Biblical Scholar, Seminary Professor, Episcopal Priest

Posts tagged “Pentecost

Confessing Christ and Christian Anti-Semitism

Mary of Zion Icon by Robert Lentz

What do you believe? What do you believe about Jesus? What do you believe about the scriptures that tell his story? What do you believe about the God he proclaimed with his life and death and what happened after his death? What do you believe happened after his death? What do you believe?

We will say what we believe as a church using the ancient words of the Christian tradition after the sermon. But what would it look like if you wrote your own creed? I encourage you to do so. Know that it’s all right if you find yourself disagreeing with the Creed we say or have questions about something you thought you were sure of before. It’s all right if your creed is more question that statement. Your creed need not be long. Your creed can be as short as: I know God is real and I know she loves me, or: Jesus is God’s love in human form.

In our Acts lesson, Peter is telling the version of the Jesus story that he believes. It is also the Pentecost story but the lectionary is saving some of it for Pentecost Sunday. Peter is speaking to men who are his fellow Jews but who do not believe what he believes about Jesus. Both of those facts about Peter’s audience are important. These men are questioning the behavior of the folk who are in the street speaking in foreign languages they have never spoken before. If those folk are the same ones who were in the upper room waiting for the extravagant outpouring of the Holy Spirit that was to come—the remaining apostles, Jesus’s four brothers, Mary and the “certain women” who rounded the group of sixteen men up to the one hundred and twenty present in the beginning of the story—then Peter was explaining to these men why more than one hundred women along with some men were behaving this way. Peter understood their outrage because some or all of the men Peter was speaking to may have believed certain things about what women should or could do as he may have at one time, or still. What do you believe?

Peter turned to the prophet Joel to explain that God’s spirit falls on women and men, the old and the young, the free and enslaved. Peter and his generation believed that it was acceptable and normal for one human being to hold another in in slavery. I don’t believe that and I suspect you don’t either. Sometimes what we believe conflicts with or even contradicts what our scriptures say, and for good reason. What do you believe?

Peter had come to believe that Jesus was God’s chosen and beloved son who was crucified and raised from death by the power of God. What do you believe? But Peter is speaking to other Jews who do not share his newly found beliefs. Have you ever had a conversation with someone who just found religion? Veganism? Recycling? Running? Atheism? Ever had a neighborhood missionary, environmental or anti-fur activist show up on your doorstep? Ever been backed into a corner by someone whose political and conspiracy theories explain the answers to questions you never asked? Ever comment on a game and had every statistic on every player in franchise history rattled off for you? Or their latest work from home/pyramid scheme? Or the newest diet/detox? Or the latest self-help book or program? And, let’s not forget TCU (or Dallas Cowboys) football.

Peter had the religious zeal of a new convert buttressed by the experience of a person who has seen things they wouldn’t have believed possible. He knows what he believes and he believes—he knows—his beliefs would be good for you too. He also knows his audience. They are his people. He is one of them and he stood where they stood not long ago. He understands their disbelief because he shared it. But more than that, Peter denied Christ. Peter denied knowing Jesus, his friend and companion, and left him to die alone with the sight of that betrayal as the last image of his friend.

Peter projected all of his guilt onto his brothers saying, “You that are Israelite men…” The NRSV unnecessarily makes the text inclusive. Peter is not speaking to all the Israelites present there. He addresses only the men because the women stood with Jesus at the cross and went to him at the tomb. His language is harsh because he is indicting himself though he may not know this. It may be unconscious.

Hear Peter’s confession as an act of contrition:

Jesus of Nazareth, a man attested to me by God with deeds of power, wonders, and signs that God did through him before me, as I myself knew full well—this man, I handed over according to the definite plan and foreknowledge of God, him I crucified and this man I killed with my own lawless hands.

The weight of his complicity in the death of Jesus was too much for him to bear, even with the forgiveness Jesus offered from the death grip of the cross, so Peter projected it onto his people.

Read without an understanding of Peter’s interior landscape, the text can easily be read as an indictment of “the Jews” for the death of Jesus. And to our eternal shame as Christians, it has been, and not just from this text. Christians throughout the ages from popes and their crusading armies to Hitler’s Nazi party to today’s alt-right neo-Nazis have blamed the Jews for the death of Jesus and used that charge to justify slaughter, theft and extermination campaigns not limited to the Crusades and the Holocaust.

