The Incarnation Of Resurrection

Allen V. Harris

This past Christmas I wrote about how I believe some of the fundamental theological themes of Christianity have been commandeered by especially forceful streams of thought throughout history that have overshadowed, at best, and attempted to eradicate, at worst, other ways of thinking.  In particular I believe that atonement and incarnation have been railroaded into singular lines of thinking that have forced to the thinnest of margins other equally valid ways of understanding and living into these faithful and life-giving theological principles.  For my discussion of the atonement of Christmas, please go online here:  http://www.cccadisciples.org/capitalfaith/atonementofchristmas

 

But on this Easter Sunday of 2017, I wanted to try my hand at the other major Christian holiday of Easter and the equally important doctrine of incarnation.  The dominant paradigm that has been handed down to us in which to interpret the events of Holy Week and Easter have been that of a bloody atonement, a gut-wrenching confession of how our human sinfulness nailed Jesus to the cross, and the almost otherworldly, if not downright inhuman, resurrection of Jesus in all its glorious detachment.  And, as I wrote in December, while there is certainly scriptural justification and ample theological treatises for some of this, I do not believe such an interpretation does justice to the wholeness of scripture nor to the complete nature of who Jesus was and Christ is.

 

At the Good Friday service just the other night in which I worshipped at Michigan Park Christian Church in Washington, DC (1) I was reminded by several of the preachers that the events of Holy Week were time and time again a recognition of the inextricably interconnected nature of the divine and the human in Christ, the transcendent and the immanent.  From the moment Jesus chose to enter Jerusalem on a colt along the dusty back roads, to his anger in the temple, his being anointed with tears and oil in Bethany, his use of bread and wine in the upper room, his agony in the garden, his stumbling while carrying the cross, to his plaintive cry to God from the cross, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” we see a completely human savior.

 

And today, on the Day of Resurrection, we stand in a great tradition of theologians who have steadfastly demanded that Jesus was resurrected in bodily form, that this was no ghostly apparition or spiritualized vision, but the very body of Jesus raised from death to life.

 

Why is it, then, that we traditionally use the season of Lent and the spiritual journey of Holy Week for self-flagellation and what I would call a profound dis-embodiment of our own selves?  So much of the doctrine that is most commonly associated with Lent and Easter, atonement, seems hell-bent on making each and every one of us feel miserable about our bodies and how God is made manifest in them?  (It is for an entirely other blog post to talk about how this disembodiment has been laser focused on women and LGBTQ persons.)

 

Do we sin?  For the love of God, yes!  But did my personal sin drive the spikes into Jesus wrists?  No, I cry out faithfully and forcefully!  NO!  We are part of the fabric of life that has choices – much like God has choices – that were granted to us when God sent us out into the world from the cocoon-like paradise of Eden.  (See Rabbi Harold Kushner’s brilliant recasting of the Adam & Eve story in his book “How Good Do We Have To Be: A New Understanding Of Guilt And Forgiveness” – 2)  And we do make some pretty bad choices… as well as some pretty good ones, too.  We can do some pretty horrible things to one another as individuals working alone.  But when we act poorly together with others there is a kind of hellish symbiosis that happens that makes us participate in evil thoughts and actions which are exponentially more horrible than any single person can do.  This is what I believe scripture is referring to when it speaks of “principalities and powers.” 

 

So if we sin, individually and collectively, then why not just leave the argument be that this sin is what caused Jesus to be betrayed, crucified, and left dead in a tomb as is the prevailing understanding of what we commemorate happening this past week?  Well, in my humble estimation, to continue to do so is to do grave injustice (and I use that pun intentionally) to the primary theological meaning of this week: INCARNATION.

 

Part of what needs to happen in order to reclaim the incarnational aspects of Easter is to first acknowledge the horrific history of anti-Semitism which erroneously lays the blame for the death of Jesus on the backs of our Jewish sisters and brothers.  Any hint of this perspective is reckless endangerment of our neighbors and of our own selves, in addition to being a complete misinterpretation of the text.  Because the religious leaders of that day happened to be Jewish is utterly beside the point: religious leaders of every day, place, and culture have the propensity to collude with forces of evil and make scapegoats of the vulnerable and the disenfranchised.  We need look no further than our own era and the rampant forces of racism, xenophobia, , homo- and transphobia to see this diversionary horror in action!  And any preacher or teacher who, throughout the history of Christianity, has sidestepped their own complicity with evil by pointing her or his finger at our Jewish neighbors has condemned themselves to hell.

