Day 248: Matthew 28:10

Go and tell my brothers to go to Galilee, and there they will see me.

Jesus has risen from the dead and appeared to Mary Magdalene and “the other Mary.”  He greats them with a blessing of peace and tells them not to be afraid.  He then instructs them to tell his disciples to go to Galilee where he will appear to them.  He wants to meet them back at his own home territory where he began his ministry.  Then it says, “The eleven disciples went to the hill in Galilee where Jesus had told them to go. When they saw him, they worshiped him, even though some of them doubted. (Matthew 28:16-17).

Hmmm…. Some of them doubted?  There is a little more detail about the resurrection of Jesus in the Book of Luke, but once again he was not immediately recognizable to two of the disciples who met him on the Road to Emmaus.  Then, when he appears to all of the disciples they initially think he is a ghost, but when they touch him and examine his hands they determine he’s got a resurrected body.  He then has a little something to eat.  There is even more embellishment in the Book of John.  He does a lot more talking and eating and he overcomes the misgivings of “Doubting Thomas.”  But here in Matthew it just says that some of them doubted and there is no tidy resolution as in the later Gospels of Luke and John.  There is a doubting going on in all the Gospels.

So what’s going on there?  Why did some of them doubt?  You would think that if he was in the same old body they all would have recognized him and none would have doubted that he was alive.  Did he look different?  Did they think someone was impersonating him?  Did they think he didn’t really die in the first place?  Then, as now, there was no shortage of rumors or conspiracy theories.  Look at these shenanigans that Matthew describes after the soldiers guarding the tomb told the chief priests that Jesus’ body was missing:

The chief priests met with the elders and made their plan; they gave a large sum of money to the soldiers and said, “You are to say that his disciples came during the night and stole his body while you were asleep. And if the Governor should hear of this, we will convince him that you are innocent, and you will have nothing to worry about.” The guards took the money and did what they were told to do. And so that is the report spread around by the Jews to this very day. (Matthew 28:12-15).

True?  Who knows.  But you know how urban legends and conspiracy theories work.  They take on a life of their own.

Despite the doubting of those present, the Christian position has always been very certain.  Jesus’ actual physical body was resurrected from the dead and ascended into heaven.  Period.  It has always been an important core belief.  The Apostle Paul is the one who strongly promoted conventional wisdom surrounding the resurrection.  He also linked the physical resurrection to “salvation”.  Here’s a description of Paul’s point of view from Wikipedia:

The Apostle Paul wrote that “Christ died for our sins according to the Scriptures, that he was buried, that he was raised on the third day according to the Scriptures”.[1 Cor. 15:3b-4]  Thus the death and resurrection of Christ were proclaimed as belonging together at the very heart of the gospel, forcefully placing “the full weight of faith on both the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ”[5] by stating, “if Christ has not been raised, our preaching is useless and so is your faith”.[1 Cor. 15:14]  In fact, Paul further claims that belief in the death and resurrection of Jesus is so central to salvation that “if Christ has not been raised, your faith is futile; you are still in your sins. Then those also who have fallen asleep in Christ are lost. If only for this life we have hope in Christ, we are of all people most to be pitied. [1 Cor. 15:17-19]

In other words, according to Paul it doesn’t matter what Jesus did and said.  His emphasis on the resurrection diverted attention away from Jesus’ teachings.  He offered the resurrection as a remedy for sin, as opposed to Jesus’ remedy (loving God and loving one another).

Despite the official position of the church regarding the “resurrection of the body,” it isn’t a theory that’s universally accepted by independent theologians:

Skeptical biblical scholars have questioned the historicity of the resurrection story for centuries; for example, “nineteenth- and early-twentieth-century biblical scholarship dismissed resurrection narratives as late, legendary accounts”. Some scholars consider the biblical accounts of Jesus’ resurrection as derived from the experiences of Jesus’ followers and of Apostle Paul.  E.P. Sanders states “that Jesus’ followers (and later Paul) had resurrection experiences is, in my judgment, a fact”. He writes that when Jesus was executed, his followers fled or hid, but their hopes were renewed when they saw him alive again.

