In a country that is overcrowded by billions of people, is it necessary to respect the rules of overcrowded spaces and the tranquility of my fellow travelers? Is it necessary to claw my way to a seat in order to visit my family or get to my job? To live in a slum to shelter my family?

What is necessary?

In the book Shantaram, it’s a question asked not only about individual beliefs and actions, but also about governments, religions, and other institutions to which we (mostly willingly) forfeit some of our brain space.

I’ve been asking what is necessary about religion and faith, both personal and corporate, for as long as I can remember. I’m fascinated by the things people will believe and the reasons they give for believing them. So, for the next few weeks, we’re going to ask ourselves what is necessary for us to believe about certain aspects of Christianity. I expect answers to be slightly different for all of us, and that’s okay.

I think some Christians are scared to honestly share what they believe because, in America, we’re told that all Christians are supposed to believe the same thing. But let me say right now, believing the same things about Jesus and Christianity is not necessary for one to claim Jesus as their Buddha, Savior, teacher, or guy they occasionally think about.

Discussions about who Jesus was and what he taught began moments after he died and continue to this day. There is not now, nor has there ever been one homogenous “Christian” belief system. So, there are no “wrong” answers, only answers that are right for you right now. Answers that will—and should—change over time as we all go ever deeper into our spiritual being. In contemplating “what is necessary?” for your Christianity (and perhaps it’s not even called Christianity) I hope you’ll discover both new answers and new questions.

We begin then, this week, talking about Jesus.
What is necessary for you to believe about Jesus?

CHRISTOLOGY
In the places where people all have beards, smoke pipes, drink fancy bourbon and wear corduroy jackets with elbow patches, they call the topic of Jesus, Christology. It concerns the way we think about the idea that Jesus represents something both fully human and fully divine.

In general, a person has either a high or a low Christology which determines whether we call Jesus something exalted like “Son of God,” or “Savior,” or something more down-to-earth like “teacher” or “rabbi.” In this case, “High” and “Low” have no ranking significance. They are simply different ways to think about Jesus as divine, or heavenly (high above this mortal coil); and/or earthly, mortal, flawlessly flawed.

People with high Christologies generally think God worked through the crucifixion of Jesus to repair the human/divine relationship. People with a high Christology often say Jesus “died for their sins,” but that’s not necessarily true for all folks who understand the important idea behind a divinely human Jesus.

A person with a low, or what I would call humanist Christology, generally uses the language of “following” rather than “believing in” Jesus. The human aspects of Jesus’ life, especially service to systematically oppressed people, are more important than the idea that God incarnated to be crucified for our salvation. People with low Christologies often think it is the divine love exemplified in Christ that motivates us to serve. Jesus saves not literally through death, bloodshed and resurrection, but by showing us how to live in an ascended state of being here and now.

A new world ( a “saved” world in middle-ages parlance) comes about when we discover our own Christ connection and begin acting like Jesus: compassionate, loving, a force for social and political change, tuned into God’s universal and unconditional love all the time.

So, let’s see where we all fall in the Christology spectrum. Ask yourself, what is necessary for me to believe about Jesus? And as we’ve been discussing, don’t forget to ask why you think what you think. Journal your ideas so you can refer to them again later. If you want to discuss, just shoot me an email: pastormichael@gowiththecurrent.org

Question: What do you find necessary to believe about Jesus? Why?

Quantum Jesus

Quantum Jesus

Quantum Jesus

John 6.53-59 (CEB)
Jesus said to them, “I assure you, unless you eat the flesh of the Human One and drink his blood, you have no life in you. Whoever eats my flesh and drinks my blood has eternal life, and I will raise them up at the last day. My flesh is true food and my blood is true drink. Whoever eats my flesh and drinks my blood remains in me and I in them. As the living Father sent me, and I live because of the Father, so whoever eats me lives because of me. This is the bread that came down from heaven. It isn’t like the bread your ancestors ate, and then they died. Whoever eats this bread will live forever.” Jesus said these things while he was teaching in the synagogue in Capernaum.
 
