Sunday, January 4, 2015

A Sermon for the Second Sunday after Christmas

Holy Trinity Anglican Church, Broomfield, CO
Matthew 2:13-23

("Flight Into Egypt" by Fritz Eichenberg.)

For me, there are few times of the year as magical as Christmas. I think the decorations and lights have a lot to do with it. Everything, no matter how mundane, seems to take on an enchanted quality at Christmas. This year’s Christmas Eve service was no different for me. I can think of few worship experiences as beautiful and dreamlike as singing “Silent Night” by candlelight. Unfortunately for us, the enchantment didn’t last long. Shortly after we got the children “nestled all snug in their beds,” Emmelia appeared at our bedside crying. Old Saint Nick had come early and brought the McGowin family the stomach flu. Over the next 48 hours, the virus swept through our house, leaving only William untouched. I spent almost all of Christmas Eve night in the bathroom and the entirety of Christmas Day in bed. Christmas dinner was cancelled, our friends didn’t come over to celebrate, and it took about five days for us to recover. It was terrible.
Now, I know in the scheme of things this is pretty minor. We got a poorly timed stomach bug. We got over it. It could have been a lot worse. But, the abruptness of the shift from magic to misery, from dream to nightmare, is what really stuck with me. Because this is a part of the human experience. We live lives of great vulnerability, which means that our fortunes can turn into sorrows in the blink of an eye. A former professor of ours says that when it comes to turmoil and tragedy, there are only three kinds of people: those who just came out of it, those who are in the midst of it right now, and those who will get the call after church. As we heard in our Gospel reading today, the holy family experienced this, too. Their fortunes took a very abrupt turn from the wondrous visit of the Magi to the murderous plot of King Herod. One minute they are surrounded by shepherds and visitors from faraway lands, basking in the hope and glory of what God is doing in their midst. The next minute they are alone, hunted, and afraid, stealing away under the cover of night, like homeless beggars on the lonely road to Egypt.
We heard from Chris last week that in the Christ Child we see the Word of God made flesh. The Second Person of the Trinity became incarnate in a squirming, shrieking, helpless newborn baby. And yet, almost as soon as the Word of God appears—the Light for which we’ve spent four Advent weeks preparing—the darkness rises up and tries to extinguish it. It’s probably not suitable for a Hallmark card or TV special, but this is part of the Christmas story, too. And it sheds more light on who this Jesus—Word-made-flesh, God-with-us—really is and what his mission means. He is the culmination of Israel’s history and prophecy and, at the same time, he is a vulnerable member of the sin-soaked world he has come to save.  
            Our reading starts with the words, “After they were gone.” The “they” is the Magi, who had greeted Jesus with expensive gifts and humble adoration. But, within just a couple of verses, through Joseph’s dream, we are reminded that not all welcomed the Christ Child with open arms. Herod, the paranoid and power hungry ruler of Judea, understands very well that this child poses a threat to him. I’m sure the words of the Magi, recorded earlier in chapter 2, hit him like a thunderbolt: “Where is he who has been BORN king of the Jews?” Not only had these great men traveled from the East—likely with a lavish entourage—to worship this child, but they say that he is, from birth, the rightful king of the Jews—the people over whom Herod was appointed ruler by Rome. Herod spent much of his political career killing off his rivals. He had his own wife and one of his sons executed when he suspected a plot against him. And now, here, in his own backyard, a child has been born that these wealthy Eastern astrologers claim is the “king of the Jews.” It is no surprise that he immediately concocted a plan to kill the boy. But, when the Magi did not cooperate, sneaking back to the East like fugitives, Herod took matters into his own hands.
Despite Herod’s murderous plans, Matthew intends us to see God’s hand of provision and protection. That’s why the story is filled with angelic messages. It turns out that Joseph, like his counterpart in Genesis, is a dreamer. And when God speaks to him in dreams, Joseph listens. Herod’s plot is made plain to Joseph and the angel tells him to flee with his family to Egypt. Joseph immediately gets up, takes the child and his mother, and runs with them into the night. Can you imagine the scene? The frenzy of gathering essentials, the haphazard stuffing into bags and packs, the hurried departure into the dark, ominous night. The crying child, the exhausted and terrified mother. And Joseph’s heart leaping into his throat every time they pass a soldier. In this way, the holy family—just a few days or even just hours after celebrating with the Magi—flee their homeland and begin a long, 80 mile walk to the border of Egypt. We don’t know for sure where the holy family lived during their time in exile. They may have settled in Alexandria, which had the biggest Jewish settlement at the time. But, the important thing is that they eventually got to Egypt, far beyond Herod’s reach.
Then, the scene shifts. The reading we heard this morning leaves out vv. 16-18, but I think we need to include that part of the story. Here’s how Matthew narrates it:
When Herod saw that he had been tricked by the wise men, he was infuriated, and he sent and killed all the children in and around Bethlehem who were two years old or under, according to the time that he had learned from the wise men. Then was fulfilled what had been spoken through the prophet Jeremiah:
“A voice was heard in Ramah,
    wailing and loud lamentation,
Rachel weeping for her children;
    she refused to be consoled,
because they are no more.”