 

Another necessary step to reclaiming the incarnational nature of Easter is to do what John Dominic Crossan and Marcus Borg propose in their book “The Last Week: What The Gospels Really Teach About Jesus’ Final Days In Jerusalem.”  They help us see in a theologically strong, exegetically accurate, and culturally aware manner that the many forces of that time and place in history are what prompted Jesus’ words and deeds of that week, most especially the colossal presence of the Roman Empire and its monstrous policies and practices that made the lives of the common people, particularly the Jews, profoundly miserable and utterly unbearable.  If exposition of the texts during Holy Week does not spend a significant amount of time exposing the forces of empire and domination, it has failed God and humanity.

 

So, if we have done our work of somehow containing the culture-induced need for self-flagellation, purging ourselves entirely of our anti-Semitism, and enlightening ourselves to the treacherous power of empire, then we can truly begin to reclaim the incarnation of the resurrection.  The journey of Jesus Christ through Holy Week, climaxing in his stepping from the tomb fully embodied AND fully sacred, demands of us to accept more completely that God did not come into the world to condemn the world – our bodies included – but in order to save the world through God’s very body in Jesus the Christ.   Resurrection is the ultimate act of incarnation – the Body Of Christ becoming the living Body Of God for all times, all places, all peoples.

 

May this be our Easter proclamation!

 

Amen.

 

 

 

(1)  https://www.facebook.com/Michigan-Park-Christian-Church-718453891511081/

(2)   How Good Do We Have to Be? A New Understanding of Guilt and Forgiveness, by Harold S. Kushner, 1997 http://www.goodreads.com/book/show/133804.How_Good_Do_We_Have_to_Be_A_New_Understanding_of_Guilt_and_Forgiveness

(3)  The Last Week: What the Gospels Really Teach About Jesus's Final Days in Jerusalem, by Marcus J. BorgJohn Dominic Crossan https://www.harpercollins.com/9780060872601/the-last-week

Faithful Finances & Sacred Stewardship

Faithful Finances & Sacred Stewardship

I believe that God is working powerfully through the Christian Church (Disciples Of Christ) Capital Area to care for our congregations and pastors; to train, equip, inspire, and network people of faith; to discern, support, and assess those called into ministry; to connect the local church with the universal church; and to manage and sustain our camp and conference ministries.  However, *how* we do this is never static, and must be evaluated and renewed as situations and circumstances change.

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A Capital Faith - Allen V. Harris

I guess it would be natural for my first blog post to be about politics since we are in the thick of the election season in the United States and I live within a mile of a national capital city.  But I think I would want to talk about politics anyway as part of my call to be the Regional Minister of the Christian Church Capital Area is to help our Region as well as the entire Christian Church (Disciples Of Christ) to understand, integrate, and live out a public faith as well as a personal faith.

I say this because of two things.  First, as I referenced above, our Region encompasses one of the two national capitals that make up our denomination (which includes both Canada and the United States).  Second, but just as important, is the fact that we host three social justice organizations of our faith: the Disciples Center For Public Witness, under the director of the Rev. Ken Brooker Langston, the Ecumenical Poverty Initiative, led by the Rev. Sekinah Hamlin, and the Disciples Refugee And Immigration Ministry, whose director is the Rev. Sharon Stanley Rea.  Having a good and healthy working relationship with these organizations and leaders was part of my job description as Regional Minister and fulfills a portion of my calling as a minister of the gospel of Jesus Christ (Luke 4:16-21 amongst many others).

Perhaps I am also attuned to the theme of faith and politics because of a recent string of posts on a clergy friend’s Facebook page that was not only civil, but thoughtful and engaging!  (Yes, this is still possible!  LOL!)  In this post, which was begun (I suspect) after witnessing not one but two Disciples Of Christ clergypersons speak at the Democratic National Convention (when has THAT ever happened before?!?!)  The initiator of this post pondered what it meant for clergy to be so closely aligned to one of the other political party (at least on social media).  But he also noted the “disconnect” between clergy and their congregations.  This wasn’t explained much, at least in the initial post, but as it parsed out amongst the responders it was noted that clergy were seen as being more progressive/liberal/outspoken and congregational members being more conventional/conservative/reserved in their political leanings.