So what actually happened?  In reality no one knows for sure.  It’s all a mystery, and that’s certainly OK with me.  To me, it affects neither Jesus’ credibility nor my salvation.  To me, it’s pretty irrelevant how it all worked and it’s not worth thinking about.  But many Christian’s don’t like the concept of mystery, and they are really attached to the idea that Jesus’ was revived in his actual physical body and that he was still in that body when he was taken up to heaven.  I know for a fact how emotional people are about this because I remember the ruckus that United Methodist Bishop Joseph Sprague caused when he stated his personal beliefs on this particular doctrine.

Ordained as a United Methodist pastor in 1965, he was assigned as Bishop of the Northern Illinois Conference in 1996.  The children’s Gospel Choir that I directed, the Angelic Voices, sang at the welcoming service.  The kids were also invited to sing at Annual Conference, where the bishop washed their little feet.  According to the Columbus Dispatch (2/3/2012) his call to ministry was a call to social justice:

When the Rev. C. Joseph Sprague was in junior high in inner-city Dayton, he didn’t mind being the only white boy on the basketball team. His black teammates were his friends, and he didn’t think too much about it. Then one day, Sprague took a buddy from the team to a store he liked. Each boy bought a bag of chips and a Pepsi.  Sprague was charged 10 cents. His friend, 50 cents.

That was the moment, Sprague said, when he felt God’s call to the ministry. That was the start of a long career focused on justice for minorities, women, gays, and especially the poor.

Like my own dear husband Bishop Sprague was a civil rights advocate who marched with Dr. Martin Luther King.  He was also an outspoken advocate for gay marriage way back in 1984, long before it was a popular cause.  Soon after being appointed bishop he was embroiled in controversy when the Reverend Gregory Dell officiated at a covenant service for to gay men who were members of his church on the north side of Chicago in 1998.  Although he obediently filed charges against Rev. Dell, Sprague was one of Dell’s biggest supporters.  Both of these men believed that homosexuals should have equal rights within both the church and society in general. Sprague himself had performed two homosexual union services, joining couples at a parish in Ohio before the Methodists made it “illegal” in 1996.

It was a big battle. The conference erupted and a deep fissure developed as all of the pastors, churches, and Methodists in general took sides on the issue.  There were trials, debates, emotional outbursts, and church splits, all faithfully covered in detail by both Chicago and national media.  It was a hot mess.  Sprague hoped it would be a “teaching moment” for the church and that all of the policies that discriminated against gays would be changed.

What does all of this have to do with the resurrection of Jesus?  Well, Bishop Sprague fracas he decided to stir up the pot a little bit more.  He decided to publicly share his personal beliefs regarding the resurrection.  Here is an excerpt of a speech given in 2002:

I affirm resurrection, the resurrection of Jesus. God’s essence cannot be killed, buried, or kept from being alive in creation or history. God is from everlasting to everlasting. But, resurrection, including that of Jesus, does not include bodily resuscitation. God does not work this way. The issue is not the absence of God’s power, but God’s own self-limiting role of revelation in history. God works within the boundaries God has established. While I do not pretend to know the limits of these boundaries and realize that we all see but through a glass darkly, I am certain that the miracle of the resurrection, preeminently that of Jesus is not tied to bodily resuscitation. The linking of resurrection with bodily resuscitation is to make a literal religious proposition of a metaphorical symbolic expression of truth itself. This is the kind of idolatry from which I dissent. (http://www.flumc.org/bishop_whitaker/sprague.htm)

This really added fuel to the fire.  Although Bishop Sprague had obeyed the letter, if not the spirit, of Methodist law regarding homosexuals, his unorthodox interpretation of the resurrection seemed to be proof positive to his detractors that he wasn’t fit to serve as bishop.  A lot of people thought he was a nutcase.  A formal complaint was filed against him for “rejecting the Christian faith.”  It made everything even worse.  The whole conference was a hot mess and the controversy created even more negative publicity for the United Methodists.