Some will say that because these folk betray the teaching and example of Jesus, they should not be called Christians. However, if we exclude the perpetrators of every reprehensible deed done in the name of Christ from Christianity, we are left with an unrealistically innocent faith that avoids responsibility for the slavery, genocide, exploitation and holocausts perpetuated in its name with the backing of its faithful from pulpit to pew.

As the sun sets here and now a new day dawns according to Jewish tradition. That day is Yom HaShoah, the Holocaust Day of Remembrance.

We owe it to the living and the dead to reject anti-Semitism in and out of the Church, and to never deny our complicity in the deaths of our fellow human beings, children of God, beloved of God, created in the divine image as are we. This I believe.

John—or someone writing in his name—I don’t believe John wrote this gospel since his name was added to it much later— the author found himself in the same theological space as Peter, a Jew who believed some things about Jesus his fellow Jews did not. The gospel also represents a time when belief in Jesus as messiah by Jews led to a conflicted identity that was ultimately rejected by other Jews. For this reason in the gospels, the expression “the Jews” can almost always be translated, “the other Jews.” Jesus, Mary and Joseph, and the overwhelming majority of the disciples and early church were Jews. And those who followed Jesus did not understand themselves to have left Judaism that was more a cultural identity than a faith one could convert to or from.

The author of the gospel of John wrote in order that we who read might believe what he believed:

These [things] are written so that you may come to believe that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God, and that through believing you may have life in his name.

The person who wrote this gospel identified himself as the one whom Jesus loved as though he believed Jesus loved him more than the rest of us. I don’t believe that.

Here’s what I do believe, that Jesus, the love of God in human form, the fullness of the formless eternal God passed through the womb of an unmarried teenage girl and loved the world into a new reality even as the old reality continued to crucify, ravage, enslave and subjugate. The Roman Empire, a system of domination, acquisition and occupation that transcended and survived individuals, soldiers, senators, emperors and caesars, put Jesus to death along with anyone who threatened or resisted them.

Jesus defied the empire with his life and the empire put him to death, not a religion but the worship of power, nor an ethnic culture, for empire transcends and transforms identities. But the power of empire cannot stand against God. The resurrection of Jesus from the dead proves that neither the empire nor death itself can stand against God or the life and love she gives to the world.

We are called to live in that love, among ourselves and with those who do not believe what we believe. As we remember the Holocaust we remember with sorrow that far more Christians sided with the empire and the cult of death than with the life and love of the resurrection. We also remember that people were consigned to death for being Jews, Roma, lesbians and gay men, people with physical and intellectual disabilities and more.

We celebrate Easter for fifty days to practice living into the life and love of God made manifest on that first Easter day. May we like the disciples who feared those who did not share their beliefs find the risen Christ in the place of that fear and come to believe in a love that is greater than fear or death. And may we be known as a people through whom God loves the world into life. I believe God is life and love. What do you believe?

I believe in one God,
Mother and Father, Sovereign and Almighty,
maker of the heavens and the earth,
of all that is, seen and unseen.

I believe in one Redeemer, Jesus Christ,
the only Son of God,
eternally begotten of the Sovereign,
God from God, Light from Light,
true God from true God,
begotten, not made,
of one Being with the Sovereign.
Through whom all things were made.
For us and for our salvation
he came down from heaven:
by the power of the Holy Spirit
he became incarnate from the Virgin Mary,
and was made human.

For our sake he was crucified under Pontius Pilate;
he suffered death and was buried.
On the third day he rose again
in accordance with the Scriptures;
he ascended into heaven
and is seated at the right hand of the Sovereign.

He will come again in glory to judge the living and the dead,
and his dominion will have no end.

I believe in the Holy Spirit, the Creatrix, the giver of life.
With the Father and the Son She is worshiped and glorified.
She has spoken through the Prophets.
I believe in one holy catholic and apostolic Church.
I acknowledge one baptism for the forgiveness of sins.
I look for the resurrection of the dead,
and the life of the world to come. Amen.


Between Babel and Babble: Pentecost

 

Pentecost at St George's Cathedral Jerusalem 2011

Pentecost at St George’s Cathedral Jerusalem 2011

Let us pray: Holy Spirit, transform us, our hearts and our homes, the Church and the world. Amen.