Let me be clear, and I have researched this carefully, I am quite committed to and abide strictly by the legal guidelines (https://www.irs.gov/charities-non-profits/charitable-organizations/charities-churches-and-educational-organizations-political-campaign-intervention) that all churches and religious institution that have tax-exempt status must refrain completely in engaging in supporting a political candidate in any way or influencing the election of a candidate.  I support and promote this critical injunction.  But one of the things I have noticed is that all too often this ban, often lumped in most people’s mind under the “separation of church and state” language of the Bill Of Rights, has been used to silence communities of faith from speaking out on important issues of the day (issues are very different from candidates in the legal world) as well as to silence clergy in our private lives. 

What I have found is that this leaves religious leaders and congregations with the most extreme views on politics the room to claim a voice louder and more ubiquitous impact than their size warrants because a vacuum is made by the absence of moderate voices of faith nearer the middle.

And I am well aware this is a self-fulfilling prophecy, as the more strident and vitriolic the public debate becomes because these extreme voices take fuller advantage of the subtle nuances of the law the less and less those persons who have other/more thoughtful views want to participate in that debate at all!  But my point is that this is EXACTLY why churches and clergy who are not on the edges of any issue ought to be involved in the discussion.  Our voices of faith need to be heard just as much (dare I say more?) than the extremists! (Matthew 25:31-46)

Alongside this need for the public conversation about important issues of our day is the painful awareness that often clergy refrain from taking any political stand (or supporting political candidates in their own private time, which is legally guaranteed) and self-limit anything that might even remotely appear to be political for fear of crossing the line inadvertently.  Additionally, many clergy feel that by taking any stand for or against a candidate or a ballot measure or legislative issue they would be alienating members of their flock who feel differently.

I take these concerns very, very seriously.  I have been a local church pastor for over 25 years and pastoral care has been at the heart of every moment of my ministry.  And it is exactly for this very reason that I have become more and more comfortable – no, empowered – to be a fully political human being in my private life.  For far, far too long the image of pastor has been misshapenned to portray an unrealistic and inhuman being.  And this isn’t just about politics, it’s also about sexuality, finances, mental health, and really every facet of what it means to be human.  The more we intentionally dampen, hide, refrain from those things that make us fully human in order to not offend or distance ourselves from our parishioners, the more we risk offending and distancing ourselves from our parishioners.  The less real, the less human, the less honest we are about our lives, the less relevant we become to people who want to be real.

My image of ministry was utterly transformed by my participation in the play, “The Runner Stumbles,” by Milan Stitt (later made into a movies) in which a renegade Catholic nun is exiled to a tiny parish in northern Michigan, where she finds (and falls in love with) a priest who was sent there years before to be “broken in.”  In this story the horrific weight of religious leaders who attempted to bend and limit their own humanity in order to not offend those whom they serve plays out with tragic consequences. (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Runner_Stumbles#Original_play)

So, I work diligently to be real and authentically human, which, in my case, means being quite political in my personal life.  Am I careful to keep my politics on my own Facebook wall and Twitter feed, and share them on my own time and not on those social media sites I administer for my ministry?  Of course, although I understand not everyone will understand or honor this distinction.  Do I work hard to make space and time to be in dialogue with others who have different perspectives than mine?  Yes, of course!  All I ask is that others abide by the standards of respect, decency, and good listening, as will I try.  But in the traditions of the prophets of the Hebrew Scriptures speaking out to the excesses and injustices of both foreign and homeland rulers, and Jesus as he stood up to and spoke out against the travesties of the Roman Empire and those of his own religious leaders who collaborated with the empire’s cruelty and injustice, so I will speak out as faith-fully as I can.

My hope is that the more real I and other pastors become to our parishioners, and the more our world sees clergy being thoughtfully, carefully, and thoroughly honest about our commitments, passions, and politics, the more we will understand that it is discerning dialogue, prayerful reflection, open discussion, and a commitment to staying at the table to learn from one another and grow from each other’s wisdom that is most important, not silencing nor overwhelming each other’s views.  In this way, we can live out the ideal of our Disciples founders who believed in a “faith seeking understanding.” 

And in that spirit, I invite your response and thoughts on this!

Abundantly Yours,

Allen