Joseph Sprague is an inspirational guy.  There is no stopping him.  After his retirement in 2006 he moved back to Ohio with his wife of 52 years and he runs a prison ministry with branches in three Ohio cities.  His inner-city “Shalom Zones” program in troubled neighborhoods continues to thrive with about 100 locations in the United States and Africa. He really is awesome.  74 years old and still going strong.

But sometimes discretion is the better part of valor. In my humble opinion Bishop Sprague is kind of like Jimmy Carter.  Neither was very good at all of the political stuff, but both have leveraged their notoriety to do great things after retirement.  I think it would have been helpful if Bishop Sprague would have remained more focused on social reform during his time in Northern Illinois and held off on the theological stuff until the important work was done.  It was a major distraction.  In my opinion, a very unnecessary one.

While I deeply admire Bishop Sprague and respect his thoughtful personal theology, I still question his timing and judgment.  I mean, when push comes to shove what matters more?  People or principles?  Sometimes you have to choose your battles.  Joe Sprague fought for gay rights because he loved those people.  It’s a good reason to go against the flow and stir up controversy.  But when it comes to the mystery of the resurrection and the details about how that all worked, what difference does it make whether or not we all agree?  I will tell you.  It makes no difference whatsoever.  There is no love in it.  It’s just a head trip.  Why argue about it?  What an utter waste of time in a world that needs us to focus our attention on more important matters.  I am sure that Jesus would say that theology should always take a back seat to kindness.  Theology, like Jewish law, is nowhere near as important as love.

What does this scripture say to you?

For more on Bishop Sprague’s Shalom Zones see http://unitedmethodistreporter.com/2012/09/11/communities-of-shalom-turns-20-amid-challenges/


 

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Day 114: Matthew 12:6-8

I tell you that there is something here greater than the Temple. The Scripture says, “It is kindness that I want, not animal sacrifices.”  If you really knew what this means, you would not condemn people who are not guilty, for the Son of Man is Lord of the Sabbath.

OMG it must have really made the Pharisees crazy when Jesus said this!  If there was one thing that was sacred to Jews it was the Temple and the sacrificial system.  There was nothing greater than the Temple! And if there was another thing that was sacred it was the Sabbath!  In a couple of sentences Jesus dismisses both of these things in favor of kindness.

Furthermore, he says that the Son of Man (Everyman – See Day 74) is in charge of the Sabbath.  Another inflammatory statement!  But it shouldn’t be because  the Sabbath was created for the benefit of the ordinary people who had to work 7 days a week with no rest and no time for worship. (See Day 113).  There were very few specific directives about the Sabbath – people were commanded to “sanctify it,’’ “rest,” and “do no work.”  The religious leaders were more than willing to fill in the blanks and create a lot of specific and somewhat arbitrary Sabbath rules regarding sanctification, rest, and work.  In other words, then as now, the people have to decide what’s appropriate, and it’s all OK as long as the spirit of the Sabbath is observed.  I think that’s what he means.  The people have to decide what guidelines will help people rest, recharge, and connect with God.  They are free to decide whatever they want, but they have make sure it’s all kind.

Christians have pretty much dismissed all of the Sabbath rules except for going to church for an hour in the morning.  Other than that there aren’t any rules or guidelines.  Maybe it doesn’t matter, I don’t know.  But I do think that churches today need to work more on the kindness thing. I’ve looked at the “vision statements” and “what we believe” lists for hundreds of churches and I don’t recall kindness ever being listed as a priority.  And yet what Jesus says he wants on the Sabbath is kindness.

Of course the church’s priorities often don’t seem to line up with those of Jesus.  For example, the liturgy of the church generally doesn’t include recitation of what Jesus calls the most important commandment:

Image“Love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul, and with all your mind.” This is the greatest and the most important commandment. The second most important commandment is like it: “Love your neighbor as you love yourself.” The whole Law of Moses and the teachings of the prophets depend on these two commandments.” (Matthew 22:36-41).