The Church! The Church! The Church is on fire! We don’t need no water let the Holy Spirit burn!

Pentecost is dramatic. It’s noisy. And it is Episcopalian. We are a Pentecostal church, but we tend to be long, low and slow burning compared to some of our Christian kinfolk. There are many kinds of fire or flame. The orange flames with which we are most familiar burn in luminous flame. They give us light and heat. Fire comes in many other colors. Blue and white, yellow and green. Those flames are generally produced from equipment like blow torches and Bunsen burners. The same piece of equipment can produce different color flames depending on how much and what type of fuel it receives. While there are some flames that are fueled by chemicals and a wide variety of fuel, the flames we are talking today are fueled by oxygen, like the breath of God, the Spirit of God. The spirit of God is the womb of creation; her breath is our breath. And She is our Mother.

John 14:17 This is the Spirit of truth, whom the world cannot receive, because it neither sees her nor knows her. You know her, because she abides with you, and she will be in you.

I mentioned at the beginning of the service that I translated today’s Gospel from Hebrew, the language in which Jesus heard and read the scriptures. In it as well as in Aramaic the language he spoke, the spirit is feminine. The scriptures present God as masculine and feminine, Mother and Father. In the First Testament God is the Rock who gave birth to us and the sea and in the New Testament God is the father of Jesus and ours, the woman who searches for her lost coin and the shepherd who looks for his lost sheep.

The diversity of the church and the world that our lessons display is represented within God but too much of the church and the world is lopsided, as the scriptures are lopsided but God is perfectly, harmoniously, balanced.

That is the message of the epistle we could have heard today: Romans 8:14 For all who are led by the Spirit of God are children of God… 16 it is that very Spirit bearing witness with our spirit that we are children of God. We are all God’s children. The lessons of our other readings are that God’s family is diverse and her church ought to be as diverse as the family of God.

In the same way that flames burn at different strengths, intensities and colors, we are fueled by God’s Spirit and we each burn differently. The Church is supposed be diverse, made up of people from every nation under the heavens. That is what the catalogue of nations in our Acts lesson is telling us. We are one body, one family, but we are not the same. And we’re not supposed to be. Some of our churches have a lot of work to do to look like the church in Acts. Some folk have forgotten that the Church doesn’t belong to us. It is God’s and we are all welcome to her table. Sometimes, well-meaning folk invite others to their church hoping to include them as long as they don’t change anything: You are welcome to our church but it is ours, you are a guest; know your place. Pentecost reminds us that we are all guests at God’s table. We have to learn to scoot over and make room for each other without staking a claim on the table itself.

If you saw the installation of our Presiding Bishop you saw the beauty and wealth of culture and diversity that is in our Episcopal church: Native American dancers, African American gospel choirs, Mexican American guitars, people who pray and sing in all of the languages represented by the nations in Acts and our original, English, Anglican heritage. Too often our congregations and our worship fail to live up to and into our Pentecostal heritage. You know, there are Episcopal and Anglican churches where people say “hallelujah” out loud, spontaneously and not just during the psalm reading or dismissal.

Genesis 11:1 Now the whole earth had one language and the same words… 5 The Holy One came down to see the city and the tower, which mortals had built. 6 And the Holy One said, “Look, they are one people, and they have all one language; and this is only the beginning of what they will do; nothing that they propose to do will now be impossible for them. 7 Come, let us go down, and confuse their language there, so that they will not understand one another’s speech.”

It may not seem like it but even the tower of Babel story is about God’s preference for diversity in the family of God. Yes, at one level the story is about the Israelite low opinion of Babylon. That’s where the story is set. The story is the Israelite version of Babylonian history, not exactly unbiased. We are supposed to think that those Babylonians are so arrogant to build a tower to reach up into heaven. And we are supposed to notice that their efforts were so puny that God had to come down to even reach the top. But if we just ridicule the Babylonians, we miss the point that they wanted to reach heaven, to be in contact with their God, they wanted a direct path. That’s not a terrible thing. And even though the Israelites considered them to be enemies, God came down to see about them just as God came down to see about Israel.