Once he realizes he has been tricked by the Magi and will not discover the identity and location of the rival king, Herod decides to annihilate him through widespread carnage. He orders the death of all boys two years and younger in the region of Bethlehem. This parallels the way that Pharaoh tried to destroy the sons of Israel, and Moses among them, in the early chapters of Exodus. Bethlehem was a very small village with maybe 1,000 people at that time. Herod’s massacre would have included about 10-30 children, a catastrophic loss for the village. Notice how quickly the Christmas story has turned. We’ve gone from adoration and “gold, frankincense, and myrrh” to the blood of slaughtered babies and the sounds of “wailing and loud lamentation” echoing through Bethlehem’s streets. Unlike in Luke’s gospel, no one sings in Matthew’s infancy narratives. They weep instead.
Verse 19 tells us that after Herod dies, Joseph has another dream. The angel tells him again to get up and go—this time back to Israel. And, just as before, Joseph obeys immediately. They travel back to their homeland, ready to resume their life in Bethlehem. Yet, Joseph gets word that Herod’s son, Archelaus, is now ruling in Judea and he is afraid to go there. Joseph’s instincts were correct, of course. Another dream (and our historical records) confirm that Archelaus inherited his father’s murderous temperament. (In fact, he was so violent and so oppressive that Rome eventually deposed and replaced him with someone else. If you’re too violent and oppressive for the Romans, that’s really saying something!) So, rather than risk taking up residence near another bloodthirsty king, Joseph retreats with his family to the rural, backwater town of Nazareth.
Nazareth was located in the hills of Galilee and was of no military, political, or religious significance. When Jesus’ family arrived there, it probably had a population of around 500 people. You may recall the scornful words of Nathaniel in the Gospel of John: “Nazareth!” he said, “Can anything good come from there?” (John 1:45-46). It really was like moving to what I call, “Podunkville, USA.” But, Matthew is unfazed by the country bumpkin nature of the Savior’s adopted hometown. He links Jesus’ status as a Nazarene to prophecy, claiming it as proof of his messianic status. We’ll hear more about that later.
            This story only takes up 11 verses, but it’s really quite dramatic and intriguing. I find myself asking a lot of questions. How did the family travel? What did they take with them? Where did they stay along the way? Where did they settle in Egypt? What happened to the Magi’s gifts? How long were they in exile? How many children did Herod kill? How did the dreams manifest themselves in Joseph’s mind? We’re talking about the Son of God as a poor refugee—an illegal immigrant, even—escaping an assassination plot through angelic intervention. I want a detailed play-by-play of how this whole episode unfolded!
These questions are fine and good, and the instinct to want details is understandable, but the truth is they simply can’t be answered by the text. Matthew is not much concerned with HOW these events took place. Instead, he wants to tell us WHAT these events MEAN. We know this is Matthew’s focus because of the number of times he links the events to the Hebrew Scriptures: three times in 11 verses. By quoting or alluding to the Old Testament, Matthew is closely connecting the events of Jesus’ early years to Israel’s history and prophecy. From the earliest chapters of his gospel, he is pointing his readers toward Jesus’ status as God’s Messiah.
When the holy family escapes to Egypt, Matthew quotes Hosea 11:1: “This was to fulfill what had been spoken by the Lord: Out of Egypt I have called my Son.” Now, when he says, “This was to fulfill what had been spoken,” Matthew does NOT mean that the eighth century prophet Hosea was predicting the flight of Jesus into Egypt. In fact, in context, Hosea 11:1 is very clearly referring backward (not forward) to Israel’s miraculous Exodus under the leadership of Moses. For the prophets, the Exodus was (and is) a mighty revelation of God’s loving preservation of God’s Son, Israel, from the violence of Pharaoh. When God rescued the people of Israel from Egyptian slavery, he was powerfully demonstrating his special love and covenant loyalty to them. By using Hosea’s words to apply to Jesus, Matthew is showing his readers that Jesus makes Israel’s story complete. As the incarnate Son of God, Jesus is a kind of Israel-in-person, succeeding everywhere Israel has failed. In his life, death, and resurrection, Jesus will enact a new Exodus for God’s people. And, because of his divine sonship, Jesus is protected and preserved by the same covenant loyalty of God. Just as God saved Israel from the wrath of Pharaoh, so also God saves Jesus from the wrath of Herod. God is with Immanuel. Literally, God is with the God-with-us.
But, for some readers, the divine rescue of Jesus highlights the other little lives that were lost by Herod’s sword. It is tempting to wonder why the other parents of Bethlehem weren’t given a similar version of Joseph’s dream. But, Matthew doesn’t address the why. As I said before, he tries instead to explain what it means. This time Matthew quotes Jeremiah 31:15: “A voice was heard in Ramah, wailing and loud lamentation, Rachel weeping for her children; she refused to be consoled, because they are no more.” Even though he says that this event fulfills the words of the prophet, it seems clear to me that Matthew rules out the divine origin of the Bethlehem massacre. Whereas in 1:22 and 2:15, he clearly says the events were “by the Lord,” and happened “in order that” the scripture might be fulfilled, in the slaughter of the innocents those words are noticeably absent. The death of Bethlehem’s boys is Herod’s doing, not God’s.
Also, Matthew is not saying that Jeremiah predicted, hundreds of years in advance, the massacre at Bethlehem. We heard some of the chapter he references, Jeremiah 31, in our first lesson this morning. It speaks of the return of the people of Israel from Exile in Babylon. After a time of judgment, God declares his devotion to his people: “I have loved you with an everlasting love.” God says that he is going to gather the people of Israel from where they have been scattered and bring them back to their land. They will return with singing and dancing. They will celebrate with wine and grain and the fat of animals. And their sorrows will be turned to joy. At the end of the chapter, Jeremiah famously speaks of the coming of a “new covenant,” where God will write the law on the hearts of his people and “remember their sins no more.” So then what’s v. 15 all about? Why is “Rachel” heard “weeping for her children”? This verse speaks to the fact that even in this midst of God’s redeeming work, the mothers of Israel mourn for the children they have lost in war and exile. God is about to do a new thing in Israel’s midst, but the pain of loss remains.
This applies well to the tragedy in Bethlehem. Certainly, the rescue of Jesus from the clutches of Herod is key to the redemptive plan of God. An angelic vision leads to his escape. The other boys aren’t so privileged. But, for the “new covenant” of Jeremiah 31 to be established, Jesus must survive infancy. As a small child, God’s Messiah flees Judea with his family. But, it is only so that the next time around, he can face the threat of death squarely and overcome it. Despite the weeping of Bethlehem’s mothers, the blessing and hope of the Messiah lives on. When the Christ Child grows up, he will gather the boys and girls of Israel in his arms and proclaim God’s blessing and love over them. The Messiah who flees now will soon inaugurate a Kingdom in which there is no such violence and sorrow. So, even in the midst of weeping and wailing, when all hope seems gone, Matthew assures us that God through Jesus is bringing about deliverance.
