The foreign visitor

In this acrostic verse Steve Shoemaker imagined Simon of Cyrene, the innocent foreign (Libyan) bystander conscripted to help carry Jesus’s cross. Jesus of Nazareth was found guilty of “subverting the nation and refusing to pay tribute to Caesar.”

SIMON OF CYRENE 

Since I was in Jerusalem for Passover,

I  bought nice gifts both for my wife and the two boys.

Money I had, position in Cyrene, power…

Only meaning was missing, reason for my days.

Now my bags are knocked down and a Roman soldier

Orders me to carry a young condemned man’s cross.

From deep within his eyes I see a place of peace.

Crying women followed us all along the road.

Years later I could still recall, he turns and says,

Remove your tears for me, there are for you ahead

Even worse times to come:  no men,  no pregnancies,

No children, no city–for battles, sieges, war

End families, prosperity, leave just the poor.

  • – Acrostic Verse  – Steve Shoemaker – Urbana, IL, April 22, 2012

Steve (1943-2016) continued the work of Simon of Cyrene. He lived his life on behalf of the poor. We’re missing him today.

  • Gordon C. Stewart, Chaska, MN, March 28, 2017.

Don and Jesus in the Hospital

Word came this morning that a dear friend, Don, was rushed to the emergency room yesterday with internal bleeding. His hemoglobin count had dropped to a woefully low 5.5. Don is one of six classmates who gather each year for renewal of friendship, reflection, good food, a game of softball, and morning prayers.

Don’s hospitalization drew me back to an as yet unpublished follow up to the “Jesus in the Hospital” post from several weeks back on the weird dream of Jesus as a patient in the hospital.

Some readers stop reading when they see the name Jesus. Others like the name Jesus and are curious to read the story. Yet another group is distraught or confused by the thought of Jesus as a patient in the hospital. He might be the doctor or the healer, but not the patient.

This brief post is written for the latter group of readers.

Biblical scholars and theologians interpret the church’s sacred writings (Holy Scripture) according to the different genres of literature. They also differentiate between Jesus of history (Jesus of Nazareth), and the Jesus of faith (the crucified-risen Christ of believers). In Christian scripture the two are welded together. The Jesus story is told by four Gospels: Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John. A gospel is by its very nature a witness to faith, written by faith to elicit faith in the reader, not an objective eye-witness account of events in the life of Jesus as a video camera might have given us. The only access we have to Jesus of Nazareth is through the eyes of faith.

The theological tradition of the church has always insisted on the full humanity of Jesus. His humanity was only half the Chaledonian Formula (fully divine, fully man), but Jesus’ humanity is the starting place for any claim to the Formula’s other half: the divinity of Jesus Christ. Time after time there have arisen fanciful representations of Jesus. In some of these, the historical Jesus is, for all intents, obliterated.  He wears flesh and blood the way an actor playing a part assumes a costume to draw into audience into the play. In these versions of Christian faith, the bodily Jesus is a disguise for God.

But a Jesus who was never sick a day in his life, a Jesus without bodily functions, pains, and hungers, a Jesus who didn’t feel the hammer slam his thumb at his carpenter’s bench, a Jesus who couldn’t be admitted to the emergency room with 5.5 hemoglobin and the need for transfusions is a not one of us. That Jesus is a figment of imagination.

Why I dreamt of Jesus in the hospital remains a mystery. What I know is that the dream wouldn’t have come without a deep sense of Jesus, the Jesus of history and the Jesus of faith. The only way I know to love Jesus is to love those who could end up in the hospital or hospice care. They are Jesus. Jesus is us.

One of the six friends who call ourselves the Old Dogs wrote a prayer for Don:

O Great and Merciful God, hold our brother Don in Your strong and loving hands. Lift him. O Jesus, Lord of the universe, as you did so often and so naturally to the sick and infirm in ancient Palestine, bring new health and healing to Don. And Holy Spirit of Power that tombs cannot contain, be with the Dog we all wish we were with right now, with him, with him. Amen.