The Babel story is a topsy turvy story. People reach out to heaven and are pushed away. People working together harmoniously are separated and confused. God doesn’t need towers or temples to reach God’s people so God directs their creative energy elsewhere. God creates diversity out of uniformity. What looks like chaos and confusion is community building. The babble of Babel is not non-sense. People found themselves able to understand some of the people around them, those people became their people and each group grew into a distinct people with their own language and culture, enriching the beauty of God’s creation. God scattered them across the earth that the world might be filled with diversity. The lessons of Babel and Pentecost are much the same. The aftermath of both stories is a changed people transforming the world.

Pentecost is about transformation. The Acts Pentecost was itself a transformation of Shavuot, the Festival of Weeks, which marks the end of the holy days that begin with Passover just as Pentecost now marks the end of Easter season. Passover marked redemption from slave labor. Pentecost was marked by rest from honest labor. Passover memorialized a bitter harvest with the bread of affliction. Pentecost memorialized the new harvest with its first fruits. Passover commemorated the procession out of Egypt and the death of their firstborn. Pentecost was commemorated with a procession of newborns as the first fruits of their families. The Passover table was set with hard, flat, unleavened bread, bitter herbs and salt water. The Pentecost table was set with fresh baked goods from newly harvested wheat and barley, fresh, ripe olives and fresh pressed extra virgin olive oil, fresh sweet grapes and new wine.

The Jewish feast of Shavuoth called Pentecost by Greek-speakers was one of the three great pilgrim festivals when everyone who was able traveled from wherever they were in the world to bring their gifts to God in Jerusalem. It was like Thanksgiving with in-laws and outlaws crowded into family homes and inns and elbowing each other at the table. Now for the Church Pentecost is one the three great principle feasts with Christmas and Easter.

Acts 2:1 When the day of Pentecost had come, they were all together in one place. 2 And suddenly from heaven there came a sound like the rush of a violent wind, and it filled the entire house where they were sitting. 3 Divided tongues, as of fire, appeared among them, and a tongue rested on each of them. 4 All of them, women and men, were filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak in other languages, as the Spirit gave them ability.

On that day when the old festival acquired a new meaning, the breath of God blew a new fire from heaven fueled by an ancient and eternal power and stirred up the old gifts of the apostles and disciples and gave them new ones. At the intersection of heavenly fire and human speech the Church that is mother to us all came into being. Her birth cries were the voices of women and men prophesying as Joel prophesied they would:

 

I will pour out my spirit on all flesh;
your sons and your daughters shall prophesy,
your old men shall dream dreams,
and your young men shall see visions.
Even on the male and female slaves,
in those days, I will pour out my spirit.

The previous chapter in Acts tells that the eleven surviving apostles, Mary the mother of Jesus, his siblings – and he had sisters – and certain women made up the one hundred and twenty people who were gathering together the pray. That’s one hundred and five women and fifteen men if you’re counting. It was those women and men and whoever joined then on subsequent days on whom the spirit descended which is why Peter explained what was going on to the men of Jerusalem by quoting Joel talking about God’s gifts granted to the diverse fullness of humanity – woman or man, slave or free, old or young. All will speak for God. And Peter said Pentecost is the day that comes to pass. We are a Pentecost church and we are called to speak for God.

I know some think that being a prophet is all about predicting the future. I know some think that prophetic preaching is the call of preachers like Peter and priests like me. There is more than one way to be a prophet and the church needs them all. Prophets stand between God and the people bringing God’s word to the people and the people’s words to God like Moses, prophets lead the people from slavery to freedom singing new songs and dancing new dances like Miriam. Prophets demonstrate the power of God doing things that no one else can do like Elijah and Elisha. Prophets protect the people and when the enemy comes against the people of God, prophets take up arms to defend them like Deborah. Prophets whisper in the ears of Queens and Kings, Presidents and Prime Ministers, whether they listen or not like Nathan and Noadiah. There were scholar prophets like Huldah and illiterate prophets like Jeremiah. There were social justice prophets like Micah and Amos. There were praying prophets and prophets who saw visions and prophets who dreamed of a better world like Habakkuk.