Finally, when the holy family settles in Nazareth, Matthew alludes to “the prophets” to support the fact that the Messiah should be called “a Nazarene.” Now, there’s lots of debate among scholars about what prophets Matthew might be referring to and what he means by calling Jesus a Nazarene. But, I’m going to spare us that conversation. I think two things are important to mention. First, as we’ve already noted, Nazareth was a very unimportant town—the refuge of hicks and hillbillies. When people began to call Jesus a “Nazarene,” they almost certainly did NOT have in mind the consecrated men and women spoken of in the Law as “Nazirites.” It’s more likely that they were indirectly insulting him, calling him a nobody from nowhere. And, when Jesus began to gather followers, the disciples acquired the same insulting name. “Look at the Nazarenes!” people might say, “Those nobodies from nowhere who think they’re something special.”
Despite the scornful way the Nazarene title was used, Matthew isn’t embarrassed by it. He claims it in a defiant sort of way and then links it to Israel’s prophets. I think he’s probably thinking of Isaiah 11:1, which says, “A shoot shall come out from the stump of Jesse, and a branch shall grow out of his roots.” The Hebrew word for “branch” is nazir, which sounds a lot like the root of Nazarene. If this link is correct, then Matthew is telling the would-be scoffers: “Yes, Jesus is a Nazarene. And so what? Isaiah has told us that a nazir would come from Jesse’s stump and here he is!” He uses Jesus’ otherwise embarrassing hometown as a way to indicate his messianic identity. Despite his humble origins, Jesus is the branch that will grow out of the root of Jesse, the new start for the royal house of David. In Jesus, God is providing the salvation and rescue that Israel has longed for all these years.
            In these three Old Testament references, Matthew attempts to show the meaning of these early events in the life of Jesus. Despite the fact that the vulnerable baby of Bethlehem is in grave danger, God’s covenant love and faithfulness shine through. In the protective care of Joseph and Mary, the Christ Child will survive. And, when he reaches adulthood, he will usher in a never-ending Kingdom of love, justice, and peace.
So, what should our response be to this story of terror and hope? I have few things for us to consider. First, I have to admit that there is no satisfying explanation for why the innocents of Bethlehem had to die. There never really is in tragedies like that. And it’s a scandalous sort of providence that snatches the boy Jesus from the jaws of Herod, while dozens are slain in his place. But, one thing we do know for sure is that their deaths are noticed and reverenced by God. God accompanies Jesus and his family to Egypt, but God is also present in Bethlehem, listening to the wails of the daughters of Rachel. From early on, Christ’s church has memorialized the slain children through the Feast of the Holy Innocents, which falls on December 28. It may seem like an odd event to mark with a feast day, but I think there’s something beautiful about remembering their deaths in this way. In our world today, empires continue to build their illusions of peace and prosperity on the backs of the poor, desperate, and enslaved—many of whom are vulnerable children. The people of God, the people who worship the Christ Child, must attend to and reverence the death of innocents, whether it’s the boys of Bethlehem, the children of Sandy Hook Elementary, or, most recently, the 132 schoolchildren of Peshawar Pakistan. And, we must do what it takes to protect and provide for the most vulnerable still among us—whether they are in our own house, within our city, or even fleeing violence at our nation’s borders. Our response can and should take different forms depending on our station in life. But, the broader point is that we must stubbornly insist that the lives of children are valuable and worth fighting for because, among other things, our Savior was one of them.
Second, along similar lines, I want to highlight the fact that when “the Word became flesh,” he was not to be found amongst the rich and powerful. He did not reside in Judea’s gated communities. He was not the friend of wealthy patrons or Roman politicians. His parents could not afford the elite Jerusalem academies. Instead, the Word-made-flesh threw in his lot with the poor toddlers of Bethlehem. Not only did the Word come as a Child, but also as the son of a refugee family living in the boondocks, surrounded by the working class and poor of Galilee. And it was there, in that humble setting that Jesus first caught on to what Dallas Willard calls “the divine conspiracy,” the imminent arrival of God’s up-side-down Kingdom that would overthrow the established order and bring justice and peace to the earth. It was there, in the mundane daily routines of eating, drinking, praying, working, and sleeping that the Messiah of God received his training and caught on to his vocation. Where is God in the midst of a violent oppressive empire? Where is God in the midst of injustice and poverty? Matthew says he’s in the refugee’s home, playing at his mother’s feet, watching his father cut wood, and asking a million questions. God is in such places. The question is, are we able to recognize it and join him?
Finally, I think this story can give us encouragement to persevere in our personal trials. We aren’t used to thinking of the holy family in the way this story presents them. But, there they are. Gone are the shepherds and cuddly sheep. Gone is the beaming star and choir of singing angels. Gone are the majestic and mysterious Magi bowing to their son in adoration. Now, it’s just Joseph, Mary, and Jesus, alone and afraid. It’s a jarring image, but maybe this is the right sort of beginning for the Suffering Servant. After all, this is the Messiah who would later triumph over sin, evil, and death by hanging naked on a Roman cross. We know, of course, that the life of discipleship does not guarantee us health, wealth, or success, but this story offers us a vivid reminder of that fact. If the Word-made-flesh was hunted down and had to spend his earliest years as a homeless refugee, what makes us think we can or should avoid trouble and turmoil?
The truth is, human existence is characterized by abrupt reversals of fortune, nights of terror and sorrow, and months or even years that feel like exile. But, we can be assured that our Lord and his family know what that is like. They experienced the same fears, anxieties, pains, and sorrows. And, the same covenant love of God that sustained them also sustains us. One of my favorite verses from the Psalms says, “As a father has compassion for his children, so the Lord has compassion for those who fear him. For he knows how we were made; he remembers that we are dust” (Ps. 103:14-15). Truly, we are frail creatures of dust. All of us, no matter what our situation in life, are in desperate need of God’s fatherly care. We can be encouraged that the God revealed in Jesus is truly God-with-us. God cannot guarantee pleasure in this life, but he does guarantee his presence. He accompanied the holy family in their flight from Bethlehem to Egypt and back. He can do the same for us. I pray that we find comfort in God’s presence in the days when, inevitably, our joy unexpectedly turns into sorrow.
Concluding Prayer
Our God and Father, you accompanied the holy family on the lonely road to Egypt and settled them in the humble town of Nazareth. From this dark beginning, you brought forth your Son so that he might be a Light to enlighten the whole world. Help us, your people, to oppose the forces of darkness that oppress and defile the innocent. Give us the courage to join your Spirit, who is at work on the margins of our world. And mercifully grant us the power of your presence as we endure the weight of our earthly burdens. Grant this for the sake of your Son, the God-With-Us, who reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, One God, forever and ever. Amen.