– Gordon C. Stewart, Chaska, MN, May 2, 2015.

Verse – One State, Two States?

Jesus was a Palestinian,
born, by some accounts,
in the West Bank town
of Bethlehem.
If the sobriquet
Jesus of Nazareth
is more accurate,
that region of Judea
is also Palestinian today.

He was born in poverty,
not privilege, in a territory
occupied by a cruel
and ruthless military.
His family was taxed, but had
no voice. He was a target
of official violence
and brutality from his birth
to the last week of his life.

Born of a Jewish mother,
Jesus was a son of David
as well: was circumcised,
studied and taught
in the Jerusalem Temple,
was called Rabbi.

With whom would Jesus
identify today?

– Steve Shoemaker, Urbana, IL, Dec. 16, 2014

Was Jesus guilty?

by Gordon C. Stewart (copyright)

Was Jesus of Nazareth guilty as charged?

The charge against Jesus of Nazareth was that he “refused to pay tribute to Caesar” and that “he stirred up the people.” One translation called him a “seditionist” or, in a congressman’s language, a subversive, an enemy of the state. The late lay theologian and lawyer William Stringfellow argued that Jesus was a revolutionary. Not a rhetorical revolutionary, but one whose very existence threatened his world in a revolutionary way.

Years of pouring over the Gospel texts and the Dead Sea Scrolls for clues as to the nature of the time of Jesus of Nazareth have not quite brought me to the stark nakedness of Bishop James Pike, but I’m close.

The Bishop was in Washington, D.C. for a meeting of some sort. His friend Anthony Towne went to his hotel room to take him to breakfast. When Anthony knocked on the door, the Bishop shouted out, “Come on in, Tony, the door’s open.” He opened the door to find the Bishop sitting in an arm chair, Dead Sea Scroll manuscripts scattered around the floor surrounding the chair, sitting there in the altogether. The Bishop was so entranced with the Scrolls and the Scriptures that he had forgotten to dress; he was unaware of his nakedness. Bishop Pike later died alone in the Judean wilderness searching for the historical Jesus.

I’m not as obsessed with the question as James Pike was, but I am nonetheless intrigued, fascinated, confused, and excited by Jesus of Nazareth and the New Testament witness to him precisely because of the new information that invites us to ask again who Jesus was.

Christians often see the cross as something that God intended for Jesus as the Son of God, as if God sent his son into the world that we might kill him and that Jesus was surely innocent of the charges brought before Pilate. Rarely do we consider the possibility that Jesus was guilty as charged. Likewise, what we in the church call Palm Sunday/Passion Sunday is often observed in a way that paints Jesus as the non-political spiritual man whose kingdom is not of this world, contrary to the people on the street who mistakenly hailed him as the warrior king whose aim was to throw Rome out of Palestine.

Palm Sunday provides a window into the question of whether Jesus was guilty as charged. Go beneath all theological assumptions to step onto the road with the people who waved the branches and ask what they were doing there and why Jesus did what he did. But before we look at the parade into Jerusalem we remember that the death we observe on “Good Friday” was a political execution, the Roman equivalent of the electric chair, the firing squad, and the gas chamber. The charges against him at the trial are clearly political. “We found this man inciting our people to revolt, opposing payment of the tribute to Caesar, and claiming to be Christ, a King” (Luke 23:2, Jerusalem Bible). Jesus was executed as a revolutionary against the Roman Empire.

Behind the New Testament texts lie the familiar strains of the older texts from Zachariah and II Maccabees.

