Monthly Archives: February 2015

Our Ultimate Freedom and the Chains in Which We Live. 2 Corinthians 3:12-4:2

In his second letter to the church in Corinth St. Paul writes: “Now the Lord is the Spirit, and where the Spirit of the Lord is, there is freedom. And we all, with unveiled face, beholding the glory of the Lord, are being transformed into the same image from one degree of glory to another. For this comes from the Lord who is the Spirit.”

Before we begin to consider what these words mean for us, we need to clarify one thing—what exactly does St. Paul mean when he talks about “the Spirit of the Lord?” Who exactly is he talking about–the Holy Spirit or the risen Christ?

Well, both actually. Getting to our definition of God as the Holy Trinity—the Father is God; the Son is God; the Holy Spirit is God—was a long slog. It cost the Christian church an ocean of ink and a river of blood to define it, and the doctrine of the Trinity will always confuse believers and confound the world outside. How could it help but do so? The Koran says that we Christians are polytheists; we worship four gods—the Father, the Son, the Holy Spirit, and the Virgin Mary. Well, we don’t, of course, but you can readily understand how someone looking at Christian worship from the outside might get that impression. How can anyone–even God–be one and three at the same time? It is literally impossible. The Trinity belongs to a certain kind of apparent nonsense we call a “paradox”—two contradictory things that are both true at the same time. If we dissolve a paradox we end up with two statements neither of which is completely true in and of itself. Paradoxes defy logic and common sense, when we are talking about God while living in this present world we can never escape them.

All orthodox Christian churches—even the weirdest–confess God as the Trinity–One in Three, and Three in One. Whether or not we as individuals accept it is not a matter of understanding it—as one of the Church fathers said–Human flesh has never understood the Trinity or ever will. It must always remain a paradox. The truth about who God is, which is perfectly obvious to him, will always be completely beyond us. That may be bad news to fundamentalists of all kinds—those who think that everything should be simple enough for them to understand–but it happens to be the case.

The creeds we confess in church represent only our best shot at explaining the way Christian believers through the centuries have experienced God—as One, but One in Three very distinct ways. The Son and the Spirit are two separate “persons”—two ways of being God, but not two gods. That distinction was pretty much settled for most Christians by the Council of Nicaea in AD 325.

But when Saint Paul writes his second letter to the little church in Corinth that council and its result—what we call the Nicene Creed–lay two and a half centuries in the future.   So he can hardly be blamed for using “the Spirit” and “Christ” pretty much interchangeably–and he does.  For Paul the Spirit and the Risen Christ are not exactly the same thing, but he probably could not have said exactly how they are different either. They are both “the Lord.” (That may not be perfectly accurate by Nicene standards, but it is “close enough for church work,” as my father would have put it.) For Paul the Spirit of the Lord is the power that lives in Christians as a direct result of their baptism, and this indwelling presence of the risen Christ is what bestows upon believers a new kind of life, the kind of life that the historical Jesus lived, which Paul calls “freedom.” Freedom is the share we have in the risen life of Christ. But what exactly is that freedom?

From the point of view of the Church, those churches with moveable letters were probably among the most diabolical products ever invented. I firmly believe that Satan himself must have been involved in their development and marketing, and that he must derive a fiendish delight at the way churches misuse them. Everywhere you go you read stuff written on church signs that makes a mild-mannered believer want to crawl in a hole and die of embarrassment. There was an Episcopal church in the town where I served as a pastor that for a long time had a sign out front that proclaimed—“Christians do it in church.” Now what, I wonder, could “it” be, beloved? And what truth about what goes on in church was that sign supposed to convey? And what must unbelievers reading that sign think, reading such a message?  No wonder they consider us simple-minded—or worse.

Now in all fairness church signs with moveable letters do not all say things as silly and naive as that. I recently noticed a sign outside a church that read—“If you follow Jesus you are truly free!” Now that’s not so bad, is it? It even sounds like St. Paul speaking—“Where the Spirit of the Lord is, there is freedom.” But for me that statement still raises a lot more questions than it answers. Free in exactly what sense? Completely free or just freer than we would be if we did not follow Jesus? And freedom from what exactly?