Wednesday, April 30, 2014

What's Next?

I have been at the University of Dayton since August 2009. This May, my graduate assistantship contract will come to an end. This means that my teaching duties at the university with cease, along with my stipend and medical insurance. Ronnie has been employed at St. George’s Episcopal Church as their youth minister for the past two and a half years. We have been blessed by our time of service at St. George’s, but his pay alone cannot support us. William is now five years-old, Emmelia is three and a half, and Althea will turn one next month. Will is ready for Kindergarten this fall, while Emme will be in Pre-K. So, what’s next for the McGowins?
Although I have two chapters of my dissertation drafted, I have four more yet to write before I am ready to defend it and (hopefully) graduate. Finances play a major role in how quickly I will be able to finish writing. I have received a Graduate Student Summer Fellowship through the UD Graduate School, which will fund the research and writing of my third chapter over the summer. This means I will be able to write full-time without having to work another job. But, beyond the summer funding… we don’t know yet.
I have applied for two dissertation year fellowships, which are fellowships awarded on the basis of merit that provide funding for your final year of dissertation writing, one from The Louisville Institute and one from the UD Graduate School. The intention is that from the start of the fellowship year (August) you will have a complete dissertation, ready to defend within 12 months. I was offered an “alternate” status by The Louisville Institute, which means that if for some reason someone who received an award cannot or will not use it, I will be next on the list. The Louisville Institute fellowship is highly competitive (there were 90 applicants this year), so it is an honor and affirmation of my research even to receive “alternate” status. (But, of course, that affirmation doesn’t pay the bills!) I am still waiting to hear back on the dissertation year fellowship offered through the UD Graduate School, which is also highly competitive. I know personally a number of the applicants I am competing against and their work is very worthy of funding. So, it is by no means certain that I will win that award either.
So, where does that leave us? Faced with this financial uncertainty, we have made the decision to leave Dayton, Ohio for Denver, Colorado. We will spend the month of May packing up our house and we will be Denver bound by June 1. My mom owns a successful business with offices in Colorado and Texas. She has generously invited us to come and live with her in Denver until we are in a more financially stable situation. She has a fully finished basement in her ranch style home (complete with kitchen and bathroom), which will provide spacious living quarters for the five of us. As it happens, we also have a number of good friends in the Denver area, which makes moving there all the more appealing. We plan to live there for the next year and a half, saving money on rent and utilities, benefiting from the support of friends and family, and hoping that I will be able to finish my dissertation and defend it during that time.
The timing of my graduation depends a lot on the UD dissertation fellowship. If I do receive it, I will be required to finish my dissertation within a year’s time (August 2015) and more than likely graduate by December 2015. If I do not receive the fellowship, I will become the stay-at-home parent with the kids while Ronnie works full-time to support us. This will mean that I will have to work on my research and writing in the evenings, on the weekends, and during nap times. Obviously, that will slow things down quite a bit. But, even if that’s the case, I will be able to apply again next year (2015) for the same fellowships and hope to win one the next time around. If I do win one next year, I estimate that I would defend in May 2016 and graduate by August 2016. So, there is no question that I will finish my dissertation and graduate. The question is whether I will be finishing sooner rather than later.
What will happen after I graduate (whether in 2015 or 2016)? I don’t really know yet. Of course, Ronnie will continue to be faithful to his pastoral vocation and I will continue to serve alongside of him in our local church (wherever that may be). I hope that I will be able to find a teaching position at a college, university, or seminary, but finding academic jobs these days is very difficult. There’s simply no telling what will be available. The truth is, as long as I am able to teach, I’m not sure that the location matters as much to me. In the end, we trust that God will continue to guide our steps. Above all, we will seek to be faithful to Christ and embody his Kingdom wherever we are. We ask for your prayers as this next phase of life begins for us in June.

Thursday, May 23, 2013

What I've Been Up To...

Hello friends! To say that "it's been a long time" is a bit of an understatement. Thankfully, I have a really good reason for being out of commission on this blog for so long--actually TWO really good reasons.

Reason No. 1
On April 8, 2013, after several months of preparation, I successfully completed my doctoral candidacy exam at the University of Dayton. This means that I am officially a doctoral candidate and ABD--shorthand for "all but dissertation." After four years of seminars, language requirements, and general exams, I have finally come to the point where writing my dissertation is all that remains in the process of acquiring a Ph.D. in theology. The writing process is something that has already commenced. I hope to be done within a year and a half to two years.

Reason No. 2
On May 17, 2013, Ronnie and I welcomed our third child into the world: Althea Gabrielle McGowin. She was 9 lbs. 13 oz. at birth--our biggest yet!--and 22.5 inches long. I gave birth to her naturally and without medication at Family Beginnings birthing center in Dayton, OH. Thea, as we've already nicknamed her, was a big surprise to us. We were not planning to have more children until the above-mentioned dissertation is complete. But, we are overjoyed at the gift of this new life and grateful to God for another daughter.

So, there it is, folks! I've been out of commission, "gestating" and "laboring" over two very important creative and pro-creative works. I appreciate your continued prayers as our family walks by faith into what the next weeks, months, and years hold for us.