The background of Palm Sunday in the Book of Zachariah

One of the first things to notice about the Palm Sunday episode, the “triumphal entry” into Jerusalem, is that the demonstration is not spontaneous. “The master has need of it” – the words the disciples have been instructed to speak to a man in town who owns a donkey – is code language, arranged in advance. Furthermore, Christ rides on the donkey, not a horse. Traditionally this has been taken to mean that he refuses the title of king and prefers to come instead in humility, riding on a donkey. But look more closely at the setting for the donkey passage in the literature of Zachariah and you will find an oracle against a foreign occupier. It is in the context of his oracle against oppression that Jesus chooses to ride on a donkey (or two donkeys!). Here’s the Zachariah passage:

“Near my house I will take my stand like a watchman on guard against prowlers; the tyrant shall pass their way no more, because I have now taken notice of its distress. Rejoice heart and soul, daughter of Zion! Shout with gladness, daughter of Jerusalem! See now, your king comes to you; he is victorious, he is triumphant, humble and riding on a donkey, on a colt, the foal of a donkey. He will banish chariots from Ephraim and horses from Jerusalem; the bow of war will be banished. he will proclaim peace for the nations. His empire shall stretch from sea to sea, from the River to the ends of the earth. As for you, because of the blood of your covenant, I sending back your prisoners from the pit (in which there is no water?” – Zachariah 9:8-11, Jerusalem Bible.

Jesus’ entry into Jerusalem is rooted in the hope of Zachariah. Riding the colt identifies Jesus with the long-held hopes of Jesus’ people for an end to their bondage – economic, political, financial, cultural, spiritual, imperial bondage. The Zachariah text occurs in a section of curses against oppressors. To cherry pick humility from the text while ignoring the context and symbolism of the donkey fails to do justice to the sweeping hope of an altogether new and totally revolutionary transformation.

The background of Palm Sunday in Second Maccabees

The people lining the streets are waving branches hailing Jesus as the Messiah, the liberator of the nation from foreign occupation. The palm was a symbol of Jewish resistance. At an earlier time in the Second Century BCE Simon Maccabaeus was hailed with palm branches after a successful Jewish warfare that had regained the nation’s freedom and reclaimed the integrity of the Temple. Here’s the text:

“Maccabaeus and his companions, under the LORD’s guidance, restored the Temple and the city, and pulled down the altars erected by the foreigners in the market place, as well as the sacred enclosures. They purified the sanctuary and built another altar; then striking fire from flints and using this fire, they offered the first sacrifice for two years, burning incense, lighting the lamps and setting out the loaves. When they had done this they threw themselves flat on the ground and implored the LORD never again to let them fall into such adversity, but if they should ever sin, to correct them with moderation and not to deliver them over to blasphemous and barbarous nations. This day of the purification of the Temple fell on the very day on which the Temple had been profaned by the foreigners, the twenty-fifth of the same month, Chislev. They kept eight festal days with rejoining, in the manner of the Feast of Tabernacles, remembering how, not long before at the time of the Feast of Tabernacles, they had been living in the mountains and caverns like wild beasts. Then, carrying branches, leafy boughs and palms, they offered hymns to him who had brought the cleansing of his own Holy Place to a happy outcome. They also decreed by public edict, ratified by vote, that the whole Jewish nation should celebrate the same every year.” (II Maccabees 10:1-8)

In times such as this I join Bishop Pike in asking who he was and find myself quite naked and often alone in the search. But one thing I think I know. Bill Stringfellow nailed it. Jesus was a revolutionary of the most profound sort. His very existence – his being – was enough to bring charges from a world that refused to be disturbed by him. “See now, your king comes to you; he is victorious, he is triumphant, humble and riding on a donkey, on a colt, the foal of a donkey. He will banish chariots from Ephraim and horses from Jerusalem; the bow of war will be banished. he will proclaim peace for the nations. His empire shall stretch from sea to sea….”

Will we shrink Jesus of Nazareth to our own small size and purposes, or will we line the streets with festal branches for the humble man on the colt whose kingdom of justice, peace, and love is always being crucified but can never be extinguished?

NOTE

This sermon was preached March 19, 1978 in McGaw Chapel at The College of Wooster, Wooster, OH.

2012 NRA Christmas Message – Part 1

The only thing that stops a bad guy with a gun is a good guy with a gun.- NRA Press Conference, Dec. 21, 2012

"Ecce Homo" (Behold the Man), Albrecht Durer

“Ecce Homo” (Behold the Man), Albrecht Durer

“If I’d only had a gun….?” – Jesus of Nazareth, First Century CE.