Oh but I hear you saying God didn’t call me to preach or lead the people. I’m going to just set here on my pew and let the priests and pastors do all that prophetic work. You don’t have to be a priest or pastor to cry out against injustice. You have the same power as the ordinary women and men in that upper room. You have the same holy fire fueling you and your voice. Speak. Speak up. Speak for those who cannot. Let us be the church God called us to be. The power of God that transformed women and men and boys and girls, rich and poor, slave and free, Jerusalem Jew and Arabian Arab into the church is the same power that raised Jesus from the dead. That is the power that sustains and empowers the church. That fire is burning inside of you. Let it burn and change the world.


Pentecost: Something Old, Something New

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My farewell sermon at the African Episcopal Church of St. Thomas. (I decided to publish this unchanged because I believe this is a fit word for today.)

I will pour out my Spirit on all flesh,
and your daughters and your sons shall prophesy;
your young men shall see visions,
and your elder men shall dream dreams.
Even upon my slaves, women and men.
In those days I will pour out my Spirit
and they shall prophesy.

Let us pray:
My prayer is Miriam’s prayer, Mother Mary’s prayer – Let it be.
Let it be with your woman-servant according to your word.
With these words
the word of God was formed in the woman of God.
On this day, as on that day,
let your bat-kol, the daughter-voice of God
bring forth your word again. Amen.

Some thing old, something new. Nothing borrowed and no one is blue. It was the ancient festival of Shavuot, already 1500 years old when the Church was newly born. It was an old, old festival but this year there was something new. Shavuot, the Festival of Weeks, marks the end of the holy days that begin with Passover just as Pentecost now marks the end of Easter season. It was an old, old festival but this year there was something new.

This year things were tense. The Romans had staged a mass execution just before Passover. Yeshua ben Miryam – you know him as Jesus, Mary’s Baby, was handed over to the Romans for execution by the Judean religious authorities on the eve of the OG, old school Paschal feast, casting a shadow over this joyous time. Shavuot, Pentecost, was supposed to be a time of celebration rejoicing in the fact that God had sent forth God’s spirit and renewed the face of the earth. It was the sweet spot between springtime and summertime. Crops were being harvested and there was an abundance of fresh food. Passover had a serious underpinning, but Pentecost was pure joy.

Passover marked redemption from slave labor. Pentecost was marked by rest from honest labor. Passover memorialized a bitter harvest with the bread of affliction. Pentecost memorialized the new harvest with its first fruits. Passover commemorated the procession out of Egypt and the death of their firstborn. Pentecost was commemorated with a procession of newborns as the first fruits of their families. The Passover table was set with hard, flat, unleavened bread, bitter herbs and salt water. The Pentecost table was set with fresh baked goods from newly harvested wheat and barley, fresh, ripe olives and fresh pressed extra virgin olive oil, fresh sweet grapes and new wine.

It was one of the three great pilgrim festivals when everyone who was able traveled from wherever they were in the world to bring their gifts to God in Jerusalem. It was like Thanksgiving with in-laws and outlaws crowded into family homes and inns and elbowing each other at the table. The traffic was terrible, especially around the temple. You could hardly get two donkeys side-by-side down the street. The festival was so important that even when Paul was traveling around the world spreading the gospel the next year in Acts 20:16, he stopped and came back to Jerusalem to observe the feast. It was an old, old feast, but in our lesson it was about to be given new meaning.

Something old, something new. As that something new prepared to come forth, the air was thick with tension, but tension isn’t always a bad thing. Sometimes tension is creative, generative, giving birth to new life and new expressions of life. Sometimes tension is anticipatory. Acts chapter 1 says waiting in that tension was a community of about 120 folk that were in an upper room. There were 11 disciples who had become apostles, there was the first family: the Virgin Mother, the sisters of Jesus, and their four brothers. The rest of the crowd was made up by “certain women” along with, perhaps, the two candidates for the open apostle position violently vacated by Judas.

On that day when the old festival acquired a new meaning, the breath of God blew a new fire from heaven fueled by an ancient and eternal power and stirred up the old gifts of the apostles and disciples and gave them new ones. At the intersection of heavenly fire and human speech the Church that is Mother to us all came into being. Her birth cries were the voices of women and men prophesying as Joel prophesied they would.