Thursday, January 24, 2013

Thoughts on American Women Officially Entering the "Front Lines"

Facebook and Twitter are abuzz this morning with the news that outgoing US Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta will announce today that the Pentagon is officially allowing women to serve on the front lines of American wars. There are lots of opinions flying around and, of course, I have a few of my own. I was going to post this to Facebook, but then I realized that I have enough for a short blog post. (Hooray!) So, here are my initial thoughts... 

I have very mixed feelings about the recent announcement regarding women serving on the "front lines" of US wars. For one thing, I certainly understand the gut-level aversion to the idea. Despite major social changes in the past decades, "women and children first" remains deeply ingrained in our culture. Yet, women have been effectively serving on the front lines in practice (in at least two undeclared wars, I might add) for some time. This announcement seems only to officially sanction a practice already in place. The arrival home of mothers and daughters in flag-draped coffins is not a new experience for American citizens. 

For another thing, I'm troubled that "women and children first" doesn't seem to be an inviolable mantra when it comes to the black, brown, and olive skinned peoples in the Middle East and other regions of the world. Americans, in general, and American Christians, in particular, often shrug off rather quickly the deaths of women and children who are the innocent casualties of American violence overseas, including drone strikes. Are we prepared to offer the same level of concern for the Pakistani woman innocently and involuntarily mangled in a drone strike as we are for the American woman who volunteers to serve on the front lines?

Also, thinking more generally, I'm not sure why the bodies and souls of men are viewed as more suitable for sacrifice in the pursuit of US wars than those of women. I'd want to know why (especially from my fellow Christians) some are so convinced that male bodies--which are just as capable of loving, caring, nurturing, and life-giving--are more suited for killing and dying in war than female bodies. I assure you that my children losing their father in war would be as catastrophic to them as losing me. Moreover, the mental, spiritual, emotional, and physical trauma endured by soldiers who engage in warfare is a burden carried with as much difficulty by men as by women.

And, finally, a wish... I wish that my fellow Christians who are objecting so strenuously to women's service on the front lines were more troubled by the wars producing such front lines to begin with. When Christians are so easily conscripted into collective support for American wars (which have been morally dubious on nonviolent and just war grounds for a long, long time), I'm not sure the moral footing exists any longer to then dictate who is best suited for killing and dying in those wars. Both the nonviolent and just war traditions provide significant challenges to American war-making, but very few seem attuned to this reality. Would that Christians struggled more deeply and thoughtfully with the participation of any Christian in recent American war efforts, whether they be male or female. 

Feel free to comment and offer your point of view. If you do, as always, please be charitable.

Sunday, September 23, 2012

Did Jesus Have a Wife? Probably Not. But, Here are My Thoughts Anyway.

The blogosphere has been aflutter for the past week over the publicizing of a newly translated shred of 4th century Coptic papyri, which appears to read, "Jesus said to them, 'My wife..." Karen L. King is a well respected historian of early Christianity and Hollis Professor of Divinity at Harvard Divinity School. She presented her findings  in Rome at the International Congress of Coptic Studies. Despite the flurry of interest and sometimes truly wild speculation surrounding this discovery, King is to be commended for her restraint and professionalism. She submitted her findings to a number of reputable colleagues before taking the papyrus translation public and she has repeatedly cautioned against sensationalism. The New York Times article about King's publication describes her comments as follows:

She repeatedly cautioned that this fragment should not be taken as proof that Jesus, the historical person, was actually married. The text was probably written centuries after Jesus lived, and all other early, historically reliable Christian literature is silent on the question, she said.
But the discovery is exciting, Dr. King said, because it is the first known statement from antiquity that refers to Jesus speaking of a wife. It provides further evidence that there was an active discussion among early Christians about whether Jesus was celibate or married, and which path his followers should choose.
“This fragment suggests that some early Christians had a tradition that Jesus was married,” she said. “There was, we already know, a controversy in the second century over whether Jesus was married, caught up with a debate about whether Christians should marry and have sex.”

In the midst of the discussion regarding this lightening rod of a papyrological discovery, a friend of mine, David Sessions, who writes for The Daily Beast and Newsweek (and founded the Christian culture and politics blog, Patrol) contacted me to ask my point of view. He was thinking of writing a piece on the subject and wanted my opinion. I typed up my best off-the-cuff response and sent it on. Later, he asked if he could quote me, sent me the portion of my statement that he wished to quote, and I agreed. David's op-ed has now been published on The Daily Beast and will be appearing in the print edition of Newsweek. Please take the time to read the whole piece (it is quote short). But, the pertinent part with my quote is as follows: 

Even if Jesus didn’t have sex with the woman mentioned in the new fragment, a close female partner in ministry would undermine the Christian tradition of seeing women as temptresses who should be kept under male authority. “It certainly gives Mary Magdalene a leg up among the saints—maybe even over the Virgin Mary,” said Emily McGowin, a doctoral student in religious studies at the University of Dayton. “Who is more important, the woman who birthed Jesus, or the one who became ‘one flesh’ with him?”

I have no problem with David's piece as it stands. He has a particular "take" on the discovery that he wanted to tease out and part of what I said helped him to say that. What I said was definitely a provocative turn of phrase (!) especially, I would imagine, for my Catholic brothers and sisters. In retrospect, I fear that what I said, appearing as it does without the larger context, may give the wrong impression as to my meaning. So, I'd like to use this blog post to explain myself. I am a scholar, after all. I make a living explaining and explaining and footnoting and qualifying just about everything I say. So, here goes...

First, I want to say that in my opinion, it is highly, highly improbable that Jesus was married. Certainly the existence of this and a number of other late documents on the life and teachings of Christ suggest that there were some differences of opinion within some later Christian communities regarding Jesus' marital status. Most of the late gospels that suggest Jesus had a female consort of some kind are grouped into the (rather broad and often inexact) category of Gnosticism. That being the case, these gospels represent, in my opinion, aberrant versions of Christianity that do not hold anywhere near as much authority as the four Gospels of the New Testament (all of which are essentially silent on the matter of Jesus' marital status). So, I am rather unbothered by this new finding and don't find it particularly unsettling. Interesting?--yes. Helpful for better understanding the variant groups within early Christianity?--yes. Going to change anything having to do with the central tenets of the Christian faith?--not a chance. 