The author of The Gospel of John has Jesus using provocative language to stimulate the minds of his students. The language above is graphic and often riles us even today. What is Jesus talking about, eating his flesh and drinking his blood? Taken literally, this passage is like an episode of “The Walking Dead”!
 
However, Jesus uses the language of flesh and blood to express intimacy with God. These days we also have other ways to communicate the intimacy of our relationship with Jesus, God, and each other. My favorite is the language of quantum physics.
 
Jesus talks about divine/human intimacy the best he can, comparing the being of God as the flesh and blood of humanity (and all existence). Instead of a distant God, separate and above human beings, Jesus is about God becoming human. In fact, Jesus says, God is the very substance of our being: our flesh and blood. 
 
Jesus entangles God in the material world the same way we perceive God as the foundational sound of creation. Flesh and blood, fundamental string, Universal Consciousness, eternal vibration, love; they’re all just names for God, the One of us all.
 
Today, the meaning of this passage might be a little easier for us to grasp since we better understand the quantum structure of reality. In Jesus’ day, though, the idea of God as the flesh of everything is so outrageous, the disciples are incapable of hearing Jesus correctly. 
 
They mistakenly hear him literally, so are aghast after they hear all this talk about eating Jesus’ flesh and drinking his blood. They don’t grasp the spiritual meaning of his analogy because never before had anyone implied that God and humanity—indeed God and everything—are in essence one and the same substance.
 
They might have wondered if Jesus had finally lost his mind.
 
We make the disciples’ same mistake when we read The Gospel of John literally. More than any of the other gospels, John is steeped in Jewish mysticism. It uses analogy and metaphor that, 2000 years later, leaves us as confused as the disciples. 
 
It’s important to understand that The Gospel of John is heavily influenced by the author’s ideas about family. It was written for, and probably by, a Jewish community of Jesus’ followers who had been kicked out of their synagogue. 
 
In the First Century, CE, a synagogue was the communal gathering place. It would have been busy all the time, with special services for families and the larger community. A synagogue was the heart of the community, the soul of the family. To be kicked out was to be dead and forgotten. Being banished could leave people bitter, angry, and confused. If they were kicked out of the synagogue, where would they find God?
 
For the Johannine community, Jesus answers by teaching, not coincidentally in the synagogue, that his way is the new synagogue. The nourishment found in a building is nothing compared to the nourishment of the spirit. This is the difference between “the bread your ancestors ate” and “the bread of eternal life.” 
 
The God found in institutionalized religion might be nourishing, but it often leaves us hungry. Jesus might even claim it should leave us hungry, because as we seek God within we will push against the creeds and dogmas of the religious status quo. Alternatively, God found internally, to any extent, continues to nudge us toward even greater intimacy with God. 
 
Jesus teaches us that Oneness obliterates religious rules and changes the concept of both what the institution is and it’s authority. The institution is not the temple. Ultimately, Jesus hopes we realize, we are the temple. Everywhere. Everyone .No exceptions.
 
We are also all flesh and blood. Unlike Jesus, however, we also comprehend that flesh and blood is cellular, and that those cells are made of atoms, and the atoms are made of electrons, protons and neutrons, and those are made of other, still more miniscule elements, and so on until we get to the original element, God.
 
God is the fundamental vibration whose cellular singing manifests the star factories that make the stuff that makes the DNA that ultimately forms the flesh and blood of all being, from the crust of the Earth to the skin of a newborn infant. Jesus understood this, he just didn’t have our quantum language at his disposal (or, at least, he couldn’t use that kind of language 2000 years ago). Instead, he used the most intimate language he could muster for the people of his era: We are all not only flesh and blood, but also we are the same flesh and blood, the flesh and blood of God, the underlying energy of creation.
 
John writes that Jesus said, “My flesh is true food and my blood is true drink.” Jesus doesn’t mean that someone must worship and bow down to him to find the truth (in fact, he explicitly states more than once, that he hates the idea of being a King). Rather, Jesus means for us to understand that he is filled with the truth, an innate understanding that he exists as God’s perfect human emanation. He understands he is the flesh and blood of God, and he wants us to understand that we are, too. Why? 