The story of Pentecost is a reality check for the Church. The folks who became the first Church were in position to receive the power of God because they were in the house. The folks who became the first Church were in position to receive the power of God because they were already followers of Jesus. They were already praying and praising together. The Blessed Mother had been with him from the beginning. Some like the disciples had abandoned him at the cross but came running back after the resurrection. Some were new to the game brought in by the testimony of those who had seen the risen Christ. It didn’t matter how long any of them had been a follower of Jesus they all got the same fire, the same power. It didn’t matter if someone had only been following Jesus for one day. But they had to be in the house. The power of Pentecost did not extend to Bedroom Baptist, Pillow Presbyterian, or even St. Mattress and the Holy Comforter. You had to be in the house. Something old, something new.

The power of Pentecost was a new force in the world but its instruction manual was an old stand-by. Peter was in position to announce the birth of the Church because he was in the house and because he was in the scriptures. Peter knew that he was seeing the word of God come to life all around them because he knew the word of God. Peter was able to do what God called him to do because at some point in his life he had put some time in the word. Peter’s prophetic preaching is also a reality check for the church; a prophetic church needs preaching that is in the word. The women and men who were empowered by that Holy Ghost fire went into the word and traveled with the word and preached from the word to build the church.

But lastly and most importantly, the folks who became the first Church were transformed by the power of God to be the Church that God designed to meet the needs of the world. The Church that God birthed in wind and fire was born to be a prophetic church. It is no accident that Peter turned to Joel who once prophesied that we would all become prophets as Moses once prayed. Joel makes it clear that we are all called to prophesy. I know some think that being a prophet is all about predicting the future. I know some think that prophetic preaching is the call of preachers like Peter and priest like me. Ah, but the God who knows what the church needs sent the African Episcopal Church of St. Thomas one of the world’s foremost experts in prophecy eleven years ago so that I could tell you this:

There is more than one way to be a prophet and the church needs them all. Prophets stand between God and the people bringing God’s word to the people and the people’s words to God like Moses, prophets lead the people from slavery to freedom singing new songs and dancing new dances like Miriam. Prophets demonstrate the power of God doing things that no one else can do like Elijah and Elisha. Prophets protect the people and when the enemy comes against the people of God, prophets take up arms to defend them like Deborah. Prophets whisper in the ears of Queens and Kings, Presidents and Prime Ministers, whether they listen or not like Mandela and Maya. There were scholar prophets like Huldah who knew more of the word of God than any man around her. There were social justice prophets like Micah and Amos and Martin and Malcolm. There were praying prophets and prophets who saw visions and prophets who dreamed of a better world.

Oh but I hear you saying God didn’t call me to preach or lead the people. I’m going to just set here on my pew and let the priests and pastors do all that prophetic work. You don’t have to be a priest or pastor to cry out against injustice. The black church has always been a prophetic church not just because of its leaders but because of its members. You have the same power as the ordinary women and men in that upper room. You have the same holy fire fueling you and your voice.

The God who blew the breath of life into the nostrils of the first human handcrafted from the wet clay of earth, the God who exhaled and the Red Sea parted, the God who read a benediction down on a baptism in the river Jordon, that same God blew in and through that house. The breath of God blew on those disciples and they caught fire like kindling. It was a fire that burned but did not consume, just like the old, old story of the burning bush. Here was something old and something new. That holy fire was only visible for a time but we know it remains by the power it generates.

That fire is heart-changing fire. That fire is life-changing fire. That fire is world-changing fire. That fire changed a man who cursed everybody who asked him if he knew Jesus into a man who preached to a crowd of folk who couldn’t see what he saw. That fire changed men who had left Jesus to die on the cross with the women who followed into to apostles who were worthy of the title, who preached the gospel to the ends the earth, who would die for the name of Jesus, some of them crucified on their own crosses. That fire changed women who had been commissioned as apostles to the apostles from second class citizens whose testimony could not believed unless a man confirmed it to the first preachers of the Gospel before Pentecost. The power of Pentecost is something old and something new.

The power of God that transformed women and men and boys and girls, rich and poor, slave and free, Jerusalem Jew and Arabian Arab into the church was the same power that raised Jesus from the dead. That Holy Ghost fire was the same fire that burned a bush on Sinai and did not consume it. The wind that swept through the house was the same wind that blew open a pathway through the Red Sea. The God who set the Church on fire on her birthday is the same God who set the sun blazing in the heavens. The fire of Pentecost is something old and something new.