Second, I want to say more specifically that I find it highly, highly improbable that if Jesus was married, the Gospels writers would have intentionally left out that biographical tidbit. There was just no good reason to do so. It was typical for a Jewish man of Jesus' age to be married. Moreover, we hear later in the NT letters of the apostles having wives and traveling with them. Even though Paul was an advocate of remaining unmarried, he did not find married persons shameful or somehow less Christian than unmarried ones. Although the church would later come to have some significant debate over the comparative value of marriage versus celibacy, the writers of the NT were not, in my opinion, yet concerned with those matters. So, I think the idea that the authors of the NT intentionally suppressed the truth that Jesus was married (and to Mary Magdalene, no less!) is, frankly, absurd. (I'm looking at you, Dan Brown.) To come to this conclusion requires a level of suspicion regarding the NT writers and the early church that I simply don't possess.  

Third, even if we were to somehow come across totally incontrovertible, undeniable evidence that Jesus was married (and that's a big if), then I don't think that such a finding would jeopardize any of the central tenets of the Christian faith. Certainly, it goes against the way Christians have imagined Jesus for 2,000 years. A change of imagination would certainly be in order. And, yes, it might call into question the Catholic commitment to celibacy for its priests. But, because the NT simply doesn't speak of Jesus' marital status, it won't call into question the trustworthiness of the NT; nor will it change the facts of the Gospel. Christ has died. Christ is risen. Christ is coming again. That doesn't change just because the Son of God had a spouse. 

So, I must say that theological speculation about what the discovery of a wife for Jesus would mean to Christianity is just that: speculation. It's highly, highly unlikely. Dr. King's 4th century Coptic papyrus fragment certainly doesn't prove anything. And, even if Jesus did have a wife, it wouldn't change the core of the Christian faith. But, if I were asked to say what impact the possibility of a married Jesus would have, I would offer the following thoughts.  

First, it seems that a married Jesus would be able to identify with the struggles of married Christians, the demands of family life, and more. A married Jesus would open the possibility of having a married life without sin--something most of us can't imagine! Now, even if Jesus were married, some scholars have suggested that he could have been a part of a celibate marriage. (Don't shake your head in disbelief. These things were real in days gone by. Just because our oversexed culture can't imagine married life without sex, that doesn't mean it did not and has not existed.) For reasons of purity and devotion to God, it is possible that a married Jesus could have refrained from sexual intercourse with his spouse, particularly given the stringencies of his calling to travel and preach the Gospel. That said, if it were not that way and Jesus did engage in what we would call a "normal" married life (with sex included), then it certainly changes the way most Christians think about sex (almost always, I think, tainted with at least a touch of sin). If the God-man could have a wife without sinning, then that says something about the goodness of married life and married sex. It is admittedly jarring to think of Jesus in this way. But, it is not necessarily bad.

Second, if Jesus were definitely married and if we found incontrovertible evidence that he was married to Mary Magdalene (two major ifs!), then as I said rather indelicately in the Newsweek piece, "it certainly gives Mary Magdalene a leg-up among the saints." What I meant by this is that the union (whether spiritual or sexual or both) with Jesus might place Mary Magdalene in a different "classification," if you will, among the communion of saints--particularly in the Catholic tradition where the saints play a much more prominent role than in the Protestant tradition. It seems to me that she would have to take on greater importance if she were someone who shared an intimate life with God incarnate. She would, it seems to me, become at least as important (if not more) as Peter, James, and John, Jesus' so-called inner circle. And, she might even become as important as the Virgin Mary. 

Now, with the benefit of hindsight, it is clear to me that the last part of my statement about the Virgin Mary is unnecessarily hyperbolic: "Who is more important, the woman who birthed Jesus, or the one who became ‘one flesh’ with him?” I overstated things--something I have been known to do at times.  In the Christian tradition, the Virgin Mary did much more than simply birth Jesus. Speaking christologically, she provided the human flesh with which the divine nature of Christ was united. Moreover, Mary's "yes" to the announcement of the angel Gabriel was the narrative reversal of Eve's "yes" to the serpent in the Garden of Eden. Mary's active cooperation in the redemption plan of God, offering her own body and soul for the sake of the mission, deserves honor and reverence. Thus, even if it could be proven that Mary Magdalene was Jesus' wife, I don't really think she could possibly surpass the Virgin Mary in importance within the Christian tradition. Mary Magdalene would become important. Very important. But, her relationship with Christ would remain qualitatively different than that of Mary's. 

In conclusion, I want to say that I'm grateful to David for being interested in my perspective. (Who am I to be quoted in Newsweek, anyway?) Of course, he's not to blame for my lack of clarity and ill-advised hyperbole. I hope that this post helps to clarify the context of my thoughts from his Newsweek piece and explain more fully what I think about this new papyrological discovery. And, of course I'm happy to discuss the other aspects of this recent discovery with any interested readers.

Saturday, July 7, 2012

Baptizing Infants: Thoughts from Peter Leithart

Of all the changes that Ronnie and I have gone through over the past few years, the acceptance of infant baptism has probably been the biggest--or, at least, the most difficult. And, it seems that when we speak to friends and acquaintances about our shift into Anglicanism, the practice of infant baptism is the biggest concern in their minds, as well. This is understandable. Baptists are called such because of their insistence on adult baptism and this is a position we championed for many years.

Currently, Ronnie is reading a very good book on the sacrament of baptism by Peter Leithart, a Presbyterian minister and professor of theology. Although there are other issues on which Leithart and I disagree, I found his section addressing the Baptist concerns surrounding infant baptism to be very helpful. I offer them here for my readers as "food for thought." For those who might dismiss our new convictions around paedobaptism as egregious heresy (something that would apply to the majority of the Church for most of Christians history!), I hope you'll ponder Leithart's words.