Freedom from the burden of stuff is a “hot item” these days. There is a lot of talk currently about the positive benefits of getting rid of our excess stuff and organizing what remains to best effect. And there are a number of best-selling books available to tell us how to unburden ourselves of our excess baggage. Simplify!–that is their battle cry. If hoarding is the kind of damnation, de-cluttering their lives has become for many people a born-again experience. They have found a kind of salvation in disposing of their burden of useless possessions. They sing the praises of that feeling of lightness that comes from possessing only one hundred or so carefully chosen things.

And there is indeed some truth in what they say. A hurricane would be nice, I often think. How lovely it would be if a big wind came along and did the work of simplifying our lives. And without the precious junk and worthless treasures we have accumulated over the years, my wife and I might even be able to walk on water the way Jesus did. We would be lighter, maybe, but would we be free? It is a good thing to manage our accumulation of possessions. We all need confront our hoarder instincts head on. But I doubt that there is more lasting freedom in disposing of our possessions than there was in accumulating them. Ultimate freedom has to be located somewhere else.

Because even if we stripped our lives to the bare walls, our e-mails would still be piling up, and our cell-phones would still be ringing, (unless we had no place to plug them in), and Facebook would still demand our attention with its ceaseless flow of information. And even if we turned our backs on all that and got ourselves off the grid entirely, would we ever be really free while the shocks of 21st century life that keep on coming—boom, Boom! BOOM!—reverberate through the empty rooms of our ruthlessly de-cluttered lives. I think not, beloved.

Even if we could dispose of the weight of the possessions that burden us, there would still remain the problem of other people. A wise man named Francis Bacon (1561-1626) wrote: “He that hath wife and children hath given hostages to fortune; for they are impediments to great enterprises, either of virtue or mischief.” And what he meant by that is that if you have people who depend upon you, you will never—for good or ill–be really free of your responsibility to them. Love—and the burdens it entails–will always bind you. Like the song says–“Chains Chains Chains. . . .”

In this world there is no freedom from anxiety about those we love–not for ordinary people anyway. There certainly are people who don’t worry about their fellow creatures. They live for themselves or for some higher vision of the truth only they themselves can see. And not all of those people are sociopathic monsters either. Some are great saints—I know of their existence not from first-hand experience but from books—individuals who are able to love humanity without attachment to any particular human being. All the saints I have known, however, have been of the lesser variety, ordinary people who are as deeply enmeshed in the world of people and things as I am. But at the same time they have possessed an extraordinary degree of freedom.

My mother devised her own system for managing the gradual accumulation of possessions. She made an ironclad rule that whenever she acquired anything she had to get rid of something else. But when she died she still had a lot of stuff. I know. It was my task to dispose of it. Some of her things I still have. Now they are part of my burden. I hold onto them partly because there is something of her in them. Our lives are still interwoven, you see. And my mother was certainly entangled by love and anxiety for other people—for my father, my brother, and for me and my family too. Certainly she must have worried about herself, especially during her last long struggle with cancer.

But with all that there was always a deep serenity in her, an interior freedom that some people mistook for coolness and emotional distance. And it was a sort of distance—a self-created distance. My mama wasn’t the Buddha. She was too busy doing what had to be done to sit down under the Bo tree and meditate. But in her own way she had reached a rare level enlightenment. She grasped the Buddha’s insight—that our ultimate freedom is to be found in disentanglement from everything, even the Self. And she was always preaching in her own mild way that gospel of detachment. Rise above it, Billy—I heard her say that to me a thousand times. I still do hear her say it her in my mind’s ear, and occasionally I even succeed in obeying her holy, ordinary teaching.

You probably won’t hear very much about detachment in the preaching of the church today. Churches in the western world in their deeply and tragic confusion have latched onto a jumble of imperatives—Do this. Do that. So when you go to church you may hear about how you should be more involved in politics, or be more environmentally responsible, or be more socially active on behalf of the needy, or be more invested, particularly in the structure of the church itself. The image the church has of itself is of a happy hive of humming committees all involved in accomplishing little goals for the greater good of society as a whole. In this it is only responding to the demands of the world outside, which insists that it do something to justify its existence.