I think if we repeated this Great Commandment every week we would be a lot kinder.  It would keep us grounded.  It would keep love on the front of our minds.  Of course, I understand why it isn’t part of the tradition of the church.  Jesus is quoting part of the Shema, the great prayer that Jews repeat every morning and evening.  It’s that darned Christendom thing (Day 99). I guess they didn’t want to include something so important to the Jews in their Christian services, even though Jesus said it was a summary of everything that God wants us to do.  Even so, you would think they might have included this simple statement in their liturgy.

Instead, the church has us repeat the Apostle’s Creed all the time:

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So instead of focusing on God’s commands for our lives – to love God and love one another – we repeat the beliefs of the church, some of which aren’t even in the Bible.  For example the part about descending into hell – not in the Bible.  And then there’s the part about Jesus being God’s only son.  Why, then, did Jesus teach us to pray, “Our father who art in heaven…”  The Apostle’s Creed is really a pledge of allegiance to the church and its beliefs, while the Great Commandment is more like a pledge of allegiance to God.  There’s not one little bit of kindness in this creed.  Absolutely nothing about love.

My husband belongs to Rotary International, a secular organization committed to peace and good works.  Every meeting they recite the “Four Way Test:”

ImageI think Jesus would prefer the Rotary Four Way Test to the Apostles Creed.  I mean, the Apostle’s Creed is just a statement of belief, it invokes neither action or effort.  Without action, a belief is just an abstraction.  Suppose for example, if a violin represents my relationship with God and mankind.  Now think about this –  I may sincerely believe that the violin can be played.  I may deeply believe in the violin and its ability to produce music.  But unless I put in many disciplined hours of practice I will not be able to play it.  It won’t make beautiful music on its own no matter how much I believe in it.  I have to commit to making it work, and I need to play it. Belief is not enough.

There you go.  That Apostle’s Creed doesn’t lead me anywhere.  It just sits there.  I can believe in God, Jesus, the holy catholic church and all the rest of it without ever doing anything God wants me to do.  Unless I actually do what God wants me to do, I’m not going to have a meaningful, Spirit-filled life.  I’m not going to be a true disciple.

Which brings me back to kindness. Jesus wants kindness, not checks in the offering plate or musical spectaculars or grand oratory in the churches

He wants kindness more than anything.  He wants that Shema love.  So that’s what I need to do – love.  Not believe in love.  DO it.

And churches need to remember that they exist to help people grow in the faith; people were not created to support the churches.  Churches need to be places of rest and spiritual refreshment.  They need to keep it simple so that the focus can be on God, so the Holy Spirit can have a little room to do some ministry.  Churches need to be places of relaxation.  And kindness.  Never forget kindness.  Otherwise we may wake up one day and find that God is leading everyone to quit the church and join the Rotary.

What does this scripture say to you?

Day 82: Matthew 9:28-30

Do you believe that I can heal you?…Let it happen, then, just as you believe!…Don’t tell this to anyone!

[Jesus left that place, and as he walked along, two blind men started following him. “Have mercy on us, Son of David!” they shouted. When Jesus had gone indoors, the two blind men came to him, and he asked them, “Do you believe that I can heal you?” “Yes, sir!” they answered. Then Jesus touched their eyes and said, “Let it happen, then, just as you believe!”— and their sight was restored. Jesus spoke sternly to them, “Don’t tell this to anyone!” But they left and spread the news about Jesus all over that part of the country.]

Jesus heals two blind men in this scripture.  Or does he?  Does he heal them with some divine magic or does he just try to teach them that they can heal themselves through their belief?

Here is an excerpt of a recent scientific article describing the “Placebo Effect”:

The Placebo Effect: Transforming Biology With Belief (July 21, 2013 by Arjun Walia) – http://www.collective-evolution.com/2013/07/21/the-placebo-effect-transforming-biology-with-belief/

Did you know that we can change our biology simply by what we believe to be true? The placebo effect is defined as the measurable, observable, or felt improvement in health or behaviour not attributable to a medication or invasive treatment that has been administered. It suggests that one can treat various ailments by using the mind to heal. For example, if two people have a head ache and one takes Tylenol while the other is given a pill that contains nothing (sugar), both could report that the pill was successful and the headache is gone. The difference is, the one that was given the pill which contained nothing still believed that they were given a Tylenol that would alleviate their headache. In doing so, their headache was cured because of what they believed to be true. This has happened on numerous occasions, many studies have shown that the placebo effect is real and highly effective.