Protestants have always emphasized that salvation comes through faith, yet most Protestants have baptized babies. How can these two things hold together? Luther and Calvin held together their insistence on faith with infant baptism by claiming that infants can believe. Baptists see this as the Achilles' heel of the paedobaptist position, an example of absurd lengths to which paedobaptists are willing to go in defending an untenable practice.

Is infant faith absurd? "Faith" is the human response of trust toward God, a response of allegiance, in a personal relationship, and this has large consequences for our understanding of infant faith. The question of infant faith is not: "Are infants capable of receiving this jolt of divine power?" The question is: "Can infants respond to other persons? Do infants have personal relations?" And the answer to this question is obviously, yes. Infants quickly (even in utero) learn to respond to mother's voice; infants quickly manifest "trust" of their parents; infants quickly distinguish strangers from members of the family. If infants can trust and distrust human persons, why can't they trust in god? Behind the denial of infant faith is, apparently, an assumption that God is less available to an infant than other humans. But this is entirely wrong because God's presence is mediated through His people. When parents say to their newborn, "Jesus loves you and will care for you," they are speaking God's promises.

Parents, moreover, establish relationships with their infants through symbols. We talk to our infants, and we show our love through gestures such as hugs and kisses. If there is nothing irrational or absurd about humans establishing a personal relationship with infants through symbols, there is nothing irrational about God doing the same. As we establish loving and trusting relations with our infants through symbols, so God speaks to infants and establishes a relation with them through the "visible word" of baptism. Thus, the question "Should we baptize babies?" is of a piece with the question, "Should we talk to babies?" Paedobaptism is neither more nor less odd and miraculous than talking to a newborn. In fact, that is just what paedobaptism is: God speaking in water to a newborn child.

If the child cannot understand what a parent is saying, is it rational for the parent to speak to him or her? Baptist parents as well as others speak to their infants and do not expect the child to understand or to verbally respond for many months. They see nothing irrational in this. They speak to their children, that is, they employ symbols, not because they think the infant understands all that is being said or because they expect an immediate response. They speak to their child so the child will learn to understand and talk back. So too, we baptize infants and consistently remind them of their baptism and its implications so they will come to understanding and mature faith. We name them so they will grow up to respond to that name; we speak to them so they will begin to speak back; we name them in baptism so they will begin to live in and out of baptism.

The sociologically consistent Baptist should, it seems to me, allow children to name themselves. Otherwise, they are inevitably "imposing" an identity on their little boys and girls. Karl Barth, who loudly protested the "violence" of imposing a Christian identity on a child through infant baptism, would undoubtedly be pleased. In fact, Baptists don't do this, but they do impose a language on their children. They do, in spite of themselves, often treat their children as Christians, teaching them to sing "Jesus Loves Me" and to pray the Lord's Prayers. And if they do all this, what reason remains for resisting the imposition of the covenant sign?

-Peter Leithart, The Baptized Body (Moscow, ID: Canon Press, 2007), 9-11.

Tuesday, June 26, 2012

My Thoughts on The Hunger Games, Part 2

In Part 1 of "My Thoughts on The Hunger Games," I explained three ways that I think the series speaks truth about the depraved nature of our world. I argued that THG accurately depicts the cyclical, never-ending nature of violence, as well as the devastating effects of human violence on the people perpetrating it. And, I argued that the series calls into question the possibility of a truly just war. In all these points, I think THG speaks in concert with the Christian tradition, though the third point works only within the nonviolent or pacifist stream of Christianity.

There is no doubt, however, that even as THG speaks truth about our world, it does not offer a real "solution" for the problem of human sin and evil. There is no Christ-figure in the series, the heroine is fault-filled and broken, and the conclusion of the tale is not "neat and tidy" or "happily ever after." Still, I would not agree with those who argue that the series is entirely without any good news. I think there is good news that can be recognized as contiguous with the Christian tradition, even if it is subtle and somewhat underdeveloped. The way I'd summarize the "good news" of The Hunger Games trilogy is this: Subversive acts of love are powerful tools against oppressive systems.  

What makes THG so sad and depressing at points is that the world Suzanne Collins created is a closed system. In the world of Panem, there is no escaping the human tendency to pride, power-grabbing, oppression, abuse, bloodshed, and exploitation. Even the "good guys" do "bad guy" things and many of the "bad guys" are shown to be mixed characters, as well (neither entirely bad or good and never fully and wholly responsible for their ignorance and blindness). This closed system can feel oppressive for a reader looking for that tidy, "happily ever after" ending, with a clear winner and loser and resolution of the ethical conflicts. But, I would argue that Collins' closed system is an accurate depiction of real life on our postlapsarian planet earth.

According to the Christian tradition, sin is the state in which we find ourselves. And, this sin is a closed system. There is no escaping it. Nothing and no one remains untouched by the desperate grab for autonomy perpetrated by our ancestors. We are born with a bent toward disordered and disoriented lives and we live in a world gone awry. Indeed, the Apostle Paul says that the creation itself "groans" under the weight of it's burden, longing to be set free. Moreover, all aspects of our identities are formed within this brokenness. We cannot escape the fact that from the moment we are born, a sin-sick world has been telling us who we are, why we matter (or don't matter), what we value, what we love, what we hate, and much, much more. Not only is our identity and sense of reality constructed for us by our environment, but also this environment is itself poisoned at its source by sin. I think THG trilogy "gets" the truth of this reality in a profound way. 

So, you ask, how on earth is this good news? Well, recognizing that we live within a closed, sinful system is essential to realizing what can be done about it. In book one of The Hunger Games, Peeta aspires to be more than just a pawn in the games. He voices a desire not to lose himself to the Gamemakers and their ruthless search for an entertaining and bloody show. The problem is, how to do this. How can he work within the arena--within the games designed to pit tribute against tribute until everyone but one is dead--and still not play by the "rules" of the Gamemakers and the Capitol? The answer, I think, is self-sacrifical love. Even though it is never explicitly stated in the text, I think that Peeta realizes (even before the heroine, Katniss), that self-sacrificing (one might say, agape) love is the way to work within the system and yet subvert and undermine the system at the same time. 