But the function of the Church is first being, and then doing. What it does in the cause of justice is commendable. Like Martha in the Bible who bustled all around preparing supper for the Lord and his disciples, what she did was good. But Jesus himself pointed out to Martha the limitations of the busy, busy, busy model. The church in America today—where it is not just simply just withering away–is a “Martha, Martha church,” rather than a “Mary sitting at the feet of Jesus and listening church.” It has lost the simple command of the gospel—first to be and only then to do.

Because where else but in the church can we practice living in the Kingdom of God while we are still in this world. Where else will we learn to get beyond our personal likes and dislikes, beyond our superficial attachments and our petty prejudices to that which really matters, our relationship with the Lord who the Spirit. As St. Ignatius of Loyola counseled—“We should not fix our desires on health or sickness, wealth or poverty, success or failure, a long life or a short one.” We need to rise above those things simply because none of them ultimately matters.

That isn’t to say that those things—health, love, material well-being, success–don’t pen-ultimately matter. They do. Gaining and losing them can matter very, very much to us at various moments in our lives. Their attainment  can fill us with the profoundest earthly happiness and their loss can literally break out hearts. That’s what it means to be human. But in our rejoicing and in our grieving we have to continually remind ourselves—these things in the end mean nothing. The gaining and the losing are the same. All that means anything is the Spirit of the Lord. And as St. Paul tells us—“Where the Spirit of the Lord is, there is freedom.”

Freedom is not an illusion, but in this world it is never fully a reality either. It is always the process of becoming free. Our life in Christ is the gradual process of letting go of all the other stuff in order to see Jesus more clearly everywhere around us. As St. Paul writes: “We all, with unveiled face, beholding the glory of the Lord, are being transformed into the same image from one degree of glory to another.” The longer we look at the Christ, the true and only icon of God, the more we become like him. We are being liberated from ourselves, beloved, gradually and by stops and starts, but as long as we live here we can never fully detach ourselves from this world of people and things. “Chains Chains Chains. . . .” While we live in the “real” world, you and I cannot escape the chains that bind us—nor should we try too hard for in trying to shake ourselves free of them we become still more entangled.

Ultimate freedom is our destiny, however. It is the destiny of the whole universe and of every creature in it.  But we anticipate that ultimate freedom when we realize that none of this really matters and live as if that were the case. Those things that matter in this real world don’t matter in the Really Real one. When we are in Christ–or rather when he is in us–we have one foot in each. So at the same time we are bound in chains and we are ultimately free. It is yet another paradox.  As we said before, beloved, when we are talking about God in this present world we can never escape them. But here is where we are.


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Confronting the Demons Mark 1:21-28

The evangelist Mark tells us that Jesus and his disciples “went to Capernaum; and when the Sabbath came, he entered the synagogue and taught. They were astounded at his teaching, for he taught as one having authority, and not as the scribes. Just then there was in the synagogue a man with an unclean spirit, and he cried out, ‘What have you to do with us, Jesus of Nazareth? Have you come to destroy us? I know who you are, the Holy One of God.’”

It came right out of the blue, of course–in the Gospel of Mark everything important happens fast. Sometimes things happen so suddenly that we miss their deeper meaning entirely, and we don’t really begin to realize what is going on until it is all over and Jesus has moved on. The Lord is always ahead of us in Mark’s gospel. And we are always trailing along behind, trying to figure out exactly what’s going on–just like his first followers.

In this case the action takes place in the synagogue in Capernaum. After he left Nazareth and began his public ministry, Capernaum, the home of the disciple Peter, became his base of operations. If you take one of those Bible tours of Israel, you will be shown the ruins of a synagogue just a few steps from the traditional site of Peter’s house. This may be the very place where Jesus worshipped—or not. In any case Jesus was in the synagogue in Capernaum on a bread and butter Sabbath and suddenly all hell broke loose. There was nothing so extraordinary about that day—apart from the presence of Jesus there, teaching originally and brilliantly–“as one having authority, and not as the scribes,” as the evangelist puts it. (What would I give to have been there to hear him, however? How about you? What a wonderful convergence of holy circumstances, to be in that holy place on that holy day in the presence of the Lord.)