Because Jesus can see a different reality, where all humans look and act like him because we finally realize we’re not that different from one another. In fact, we are all related by flesh and blood.

The Void

The Void

Philippians 2.6-8
Though he was in the form of God, he did not consider being equal with God something to exploit. But he emptied himself by taking the form of a slave and by becoming like human beings. When he found himself in the form of a human, he humbled himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross.

This passage from Paul’s letter to the church in Philippi is a beautiful hymn about Oneness. It conveys how deeply Paul understood that Jesus was a teacher in the Jewish wisdom tradition who called his followers to a radical shift in consciousness: away from the misperceptions of this temporal reality created by mind and ruled by Ego, into the unified field of divine love, which must be perceived not only by mind, but also by body and soul.

Obedience for Jesus and Paul is not subservience, it is wholeness, unity, Oneness. Experiencing it requires silencing (or learning to ignore) the constant, blaring fabrications of our minds and merely sitting in non-judgmental God space.

The obedience Paul talks about is what we today describe when we talk about God being the fundamental string through which all things exist. Remember, quantum string theory suggests that all matter is fundamentally created by the vibrations of sub-atomic energy called strings. These strings vibrate like the strings on a guitar, their resonance forming our four-dimensional reality and everything in it.

When we say we are “in tune” with God, or when we feel the electrifying jolt of God shocking us into a more profound perception of reality, that is obedience to God. It is letting go of our self-image, of our misperceptions of the world and all the noise generated by our minds.

Have you ever noticed just how noisy your mind is? Even in the quietest moments, your brain is generating noise. Sometimes, the noise appears as lovely thoughts, dreams, and ideas. Other times the mind preoccupies us with the five poisons: desire, anger, greed, jealousy, pride, and ignorance. Whether the noise appears positive or negative is beside the point. The problem is the noise.

If you are able to step outside all those mental fabrications, even for a brief moment, you’ll notice that when you think your mind is quiet there is still the sound of crickets chirping in your head, or the electrical crackle of the static that used to bellow when we tuned between radio and TV stations. At least the static, while still noise, would be a respite from the 24-hour “news” cycle.

In fact, though, our minds work like 24-hour, always-on TV stations. Both are broadcasters, and both constantly distract us from who we are and what we are capable of. And while we can press a button to change the TV channel, we have been led to believe that we cannot do the same with our minds.

This misconception about our brain, its place in the interpretation of reality, and it’s function on our ability to perceive reality more clearly, is a fundamental barrier to the intimate relationship with God to which Jesus invites us.

The graphic we’re using today is the character known as Ensō.In Zen Buddhism, an ensō (円相, “circle“) is a circle that is “hand-drawn in one or two uninhibited brushstrokes to express a moment when the mind is free to let the body create. The ensō symbolizes absolute enlightenment, strength, elegance, the universe, and mu (the void).” (Wikipedia)

The ensō represents everything and nothing simultaneously, which is the non-dual ontology Jesus is all about. The lesson is elementary: to experience the all-ness of God, we must first empty ourselves of, well, ourselves. Just like Jesus. His teaching is never about him (which makes the current state of Christianity all the more ironic), it’s always about God. Jesus always points to God, and he does so by entering the void.

What is the void? The void is where the fullness of God’s love replaces the all-important “I” of ego with the compassionate “we” of God. The void is not a place. The void is not a lack of all things, an empty vacuum like outer space. The void is not nihilistic.

The void is the quiet, safe, comforting nowhere that is everywhere. It allows for for clear contemplation and the offering of everything we are to the universal, transformative consciousness of God.

The void is where ego and its greedy lust for possession are vacated and replaced by unconditional, reality-shaking, barrier-busting awareness of unity with all the creations, creatures, and elemental particles of God, our Universal Consciousness.

I’m guessing that for most of us, emptying ourselves of all the stuff that often makes life seem like we’re walking on the edge of a razor blade is a tremendously painful, challenging process. It certainly is for me. Entering the void, we could call it “voiding,” requires a depth of self-reflection and honesty our ego is designed to prevent. Ego doesn’t want to be voided!