The placebo effect is so important in scientific research that new medications must always be tested against a control group who receive placebo (inert) pills.  Even though science does not understand the placebo effect, it is a universally recognized phenomenon that people’s health improves when they believe they will get well.

Placebo Effect: Harnessing Your Mind’s Power To Heal  (http://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2003/12/031231084101.htm)

Dec. 31, 2003 — It’s true that some people who participate in research studies and take inactive medications called placebos do see health improvements. People taking placebos have experienced reduced pain, healed ulcers, eased nausea and even warts disappeared.  The January issue of Mayo Clinic Women’s Health Source details several theories on how the placebo effect might work:

  • Benefit from attention: In a placebo-controlled research study, patients often have frequent and intensive medical attention. Some people respond favorably.
  • Stimulus response: People may have a trained positive response to taking a pill or receiving treatment, whether it’s real or not.
  • Beliefs or expectations, including the meaning you attach to a treatment: A person with positive expectations of the treatment may experience the placebo effect more than someone with lower expectations.
  • Relationship with your doctor: A person whose doctor is supportive and positive may experience more benefit from a placebo — or the standard treatment — than someone who doesn’t have that relationship.
  • Pleasing your doctor: You feel better because — consciously or unconsciously — you want to show your doctor that you’re a good patient and you appreciate the care.

Probably a combination of many psychological and physiological mechanisms are at work. Research studies and theories hold important clues to solve the mystery behind the placebo effect, but more research is needed to examine how these factors interplay to produce this healing force.

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Replace “doctor” with “Jesus” and “pill” with “prayer” you get an idea of what Jesus is trying to say when he tells people that their faith has made them well.  He is trying to explain the placebo effect to them.  He is trying to teach them about their own physiology, their own psychology, how their maker put them together.  He has divine knowledge about how God’s creation called the “human being” works, the kind of things that “modern” science is just now beginning to understand.

I do not think Jesus healed these guys to call attention to himself.  That’s pretty evident because he told them to keep quiet.  I think he was trying to teach them something about themselves, their bodies, their minds and their God.  He could probably see that they didn’t understand what had just happened to them and that they would instead glorify him.  They weren’t listening to what he said.  It was a teachable moment for the blind men but the lesson was wasted.  Instead they went out and spread the news about Jesus the Faith Healer with the Miracle Touch instead of spreading the news about how your faith can make you well; about how God has created within us a power to facilitate healing in ourselves and each other and that it is released through faith and hope.

There’s a lot that medical science doesn’t understand.  Interesting how Jesus seems to be a step ahead of them.  Divine knowledge for sure, straight from God himself.  It must have been frustrating to be Jesus, a person with knowledge that put him more than two thousand years ahead of his time.  It must have been hard when people wouldn’t listen what he had to say.  Let it happen, then, just as you believe. I’m very grateful to Matthew and others who wrote it all down so we can study and test it now in this day.  Hopefully we will learn to more effectively use what God has given us, the gift of faith being one of those things.

So does it matter whether our faith is in God, Jesus, doctors, or pills?  I think that biologically it probably doesn’t matter.  Any faith has a healing effect.  However, if our faith is in doctors or pills it’s elusive.  You don’t always have access to doctors, and pills can cause serious side effects.  In fact, both doctors and pills can kill you.  Jesus says he is just a Son of Man, an ordinary guy (See Day 74).  He gets irritated when we ask him to do things we should be doing ourselves (See Day 70).  But God is always around, he knows what we need, he doesn’t produce bad side effects, and is ultimately the source of all healing anyway.  So the best thing is to have faith in God.  Probably one day doctors will send us out with faith-building scriptures rather than pharmaceuticals.  That would be so cool.

What does this scripture say to you?

Day 57: Matthew 7:7-8

Ask, and you will receive; seek, and you will find; knock, and the door will be opened to you. For everyone who asks will receive, and anyone who seeks will find, and the door will be opened to those who knock.