I thank God for that fire. We need it now as they needed it then. You see while the outpouring of Pentecost was a new thing, the world in which it happened was the same old world with the same old empire, the same old oppressions, the same old heartbreaks, the same old abuses, the same old hurts. The fire of Pentecost came to earth in the same old crucifying world, just as the power of the Holy Spirit is present in this broken world where children are being denied an education, veterans are being denied health care, working folk are being denied a living wage, black and brown folk are denied justice in the system called “justice,” and too many women and girls are denied basic human dignity, safety and security walking down the street or trying to get an education.

But we have the same Jesus in this old world: Jesus who demonstrated beyond all doubt that he was God in the flesh: even if anyone doubted the stories about his conception and birth they had seen for themselves when he multiplied meager meals and walked on water. They were with him when he opened blind eyes, unstopped deaf ears, loosened stilled tongues, dried up bloody flows, unbent crooked spines and restored diseased and paralyzed flesh. They were in the procession when he canceled funerals and raised the dead while they were lying in their coffins. We have their stories of Jesus because they didn’t keep them to themselves.

Jesus, the embodiment of God’s everlasting love in a new package used the old words of the holy Scriptures to proclaim the love of God, the life God gives, abundant and eternal, the liberty God gives even to people under the tyranny of an evil empire. It is the same old world but God’s mercies are new every morning. There is new life everywhere we look. Babies are being born and being baptized. People are finding new life with God in Christ, in the Church. Some are finding new life in a new world of sobriety. Even the earth in the city of Philadelphia is giving birth to new life now that spring has finally sprung.

This city, this nation and this world needs the Holy Ghost fire of a prophetic church. That is what Pentecost is calling us to be, a prophetic church. Peter returns to the old, old scriptures of their shared faith to interpret the events that were unfolding around them. He sees in the prophet Joel God’s vision for the church. He sees the church as a community of prophets. Prophets are more than preachers; they are folk who speak with and for God. There was a time when the black church was known as a prophetic church because we used our voice, our gifts, our power to speak out against that which was wrong and to speak up for those who could not speak for themselves. The world still needs the black church. The Pentecost model of church is one in which every one of us woman and man, girl and boy, old and young, well off and struggling to get by, take to the streets empowered by that Holy Ghost fire to change the world. The power of the Holy Spirit, the word of God in the heart and in the mouth of the believer are a fire that cannot be extinguished.

Prophesy church. Prophesy. Bring the words of scripture to pass in your mouth. Show the world the power of God in your life because God has poured out God’s Spirit on us all and we are the Church of God, new life in this old world. Amen.

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Rewriting the Bible, Me & the History Channel

I am a womanist, feminist, post-colonial, transgressive, progressive biblical scholar. I am liberal about the love of God and conservative about translation issues (like lexical fidelity). And I have been accused of rewriting the bible on more than one occasion, see Rewriting the Bible: the Gospel According to Liberals where I’m in good company. That is something that I and the History Channel have in common. HC offers a disclaimer before each episode of its miniseries: This program is an adaptation of bible stories. It endeavors to stay true to the spirit of the book. I applaud the History Channel for their honesty here, in spite of the name of the project, “The Bible,” what they offered was an interpretation, one clearly marked by the social location – race, religion, culture and gender politics of its producers. (See the archives of this blog for many examples.) Their interpretation included a fair bit of rewriting the bible for their own purposes.

The charge is a common one regularly leveled at progressive or liberal Christians, really anyone who isn’t claiming a literal interpretation of an inerrant scripture. And that’s what makes History Channel’s Bible mini-series so interesting to me, given that it is marketed so heavily to evangelical and conservative Christians, many of whom subscribe to literalist and inerrantist readings of scripture. The series engages in rewriting the bible on an epic scale, so much so that they’re offering a novel as a follow up for all the bits they couldn’t quite work in. Mind you that’s a novel – the ultimate rewrite – rather than an extended DVD of, say, clips from actual biblical accounts that they couldn’t broadcast because of time limits.

If rewriting the bible is so awful, so progressive, so lefty, so liberal, why is a project with such good evangelical and conservative Christian street cred doing so, loudly, publicly and getting paid? (That novel, the series itself and the other Bible Series merchandise is not free.)