Thoughts like, “I’m not good enough,” or “I’m not doing enough to help,” or even “I am the most super-awesome, intelligent, gorgeous human being on the planet and everyone should bow to me” need to, and do, disappear. Positive, negative; those are subjective value judgments. It’s noise.

Jesus directs us to continually let go of all the stuff keeping us stuck in this constant egoic feedback loop and make space for something more significant than the Egoic “I”: God.

Once fulfilled with God, we perceive a brand-new reality—or at least the potential for a new reality. The artifice of a terrorized world melts, and for a moment we are capable of peering beyond the surface of an apparently disturbed human existence into the underlying and unconditional love of a universe pleading to be rediscovered by the humanity it created.

Amen.

Five Poisons, One Antidote

Five Poisons, One Antidote

PROVERBS 6.16-19:There are six things that the Lord hates, seven things detestable to God:
snobbish eyes, a lying tongue, hands that spill innocent blood, a heart set on wicked plans, feet that run quickly to evil, a false witness who breathes lies, and one who causes conflicts among brethren.

The Proverbs list of “things God hates” eventually became “The Seven Deadly Sins:”

THE SEVEN DEADLY SINS

  1. lechery / lust (luxuria in Latin)
  2. gluttony (gula in Latin)
  3. avarice / greed (avaritia in Latin)
  4. sloth / discouragement (acedia in Latin)
  5. wrath (ira in Latin)
  6. envy (invidia in Latin)
  7. pride (superbia in Latin)

“The Seven Deadly Sins” were etched into my psyche sometime while we lived in Moss Bluff, Louisiana. I was a high school junior. Because of the mixed religious background of my parents (and my own innate unwillingness to take anything at face value), I had done a lot of reading about different religions and reached the conclusion that every organized religion was more dangerous than helpful to the overall well-being of people and planet.

This view was in direct conflict with the majority of the folks in Moss Bluff, who were mostly Pentecostal and Southern Baptist, and loved their religion. I was a curiosity, first, because they considered me a Jew, and there were only like, five Jewish families in the area, and second, because I was, well, growing into me: a believer in a supreme consciousness of love that is unequivocally accepting and unconditionally loving. In 1980s Louisiana (and possibly still today) this idea was anathema to the judgmental and punitive God (and Jesus) of the Pentecostals and Southern Baptists.

I do want to be clear that despite our religious differences, Louisiana is the most welcoming, wonderful place I’ve ever lived. I formed deep friendships with people I am still in touch with today, and while I was often told I was going to Hell, I understand now that they said this because they loved me, and wanted me to find peace and love after death. You don’t want your friends burning in a lake of fire for eternity. Still, it didn’t matter how often I told them I wasn’t worried about my soul just because I believed differently. For them, I was a sinner who needed saving. I didn’t accept Jesus the way they did, so I was going to Hell. End of story.

I remember one day, after a particularly draining conversation, going home to unwind with a comic book. I had recently purchased a reissue of some classic DC comics, one featuring the debut of Captain Marvel (yes, he was a DC character). And do you know what I read and saw in that first issue? What would become my most powerful memory of “The Seven Deadly Sins.”

In the original comic, young Billy Batson is chosen by the Immortal Elders to become Captain Marvel when he says the word “Shazam!” They explain that he is to be a force for good in the world and take him on a tour through statuary of the seven deadly sins:

The scene is drawn with dramatic lighting and its eeriness forever cemented the idea of “sinful conduct” in my mind.

We tend to think of the “Seven Deadly Sins” as physical actions, things we do to each other and ourselves. That’s true,  but, do you remember what Jesus said, according to Matthew (5:21-22)? Jesus says, “You have heard that it was said to the people long ago, ‘You shall not murder, and anyone who murders will be subject to judgment.’ But I tell you that anyone who is angry with a brother or sister will be subject to judgment. Again, anyone who says to a brother or sister, ‘Raca,’ (a huge insult in the ancient Jewish world, it essentially meant another human being was worthless) is answerable to the court. And anyone who says, ‘You fool!’ will be in danger of the fire of hell.”