If you think about it, Peeta's undying love for Katniss runs against the current of the entire series. While even the heroine is plotting, scheming, and thinking of her own survival, there's Peeta, constantly seeking what is best for Katniss and needed for her preservation. That's why what happens to Peeta in the third book, Mockingjay (which I won't give away here)is so jarring--the perfect move by the Capitol against Katniss and the rebellion. They manage to darken (albeit temporarily) the one truly pure ray of light in the entire storyline.

And, I think herein lies the key to the "good news" we find in THG trilogy. In a world gone awry, we employ subversive acts of love as our tools against oppressive, sinful systems. Examples of this are numerous in the first book. We see a subversive act of love in Katniss' devotion during Rue's death and then the decoration of her body with flowers. This act acknowledges the value lost in Rue and the significance of her body as a fellow human being. She wasn't just another pawn in the Capitol's games. Also, we see a subversive act of love in the gift of bread from District 11, a sign from Rue's people that they saw and understood Katniss' loving care for Rue. (And, just as a side note, this is one of the things I wish the director had put into the movie. I think leaving out the gift of bread in the film was a bad choice.) And, of course, we see a subversive act of love in the way Katniss chooses to bring an end to the games. She chooses to accept death alongside of Peeta rather than take his life and this subversion of the rules forces the hand of the Capitol. In fact, we know that this last act of subversion is the thing that serves as the beginning of the rebellion among the districts. They loved (albeit imperfectly). They didn't treat each other as pawns. They protected each other. They survived the games together.

(There are more examples of these loving acts of subversion in Catching Fire and Mockingjay, as well. But, time and space prevent me from going into more detail. Maybe you can pick some out and leave them in the comments.)

I think this employment of subversive action against injustice ties in quite well with Christian practice. The life of Jesus is indicative of what a life looks like lived entirely devoted to the Father's will and the guidance of the Holy Spirit. And, over and over again, Jesus does things that powerfully subvert the sinful systems of his day. Jesus touched those who were considered unclean, thereby marking them as clean. He spent time with "sinners and tax collectors," proving that it is not sin that is contagious, but holiness. Jesus allowed his feet to be caressed by the hands, hair, and tears of a "sinful woman," thereby proclaiming her worthiness. He marched into Jerusalem in a mock coronation parade, symbolically announcing his reign in obvious opposition to the reign of Caesar. Jesus turned over tables in the temple and ran off money changers. Although this only stopped the trade of merchandise for a day (or even less), this subversive action proclaimed condemnation upon the Temple system and the beginning of something new. 

And, of course, the greatest act of subversive love is found in cross of Christ. Rather than employ the violent, self-serving, and oppressive methods of this sin-sick world to bring about his Kingdom, Jesus was obedient to the Father and exemplary of his love, even unto death. By absorbing in his own body all of the sin and evil this world could inflict upon him, Jesus disarmed it, destroyed it, and found victory over it in the resurrection. In fact, it is Jesus' resurrection that offers us the promise that even the smallest subversive acts of love are indestructible tools against the systems of this world (Paul called them the "powers and principalities"). Love really does win. The resurrection guarantees it.

The primary sacraments of Christianity can be understood as defiant acts of subversion, too. By submitting to the waters of baptism, one declares him or herself a citizen of God's Kingdom and a loyalist to Jesus Christ as Lord. If Jesus is Lord, then Caesar is not. And, if our Kingdom is "not of this world," then our loyalties lie beyond the bounds of nation, culture, language, and kin. The breaking down of these boundaries within the "one baptism" of Christian faith means that our love is no longer limited to our close friends and family. Our circle of concern now extends to include both neighbor and enemy. This is something that goes against the grain of our culture and customs. Many of us have forgotten just how dangerous and revolutionary the baptismal proclamation really is. 

By consuming bread and wine, we share amongst ourselves the body and blood of our crucified and risen Lord. Taking his presence into our bodies, we align ourselves with his life and death, his ways and purposes. This means we are living sacrifices, literally carrying within us the person of Christ and his mission in the world. This means we are fundamentally different beings, with different loyalties and priorities, than those around us. Again, our allegiance is to a King and a Kingdom not of this present evil age. And, every time we take the meal of Jesus together we are proclaiming our faith in him and his Way of self-sacrificing love--in direct opposition to the ways of the world. 

Even beyond the central rituals and rites of Christian worship, there are many ways that Christians can and do employ subversive acts of love against oppression every day. I think of the junior high student who bravely chooses to sit alongside and befriend an abandoned and "outcast" student, rather that with his usual gang of friends. I think of the mother who chooses to drive further and shop with less convenience at the shop of a local immigrant family so as to contribute to their business success in a difficult economic period. I think of the family that opens their home to the teens of the neighborhood, giving them a safe place to gather, banter, play, and eat. In all of these ways (and so many more!), Christians employ subversive acts of love in opposition to the "closed system" of sin we find ourselves in. 

Until the King returns and makes "all things new" in his time, we remain "resident aliens" in a world that has yet to recognize the triumphant in-breaking of the reign of God. Our works as churches, families, and individuals signify to the Evil One and the "powers and principalities" that they are not Lord and to the watching world that God's Kingdom is coming "on earth as it is in heaven."

To summarize, then, I have argued that the good news to be found in THG trilogy is the power of subversive acts of love as tools against oppressive, sinful systems. The only qualification I would make as I conclude is that the people employing these actions within the machinations of Panem (apparently) do so without the enabling power of God's grace and the Holy Spirit--both of which Christians acknowledge as essential to the works of love our Lord requires of us. Indeed, it is the work of God within and alongside of us that guarantees that the subversive acts of love we employ in this sin-sick world are not wasted, but truly the first-fruits of a Kingdom guaranteed to triumph by the resurrection of Jesus Christ.

So, what do you think? Are there other glimpses of "good news" in The Hunger Games? I'd love to hear your thoughts...