Then all at once the face of evil appeared. “There was in the synagogue a man with an unclean spirit,” Mark tells us. And we are amazed, because that is the most surprising part of the whole story. But should we be?  Really? Because where else would an unclean spirit be more likely to show up on a bright and sunny Sabbath morning than at church?

I can’t claim to have had the widest possible experience of evil—in any case nothing to what some people have had. I have never experienced a Nazi death camp or encountered the agents of ISIS, who behead journalists, butcher their prisoners and burn people alive to make a rhetorical point. I haven’t seem more than newspaper reports of the horrific mischief that Boko Haram is up to in North Nigeria. There are some real experts on the demonic out there, people with first-hand experience of evil in its direst forms, people who have suffered its ruthless effects, and I cannot claim to be one of them. My experience of the demonic is limited. But I wasn’t born yesterday either. In my long life I have occasionally encountered genuinely evil people, and it has always been in the church that I have met them. They often appear to be quite respectable and “nice.” They look as if they belong there. They often make quite a show of their piety. Like the Pharisee in the temple they love to kneel and make a spectacle of praying. And then suddenly the mask comes off and the face of the demon leers out at you. Yeow! It is a shock that goes far beyond mere surprise.

And I know for a certainty that some of you are suffering from the trauma of encountering evil in a holy place. I know how profoundly shaken you are, and in part I am writing this for your comfort. But I am also writing for my own comfort, because I am also trying to recover from that same experience. And it is taking me a lifetime to get over being astonished, stunned, and utterly gobsmacked, (as the British put it when they are being lower class,) by meeting up with demons in church. The memories of those close encounters with the noonday devil still occasionally upset my sleep.

I suppose that only goes to show how really simple and naïve I was—and probably still am. We should know better, beloved. Having read the gospels, particularly Mark’s, you and I should be better prepared. Demons in the church? Why of course there will be demons in the church! Where else would demons be?

Mark’s gospel is like the exterior of a Gothic cathedral–there are gargoyles and devils crawling all over it. Jesus encounters demons everywhere—sometimes singly and sometimes in legions (see Mark 5:1-13). Reading Mark you might well get the impression that the rural Palestine of the first century was the very portal of hell. But in fact evil was no more present then than it is now. It was no more present there than it is in our own nation and our community and, I daresay, in our own church. It was the presence of Jesus that drew it out of the darkness where it hides. Holiness draws evil to itself. And the presence is not a necessarily sign of nastiness and moral decay—in fact, the holier place the more likely evil will be to crop up there. And quite suddenly.

In all probability those decent, observant Jewish people of Capernaum were also shocked by the sudden manifestation of evil in their synagogue that Sabbath morning. Utterly gobsmacked. And they would have shivered—literally. (Evil is frequently accompanied by intense cold. I have experienced that supernatural chill myself. It is like a window being opened into a dark, frigid universe of despair, which is what hell is.)  And they would also have felt utterly helpless against it. That’s the worst part of an encounter with true evil, that sense of helplessness and isolation. That is the source of its power, the ability to create that feeling of defenselessness in decent, ordinary folks.

When they encounter the demonic in the church or anywhere ordinary people do the ordinary thing—they hide from it. Confronted by hell they get the hell out. They recoil because evil is ugly and vulgar and repulsive. It is the ultimate bully, and although in reality it is weak, it looks and acts horribly strong. Its entire strength resides in its fearsome appearance. So they step back, they flee, they seek a safe hiding place—they scatter in the face of evil like Jesus’ disciples did when he was arrested.

But step back from evil is exactly what Jesus did not do. That is the whole message of the Gospel of Mark—Jesus confronted evil and overcame it decisively and forever. He did that for us, so that we would no longer be helpless in the face of the demonic where ever we encounter it—in the church, in our families, in the life of our nation.  “Have you come to destroy us?” the demon in our story asks. And Jesus’ unspoken answer is—yes, of course. That is exactly why I am here.