Pay close attention to the language Matthew uses, because Jesus is teaching an exceptionally radical idea to his audience. He says, “Yes, please don’t kill each other. But there’s another problem too, a deeper problem, a root issue, and that is this: you must stop even thinking about killing each other. You must not be angry.” Anger is the root problem, because it poisons our minds and prevents us from connecting to the true nature of God; God that is not punitive or judgmental but is, instead, complete, unconditional love.

That is the crux of the Christian idea of grace, after all: God loves us even though we’re a bunch of screwups.

Jesus is never concerned with literal, eternal damnation. When he talks about being in danger of the fire of hell, he means the hellish landscapes of our psyches, the poisons we put into our minds that keep us from experiencing God’s love; the prejudices and artifices of reality seen through the lens of everything being sinful. Including us.

Jesus knows that for us to change our actions, we must first change our thoughts. And to do that, Jesus says, we must be like him and connect to God, intimately and continuously.

While Jesus recalls the Proverbs when he shares his parable, he also, and I think quite purposefully, relays one of Buddha’s foundational teachings, The Five Poisons. I want to share them with you because they have helped me more profoundly understand both “The Seven Deadly Sins” and the spiritual teaching of Jesus, which I believe should be our Christian focus.

THE FIVE POISONS

  1. Ignorance. Also: confusion, bewilderment, delusion, disorder
  2. Attachment. Also: desire, passion, yearning
  3. Aversion. Also: anger, hatred, rage, fury
  4. Pride. Also: arrogance, conceit, overconfidence, condescension
  5. Jealousy. Also: envy, spite, covetousness

Buddha and Jesus are both about freedom: Freedom from this dark reality. Freedom from the chains that bind us into slavery, whether to other people or to the dark machinations of our minds. Buddha is blatant about the need to clear our thoughts of all the spiritual gunk we build up throughout our lives. He often calls the mind “luminous,” and his teachings, like Jesus’, are designed to help us strip away the stuff keeping us from perfect universal Oneness. I’ve heard Buddhists describe our minds as diamonds: they’re perfect, beautiful and bright, but to get to them you must dig through millions of years of hard carbon shell.

That’s what the five poisons do to our minds: they build up a hard crust that prevents our inner light from shining.

Think about this for a second: Imagine your brain. Imagine it as a diamond, sending blinding rays of loving light out into the world. Now, imagine ignorance and add a layer of carbon darkness. Now add some hatred, a dash of greed, some jealousy, each ingredient creating another layer of thick, black carbon over the diamond. See how quickly our luminous minds are covered in darkness?

This is the power of the five poisons. They blind us to a reality of universal peace and shared abundance. They cause us to lose sight of what Jesus called “the way, the truth, and the light,” which is an existence of universal love and concern for the well-being of everyone on the planet (and the planet itself), not just the people in my tribe.

Fortunately, there is an antidote to the poisons, and it is straightforward, although in short supply: love.

It sounds corny, it sounds pithy, and as I was writing this it even sounded like a copout. I wonder, though, if that’s because our innate, luminous love is so carbon-encrusted that even thinking about universal love as a solution to the world’s woes sounds stupid.

Once I break through a few layers of carbonization, though, I see that love is the key to following Jesus. Love is the foundation of everything he teaches: Love the Lord your God with all your heart, soul and mind, and love your neighbor as yourself. Do this not to avoid hell or guarantee a spot in heaven. Do it to become free of the spiritual poisons that encase the truth of your eternal, radiant being, and prevent us all from living more harmonious, productive, peaceful lives.

Amen.

Monday Meditation 7-30-18

Monday Meditation 7-30-18

God of all existence,
obliterate the carbonized crust
of debilitating thought
suffocating and imprisoning
the luminosity of my being.

Overwhelm me
with love that spills into the world
and eradicates the poisons
holding us hostage
from our cosmic,
divine union.

Loving, Holy One,
in the manner of Jesus Christ,
I empty myself
to be filled with you.

Transform my ignorance into awareness;
my selfishness into compassion,
and my anger into love.

Amen.