[With these words Jesus continues to teach about the Law of Moses as the Sermon on the Mount continues.  He takes some of the most important topics and explains to his disciples, in specific terms, what it means to be “more faithful than the teachers of the Law and the Pharisees in doing what God requires” (See Day 23)].

Here Jesus delivers to his disciples a powerful exhortation as he begins to wind up his great sermon. Dream big! God will be with you! God will provide!

Jesus has a vision about social and religious reform. In this Sermon on the Mount Jesus shares his vision; in this scripture he teaches his disciples how to make it happen.

The first thing Jesus tells his disciples to do is to ASK God for direction.  To ask is to declare your willingness to partner with God to achieve his goals and to volunteer your services.

Then he says to SEEK out ways to help make it happen. This may involve research, learning, practicing, experimenting, purchasing, and of course praying to affirm the vision.

The final step is to KNOCK – when the time is right, God says to take action.  Then he takes over from there.  God opens the door and the vision becomes a reality.

The first example that comes to mind is the ministry of the great civil rights leader Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King.

ASK – Born in Atlanta in 1929 in Atlanta, Martin was the son of a Baptist minister.  Wikipedia says that by the time he was a teenager he had serious doubts about Christianity.  I’m sure he was doing a lot of asking – about racism, injustice, and whether or not Christianity could provide the answers to the problems he saw around him.  I’m sure he asked God and everyone else.

SEEK – He apparently got an affirmative answer because he entered seminary, received his doctorate degree and began pastoring a church in Montgomery, Alabama.  One of King’s favorite scriptures was Matthew 5:43-46 (Days 34-35) – the ones about loving your enemies.  He connected with the Quakers because of their commitment to peace and non-violence.  They in turn funded his 1959 trip to India where he learned from Mahatma Gandhi about achieving social change through pacifism.

When Rosa Parks refused to give up her bus seat to a white person, King became the leader of the Montgomery Bus Boycott.  Parks and King were both arrested and his house was bombed, but the boycott proved effective and racial segregation on Montgomery buses was ruled illegal by the Supreme Court.  This launched an almost continuous campaign of similar protests and boycotts over the next few years.  (My husband John marched with him in one of those demonstrations in Chicago).

KNOCK – In 1963 the stage was set for the historic March on Washington. The entire nation watched on TV as more than a quarter of a million people gathered to hear King deliver his brilliant 17-minute “I Have a Dream” speech that changed the course of history.  He knocked loudly on the door or every home in America, and doors that had been previously closed were opened wide. Dr. King and his dream were warmly received my most of the country and the tide turned.  Even his assassination a year later couldn’t stop the civil rights movement.  It was a death blow for institutional racism in the United States.  God’s vision of equality still hasn’t been fully realized, but his hand continues to guide and direct others to pick up where Dr. King left off.

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How many things do we fail to receive because we don’t ask God?  It seems like you can go into any church in America and somewhere you will find a long list of sick people for whom the congregation is praying. We pray for people with cancer or diabetes.  Instead, why don’t we pray for cures for these diseases?  Instead of lists of sick people, why don’t we have lists of diseases that shouldn’t still be plaguing humanity?  It seems like we are contented with things the way they are.  We are willing to accept sickness and suffering as natural and inevitable.

I think Jesus would say that’s not good enough.  He says to dream big.  He says that God is ready and willing to give us what we ask for.  We should ask for an end to racism, poverty, violence, disease, depression, hopelessness, war, homelessness, sexual slavery, political oppression, and all the other things that are clearly not of God.  We just need to ask, seek, and knock – God will take care of the rest.  When we pray the Lord’s Prayer and ask God to establish his Kingdom here on earth, we should believe that it’s actually possible.  Just like Dr. King, we should allow ourselves to have a dream and then do all that we can to make it a reality.  We should settle for nothing less.

So let’s all think of one thing that we think is impossible and write it down somewhere.  A Kingdom of God thing – something big that’s been on your heart. Then ask God for it and see what happens.  I dare you.  I double dog dare you.

What does this scripture say to you?