And the demons know that. They recognize The Holy One of God when no one else does. They fear him and at the same time they are drawn to him, like iron to a magnet. In Mark’s gospel only the demons know who Jesus really is. His true identity remains a secret from the disciples, from the crowds, from his own family. But the demons recognize him. That’s why “he would not permit the demons to speak,” we are told, “because they knew him” (Mark 1:34). The powers of evil know him as the instrument of their ultimate destruction.

And on the Cross Jesus stood alone against them and broke their dominion definitively and forever. But battle is not over. By no means. The face of evil still leers  out at us from the morning paper. We meet up with it in the most unexpected places. Evil has no strength of its own, only the appearance of strength, but for us appearances are still very powerful. It is easy for us to be overwhelmed by them, shocked, baffled–gobsmacked.

We no longer need to fear evil, but when we meet it, especially in holy places, it still fills us with fear and disgust. The risen Lord gives to us, his followers, the same authority to cast out demons that he had (Mark 3:15). The problem is that confronted by evil we are afraid to use the power we have in us. Instead we recoil. We leave the flock and try to hide. We are scattered by it, like Jesus’ first disciples were. Scattered like frightened sheep. Evil always seeks, first and foremost, to isolate us from one another and attack us alone. And we have all experienced that one time or another, haven’t we?

Now I realize that this has been a rather depressing read up until now—all this somber talk about evil and demons. So by way of making a point and lightening things up a little let me tell you a pretty good Uncle Ole story:

My Uncle Ole and his pal Arne went hunting deer in the badlands of North Dakota with a bunch of the boys from the Sons of Norway Lodge. They camped out there by the Little Missouri River and drank a lot of Miller High Life and whooped it up a little, and then the next morning they split up in pairs and went out to hunt. Ole and Arne were together, as usual. The day passed. Then just before sundown Arne came back to camp, puffing and panting, and dragging behind him an eight point buck. It was a magnificent deer!

“Golly Moses, Arne,” said the Sons of Norway, “that’s sure a real nice deer you got there.” And they all had a Miller to celebrate Arne’s triumph and whooped it up a little. It wasn’t until the deer was skinned and field dressed that they noticed that someone was missing. “What happened to Ole?” the Sons wanted to know.

“Well, that there’s a long story,” said Arne, looking more than usually sheepish. “What happened was this. I shot this here nice buck, and we was dragging it back together when Ole started to feel light-headed. ‘I’m feeling kinda sick, Arne,’ he said, and then he sorta passed out on me.”

“But Golly Moses, Arne,” said the Sons of Norway. “You mean you just left Ole lying there all by himself and brought back the deer instead.”

“Yah,” said Arne, looking even more like a sheep than before, if that were possible. “I gotta admit it wasn’t a very nice thing to do, but I figured no one was likely to come along and steal Ole.”

Arne wasn’t really a bad person, just human, and being human he did a bad, bad thing. He got possessed by evil–anyone can be. Cases of possession are hardly less common in the world than the flu—and certainly no less contagious. Evil can infect decent people and make them very sick indeed. It can twist sisters and brothers into the most awful shapes. It can sweep through churches and denominations and religions like brush fire. Even whole nations and political parties can become possessed. That’s what happened to Germany in the 1930’s.  That is what is happening in parts of the Islamic world even as we speak.

Speaking theologically, evil is not really “real,” since it was not created by God and everything God creates is good. But even in its unreality it is still dangerous because it separates us from each other. Evil confronts us all together as a church and a nation. It is never our sole problem. But we treat it that way. We may know in our minds that it is bad to leave our friends behind. But when we meet evil where we least expect it, we allow our feelings to master us and we run off and hide. We leave each other to face the music alone.

Now Jesus could confront evil alone and he did. But without putting too fine a point on it, you and I aren’t Jesus. We need his presence with us. In the twisted face of evil our best defense is always each other, since in communion with one another is where we experience the presence of Jesus most powerfully. So when we are startled by the face of evil, where ever it may appear, we need to quiet ourselves, rise above our emotions, and seek out our brothers and sisters. Remember, beloved–against the frigid wind that blows through the universe, our best defense is to huddle together.

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