Because of what all seminary professors, biblical scholars, seminary trained clergy and religious leaders and careful critical readers of scripture know: we all interpret everything we read or see, including (and not just) sacred texts. Yet there is a misperception that texts – especially religious texts – are independent of interpretation, that their meaning is whatever the literal text says, with no nuance or room for interpretation. And Those who get to say that the text means what it literally says to them, are those with power, frequently white, male, heterosexual, cis-gendered, able-bodied, frequently clergy (with or without seminary education depending on the tradition).

And while all readings and viewers are interpretive and affected by the identity of the readers and viewers, that doesn’t mean that it is impossible to make historically appropriate productions of biblical or other stories. And I confess that’s what I expected from the History Channel, a retelling of the biblical narrative as it is preserved supplemented by the historical record. What I saw was a particular religious and cultural retelling that rewrote the portions of the bible that did not fit the larger vision. The final episode of the mini-series contained some truly spectacular rewrites:

The gospel accounts of Jesus’ trial make it clear that Jesus was shuffled off from Pilate to Herod and back to Pilate. The number of legally questionable proceedings and sheer exhaustion of the nighttime travels build the tension in the scriptural accounts. The mini-series cut out Herod’s hearing and the travel between locations.

Jesus’ female followers were seemingly compressed into a single “Mary” based on her appearance at the tomb, I’m guessing Magdalene. I give the History Channel credit for including her among the disciples from the very beginning, but by making a lone woman a disciple apart from the company of other women they present an unnecessarily scandalous (from a First Century Jewish cultural perspective) of this one woman running around with a group of men. They cut out Joanna, Salome, the other Mary (as the bible calls her), leaving Mary and Martha behind after the resurrection of Lazarus. (In that episode the departed from the Gospel which says that Jesus called Lazarus to come out of the tomb – from outside – by having Jesus go in and kiss him on the head.)

Jesus’s march to Calvary includes a scene with a woman wiping the face of Jesus. Many Catholic, Anglican and other Christians will recognize this as the story of St. Veronica from the Stations of the Cross. It is beloved, but not in the bible.

Easter morning did not find Mary Magdalene going to the tomb with spices to prepare the body of Jesus for a more permanent burial. (They seem to be using John’s gospel which eliminates all but one of the women from all of the other gospels.) She went with nothing for no discernible purpose.

And, on the day of Pentecost in the scripture, the disciples who were there numbered 120 made up of the surviving first 11 (after Judas’ suicide), Jesus’ mother (absent), siblings (I don’t think we ever saw his sisters in the whole series nor all 4 of his brothers), 2 candidates to replace Judas and the rest were “certain women,” meaning that with the exception of the 17 men the other 103 disciples present on the day of Pentecost were women. But there were only a handful shown, with the obligatory, token, individual woman. In the scripture the sight of so many, particularly women, speaking in other languages led to charges that they were drunk – entirely missing from the episode. In the scripture that charge leads Peter to preach a sermon from Joel explaining that God calls women and men to ministry. A powerful moment and a missed opportunity.

These fundamental rewrites of some of the most cherished accounts in the scriptures occur in spite of their consultation with New Testament scholars like Duke University’s Mark Goodacre. As a biblical scholar who studies and engages in midrash, Jewish biblical interpretation that can include rewriting the text I welcome the HIstory Channel, the series producers Roma Downey and Mark Burnett and their viewers to the work of biblical interpretation. I would however like to offer a couple of suggestions from my own teaching to those who are new to the practice from a critical scholarly perspective which differs from many religious practices of reading and rewriting the bible.

  1. Determine what the text actually says, as much as possible, resort to the original languages and all of the relevant manuscripts, especially when they conflict and when there are multiple versions of a story; this will multiply your source texts.
  2. Determine what the text meant in its original context in light of the religious and cultural norms of the time.
  3. Interpret the text for and from your context and be honest about your interpretive lens.

That the History Channel got so many folk watching, talking and thinking about the bible can be a good thing if those conversations include understandings of how and why the TV show is different from the bible that folk know – and there are many bibles with differing contents – and, how all of our understandings differ from those of the folk who produced and preserved those texts never imagining a largely Gentile church on the other side of a globe they didn’t know wasn’t flat.